The Complete History of NHL Video Games

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Everyone has their favorite genre of video game. To some, it’s First Person Shooters where you’re give the ability to eviscerate a slew of enemies head on with an arsenal of unbelievable yet highly entertaining weapons. Or, maybe you’re an Adventure guy who prefers controlling a mega-breasted heroine through caverns and tombs blasting away at grave robbers. Or, and this is what’s important to this particular story, maybe you’re a Sports gamer. Specifically: Hockey.

Why Hockey? Well, it might not necessarily be the simplest of Sports video games, that distinction generally falls to baseball. But it isn’t exactly difficult, either. As long as you can pass, you can typically (especially in today’s Next-Gen console games) knock a few One-Timers in to win. But these games weren’t always that straight forward. Well, they were definitely ‘simpler’, especially in terms of graphics and basic playability, but they weren’t difficult inasmuch as you were more or less controlling different colored ‘L’s lobbing a square randomly.

You’ll see what I mean, unless you remember fondly, as I do. In either case, let’s take a tour of the NHL through the years in Video Game form. Oh and a final note here. Toward the crescendo of the list you might find I left off a few incarnations of the games. I did this basically because there were no vast or overly important changes made from the previous outing. I apologize if the particular game I omitted was your favorite, I’m sure I’ll hear about it. Oh, and low and behold I have! Who’d have guessed. Anyway, I promised I’d mention a few I left off due to their not having changed too much between releases, and those ones would have been much of the 2K series between 3 and 9. Also, tho I did mention the Blitz series, there was a few Blitz Pro games I didn’t include. I sure hope this makes many of you relax a little.

1979

Hockey!/Soccer!
Magnavox Odyssey 2

This is the one system and game I don’t recall at all. I was 5 and it’s possible my dad bought this system, but since it was relatively pricey, I kinda doubt it. At any rate, this marked the first in video game hockey.

1980

NHL Hockey
Intellivision

This one I remember fondly. My grandpa was awarded an Intellivision system through Upjohn where he was a head salesman. The point is, it came with a slew of games including this silly mess. But as silly as it was, for 1980 it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

1981

Ice Hockey
Atari 2600

The very first video game system I personally owned. Christmas present. We had only four games when we first acquired it, and since we were such big hockey fans, this game was one of them. Not too shabby a transition in my opinion. But they had a long way to go.

1986

Great Ice Hockey
Sega Master System

The Sega first hit stores not surprisingly, just seven months after the NES. I was much more of a Nintendo guy, but my buddy (far too well off for his own good) was given one of every system that hit the market, including this beauty. The hockey was a ton of fun and looked pretty darn good.

1987

Hat Trick
Atari 7800

This was the last system I owned before the slew of Nintendos that would occupy my time for years. It was easily Atari’s finest achievement and definitely its penultimate gasp in the video game world. Fun hockey with ‘eh’ grahics, but it was definitely better than the previous incarnations through Atari. Barely.

1988

Blades of Steel
NES

This is officially the first hockey game that not only looked like the real NHL, but also played better than any attempt before it. If you were a hockey fan with a Nintendo, Blades of Steel was a must have. Hours spent on this game; all of life’s other responsibilities succumbed to the power of B.O.S. This was the game all future hockey games would have to strive to be.

1988

Ice Hockey
NES

This game relied heavily on the look of Nintendo’s up and coming mascot, Mario. In fact, it easily could have been called “Mario and Luigi: Hockey”. But it was fun, faithful, and pretty exciting all the same.

1990

Slap Shot
Sega Master System

The game play itself was very similar to NES’ Blades of Steel, not to mention the way it looked. But what Slap Shot lacked in voice overs (“With the pass!”) it made up for in dynamic vignettes between periods.

1991

Wayne Gretzky Hockey
NES

This was the first fully endorsed NHL product, and the Great One lent his name. The playability was a little jerky since it did, in my opinion, take a step backward making the view overhead instead of on ice. It was fun, and seeing the little adverts scrolling under the big screen during halftimes and scored goals was a nice touch.

1991

Mario Lemieux Hockey
Sega

No surprise that once one famous hockey player gets in on the marketing, another can’t be too far behind. Welcome Mario Lemieux. Sega loved too try to One Up Nintendo, and with this hockey game they really did. The graphics were better, the play smoother, and it just felt more realistic.

1991

TV Sports Hockey
TurboGrafX 16

Ah the TurbografX 16… such a flash in the pan for home consoles, though it did pave the way for future Next Gen’s to come. As for the hockey game, there were mild hit-expelled grunts, a slight bit more realism, and, well, pretty damn inconsistent playability. But it was still a step in the right direction.

1991

NHL/EA Hockey
Megadrive

You might be a bit more familiar with the American version of the Megadrive’s name: Sega Genesis. This was Sega’s fourth generation home console and really gave Nintendo a run for its money and was Sega’s answer to the waning TurbografX 16. The game? Awesome looking ice, individually moving crowd, rather detailed players, and offensive hits! Now we’re talking!

1992

NHLPA Hockey ’93
SNES, Sega Gen.

