Wednesday, August 25, 2010

NHL 94

I don't have too many inspired blog post topics waiting in the pipeline right now, so let's take a little trip down video game memory lane!

While many of you likely spent your adolescent years playing Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario Kart, or some other Super Mario game, I did not. Instead, I was too busy playing games like this one:

That's the game commonly known as "NHL 94". The version I played - the PC version - was simply called "NHL Hockey", but it's basically the same thing (apparently), and I'll be calling it "NHL 94" in this post since that's the more common name for it. NHL 94 is commonly considered to be one of the best sports video games of all time. Of course, I didn't know that at the time; I just thought the game was a lot fun. So much so, that last weekend - which was a rather boring weekend, I should note - I decided I wanted to play it again, or old time's sake. I found a downloadable copy here and a DOS emulator here, and before you knew it, I was reliving the glory days of the Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets. Yeah!

We all get that nostalgic feeling once in a while, right? In this case, I wanted to back in time to when a tie was just a tie, there was still such a thing as a two-line pass, there were eight Canadian NHL teams instead of six, and the Buffalo Sabres logo didn't look like a slug. Those were the days... Well, sort of. There's a lot to like about the current state of hockey, too. I like having NHL teams in North Carolina and Florida, I never really cared for the two-line pass, and I think a shootout is necessary evil, if nothing else because most people don't want to pay $75 to go to a sporting event only for it to end in a tie. But the Buffalo Sabres logo still looks like a slug, and that's unfortunate.

Playing NHL 94 again after so many years allowed me to gain a new perspective on what made it popular. Wikipedia attributes it to "(mostly) realistic and action-packed gameplay". Personally, I think that's only part of it. It's because the game was easy! But not too easy.

The game wouldn't be fun or popular if it was easy right out of the box. But once you figure out all of the "fluke" ways you can score (e.g. one-timers), you'll completely dominate. It's like a puzzle! But since success didn't come easy at first (at least not for me), you'll get the feeling that you're winning not because the game is easy, but because you "earned" it. I think that's very gratifying for a lot of people, and it's a good formula for a successful sports video game. Struggle at first, figure out how to "beat" the game, then reap the rewards! Then, if EA Sports has their way, get bored with it and buy next year's version of the game, which will have a brand new set of "fluke" scoring methods to figure out.

In this case, the rewards are winning games 25-0 and having your best player score over 200 goals in one season. Most people would get bored winning by that much in every game after a while - unlike modern sports games, this game had only one difficulty level - but not me! Scoring goals, hitting people, trying to get an "Abuse of Official" penalty just for the heck of it, and trying to score a goal with your goalie (it can be done, even without an empty net!) were still just as much fun after I solved the puzzle as it was when I barely won half my games. As it turns out, I didn't even "solve the puzzle" completely. One-timers were an effective enough scoring method, I didn't even need or use "the move". I didn't even know about it at the time. Of course, we would never tolerate these kinds of gameplay holes in today's video games. But back in the days of Tecmo Bowl and NHL 94, things were totally different.

It seems like a lot has changed in the world of hockey video games since NHL 94 came out, but has it really? Sure, the graphics and sound effects have improved drastically. (Although I must say, I am a big fan of the old school sound effects, especially the organ music.) And, now you can play 20 seasons as your favorite team instead of just one. But in most iterations of the EA Sports NHL series (as well as the 2K Sports NHL series) between then and now, the most effective scoring method is still the one-timer. That's fine with me, and actually, I prefer it that way. It just wouldn't feel right if I could consistently score some other way.

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