For today's entry of Hockey Wilderness' Video Game Week, we invited Friend of the Wilderness Liam Gallagher to post about his favorite hockey game, NHL '94. Liam's video game chops make him most qualified for this, as he runs EXP Share, a smart, funny, and excellent Pokèmon podcast with a focus on the competitive aspect of the game, which you can download on iTunes. You can also check out his work as a bassist and composer on his personal website.
NHL '94 is my favorite sports game of all time for some pretty unfair reasons. When I was a kid from Halifax, Nova Scotia, the distinction between playing pond hockey on the Frog Pond, playing ball hockey in the gym of my school, and playing NHL '94 in my cousin's basement wouldn't have been very clear. I didn't strap on skates before turning on the Super Nintendo (SNES), but the conflicts, glory, and teamwork that was forged on the ice was identical to what was felt on the game pads.
The game accessed some very real and very fundamental elements of what mattered about playing hockey with the girls and boys of my community. It bridged physical differences. The older and stronger kids had the advantage on ice, but in the video game, that advantage wasn't there. While on the ice, my best friend and I would always pick each other when making teams, the video game forced us to square off and deal with being in conflict. Hockey Night in Canada would play out the actions of our sports heroes, and the next day we would be recreating their goals. Fleury Scores!!! None of us would go onto be NHL players, pro athletes, or even work as mailroom clerks in the regional office of an AHL farm team (long live the St. John's Maple Leafs!), but NHL'94 embodied all that is powerful about sports and video games: Creating thriving communities and teaching kids life lessons.
Moral lessons aside, NHL '94 is a game that game design nerds can be proud of. It is king of hockey arcade games. No penalties, no line changes, no rules about creases. Just hitting, passing, and the almighty goal. One design challenge that '94 deals with wonderfully is the issue of ice. I'm sure you've all played an ice level in a Mario game, or whatever "Kill All The Human Beings" first-person shooter is most popular right now, and found that ice levels suck. They are almost objectively less fun than levels where your character is not burdened with extra inertia. Pro tip: Every level in NHL is on ice. This presents a challenge for how the characters handle. As a designer, you need to have the characters move and look as though they are on ice, and give the player controlling them that feeling without all the slipping and falling. NHL '94 gets this dynamic perfectly, and after a brief adjustment to how the characters control, it's an aspect of the game you and your friends will never talk about again. It's a testament to how well the designers dialed in their footwork.
Another thing NHL '94 has is the sensation of big hits. When you knock your older sister's center into the bench a half-second before a breakaway, the game makes you feel like you crushed Stevie Yzerman every bit as hard as you crushed her dreams. Injured for the next period?! YEEEAAAH!!!
Even better than devastating hits, the game delivers a good, solid feel on slap shots, but more than anything, the one-timer. When you score it in real life*, a one-timer feels like a million bucks, and 'NHL 94 delivers all the sensational feelings of that perfectly lined-up physics equation that equals your Habs taking Game 7 in overtime. It's a fine balance between the response time of the animation from time of button press, the visual appearance of the player as they swing through the puck, and the tactile satisfaction of the controller's button press.
*Admittedly, I played goal in ball hockey, so all of my one-timers were in pond hockey, which of course were scored against a boot, but there you go.
NHL '94 had all the bells and whistles like season modes, optional rules (like including refs... pffft), injuries, and statistics tracking. But in the end, what makes the game special isn't being able to play as the All-Star team, but how it makes you realize what really makes the fun happen: playing hockey with your friends!
For those of you who are still interested in the game, it's still possible to track down copies of the cartridges for the SNES and Sega Genesis. I know that at of the time of writing that the website for A&C (a legendary Toronto-based vintage video game store) has them in stock, and they ship internationally. If you want to go the route where you don't pay artists and publishers and artists for their work (I'm sure Michael Brook won't mind, but you should ask him first), then check out the (un)Official NHL '94 website, where people to this day play online games of 'NHL 94 through emulators.
Lastly, I want to take a moment to thank Tony for inviting me to write this piece, he's been a strong and audible supporter of EXP Share since day one, and you guys are lucky to have him! Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!