This is a big week on the hockey calendar. Camps haven’t opened and nobody’s played a game yet, but for many fans the new season has officially arrived. That’s because it’s now less than a week before NHL 17 hits store shelves.
The latest NHL video game is always a big deal, because the series has essentially taken over as the only show in town when it comes to hockey games. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when a hockey fan looking to get in some joystick-based action had plenty of options to choose from. Some of those titles are still well-known to fans today: Blades of Steel in the arcade, Ice Hockey on the old Nintendo, and even NHL spinoff Mutant League Hockey still bring back memories for a generation of fans.
But today, let’s go a little more obscure. Here are five hockey titles that you may or may not remember from the old days of arcade, computer and console action.
The game: Hat Trick (1984)
The selling point: It was hockey that you could play in an arcade. In the mid-80s, that was pretty much all we could ask for.
The minor flaw: Well, “hockey” might be stretching it a bit. Hat Trick’s version of the game was one-on-one. Two-on-two if you counted the limbless torsos that were apparently supposed to be the goaltenders.
Overall experience: Strangely addictive. The two players chased the puck around a tiny rink (which was tricky because it ricocheted like a ping pong ball), occasionally slamming into each other, the boards, and the torso-goalies. Speaking of which, you had to control the goalie yourself, even though you were also controlling the skater. If that sounds impossible, you’re starting to get a feel for the whole experience.
Still, the game was undeniably fun for its time, and we all thought it was super cool that the players left little skate marks wherever they went. Today, it doesn’t look all that impressive. But if it was 1985 and your dad had given you a fistful of quarters to spend while you waited for your pizza to arrive at The Organ Grinder, you could do a lot worse.
Lingering question: Why did one of the tanks from Firepower come out after each period to clean the ice?
The game: Superstar Ice Hockey (1987)
The selling point: This computer game was reasonably competent, combining decent graphics and gameplay with an impossibly catchy theme song. But the really cool feature was one that didn’t even have a name yet. Like other games in the SportTime series, Superstar Ice Hockey allowed you to set up a team, and then guide it through multiple seasons, improving the roster via trades and developing new players. Decades before games like Eastside Hockey Manager and the NHL series itself made the concept famous, Superstar Ice Hockey‘s rudimentary dynasty mode was one of the first to give gamers a taste of what the future would hold.
The minor flaw: That damn theme song would still be stuck in your head almost thirty years later. Trust me on this one.
Overall experience: Not bad. While the gameplay wasn’t the most realistic, it was all sorts of fun to build an expansion team of plodding castoffs from last place also-rans to Cup contender status. And even if you couldn’t win a game in year one, you could always amuse yourself by choosing weird uniform colors and then hacking your opponents’ ankles until they did flips. Are you listening, George McPhee?
Lingering question: Who was “Norm”, and why was he the default strategic setting?
The game: Wayne Gretzky Hockey (1988)
The selling point: Not to be confused with the 3D-ish console game that came out years later, this computer game set out to present a realistic version of hockey. That meant slowing down the tempo and focusing more on strategy and positioning than button-mashing.
The minor flaw: The action was apparently shot from a low-orbit satellite.
Overall experience: If you wanted fast and furious, this wasn’t the game for you. But much like Gretzky himself, the game compensated for a lack of top-flight speed with a more thoughtful approach, and it largely worked.
That was especially true if you owned another product from the plucky upstart developer Bethesda – yes, those guys – called Hockey League Simulator. That was a text-only sim, but you could hook it into Wayne Gretzky Hockey and go back and forth, playing out the games and then simming through the rest of a full league. You could even print out binders full of stats on your family’s dot matrix printer, which you’d later return to and carefully study until you mom cleaned your room and threw them all out.
(Just kidding, that never happened.)
(I still have all those printouts.)
Lingering question: Did Wayne ever pay for the camera he breaks in the game’s opening sequence?
The game: NHL 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge (1995)
The selling point: Did you think NBA Jam was one of the greatest arcade games of all time? Did you ever wish that it was hockey, and also not as fun? You’re in luck!
The minor flaw: I feel like the name could have been longer.
Overall experience: This really was a shameless NBA Jam ripoff. And in some respects, it delivered what you’d expect. The action was fast and furious, and it was simple enough that you could figure out how to play in roughly three seconds. Like every mid-90s arcade game, there were dozens of secret button combinations that would mess with the gameplay, and players would occasionally catch on fire for no discernible reason. It wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a simulation, but if you had enough beers in you it could be worth your spare change.
Lingering question: What the hell was with that creepy black-and-white animation of the guy eating that would sometimes pop up after a goal?
The game: Tecmo Super Hockey (???)
The selling point: You saw the “Tecmo” part, right? This was a hockey game made by the same people who did Tecmo Bowl, quite possibly the most addictive sports game ever created.
The minor flaw: You never actually played it.
Seriously, this one was weird. I remember seeing it. There’s evidence that people played it. Others have documented its existence. But nobody I know has ever actually got to try it. It was either some sort of weirdly limited release, or we’re dealing with one of the great unsolved collective hallucinations in human history.
Overall experience: You saw it sitting on a back shelf of an old video store. You held the box in your hand. You read the details and gazed at the screenshots. You fantasized about how much fun a hockey version of Tecmo Bowl would be. But when you went home to get your money and then came back hours later, the video store was gone and an old man nearby told you that it burned down ten years ago.
Lingering question: Was it all a dream?
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.