The first hockey game made for Nintendo’s newest 16-bit system, the amazing Super Nintendo! Arguably Nintendo’s finest creation… Anyway, the game was, for the most part, nearly identical to the previous entry with a few noticeable improvements like more accurate shots.

1992

Hit The Ice
SNES, TurboGrafX 16, Sega Genesis, Nintendo Game Boy

The game marks the first hand-held hockey game that wasn’t just one of those little pre-animated Cracker Jack things. You could, and I did, get this for the Nintendo Game Boy and man was that worth it. Not necessarily a giant leap forward in terms of game play, but the angry, 3-a-side hockey players were pretty cool. Not to mention the litter the crowd was allowed to chuck on the ice.

1993

NHL Stanley Cup
SNES

Another amazing leap toward imitating the reality of the NHL, this game allowed the player to use all 26 teams at the time, including the two newest, Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, to duke it out for the Cup. The only real stipulation was the players didn’t have names (thanks to the lack of endorsement from the NHLPA), but numbers that corresponded to their actual person. Though fun, the constant rotating ice was a tad nauseating.

1993

Pro Sports Hockey
NES, SNES

Strangely, this game was nearly the opposite of the last: It had player’s names, but the teams were just the cities. For some odd reason they made this one for the rapidly fading NES as well. Okay, I kid, that system is forever in everyone’s hearts. Anyway, it looked not too different from Blades of Steel, really, just from a different perspective. Odd.

1993

Brett Hull Hockey
Sega Gen., SNES

I have to say, for the third incarnation into player-endorsed hockey games, Brett Hull’s is the best so far. With the inclusion of Al Michaels as the announcer and play-by-play commentator, they really were on to something here. Sure he only called numbers and used basic ice locations in his color commentating, it was still the forerunner to what we have now.

1993

NHL Hockey ’94
SNES, Sega Gen., Sega CD, DOS

Vertical game play, full NHL and NHLPA endorsement, impressive realism… it’s all there. This is the third in the NHL series and quite possibly the Gold Standard even by today’s amazingly realistic games. Many people even choose this over the newer ones thanks in part to its fun and enjoyment.

1994

ESPN National Hockey Night
SNES, Sega Gen.

One of the tougher entries in the genre, not to mention the nostalgic feel of the old days when ESPN aired hockey. This one tends to make people long for the penultimate days of the Nordiques and the Whale…

1994

NHL ’95
SNES, Sega Gen., Game Boy, Game Gear

Big improvements here. For the first time, a complete season could be played, and players could be created, traded, signed, and released. Fortunately (or less so, depending on how you look at it) the AI goalie was often unable to block across-the-crease shots, yet a player-controlled goalie could deflect nearly everything. This version is widely considered the best NHL game of all time.

1995

NHL 2 On 2 Open Ice Challenge
Playstation, Arcade, PC

This very different entry into the NHL video game genre is, at its most basic, NBA JAM for the ice. Your puck ignites when you start to ‘heat up’, you can literally knock the goalie and the net against the boards with a super slap shot… it’s a ball! There are only two players per side, not counting the goalie, and it’s a pretty fun little check fest. This also technically marks the first NHL game for the PSX.

1995

NHL 96
SNES, Sega Gen., PC

A step up from NHL 95, there were very few changes other than graphical improvements. However, there was the reintroduction of fighting! You could suffer both major and double minor penalties. That’s cool. Still, though, it felt a little like players were ‘bouncing’ off each other.

1995

NHL FaceOff
PSX

Quite the graphical improvement here. The uniforms are definitely more vibrant, the play feels a touch more ‘human’, and there were quite a few more options and, thankfully, the fighting still remains.

1996

NHL All-Star Hockey
Sega Saturn

Oh joy, the Sega Saturn. A relatively short life of six years here in America, it still managed to spawn a pretty decent NHL game. It looked excellent for a fourteen year-old game both graphically and playability wise. The announcers and color commentators were cool, and it all just felt real.

1996

NHL PowerPlay ’96
Sega Saturn, PSX, PC

Now we’re talking. This was a huge step forward in terms of realism on the ice. The players a quite a bit more fluidity and less ‘bounciness’, you really felt like you were in the game, and there was a far grittier feel to it, too. Definitely one of the very best entries in the list.

1996

NHL 97
SNES, PSX, Sega Genesis and Saturn, PC

As another year passed, so did the time of less dynamic graphics. This time around, at least for the two more powerful systems: the PSX and the Saturn, complete 3D and motion captured polygonal player images were used. And, for the first time in an EA hockey game many new international teams were added to the playability.

1996

NHL FaceOff 97
PSX

Not a whole lot in terms of major leaps forward. Having this particular game on the PSX definitely made for a more pretty hockey game over all and it certainly did inch closer to that more realistic feel that we know today. This game looks a bit like NHL 07 for the PSP.

1996

Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey
Nintendo 64

Depending on how you felt about the N-64′s standard of making everything that would have otherwise been sprites into full-on polygons was directly proportional to your love/hate relationship with this game. For me, it was pretty damn sweet. But I know folks who absolutely abhorred it and the N-64 as well. Blasphemers! This was the Golden Eye system, haters! Anyway, Gretzky continued on his path to endorsing fun hockey games.

