Monday, August 29, 2016

My Favorite Hockey Games

I was left behind with hockey games early in the PS1 life. I liked my simple 2-3 button hockey. I couldn't understand how to flip pass, precision shoot, or play zone defense in the 3D world.

Things got too complicated for me and instead of doubling down and learning it, I just didn't play a single hockey game from NHL '97 (John Vanbiesbrouck cover) until NHL '13 (Claude Giroux).

I found I could run the net in NHL '13 and score sometimes. It was more fun with couch co-op with someone that knew what they were doing. With a friend, I could put together a pretty solid season.

Then I skipped a few years. Despite the cringiness of having to look at rival Jonathan Toews on my PlayStation home page lifting the cup, I bought NHL '16 and to my surprise the game clicked.

So, in honor of my boy Tarasenko being on the cover of NHL '17, I thought I'd dig out my favorite hockey video games of the past.

What made the list?

Ice Hockey (NES - 1988) - This was a weird one to put on the list because I don't remember actually liking it very much at the time. Ice Hockey always felt like an Atari game with some graphical polish. 

I liked the idea of filling out your roster with any combination of fat player who would check but was slower, skinny tall and fast guy, or the average guy. But the thing about Ice Hockey was everyone owned it. Literally everyone. 

And honestly, it was a much more accessible game to non-hockey watching players, but the game and speed felt terrible. It was like being stuck in an ice level in Mario 2. Mario had an excuse to feel terrible, he was running in a full sprint on ice in shoes. Ice Hockey contained the worlds best athletes on skates, they shouldn't be slipping around like on banana peels.

Despite my complaints, I have some very solid memories of competition. 

Blades of Steel (NES - 1988) - Blades of Steel felt like it really captured the speed of the game on ice. It felt like a real game of skill compared to Ice Hockey which felt more arcady.

This also introduced me to the Konami loading screen mini-games which I swore if I could beat in the time I had would unlock extra teams, new arenas, a new difficulty, hell maybe even an inning of baseball.

My favorite thing was the fights. You bump into another player three times in a row and the screen would zoom in on the two players and let you duke it out. If you were really good at fighting, you could end up with a 5-1 power play after sending 4 enemy players to the box.

Mutant League Hockey (Sega Genesis - 1994) - Mutant League Hockey did something fresh with hockey, it made it more violent. And my testosterone filled ten year old body wanted to body check mutants into spikes and manically laugh.

The battle between the Toxic and Maniac conferences raged on with parodies of actual NHL teams. And supplementing the game was the Saturday morning cartoon where characters like Bones Justice struck the same parts of my brain as comic books.

Since EA doesn't have any competition, I would love to have a new version of Mutant League Hockey for the consoles using parody teams again so they don't have to worry about the blessing of the NHL. (Or the licensing fees or lawsuits with EA) I think there's probably a market for the more arcade absurd sports titles like Mutant League, NBA Jam, and NFL Blitz.

NHL '96 (Sega Genesis - 1995) - This may be a controversial pick, seeing as how NHL '94 is seen as the bible of classic NHL games, but guess what, my family was sort of poor and I didn't get a Sega Genesis until Easter 1996, when we were given a great Sega / NHL pack in from the Easter bunny.

Side note, this Easter was better than most every Christmas I've ever had and I think it's partially because my dad hates being left behind in technology and probably pushed for this purchase. So thanks dad.

NHL '96 took the things I loved about Blades of Steel (the speed and feel) and polished it further, got the NHL license with players I knew, and added all the spreadsheet stuff I could want. (Trades, roster changes, player creation)

My greatest memory is the Easter tournament played between all the cousins and uncles in my family. My dad, being sort of an asshole, took the Blues because it was his Sega and he said he gets first dibs. So, not knowing much about any teams other than our rivals the Blackhawks and Red Wings, I took the Calgary Flames based on the cool emblem and I won the entire 16 person tournament. The Flames have had a special place in my heart since.

Eventually I figured out every way to break the game (skate with the puck in front of the goal and let the goalie stack the pads on one side of the net leaving the otherside open) and would rarely win by less than 7 goals.

NHL Arcade (PlayStation 3 - 2009) - NHL Arcade is an unfortunate victim of our scary digital future. You can no longer download the game because of expired licenses and it was never available on disk.

I got it as a pre-order bonus for another NHL game. It was supposed to be a throwaway game. I downloaded it and it sat unplayed on my hard drive for years until one night when drinking beers and looking for a couch co-op game, a buddy of mine suggested we try it. Turns out, it's probably the most fun hockey game ever made.

NHL Arcade is a 3 on 3 hockey game where you pick two players to move the puck and a goalie. You still are trying to score the most goals, but there are power-ups that may cause enemy players to fall, your players to grow huge, big head mode, shrinking mode. It gets crazy.

That first night, we logged a solid 5 hours, 2 pizzas, and a dozen beers without realizing it.

It again played into my life later when my brother and I were fighting over who got the Blues / Blackhawks tickets that season and we decided a best of 7 series would be the decider. It ended with me shirtless screaming, "DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU GET WHEN YOU MESS WITH ME BITCH?" and two fresh Blackhawks' tickets.

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