NHL Rock the Rink is an arcade-style hockey game that flew under the radar of many PlayStation owners in the early months of the year 2000. There was already an NHL game– NHL 2000— that EA Sports had released in late September of 1999 that was a really solid entry in the long-running series. There was also the issue of the game’s release timing, as it launched in late February of 2000, which threw a wrench in the game’s potential success. The decision to release a game like this with March Madness just around the corner and with Spring Training in full swing was odd. It was also complicated by the fact that this was EA, and not Midway, that was releasing an arcade sports game.
Video game players who chose to skip out on NHL Rock the Rink missed out on a pretty neat game. It’s not a game that wins any awards for graphics, but it’s got fast end-to-end gameplay that keeps players on their toes until the game-winning goal is scored. It’s also got a sense of humor and the character designs are something of a callback to an earlier arcade sports game from EA: Mutant League Hockey.
NHL Rock the Rink is unique in that each game lasts until a team scores a predetermined number of goals. The default number is seven, which makes for pretty snappy games, but setting the number higher can pad stats, help players to set new records for unlocking certain rewards, and make games a bit longer for players who think that the games are too short. There isn’t a clock in Rock the Rink, although there is a shot clock that forces teams to shoot more instead of playing keep away with the puck. (PROTIP: The shot clock can be turned off in Settings, but this is not recommended.)
Each team in Rock the Rink consists of two lines of three players apiece, as well as a goaltender. Drawing some influence from Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, these lines are populated by two different classes of players. Small and thin players are faster on the ice and often excel at setting up one-time shots or getting to loose pucks quickly. Large players are powerhouses with hard shots and harder checks, but are slower to move and not as nimble in terms of getting around or past defenders. Unlike Ice Hockey, however, players do not get to edit the player classes on each team; instead, players need to pick the teams that have the lines and player classes that they wish to use. These different classes and lines do add some strategy to the game; however, it’s possible to win games with most teams, regardless of players and lines. Skill often prevails over team and player selection.
Once on the ice, the action is fast. Players careen up and down the ice, and there are plenty of opportunities for offense. One-timers are often deadly if they can be set up right, and special shots (triggered by the triangle button) are even more devastating. Tornado shots, flip shots, and more shots– similar to NHL Open Ice— can be pulled off. These special shots, however, require some time to execute. As a result, if a defensive player checks the shooter during the shot sequence, it can be an easy steal. On the defensive side, the triangle button serves as a big hit button. If a big check lands, it often lays out the other player via a punishing wrestling-type move. It’s a bit clumsy in its execution, but the result often is a steal or turnover that send defense into offense.
Passing, shooting, scoring goals, and winning fights build up a team’s BONUS meter. When it fills, the team goes into a kind of “on fire” mode; players skate faster, hit and shoot harder, and shooting accuracy increases. The meter rapidly empties once BONUS mode starts, so it’s essential for teams to take advantage of the benefits quickly. Much like “on fire” states in NBA JAM and NHL Open Ice, if the opposing team scores, the BONUS ends and regular play resumes. Unlike Midway’s games, however, BONUS states often happen several times in the course of a game… for both teams.
Rock the Rink‘s replay value is fueled by a couple of key areas. The first is the NHL Challenge, which pits the team of fictional characters that the player chooses against all of the NHL teams. As games are won, extra equipment– including skates, sticks, and gear– is unlocked to power up the team and make it more competitive against the big boys. The NHL Challenge has three tiers (Easy, Medium, and Hard) and the increased difficulty between each tier is definitely noticeable. From personal experience, I went from shutting out my opponents in the Easy tier to getting shut out myself after the first Medium game. That said, each difficulty is beatable with some practice, despite the increases.
The second key to increased replay value is the significant amount of unlockables in the game. Electronic Arts has hidden lots of rewards in Rock the Rink, which can be unlocked after hitting certain milestones. Think of this as Achievements… before Achievements were a thing. It’s certainly a challenge to run all the way through the NHL Challenge, and it’s another to satisfy the requisites to unlock all of the game’s secrets. Completionists will sink plenty of extra time into this game to see everything it has to offer.
Visually, Rock the Rink isn’t going to impress many players. The skater models are blocky, the character designs seem to be taken from Mutant League Hockey, but they didn’t quite make the trip as intended. There’s also the usual gripes about PlayStation graphics (inconsistent frame rate, pixelization, sharp edges) that make the cover of this book rather unappealing. On the plus side, more often than not, the sense of speed in the game is impressive. Rock the Rink hasn’t aged well in this department, but it still plays extremely well… and that’s what counts.
In terms of sound, commentary is provided mostly by Don Taylor. Taylor went on to team with Jim Hughson in the booth for NHL 2002 and NHL 2003, and is best known for his (attempts at) humor. His lines in Rock The Rink are hit-or-miss. Some will make you chuckle, while others will make you roll your eyes. There’s also an intentionally hilarious PA announcer who chides teams for poor play and makes very random comments throughout the game. The music, for the most part, comes courtesy of the Hanson Brothers (of Slap Shot fame). It’s all about hockey and it all fits the game to a tee. The sound effects are the usual decently-sampled stuff that EA has used in the past, and they sound fine.
Would I recommend NHL Rock the Rink today? Despite a few warts, I sure do recommend it. Since we live in a time where arcade sports titles are an afterthought and since Rock the Rink is pretty easy to pick up and play for just about anyone… it’s easy for me to recommend this. There’s plenty to do for solo players and fans of multiplayer alike, and it’s a perfect game to fire up between periods while you’re taking in a hockey game on TV. Don’t let the aged graphics turn you away; there’s a really good– and really fun– game underneath it all, and that is what’s important.
Also… I don’t know of too many other games where you can do a leg drop on a goaltender after scoring on him. Surely that counts for something!
Buyer’s note: As of this writing, PriceCharting has a value of about $2.50USD for a loose disc and about $5 for a complete copy of NHL Rock the Rink.