1997

NHL 98
PSX, SNES, Sega Gen. and Saturn, PC

This time, besides slightly improved graphic sprites (still 2D renderings -for the final time- for Genesis and SNES), we’re given full National Teams. Yet, though this was an Olympic year, the rights to Nagano Hockey were not acquired. Definitely a fun game.

1997

NHL FaceOff 98
Sony PSX

Here we have quite the jump in realism from the players. They felt, and moved more like actual humans. The shot differentiation actually had different looks that didn’t all blend together, and the puck wasn’t this huge manhole cover. Definitely improvements in the right direction.

1997

NHL PowerPlay 98
PSX, PC

Every new edition sees improvements in one way or another. Here the players have a bit more dimension to them giving them a more personal presence.

1998

NHL 99
PSX, N-64, PC

Graphically, of course, it had made some very nice upgrades. However, and I do remember this fondly as I did and still do own this game and a PSX (somewhere…), it seemed slower and a bit more touchy. That aside, it was tons of fun to play and even score some cheap shots just as with most of the NHL games.

1999

NHL Championship 2000
PSX, PC

Improvement wise, definitely the announcers, music, and commentating. It’s nice to know that the basic soundtrack of the game took a turn for the better. As for the graphics and playability? Seemed maybe a bit less cluttered, but all in all, no great shakes.

1999

NHL 2000
PSX, Game Boy Color, PC

This time around we get the genius Bill Clement in the commentating booth, so that’s something. There was a tournament round-robin style of play added as well as the newly minted Atlanta Thrashers. Beyond that, pretty much the same. NHL 01 didn’t change much, either. Oh, and GameBoy Color!

2000

NHL Rock the Rink!
PSX

This was… hockey-ish. Teams of three-on-three face off on made-up squads and have a specific time limit with the puck in order to score. Yeah, I never played it but, according to the video, it looks pretty cool.

2001

NHL 2002
PS2, XBOX, GameBoy Advance, PC

Little bit of trivia here… well, aside from the fact that this is the first hockey game for the next gen consoles of the PS2 and the XBOX. Anyway, Bill Clement was replaced by the far funnier Don Taylor and, this is interesting, the original image in the opening (the World Trade Center) was replaced by the Statue of Liberty after the September 11th incident. The game itself was fun. Faster.

2001

NHL Hitz 20-02
PS2, XBOX, Nintendo Gamecube

Now THIS is a hockey game! Well aside from the fact that there’re really no rules -especially those found in the real world NHL- and it felt like an arcade game, this was fantastic and very different. You could clock your opponent, trip, shove, you name it. And much like its NBA JAM-style of play, you’d set the net aflame wen you launched a killer slap shot. Lots of fun.

2002

NHL 2K2
Sega Dreamcast

Believe it or not, this was the last game ever made for the Sega Dreamcast. Look either you loved this system or you hated it. Apparently enough folks decried it that Sega made no system after this and sold its rights to everyone else. Anyway, this game had amazing graphics -as did the whole for the Dreamcast- but they did tend to make the players look slightly ‘plastic’. The play was very fluid with far better ice reflections and a warn surface after a period, too!

2003

NHL Rivals 2004
XBOX

It appears that a crescendo of realism has finally been reached for the last generation consoles before the XBOX 360, Wii, and PS3 would arrive in homes. The game looks great, plays amazingly, and offers up all the goodies we’ve come to expect in an NHL game.

2004

NHL 2005
PS2, XBOX, Gamecube, PC

Finally, we’ve come to the super special ‘Open Ice Control’ where you are able to move your player around without the puck! Huzzah! Also, for the first time, a World Cup mode where you can play God and build a player from the bottom up! You could also use international jerseys and colors as well as recently defunct and changed team logos! Sick! Now, here’s where I decided not to include video of the next two ’06 and ’07 as there was little in the way of additional improvements other than graphically and better dekes.

2006

NHL 07
Sony PlayStation Portable

I am including this game for several reasons. First off, it is one of only three hockey games available for the PSP which in and of itself is a crime. Fortunately, it is far better than the other two Gretzky-sponsored offerings and plays exactly like a console version. Graphically it is amazing with full player animations, audience individuality, and a ton of options allowing you to play a game just about any way you want. For the PSP, an amazingly powerful handheld, I feel it’s time to drop another NHL game maybe for ’11… anyone?

2008-10

NHL 08, 09, 10
PS2-3, XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, PC

I’ve included the past three incarnations into this last entry since, visually, they’ve improved as well as one could expect for the advancements of the newest next-gen consoles. Play-wise, new stick movements and controls have been added where the right hand thumb stick controls the shots, or, if you refer, you can adjust it to ’94 style and play with just the buttons. The uniforms look far nicer and some versions even offer various styles. Eventually I can see the home user controlling a real human… it’ll take over the world!

Editors Note : Listen to Stew and the boys discuss this article on our podcast, The Gunaxin Show.

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