I have never watched an ice hockey game in my life. I don’t know who the big players are these days, though I’ve heard of legends like Mario Lemieux, and especially Wayne Gretzky, he’s always being name dropped in movies. I don’t know who the best teams are, though I’ve heard a few names over the years. I know of the Stanley Cup, but not how the format of the tournament works. I know next to nothing of ice hockey. The reason I know ANYTHING about the sport is because of NHL ’94.
When I did my retrospective article on Sensible Soccer a couple of months, I gushed about how it’s the best football game of all-time, but I didn’t talk about it being my favourite sports game. Between NHL ’94 and Sensi Soccer, there is very little in it, and I would proudly declare either my fave sports game if pushed but honestly? NHL ’94 just MIGHT wing it, by the slightest of margins. I came across the game probably months after it came out, renting it in the process. I have no idea what possessed me to try it back then as I’d known nothing of ice hockey, and I even remember being disappointed with myself, thinking I’d wasted my money. Why were my players offside? Why were both teams facing each other over 7 games? What the hell was ‘icing’? I didn’t have a clue what was going on and no doubt left it aside for the rental period. It was also a bloody difficult game and I got so frustrated trying to score just one goal.
Jump forward nearly 20 years later to 2014, and for some reason last year, I had a real hankering to try that ice hockey game I’d played all those years ago. I remember thinking how cool it looked graphically, how smooth it played on the Mega Drive, I just had to try it again for some reason. Surely it couldn’t have been as bad as I remembered?
Sadly it was emulator time, on my phone no less, which meant my PS3 pad would be coming in to play. I decided to give it a go on the SNES, and on playing only a couple of minutes, something just didn’t feel right. I honestly can’t put my finger on it to this day, but the Mega Drive version just has something about it. They’re effectively the exact same game, but I believe you couldn’t play them both and then say they’re exactly the same. I was always one for buying games on SNES over the Mega Drive, but this is always going to be the exception to that rule.
After realising Sega was going to provide my hockey experience here, I got the game started and the tinny music was there as was the very basic menus. I didn’t understand what these ‘playoffs’ were, but threw myself into that mode to see where it took me. I chose Pittsburgh at random, and on seeing my line-up found myself to be the proud owner of Mario Lemieux. This is a VERY good thing. I made sure ‘line changes’ were set to automatic, because I honestly don’t know what makes for a good hockey team, and when is the right time to put a certain team out on the ice.
The game started, and I was blown away by the feel of it all. It felt so responsive, the players moved as I would expect them to do. Go too fast and it makes it difficult for your player to turn back on himself if need be. You string a few successful forward passes together and you feel this fantastic momentum working in your favour, but even this can be hampered by your position in relation to your receiver, or even what side of your player the puck is on due to their hand preference. Charging your opponents leaves you with a satisfying burst of speed which can see you massively upend your opposing player, or see you totally misjudge the move and fly past him.
Shooting is naturally the most important facet of the game and while it’s extremely satisfying to snap one into the net, it’s also initially very difficult. When you see the keepers on TV in front of those nets, they look so big and it seems there’s no way you could ever get a puck past them. You get the same feeling in the game, so for beginners, it’s going to feel like there’s a massive learning curve here. Perseverance paves way for major gratification when you do start realising the little nuances which make for a successful approach and shot on goal. Naturally, there’s some cheap ways to score your goals, but this destroys the feel of the game. Rather than take advantage of these loopholes, you’ll get so much more enjoyment from strategically working out the best mode of attack. You can do one-timer shots which are the fastest shot the goaltender will face, and if you nail it just right, the replay will be something you won’t want to see the end of. You can take the puck round the back of the net, side to side, and hope to catch the keeper unawares. You can go for a last second pass to a teammate and hope they can take advantage of a gap in the goal. I’ve even managed to score a goal with my own goaltender who lobbed the puck from one end of the ice rink to the other, and the opposing keeper just wasn’t prepared for it.
On scoring, you’re presented with one of the first truly brilliant moments in the game when your players start celebrating with one another. You can manually rally your boys together and sing hallelujah, but your opponents can also still move… and boy there’s nothing as satisfying in this game as shoulder charging a celebrating opponent and seeing him sprawled on the floor amidst his team mates. It’s not necessary but it’s so devilish. Imagine your mate scoring against you in FIFA, and while Ronaldo celebrates, you can snap him with a two footed challenge, and remain unpunished afterwards.
