Twenty Years of EA’s NHL Hockey: A Look Back at the OriginalDecember 1, 2011 at 12:30 am | Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments
Tags: EA Hockey, EA Sports, Game Informer, GamePro, Mega Drive, NHL Hockey, NHL Hockey Video Game, Retro Gaming, Retro Sports Gaming, SEGA, Sega Genesis, Sports games, sports video games, video games, Wayne Gretzky
EA’s NHL Hockey franchise turned twenty this year but does anybody else out there care? While the video game industry celebrates Sonic the Hedgehog’s 20th birthday or the twentieth anniversary of the Super Nintendo and Super Mario World, EA’s franchise and groundbreaking hockey game isn’t even a footnote. I was perusing my free subscription to Game Informer (Yes, I frequent GameStop and am a Power whatever it’s called) and they recently ran down all the big milestones in gaming for the fall of 2011. Twenty years of relevance is an impressive feat and 1991 was really big in the history of video games so the list was substantial. I put my finger on the page and skimmed down, hoping to see some kind of acknowledgement or tip of the cap to EA and found nothing. I was so upset I even tweeted (follow me @retrosportsgmr) my disdain at the oversight to Game Informer (We actually follow each other now – it’s cute). Turning to Google, surely other video game writers would have blazed the path of commending the NHL Hockey lineage, like my man Jon Robinson over at ESPN (formally Johnny Ballgame at GamePro), but nary a word was to be found outside of EA themselves putting together a cool retrospective video. I will champion this accomplishment along with you EA! In getting it all started, NHL Hockey and EA Hockey for the Sega Genesis and (Sega) Mega Drive, respectively, were out of this world compared to the other hockey games in the early nineties and set the tone for the franchise with great 16-bit sprites and fast and fun game play.
With the 1991 game, EA secured a license from the NHL, who conspicuously sat out the 8-bit era, to use their team’s likenesses. All the teams from the time are in the game, including the now-retro Hartford Whalers, Minnesota North Stars and Quebec Nordiques. There was no player license for the original NHL Hockey (it would come the following year) so you just have the real player’s numbers to designate them. With the focus on new hockey game play, features like stats and rosters were tabled until later games. There are no player stats or lineup changes in the game, except for the ability to change your goalie. When your team scores, you don’t even get to see who made the goal or assisted on the play.
NHL Hockey would have a modest number of features and room to grow in certain areas, but the game still hit the ice with an experience that is fun to play today. NHL Hockey had a number of game modes including the ability to play a one-game or seven-game playoff tournament with the team of your choosing, the never-used demo mode, as well as your standard exhibition game (dubbed regular season, but at least you could select your CPU opponent). The controls were intuitive in using mostly the “B” and “C” buttons (except to hook on defense with “A”) and while one-timers would be introduced two years later, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of ways to score or move the puck on offense. In addition to the fast-skating game play, NHL Hockey had line changes, penalties (including offside) and EA also introduced a very easy to use instant replay system. But to top their earliest hockey effort off, one of the biggest highlights of the game is the fighting. I don’t mean a sporadic scuffle here and there either, fights happen more frequently than at a Kardashian family gathering. In addition to duking it out at random times in the period, you can drop the gloves after a goal, after a penalty or even after the whistle has blown to signify the end of a period. One of my favorite experiences was slashing someone as Wayne Gretzky after an offside penalty is called, only to have a fight immediately break out and have poor Wayne flattened with one punch. All of this was developed in 1991! Fights were emphasized so much that a counter of “Fights Won” is a part of the very vanilla team stats available during a game.
While NHL Hockey was the title for the North American release, EA did not use the NHL license for their game in Europe on the Mega Drive, instead opting for a game with International teams. This title was dubbed EA Hockey and the engine and game features are naturally the same as NHL Hockey. You’ll certainly recognize some player numbers like #99 on Team Canada also. EA Hockey is a fun spin on the great NHL Hockey engine, as the disparity between the team’s talent is considerably larger and can offer a fun challenge through a tournament. Rest assured, just like its counterpart in North America, fighting and penalty calls are out of control with how frequently they happen. All a part of the fun and mystique of NHL and EA Hockey.
I mentioned earlier that EA was promoting their twenty years of NHL Hockey. Here is a link to their video which includes a great story about when they debuted the game at the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991. For copyright and weird download/sign-up reasons, I’m passing on embedding this one. [Author's note one year later: the video is nowhere to be found. Sorry] Check it out and feel free to share your reflections on the early NHL Hockey titles here in the comments (its free and you don’t even have to sign up!) or on Twitter. I’d love to discuss everyone’s nostalgic feelings on the franchise.