The return of ‘NHL 94’: How EA Sports improved on a hockey classic

NEW YORK -- “Fan service” is a relatively new term in American popular culture, although another form of it has been found in anime for years. It’s when a familiar property is repurposed, remade or recreated, and those behind that effort go to painful lengths to satisfy the property’s loyal, time-tested audience while attempting to attract a new one.

Putting Khan, for some reason, in "Star Trek Into Darkness"? Fan service. Making emotionally barren Spock scream “KHAAAAN!” in that film? Egregious, embarrassing fan service.

There’s a “give’em what they want” aspect to these works that can be either a product of bankrupt creativity and/or a calculated approach to how the marketplace will receive something different.

With the release of ‘NHL 14’ in September, EA Sports could have honored the seminal classic ‘NHL 94’ for its 20th anniversary by giving fans the game they remembered from yesteryear. It’s something they did in 2006, attached an emulator to their NHL title that season. Gamers would have likely celebrated its inclusion again seven years later.

But that would have been “fan service.”

And Sean Ramjagsingh wasn’t about to take the lazy road.

“People have such fond memories of ‘NHL 94’, with nostalgia wrapped around it. But then when they play ‘NHL 94’, they play for about five minutes and then go back to the more authentic version of the game,” said Ramjagsingh, an EA Sports producer, at a preview event for the game at the NHL Store in Manhattan on Wednesday.

“There’s an appetite for it. But let’s not just put [the original] ‘NHL 94’ on there.”

So they didn’t. They put an ‘NHL 94’ on there that plays like it’s been injected by some sort of super serum out of Marvel Comics. (For the record: Captain America saying “Hulk Smash” equals fan service; but the good kind.)

It plays like a modern hockey video game, featuring modern players and teams – R.I.P. Whale and Brass Bonanza. But its heart is all ‘NHL 94’ – uncomplicated digital hockey bliss.

“It’s about you and your buddy, at your house, having a few beers and talking smack,” said Ramjagsingh.

We’ve covered the legacy of ‘NHL 94’ here before, including the Ten Greatest Things About ‘NHL 94’ earlier this year.

Recapturing the ‘NHL 94’ magic is a difficult task. 2K Sports attempted it with one of its final hockey video games; it felt like the EA Sports classic as far as game play, but just wasn’t the same experience -- like a group of actors trying to re-stage a Christmas morning from your childhood.

What you need to know about my ‘NHL 94’ love: The title carries a reverence akin to Ken Dryden’s “The Game” in my hockey world-view. You don’t [expletive] with perfection.

What else you need to know about my ‘NHL 94’ love: I take it seriously.

Like, “almost got stabbed with a butter knife in college because of a fight over the deke move” seriously. (Here’s the short form of that story.)

So I picked up the controller with feeling skepticism and enthusiasm on Wednesday to play the revamped anniversary edition:

That skepticism left the moment I realized it’s the same button-mashing chaos I loved 20 years ago, combined with some impressive upgrades in graphics and other things.

Like, for example, violence.

Sweet, gratuitous violence.

In the “make Gretzky’s head bleed for SuperFan99 over there” way. But the fighting engine for the ‘NHL 94’ reboot allows for jersey holding, upper cuts and nasty little bouts.

Along with that, thunderous checks abound in each zone. “Genesis, Nintendo … they couldn’t handle the physics,” said Ramjagsingh on the hitting.

They are hits you can replay in the slow-motion feature, to see an opponent’s head slam along the boards or dent with when your forearm hits it.

Hey, it’s 1994 again: No Rule 48! Concussions are considered “cobwebs” that you shake off!

The best compliment I can pay EA Sports’ new ‘NHL 94’ anniversary edition: I wanted to bring it home, call my friends, get some six packs and play until dawn … at the same time I wanted to throw the [expletive] controller through the [expletive] window when Andrew [Expletive] Ference scored with [expletive] 37 seconds left to beat my Flyers.

The next best compliment I can pay EA Sports’ new ‘NHL 94’ anniversary edition: I got the hang of it in under two minutes, despite not owning a PS3 and being what could be affectionately termed a "lapsed gamer."

“We captured the essence of what made ‘NHL 94’ so much fun: The pick-and-play aspect of it,” said Ramjagsingh.

It’s all there: The passing, the shots from the point, the one-timers. Oh, and the dekes. Those bloody dekes.

“It is as deadly as it was. And we didn’t plan that,” he said. “The left, right, tuck it around the goalie.”

What didn’t make the game? EA Sports considered doing retro arenas, but opted not to. Retro players … that’s another bag of sticks.

“For us to get all those players in there, we’d have to license them individually,” said Ramjagsingh, reminding us that the 2006 ‘NHL 94’ feature didn’t have player names.

The ‘NHL 94’ edition attached to ‘NHL 14’ is a head-to-head game – no season mode, trades or anything of the like. It’s an anniversary special, not meant to compete with ‘NHL 14’ for your obsessive attention.

But what does the future hold? Could this become a standardized feature for EA Sports hockey games?

“The feedback we’ve gotten is phenomenal. So we’ll see where it goes,” Ramjagsingh said.

My feedback is colored by my nostalgia for ‘NHL 94’.

But Ralph Facchiolla wasn’t yet born when the game was released.

The 17 year old from Staten Island played the revamped game at the NHL Store on Wednesday. He’s from a generation that grew up with Xbox graphics rather than SEGA Genesis pixels.

What did he think of this video game relic, redesigned for modern gamers?

“It’s more into the game. More realistic,” said Facchiolla, which was more than a little stunning considering the current series’ slavish dedication to realism.

“I like the new dekes. I thought it was a lot faster. Better.”

It was just one young fan’s opinion, but I cracked a smile when I heard this. Because despite all the button combinations and strategy and True Performance Skating and dynasty modes and online competitions and cover votes … this guy preferred the simplistic whimsy of a 20-year-old video game.

“It’s something fresh, something new,” he said, un-ironically.

Hey, if it’s in the game, it’s in the game, even 20 years later.

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