Other lovely moments include smashing the backboard glass. Safety glass surrounds the entire ice rink, the idea being that it protects the audience from wayward shots. Those shots can reach speeds of over 100mph however, so the glass can’t always do its job properly. Snap the shot just hard enough and you get to witness the puck fly through the glass, out into the crowd and it’s a lovely sound that is made when this destruction occurs.
Sadly, one of the most popular features in NHL ’93 was taken away. Fighting was removed from the game despite being featured in ’93 and some games afterwards, which is a shame as it was fantastic to see Gretzky hit the ice with blood pouring out of his head after being defeated. Don’t get me wrong, fighting wasn’t exactly necessary to enjoy the game, but US ice hockey’s fights are well known for getting hardcore with full teams of players squaring off against for 5 minutes of all out mayhem. I even heard they were sometimes paid more to do it as it garnered extra audiences. Not being able to have a scrap with an opposing player after a nasty challenge was just a sad shame.
As for the audio, it’s an absolute treat to play within the confines of this rink. It features one of the best audiences I’ve ever performed for, with home fans cheering, and away fans jeering. Classic ice hockey tunes feature such as the classic ‘Brass Bonanza’, played by 16-bit organ usually when faceoffs occur though I’ve heard them during the match itself. The game menu even allows you to check the decibel levels at the arena at that moment, as well as see for yourself what the league records stand at. It’s useless, but it just adds that little bit of an extra incentive for you to really try and rile that crowd up. Grunts are expanded with the clashing of skaters, pucks are smashed with mighty cracks, and that afore-mentioned glass smashing is almost like a victory theme. So many little sound effects combine to make this one of the most involving atmospheres I’ve ever played within, but the crowd really is the standout hero here.
There’s not a huge amount of game modes here which is a shame. Penalty shootouts feel a bit of a waste because without exploiting the keeper, it’s quite difficult to win a 1 on 1. Exhibition mode is always a given with sports games, and then there’s the real meat of NHL ’94; the Stanley Cup. I don’t know for sure that this is the holy grail of all hockey tournaments, but I’m going to assume it is because it’s the only competition I’ve heard of outside of the standard conference leagues. It’s essentially a knockout tournament which can be played with 1 or 7 game rounds. You’ll potentially face 4 teams, and there you have it. Winning doesn’t grant you anything besides the satisfaction of lifting the trophy at the end of competition.
It would have been wonderful to have a proper conference mode I could get my teeth into. A league that lasts 20, 30, however many games they play each year, would have been heaven for me. This was remedied in later releases but it’s such a shame that the most playable entry in the series would be the one to suffer here. I’ve never found anyone who wanted to play this personally, so have forever had to miss out on what would surely be a joyous experience. There are online leagues as featured on http://www.nhl94.com/, but I’m sure I’d have my ass handed to me having never played a human player before.
This essentially makes this game feel like it’s all mine. The simple reason I consider this a ‘hidden gem’ is because Brits just don’t know of it. I know no-one else who plays it, so have to go on my own experiences, as well as the absolute glut of praising articles you can find online. And boy is this game praised. I wish more people had experienced this. There’s no single FIFA title that receives such acclaim. Same applies to the Madden series. There’s only one other sports title I can think of that stands out in its field as much as this does, and that’s Formula 1 ’97, another article I’m sure I will come up with one day. Give this game a go, it’s absolutely fantastic and has a charm you won’t find in the photo realistic sports games of today. Oh, and one last thing; Naomi Kelly is the greatest girlfriend ever as she bought me a boxed copy of this for my birthday this year!
5 NHL ’94 facts:
- Despite being 21 years old, there is STILL one active player who was featured in the game, Jaromír Jágr of the Florida Panthers
- IGN rates this as the 47th greatest game of all time. It places just one spot behind Super Mario World, and ranks higher than such classics as Final Fantasy 6/7/10, Grand Theft Auto 3, Pokémon Red / Blue, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Galaga.
- If you ever played Mutant League Hockey on the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis, you effectively played NHL ’94, as they used the same game engine.
- NHL ’14 features a NHL ’94 mode which alters the view, controls, speed, amongst other stuff, to honour the greatest ice hockey game of all time.
- The game was developed by one man in his barn, Mark Lesser. He had never even watched a single Ice Hockey game before throwing himself into the project.
NHL ’94 can be played on the Retron 5, which is available to purchase at www.funstockretro.co.uk
Follow Carl on Twitter: @auto2112