It’s almost the start of a new month, and that means it’s time for a new 1st and 10 piece. With the NHL preseason underway, it made sense to make this month’s list about hockey. There is no shortage of hockey video games to consider, including in arcades and on consoles. Since I can only include ten games on this list, it was tough to make the final cut… but, just like in the pros, not everyone can make the final roster. It’s also worth noting that this list– as with the previous 1st and 10 lists– is in no particular order.
Let’s hit the ice!
1. Hat Trick (Bally Sente coin-op, 1984): This 2-on-2 hockey game may be unfamiliar to at least some of you, but it ate quite a few of my arcade tokens in the mid and late 1980s. Hat Trick is very simple. Each team consists of a skater and a goaltender. Players control the skater for 90% of play and play either offense or defense, depending on whether the player has the puck. When the opposing skater takes a shot on net, play control then shifts to the goalie, who can move up or down to deflect the shot away. There aren’t any fancy dekes and penalties don’t exist here, but with the clock ticking down in an abbreviated one-period game, the action can get pretty tense. Hat Trick is best played against a human opponent, but the CPU can present a decent challenge for a quick game. If you see this coin-op in an arcade, it’s worth a credit to try out. Few rules and responsive controls make Hat Trick a fun play for casual hockey fans or arcade game fans.
2. NHL ’94 (EA Sports for SEGA CD, 1994): It’s almost impossible to put together a list of great hockey video games and not include NHL ’94. What is notable here is the platform– the SEGA CD. The CD-ROM format allowed for multimedia, including a full-motion video intro, a fully voiced pre-game segment featuring Ron Barr, and CD-quality crowd sounds and music. These bells and whistles solidified the presentation in NHL ’94, making for the definitive version of the game. The only real downside here is that the limited amount of on-board RAM to save data on a SEGA CD… so, unless you have a Backup RAM Cart, NHL ’94 will take up a lot of memory if you save your progress during your playoff run. It’s too bad that more people didn’t get a chance to play this version, but the SEGA CD just wasn’t a big hit. That said, the Genesis version is still excellent, and remains a favorite of many hockey fans and sports video game fans alike. It’s so good, in fact, that my good friend Chris Alaimo from Classic Gaming Quarterly put together a great video that covers the history behind the game. (PriceCharting has the game valued at around $6 for just the disc and $10 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)
3. Blades of Steel (Konami for NES, 1988): As is the case for many of Konami’s coin-op conversions for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Blades of Steel is better than the arcade game that it’s based on. The biggest improvement is that the NES controller works far better than the rather cumbersome and less-accurate track-ball controller that the coin-op uses. Moving players up and down the ice is easy with the D-pad, and passing the puck is a breeze with the B button. Shooting the puck is a bit more challenging, as shots must be timed to be released when the accuracy arrow– which glides back and forth in front of the goal mouth– is pointing toward an open part of the net, away from the goaltender. The only penalties in the game are for fighting, and are only assessed to the player who loses the fight. With three difficulty settings, options to play multi-game tournaments or pick-up games against a friend, and some neat Easter Eggs during intermissions, Blades of Steel offers a ton of replay value and is a must-have for your NES library. Nearly 30 years later, this game is still a winner. (PriceCharting has this game valued at $6 for just the cart or around $16 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)
4. NHL Open Ice (Midway coin op, 1995; Williams/Midway for PlayStation, 1996): After NBA JAM hit it big in arcades in 1993, NHL Open Ice followed the same basic blueprint for Midway two years later. Open Ice is primarily a 2-on-2 matchup with offense as the main highlight. Crazy shots, including 720-degree spins and leaps in the air, are common. Checks on defense are also overpowered, but fights never happen. Players can achieve “on fire” status by scoring three consecutive goals, allowing for higher shot power and accuracy and for unlimited use of Turbo while in that state. It’s basically JAM on ice, and that’s not a bad thing at all. The one major difference from JAM— and from future Midway arcade sports titles– is that Tim Kitzrow doesn’t have announcing duties here. Chicago Blackhawks play-by-play man Pat Foley takes over, and does a solid job on the call. Fortunately for fans of the coin-op (like myself), the home versions of Open Ice are really well done, with only minor compromises. The PlayStation version has a bit less commentary, and the video clips that play after a goal is scored are a bit more grainy, but the gameplay from the coin-op is fully intact. (PriceCharting has the PlayStation version of this game valued at around $17 for just the disc and $20 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)
