With the NHL playoffs really heating up, and teams most people in the hockey world thought would never advance far blowing people away, it got me thinking back to the days of old, playing NHL Hockey for hours on end, thinking this was the most awesome sports game ever. The days where every goal my older brother scored on me was “cheap,” ah, how fondly I remember them. I even used to keep a blank tape in the VCR, and when I had an amazing goal or epic bone-crunching hit, I’d record it and show it to my mom, who did her absolute best to feign enthusiasm.
Well, it’s been 20 years since the first NHL Hockey game (which if it had a year attached to it like all of the games that followed it, would be NHL Hockey ’92) was released by EA, and needless to say, EA has gotten a bit more advanced in their game development department. Yet, to this day, when you ask people about their options on the best hockey game ever made, or even the best sports game ever made, more often than not you have people pointing back to the NHL games from the Genesis era. Usually, it is NHL ’93 or NHL ’94 (which many people herald as the greatest sports game of all time) that people site as their favorite, and personally, I think those games have the original NHL Hockey to thank for testing the waters and seeing what needed to be worked on and added to make the game better.
Rare is it that sports games withstand the test of time, especially when it comes to hockey, which is arguably only America’s 3rd or 4th most favorite sport. I mean seriously, do you ever hear about how awesome Madden ’98 is these days? Nah. How about NBA 2k1? Not likely. What about Sports Talk Baseball? Don’t bet on it.
So what is it that makes the Genesis hockey games so beloved by hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike? Right out of the gate, Electronic Arts created a formula for a hockey game that simply worked.
A far cry from its predecessors like Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel for the NES, NHL Hockey looked and played much more like a real hockey game. All of the NHL’s teams were there to be played, with jerseys in the team’s proper colors and the team logo emblazoned at center ice. One major part that was missing was that they did not have the player name licensing agreement until the following year, so unless you knew the numbers of your favorite team’s players, that’s all those guys were…numbers. Nevertheless, the players were each given their own individual stat ratings and abilities, which at the time, was a huge accomplishment Another aspect of the game were the settings that really made this game set the tone for future games in the series. The entire team’s roster was accounted for, and if you chose to, could change lines between the scoring lines and checking line as you saw fit. Penalties, whether you loved them or hated them, could be set they way you wanted. To be able to turn penalties off, on, or on except for off-sides, was nothing short of revolutionary at the time.
The gameplay had all of the major elements that made a hockey game work, from fighting to slap shots, and especially considering it was the first go that EA had with it, NHL Hockey, even when compared to the others in the series, is still very playable. It is light years ahead of previous hockey games in terms of playability and realness, although it admittedly falls short when compared to even NHL ’93. They made sure that ’93 was faster and smoother, and obtaining the NHLPA player naming rights cemented the game as a true squeal to ’92.
Is NHL Hockey the most memorable one of the series? Certainly not. But it set the framework for some of the best sports games of all time, and considering that was twenty freakin’ years ago (way to make myself feel old), I think it’s definitely worthy of praise, and has its own unique charm that differs from the others in the series.
Also, the intro music is totally boss.
Now, go play a game featuring the Hartford Whalers vs. the Minnesota North Stars…because you can.