This week saw the release of NHL 15 by EA Sports, and the crowd went … ‘meh.’
IGN ran its negative review under the headline “Empty Net.” It has a score of 62 on Metacritic (for the PS4 version; the Xbox One has a not-all-that-better 70). Gamers that gobble up copies of the EA Sports series have complained about a lack of innovation and, worse yet, a rollback on some of the features that made the previous incarnations of the game so addictive.
(EA Sports has since said that it plans on releasing a patch that addresses some of these concerns.)
Since it hasn’t been all pixelized sunshine and rainbows for gamers this week, we here at Puck Daddy decided to look back at some of the features throughout hockey video game history that made us squee like someone cos-playing Master Chief meeting Jason Jones at E3. (And if you got that reference, chances are you're playing "Destiny" instead of NHL 15 anyway...)
In no particular order, here are the 12 greatest things in the history of hockey video games; feel free to add your own in the comments.
1. Playing God
Let’s be real: The greatest thing about hockey video games is the ability to manipulate reality.
If you don’t like the rules of the game, you can change them, from period lengths to offside to the difficulty of the opponents you’re going to face. Can you imagine of the kind of power had fallen into the hands of Mario Lemieux?
If you don’t like the way the game developers have decided to create a given player, you can literally recreate him. Who says Justin Williams can’t have a 100 in shot power? Hasn’t the man earned it?
And if you don’t like the way teams are constructed, you can manipulate the rosters (well, within the constraints of the trade commissioner A.I. and salary cap restrictions).
Only a petulant hockey god would allow Taylor Hall to waste away on Edmonton. Set him free, gaming deity! Even if it means using that sneaky drop a player/add a player method.
2. The Dekes and the Skill Stick
I’ve mentioned this story here or there before, but back in college I nearly got into a (butter) knife fight because my dorm mate Brian kept using the deke move on SEGA Genesis with Alexander Mogilny and I couldn’t stop it and I was an embarrassingly sore loser.
The deke moves in the NHL games were simply the greatest way to score. While there was some undeniable catharsis in a well executed one-timer, it lacked that level of digital shaming that game with undressing an opponent, either computer or user controlled.
The deke game went next level with the introduction of the “skill stick” in “NHL 07,” as players could use the analog controller stick to better control their player’s stickhandling, and thus create some killer dekes.
By the time “NHL 15” was released, the simultaneous control one had over a player’s stickhandling and skating led to frequently turning defensemen inside out. Like, all defensemen. Not just [insert your favorite pylon here].
3. Video Replay
And after you execute a perfect deke that renders your opponent a drooling shell of a human, what’s next?
ROLL IT BACK AND LET’S WATCH. THAT. AGAIN.
The ability to relive your incredible moments of digital dominance – and later save and clip those highlights for posterity – are among the best features of sports video games.
What made the NHL games stand out to that end: the siren.
Oh, there was no better sound than hearing the artificially created sound of a stick whacking a puck followed by that whiney digitized siren blaring, piercing your humiliated friend’s eardrums with a symphony of failure.
NOW LET’S SEE IT FROM THIIIIIISSSS ANGLE!
God, what jerks we are. To that end...
4. Making Gretzky’s Head Bleed
Yes, we know: The mythic abilities of Jeremy Roenick and the oft-quoted violence against No. 99 in “Swingers” are the epitome of hockey video game cliché.
But seriously, if there’s a Super Fan No 99 in your life, you can force them to watch their idol’s head gush like a geyser of strawberry jam and it’s the best. Especially on replay.
5. Fighting in Blades Of Steel
Fighting engines in games have grown exponentially more interesting and complex in ironic proportion with fighting’s decline in the NHL.
Back in the day, when Konami’s seminal Blades of Steel was released, fighting was in a different place of acceptance in the hockey world. And to have a game not only featured fights – signaled by the mush-mouthed commentator uttering “FIGHT!” – but fights with strategy beyond slapping buttons at a rapid rate was thrilling.
But beyond that, Blades of Steel had perhaps the greatest innovation in the history of hockey fighting: The loser of the fight was the one who received the penalty.
Two minutes for insult to injury… justice, you are served.