5. International Hockey (Advantage Artworx for Commodore 64, 1985): This game makes the list mostly on its nostalgic value, but it has some technical merits, as well. On the nostalgic front, my brother and I played this for hours during the late 1980s. He was on a youth hockey team, and we both liked sports, so this was a fun bonding experience– except that I never let him win. Beatdowns were often followed by angry shouts and storming off into another room. I guess it was my “Mean Older Brother Phase”, but there were a few times when he did win on his own. I can admit now, nearly 30 years later, that I really was proud of him then. As for International Hockey’s technical merits, the game has a fair amount of digitized speech, which was very impressive for a home video game from 1985. Scoring calls, penalty calls, and shouts of “Fight! Fight!” during fisticuffs were really cool to hear back then. Similar to Blades of Steel, only the losing team in a fight gets penalized in International Hockey. Unlike Blades of Steel, however, winning a fight earns a player’s team a penalty shot. Aside from these notables, the game is average and hasn’t necessarily aged well… but it was a legitimately good game of hockey in its time, and remains one of my favorite hockey games to this day. (PriceCharting has no pricing information for this title; however, a cursory look at eBay showed two copies selling for less than $25 apiece.)
6. NHL ’98 (EA Sports for PlayStation, 1997): Here’s a hot take– if I had to choose between NHL ’94 and NHL ’98, I would choose the latter. Why? NHL ’98 plays fast, has great presentation, and offers full-season play. These advantages, at least in my view, make NHL ’98 the better overall title. It’s a game where one-timers are deadly, and where offense rules the day. It’s the first hockey game with a play-by-play man (Jim Hughson) and an analyst (Daryl “Razor” Reaugh) calling the action on the ice. It’s got pertinent stat lines that show up during stoppages in play. Visually, the polygonal player models may not hold up as well against the test of time as the sprites from NHL ’94 have… but the gameplay certainly does, and the overall presentation package really laid the groundwork for what we would see from EA Sports and its NHL games for years to come. The game also has one of the best intro sequences of all time. Just be sure to have an empty memory card before starting a season, as this game requires considerable space to save progress. (PriceCharting has this game valued at around $4 for either a loose disc or for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)
7. ESPN NHL 2K5 (SEGA Sports for PlayStation 2/Xbox, 2004): The 2K5 sports year (which was 2004 on the actual calendar) was an amazing year for SEGA Sports, at least in terms of game quality. NHL 2K5 is another example of how strong the games were. While EA Sports was still retooling its NHL series during 2004 and 2005, ESPN NHL Hockey (2K4) and ESPN NHL 2K5 were steady games with improvements in presentation and customization. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement– who would go on to be picked up by EA Sports to provide commentary for its NHL games on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3– provided solid play-by-play and analysis, respectively. The visual presentation was close to telecast quality, with multiple angles during scoring replays and authentic score and stat overlays. As with NFL 2K5, plenty of off-ice activities (including air hockey and trivia) are available, as is a customizable SkyBox and a robust in-game achievement system. Oh, and the actual on-ice product is fantastic, too. Smooth and consistent frame rates, responsive play controls, smart AI, and deep gameplay modes (including a fantastic Franchise mode) are all here. ESPN NHL 2K5 is the pinnacle of the NHL 2K series, and it’s super cheap to own now. Go get it. (PriceCharting pricing data for this game is inconsistent; however, complete-in-box copies are commonly available for less than $5.)
