This piece on Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey comes from our friend Bob Spencer from Hashtag Hockey.
I have always loved games. To shut out the world, even for a few minutes or hours, and focus on a game with a completely contrived set of rules...to forget everything else and immerse one's self in strategy, tactics, probability, game theory, there’s just nothing like it for me. But sometimes, the best games throw all the rules and strategy out the window—they are arcade games, and they are responsible for a generation of adrenaline junkies.
Games have been a major part of my life ever since I can remember. When I was a little kid, I would play card games and board games with my sister and my grandparents for hours and hours on end. Rummy, crazy eights, Kings' corner, checkers, we played them all. And since I grew up in the late eighties, I quickly learned about video games. One of my earliest memories is of my dad showing me how to play 'Decathlon' loaded through MS DOS and a 5.25" floppy disc on our Leading Edge computer. The events were all on the level of Pong in terms of their complexity, and were little more than minigames that let you run a 100-yd dash or throw a javelin. But I played the heck out of that game anyway, because it was fun. From there I moved on to puzzles (Tetris), platforms (Mario), and RPGs (Zelda), but certainly sports video games as well.
I loved games before I loved sports. After all, sports are just very complex games with lots of rules, lots of statistics, lots of numbers. I learned a lot about sports through video games, or at least the basic framework. However, a lot of the specifics were lost on me, as I struggled for a long time trying to piece together why first down was better than fourth down in football, or if it was better to have a high or low ERA in baseball.
Not hockey, though...hockey just made sense to me. Two teams, two nets, one puck. The clock runs, and the most goals wins, simple as that. And in the end, it was a stripped down, almost comically simplistic video game that got me hooked on the sport of hockey for the rest of my life.
* * *
My first gaming systems were an original Game Boy and an 8-bit NES, both of which my parents bought for me. But the first console I bought for myself was a Nintendo 64. I mowed lawns around town and saved up everything I made over the summer, then jumped on my ten speed and pedaled down to the local Best Buy. I paid in cash and stuffed the box into my backpack, then carefully...so carefully...made my way back home. While I loved my other consoles and my hand-helds, the N64 will always have a special place in my heart. Partly because the graphics were so great compared to my previous Nintendo consoles, but mostly because it was my very own. The NES was kept in the TV room in the basement, but the N64 got to go in my bedroom with my very own glorious secondhand 12" CRT TV/VHS combination. I would spend my free time playing as many games as I could get my hands on. I would ride my bike down to the local video store every Friday and rent game after game. I have fond memories of playing lots of N64 games like Ocarina of Time and Gauntlet Legends (to this day when I get hungry I'll wander my apartment shouting, "BLUE WIZARD NEEDS FOOD BADLY!!") But no game ever got its hooks into me like Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey.
Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey did a number of things that had not been done before, and haven't been seen since in the world of video game hockey. Allow me to highlight some of my favorite elements of the game.
Gameplay- The graphics in WG are woeful, simply woeful. The skaters have extremely low polygon-counts, very little animation, and the sweater detail is marginal at best. They are little more than LEGOs on skates. There is one game mode: Play. Sure, you can do a whole season, but that's nothing more than a series of games with cumulative stats. The greatest thing about WG is that it's pure arcade style, 3-on-3, no icing, no offside, no penalties. Just balls to the wall, turbo button hockey. Arcade sports games will always be better than sims in my book. They just cut right through everything else and give you the best parts of the game without all the boring stuff.
The game was produced by Midway, the same company that made NFL Blitz and NBA Jam before much later coming out with my second-favorite hockey game, NHL Hitz. There are a lot of elements carried over directly from those games into WG. In fact, a lot of the announcer audio is just lifted from Jam and Blitz, which is actually nice because it does this Pavlovian thing on you and reminds you of all the great arcade experiences and all the fun from those other games. From the breathless way the announcer shouts, "WHAT A PLAY!!!" to the ten-second countdown that feels like it takes a full minute, there's just that feeling you get when you're playing a Midway game. I've lost more games than I care to admit by giving up a seemingly impossible last second goal, but that’s another story.
