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Friday, October 17, 2014

History of Hockey Video Games by Frank DeSimon

Part One: Fat Guys, Thin Guys and Bleeding Heads.

I am 36 years old and not old enough to remember too much about pre-NES video games (Ms Pac Man, Frogger, Pole Position and Ka Boom! were the extent of my Atari 2600 knowledge). I just don't know much about the earliest hockey games. Which is fine, because it allows us to begin our journey in that magical year of 1988. Michael Dukakis paraded around in a tank, Alf was entertaining us with his Melmacian whimsy and the first large scale online-based computer virus (known then as “the worm”) was unleashed. But there was no reason to fret, because Bobby McFerrin was there to remind us “Don't Worry, Be Happy.”

Hey, driver! You missed a spot.
It was sometime in 1988 (near Thanksgiving if memory serves) that I wandered into a local K-Mart and, thanks to money from my dear since-departed Bub (that's my Grandmother for you whose families abandoned the vernacular of the old country once they hit Ellis Island) and purchased “Ice Hockey” for the NES. I enjoyed hockey. I enjoyed video games. So it seemed like a natural fit. What a revelation.

Over the next few years, I spent countless hours working on the perfect line combinations of skinny guy, average guy, and fat guy that would give me the ultimate edge in 8-bit hockey glory. To this day, players still hold on to which combination is best, a testament akin to Coke vs Pepsi or Apple vs PC.

"I call USA!"

Why are hockey video games so much fun? Fun to the point that we would dedicate an entire multi-part article to something of an oral history of the them? Fun to the point that people buy game systems just so they can have the latest hockey games? Is there some tangible finite explanation (for example hockey is awesome and video games are awesome so hockey games are incredibly awesome / the same way chocolate is awesome and so is peanut butter, so things like Reese's Peanut Butter cups are the candy of the Gods?).

Even Hollywood has immortalized them in their own way. NHL 94 was featured in “Swingers,” NHL All Star Hockey in “Mallrats.” I'll cover that famous "Mallrats" scene in my next installment.

I did manage to miss out on some fun by never owning Blades of Steel for the NES. Apparently, I was having too much fun alternating between thin guys, average guys and fat guys.

Le "Meh"nifique
That means 1991 would be the next crucial year of evolution, especially if you grew up in Pittsburgh. Just a few short months after the Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time, the Sega Genesis released two competing hockey games: EA Sports NHL Hockey and Sega Sports Mario Lemieux Hockey. Being a proud Yinzer, I opted for the latter on my Christmas list. Despite the goofy pink, charcoal and teal uniforms the teams graced, Mario Lemieux Hockey had a charm that made it stand out from its technically superior competition. The cartoony graphics, the organist, and the then ahead-of-its-time level of customization made the game a complete blast, evidenced by the fact that the engine was used in other games in other formats, such as the ill-fated Atari Lynx.

X-Axis Fight Fest!!!!!
After a fun year of distraction, the real juggernaut would begin.

EA followed up with NHLPA 93, losing the NHL license but teaming with the player's union to add all the real players. Ah, the unmatched excitement of seeing Phil Housley's name on the screen as you slipped one past Tim Cheveldae to go ahead in the 3rd.

This coincided with ESPN bringing the NHL games to a national audience for the first time in years. In the days before internet, it was awesome to see these funky guys with funky European names on tv then play as them on your Sega Genesis.

Without the NHL team license, each team was represented only by their city name. That's fine unless you're an Islanders fan. With two New York teams, somehow the team who won 4 straight Cups only a decade earlier lost out to the Rangers who spent the better part of 5 decades with only “hey, we're an Original Six” to hang their hats. So, if you were an Isles fan, you spent a year playing as a blue and orange team called Long Island. In a similar situation, Madden games from that era have green guys, who we assume are the "J-E-T-S JETS! JETS! JETS!," that are referred to as New Jersey. Add the ability to make a player's head bleed, and NHLPA '93 made for a pretty good installment.

From that point on, we'd see a lot of competition for the better part of a decade. Complete with players and teams, as well as the overdue addition of the one-timer, NHL '94 is still remembered fondly by fans of the genre. NHL 14 even features an NHL 94 mode and there are online leagues playing various emulations and hacks of that game. Of course, at the time, that release faced off against the revolutionary - or headache inducing depending on your perspective - NHL Stanley Cup for Super NES. The game was played in a constantly rotating 360 degree 16-bit environment. It wasn't without its charm.

Join me next time, in a few short weeks, when we tackle the mid 1990's through the beginning of the 21st century, when hockey games - and lots of video games for that matter - became as much about flashy full motion video and licensed soundtracks as they were about content.

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