PHT remembers video games: Sony made a surprisingly long series of hockey/NHL games

James O'Brien
NBC Sports

Every week, PHT will spotlight hockey video games you might not have heard of, ones you fondly recall, and ones we’d all like to forget. This time around, we’ll look back at the surprisingly sprawling run of hockey video games from Sony.

When it comes to lamenting old hockey video games, we look back fondly on arcade-style games or honest attempts at sims, and often wish for more. Even with a game like “Hit the Ice,” which was ported in many different ways, there wasn’t really a sequel. But from “ESPN National Hockey Night” to the “NHL FaceOff” games down to “Gretzky NHL” titles, you can’t say that Sony didn’t take enough kicks at the can to make hockey video games.

Zooming out, Sony pumped out a really staggering legacy of … well, largely hockey forgettable video games.

The sheer volume of those titles means we won’t go into too much depth on any given title. Instead, let’s ponder the twists and turns, from different consoles, to brands, to killing 99 time.

Sony’s hockey video games begin before Sony consoles with “ESPN National Hockey Night.”

Released on 16-bit consoles (Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo), Sega CD, and computers in late 1994, Sony Imagesoft put out what would be far from the last hockey video game with ESPN branding. It seemed like a pretty ambitious title for its era. Though maybe I’m an easy mark because of that sweet ESPN hockey theme kicking this video off:

And also FMV Bill Clement!

Bill Clement in "ESPN National Hockey Night" Sega Genesis
Bill Clement in "ESPN National Hockey Night" Sega Genesis

Alas, this title began a trend. While Sony hockey video games sometimes experienced big changes and displayed varying levels of ambition, they rarely made much of a mark. Most of these titles were either met with a shoulder shrug, or during bad times, a grimace.

Sony transitions to “NHL FaceOff” series on Playstation, then Playstation 2

If you grumble at there only being one “Mutant League Hockey” game, or only a few “NHL Hitz” titles, then you might furrow your brow at just how long-lasting “NHL FaceOff” existed — even ignoring the pivots from Sony before and after “NHL FaceOff.”

Beginning in 1995, Sony pumped out the “NHL FaceOff” titles alongside other sports series. Frankly, one of my lasting memories of Sony’s sports titles was the “NFL GameDay” intro song, which for some reason is etched into my brain:

Early on in the “NHL FaceOff” series, you could see some pretty significant jumps in graphics. This came at a time when video game developers were still wrestling with the jump from 2D to 3D, and sports video games were not immune to such challenges. Consider the leaps from the first title in 1995 to the 1998 edition (“NHL FaceOff ’99”):

It turns out that EA Sports’ “NHL” series isn’t the first instance where a hockey video game presentation went from featuring ESPN and/or Bill Clement to NBC’s own Mike “Doc” Emrick. Emrick ended up being a fixture for the series, alongside Darren Pang, even once the “FaceOff” games transitioned to their next bit of packaging.

Again, the various studios that worked on the series definitely tried things. Enjoy, for instance, 989 Sports “made by the pros, played by the pros” video featuring 1) Warren Sapp, 2) Vin Scully(!), and 3) Scotty Bowman (!!).

There were even foot-in-the-crease reviews in “NHL FaceOff 2000.”

NHL FaceOff screen, Sony hockey video games NHL
NHL FaceOff screen, Sony hockey video games NHL

… And this beautiful visage of Mike Modano.

Modano NHL FaceOff Sony hockey video games
Modano NHL FaceOff Sony hockey video games

The series truly loses its way

While the first “NHL FaceOff” celebrated hockey on the Playstation’s first iteration, the next console jump might explain why an OK-to-good series went sideways. Starting with “NHL FaceOff 2001,” the series transitioned to the Playstation 2. (That 2001 edition appeared on both Playstation 1 and 2.) Things were bumpy enough that the 2002 edition ended up being canceled. (According to the series’ Wikipedia page, Luc Robitaille was supposed to be the cover star.)

The last in the series was “NHL FaceOff 2003,” initially published in 2002. (NHL seasons spanning parts of two years often makes these titles feel a little confusing, right?)

The 2003 version didn’t get the series back on track. That said, the little in-game “previews” were a mix of pretty nifty and so-bad-it’s-good.

Overall, the “NHL FaceOff” series enjoyed a long run even if you ignore the other Sony-related hockey video game titles, releasing from 1995-2002 (with one year off, which really feels true to the sport’s era of lockouts).

Just like “ESPN National Hockey Night” made way for “NHL FaceOff,” Sony’s titles would get new life once more in a different wrapper.

Sony puts out a couple hockey video games with Wayne Gretzky involved

Sony pivoted from “NHL FaceOff” titles to “Gretzky NHL 2005” and a 2006 version on Playstation 2.  As Alex Navarro noted at Gamespot, the Sony Gretzky titles mainly distinguished themselves as Sony hockey video games that weren’t terrible.

Navarro also pointed out that Sony revived the series under that Gretzky NHL title during a lockout. If that didn’t set the table for a letdown, both EA’s “NHL” titles and the “NHL 2K” series attracted far more attention from sim-minded hockey gamers. It’s not particularly surprising that the titles were met with a general “meh.”

That said, the Gretzky titles were also ported to Sony’s handheld PSP system, and seemed to fare reasonably well.

Being that EA largely ignores handhelds such as the Nintendo Switch — aside from maybe one release of a “FIFA” — it’s a bummer that the Gretzky/”NHL FaceOff” series couldn’t have pivoted to that format. Being able to play a pretty good, NHL-licensed hockey game on a plane would have been cool right up until the mere thought of air travel became deeply terrifying.

I also wonder if “Gretzky NHL 2005/2006” should have gone full-arcade. Beyond evoking the pretty fun Nintendo 64-era Gretzky games, you’d lean into something that could make it stand out. The 2006 edition of the game had a feature where you could basically … summon Gretzky to help you win? Bonkers, sure, but what if it was the focus of development rather than a feature?

Wayne Gretzky representing a hockey video game series’ answer to the obnoxious blue shell in Mario Kart? I don’t hate it.

Again, a rather startling series of Sony hockey video games

OK, so let’s consider the timeline of Sony hockey video games one more time. Do note that it’s possible something will be left out because there really were so many of them. (Share in the comments if you notice something. Maybe there was an off-shoot inside an off-shoot wrapped in bacon and enigmas?)

  • “ESPN National Hockey Night” (Various 16-bit consoles/PC, released in 1994)

  • “NHL FaceOff through NHL FaceOff 2000” (Playstation, released  each year from 1995-1999)

  • Consider “NHL FaceOff 2001” a break in the trend because it was released on two consoles. (Playstation 1 and 2, released in 2000)

  • … The process of making one on each console might explain why “NHL FaceOff 2002” got canceled for PS2.

  • “NHL FaceOff 2003” (Playstation 2, released in 2002.)

  • “Gretzky NHL 2005” (Playstation 2, released in 2004; PSP version released in 2005)

  • “Gretzky NHL 2006” (Playstation 2, released in September 2005; PSP version released in October 2005)

Sony produced one heck of a run of … bad or OK hockey video games. They might have challenged the limits of Michael Scott’s favorite Gretzky quote in doing so. Today, they mainly focus on baseball with the generally well-received “MLB The Show” series.

As enticing as variety can be, Sony was probably smart in moving away from hockey/NHL video games.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT remembers video games: Sony made a surprisingly long series of hockey/NHL games originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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