8. NHL Rock the Rink (Electronic Arts for PlayStation, 2000): So far on this list, there have been 1-on-1, 2-on-2, and 5-on-5 hockey games– so where are the 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 formats? Well, here’s the 3-on-3 game: Rock the Rink is an arcade-style hockey game that is a rather interesting mash-up of Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, EA’s own Mutant League Hockey, and some over-the-top elements from NHL Open Ice. Like Open Ice, it’s light on rules and heavy on offense. Borrowing from Ice Hockey, Rock the Rink offers different player sizes with their own advantages and disadvantages. Rock the Rink also has some of its own gameplay wrinkles that make it a different game, including a 12-second shot clock and a BONUS meter that powers up a team when full. The game won’t win any awards for its graphics, but it’s a blast to play and offers a ton of replay value, thanks to a ton of unlockables. I’ll have a more in-depth review up this month, if you’re not convinced already, but I’ll risk spoiling it by telling you now that it’s worth a spot in your PlayStation library. (PriceCharting has this game valued at around $2.50 for a loose disc and around $5 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)
9. Ice Hockey (Nintendo for NES, 1988): …and here’s the 4-on-4 game. What makes Ice Hockey so interesting to me is the strategy involved in setting a team lineup, because of potential matchup problems. Thin skaters are fast, but are easily knocked off of the puck and have weak shots. Burly skaters have powerful shots and can withstand contact from other players before giving up the puck, but are slow on the ice and are more susceptible to having the puck stolen. Well-rounded players are slower than thin skaters and have weaker shots than their burly counterparts. Who will you choose, and who will your opponent counter with? Once the chess match ends and the hockey game begins, the play controls make Ice Hockey a joy. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of replay value for extended play sessions, but Ice Hockey is still a fun game to pull out when you have a friend over or for a quick match when you have just a few minutes to spare. Be warned: you’ll be humming the music long after the final period ends. (PriceCharting has this game valued at around $6 for a loose cart and around $16 for a complete-in-box copy, as of this writing.)
10. NHL Hitz Pro (Midway for PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube, 2003): I had honestly considered bending the rules a bit and including all three NHL Hitz games under one entry, but decided on listing only NHL Hitz Pro instead. Next Level Games built on the foundation that Black Box Games had established with Hitz 20-02 and Hitz 2003 by creating a 5-on-5 Hitz game that can skew either toward its arcade roots or more toward a sim experience for more serious fans. Deflections and wrap-around shots have been added to the offensive repertoire, which allow for more scoring. In addition, penalties are called based on how much rough play there is; when the penalty meter fills up, the next questionable play can trigger a short power play for the opposing team. For those who enjoyed the earlier Hitz games, the move to 5-on-5 from 3-on-3 is a rather easy transition… and many of the hallmarks of 20-02 and 2003 (“on fire” states, big hits, checking through glass, and more) made the trip to Hitz Pro. While I highly recommend any (or all) of the three Hitz games, NHL Hitz Pro is the best of the trio and earns its spot on this list because of it. (PriceCharting has the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game valued at between around $6 for loose discs and $10 for complete-in-box copies. The Gamecube version is higher, valued at around $13 for a loose disc and $16 for a complete-in-box copy.)
There are definitely some honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut. Activision’s Ice Hockey for the Atari VCS, despite being a very early 2-on-2 hockey game, still plays pretty well and is fun to play with a friend. FOX NHL Championship 2000 for the PlayStation implemented NHL on FOX presentation while sporting a decent game on the ice. NHL FaceOff for the PlayStation was the first taste of hockey action for early adopters of Sony’s rookie console, and it launched a series of games that persisted into the next console generation. Finally, NHL ’96 for the Super NES managed to finally close the gap between the SNES and the Genesis that had been in place for years, matching the speed of the Genesis games while offering cleaner sounds and music.
Many of you will probably have lists that differ from mine, and I’d love to see them. Feel free to jump on Twitter with the #1stAnd10 hashtag, and be sure to add me @TheRetroReferee. You can also leave a comment below with your list, if you like. Maybe you think that NHLPA Hockey ’93 got hosed? Or perhaps NHL Stanley Cup for the Super NES deserved some love? Where’s Mutant League Hockey? Hopefully I’ll hear from some of you on this.
As always, thanks for reading. 1st and 10 will return on November 1st, and you won’t have to jump through any “hoops” to see it. Until then, stay tuned for more reviews and features throughout the month of November.