6. Be A Pro
Since the early days of EA Sports games, there were inklings of player customization. You could create a player, give him your name and your attributes, and suddenly you were taking passes from Pat LaFontaine.
But the “Be A Pro” mode was a game-changer. Now you looked like the player. (The accuracy determined, of course, by how white and male you were.) Now you’re following that player’s progression from the greenest of rookies to the biggest of stars. Now you’re worried about getting traded. Now you’re having to answer postgame interview questions without upsetting your teammates and your fans.
It was immersive and addictive and brought us closer to feeling like NHL players than anything that came before it.
Although we’re still holding out for “Controlling Hockey Parent” and “Escape Social Media Snoops While Shirtless In A Limo With Groupies” modes. Maybe in NHL 16.
7. Phil Hartman
Activision’s Ice Hockey was one of the first hockey games for home players, on the ATARI 2600.
Was it terrible? Of course! Two-on-two with no goalies, with players skating at a Hal Gill pace, the puck gliding like it was trapped in slush on an August afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
But it was what it was, and it gave us this: Phil Hartman, the funniest man to ever walk the Earth, doing a hockey video game commercial.
Chances this would be Bryan Cranston if filmed today: high.
8. Dynasty Mode
What are video games if not escapism? What is escapism if not the opportunity to right the wrongs of the real world? To live out fantasies that can seemingly never become realities?
So yeah, dynasty mode. As reader Zachary Gannam summed it up best
@wyshynski Dynasty/Be a GM mode. Making the Blues win the Cup year after year is the entire purpose of hockey video games.
— Zachary Gannam (@lugnut92) September 10, 2014
9. Expanding The Hockey World
When Blades of Steel was released in 1987, there were eight teams featured.
Over the next 27 years, we’ve had NHL teams and expansion teams and defunct teams and minor league teams and junior teams and European teams and every other conceivable franchise added to the game. (Well, except for the KHL.) It’s like having the greatest collection of hockey sweaters ever in your closet: You don’t feel like using the Bruins again? Try on the San Antonio Rampage for a while…
For Hartford Whalers fetishists like we are, it's like a warm blanket.
What began as an awesome 3-on-3 multiplayer mode that connected fans from around the work became a ridiculous worldwide phenomenon.
The EA Sports Hockey League created an alternative hockey universe. Fun fact: There have been times when we’ve stumbled across a message board talking about an NHL team, read a roster of names that either didn’t fit or were unrecognizable, and then realized that the message board was dedicated to EASHL teams that were being covered like their IRL counterparts.
It took the experience we had on the couch – trash talking awesomeness with our fellow fans – and broken down geographic boundaries. It also created a way for multiple players to play multiple roles on each team, which was awesome, so long as you didn’t have a complete noob weak link holding you back. Sorta like beer league, actually.
How impactful was it? Look no further than the outrage over its exclusion from NHL 15 on NextGen platforms.
11. The Crazy Ish
Every sports genre has its games that bring a crazy, surreal take on the game. Hockey has been no different. Look no further than “tennis ball” mode in NHL Hitz.
Or the Brick Wall in Wayne Gretzky Hockey:
Or really anything from Mutant League Hockey…
We need a little more crazy in modern video games, don’t we?
12. Skinny. Medium. Fat. Fat.
Like the “Contra Code” for shooting-up-aliens gamers, it’s an incantation voiced by hockey video game cultists.
Or at least the ones who have played Nintendo Ice Hockey and know the current configuration of their teams.
OK, sure, maybe you like two Mediums because they’re all-around players with a little size, like an Anze Kopitar. Maybe you’d dare challenge my girth with your speed, going with two Gretzkys and a Medium and a Fat.
Go ahead. Come at me, ‘bro. My team (probably Poland) will flatten the ice with you, and then have two rotund point men ready to crank up a slap shot for about 20 seconds before unleashing a puck fired at such a velocity that it passed through your goalie like that coin through Kevin Bacon in "X-Men: First Class."
Skinny. Medium. Fat. Fat.
Like every NHL team needing a strong goalie, a 25-minute-a-night defenseman and two good centers, this is the formula for hockey video game success.
That's our 12! Again, please add your hockey video game awesomeness in the comments.