Hits- When you connect with a power check in WG, the guy gets launched into the air, does a double backflip, then lands painfully on the ice before laying sprawled out for a few seconds. On top of all that, a little ambulance drives across the top of the screen, siren wailing. As you can imagine, this happens ALL THE DAMN TIME. Particularly with more than a couple human players, you can imagine playing with a cacophony of intermingling goal sirens and ambulance sirens. I'll take that soundtrack any day. Also, you could body check two opponents at once, like this.
Fighting- The fighting in Wayne Gretzky was exactly like fighting in today's video games: no strategy, no defense, just raining bombs on the other guy until you put him on the ground. Here's the full punch list: weak punch, strong punch, and the strongest move, where you lift the opponent off the ice and haymaker him twice. End of list. And, the winner gets to let the loser wobble on his feet for a couple seconds before knocking him out, or if you were feeling particularly devious, you’d just let him stand there until he collapsed. I'd love for EA to include the knockout opportunity in today's games, but you know it would never fly in a sim game. Chalk another one up for arcade hockey!
Goalies- I suppose my favorite thing about WG was the goalies. One of my favorite aspects is the goalie's animation after giving up a goal, where he collapses to the ice and slams his stick into the ground over and over in a display of utter despair. The goalie animations in today’s games are fine, but they don’t capture the emotion the way WG goalies do, and I'd love for EA to include this beauty into the current NHL franchise.
Sometimes, the goalie will literally turn into a brick wall to stop your shot, which is of course extremely frustrating. But in a strange way, I sort of appreciate it. Video game goalies are always going to screw you out of a goal now and again, but rather than just making an incredible sliding save, when you get the brick wall treatment, at least you know the game is being transparent. It's also a neat cultural reference to the lingo of the sport, which I think is a nice fourth wall remover (pun definitely intended!).
When you fired a power show, sometimes you would blast the goalie through his own net, knocking it off its moors and crashing into the end boards.
This was a lot of fun, but the number one coolest thing about the game was...
Fire!- Looking back now, it's easy to see why a Midway-produced game included a net being set on fire. But at the time, I didn't care that it was ripped off of NBA Jam, it was just such a cool thing to do! They had it tuned so that it was common enough to happen regularly, yet rare enough that whenever it happened you reflexively yelled, "OHHHHHH!" Such a primal reaction, as if merely scoring a goal wasn't good enough, you could actually set ablaze the very thing the opponents are trying to protect. As an arcade game, WG is easy to pick up, and whenever you watch someone play for the first time, the shouts when they literally Light A Mup are just beyond description. There should be more fire in sports today, it evokes such a guttural response. Maybe I'll write the NHL and see what they can do about some incendiary nets...
Rosters- The rosters in WG hockey were from a weird, transitory time in the history of the NHL. The North Stars were gone for Dallas, and the Whalers were just moving to Carolina. Check out this video for a full tour of the roster, and make sure to check out The Great One himself on the Rangers roster, plus Jagr's epic hair, Joe Sakic on the Whalers and the misspellings of "Foresberg" and "Madano."
In the end, I never actually owned a copy of the game. I only played it for a few days at a time when I rented it over...and over...and over again. Many years later, I purchased the Olympic version of the game, which was just the same thing with National rosters instead of NHL. But it wasn't quite the same. I mean yes, it was still an incredibly fun game, but there will always be a special place in my heart for the ambulance siren wailing, 20-19 final score having, double backflip body checking, net on fire arcade action of Wayne Grezky's 3D Hockey on the Nintendo 64.
Bob Spencer is a friend of Hockey Wilderness. You can find his work at Hashtag Hockey, where he writes about the Wild, advanced stats, and fantasy hockey. You can also follow him @Hashtag_Hockey on Twitter.