For hockey fans who also happen to be gamers, the release of the annual update to EA’s NHL series is a must buy, or at the very least it used to be. While no one is going to deny that the quality is still there, buying each and every iteration becomes redundant past the necessary roster update. To EA’s credit, they do try and manage to find something new to add with each passing year, but some of these new features are less memorable than others. One year might bring a slight improvement to the checking physics, while the next one will make the presentation truer to what you would see on TV.
After over 20 years of steady releases, a long-time buyer can start to suffer from NHL fatigue. As a fan of the series, but a fan of hockey first and foremost, I have often strayed from the path. While not every hockey game released can match the polish of a series which has been in continuous development for over two decades, a lot of them manage to stand out by focusing on something different. The following offers a little bit of everything for the hockey gamer who wishes to vary his experience: Some of these games showcase exciting arcade-style gameplay, while others go even further in the management aspect of the sport. There’s even a few titles which predate the NHL series by a few years. But the one thing these games all have in common is that they will keep you playing your favourite sport even once all the ice has melted outside.
15 Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey (N64)
As the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky has been asked to put his name on a video game more than once. His NES outing was entirely forgettable if not entirely unplayable, but his Super NES game certainly was an improvement with big sprites and fast gameplay. It wasn’t until the Nintendo 64 however that Wayne Gretzky’s virtual presence achieved its final form. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey shed any semblance of realism in favour of outrageous body checks and pucks that can make the net catch on fire, and it’s all the better for it.
An arcade game first and foremost, 3D Hockey uses gigantic faceless players to great effect, placing them on a rink much smaller than what you would see on TV to maximize speed and impact. Opposing players will back flip out of their skates at the slightest touch and any provocation will result in a fight. The fighting does not interrupt the game for long, and is just as fun as the actual hockey part. If NBA Jam ever went full 3D and started skating, you would end up with this game. The only negative: The announcer will repeat himself as often as the one in NBA Jam, but his lines are only half as clever.
14 Mario Lemieux Hockey (Genesis)
Mario Lemieux was Gretzky’s contemporary and rival, so it’s only natural that he also had his own hockey game and that it was released on a competing console. Released on the same year as EA’s first NHL effort, Mario Lemieux Hockey offered a bigger emphasis on realism, such as penalties, fighting, and a faceoff mini-game, at a time when the NHL series was still faster paced. The biggest difference however was the view of the action, with the rink in Mario Lemieux being place horizontally compared to the more traditional vertical angle that most games display.
Gameplay-wise, Mario Lemieux Hockey played like an updated version of Blades of Steel. The sprites were more detailed, the action was more realistic, but the controls and flow of the game were very similar. Even the arrow behind the goaltender, supposed to help you get in place to stop the shots, was back from Konami’s hit title. If you still own a Genesis and you are looking for some ice time, this is an interesting diversion from the usual, and since the game can be bought for five dollars these days, it’s definitely worth a try.
13 Blades of Steel (NES)
Speaking of Blades of Steel, there is a reason why the original is still one of the most revered hockey games of all time. Released on the NES by Konami in 1988, it has endured through the years as a popular choice for nostalgic hockey players. Compared to many of its contemporaries, it offered a faster paced approach to hockey, but it’s the technological advancements which left a lasting impression.
The players on the ice were gigantic for their time and each action would result in a satisfying quote in the form of digitized speech from the announcer. Most of it was completely unintelligible, but figuring out what he was saying was half the fun. More importantly, Blades of Steel was one of the first to depict the fighting part of hockey in such an exciting way, and the shootouts were as much psychological warfare as they were skill contests. To this day, it still stands as a simpler but fun version of the game of hockey, and it is well worth a revisit.
12 Street Hockey 95 (SNES)
And now for something completely different, Street Hockey 95 tried to capitalize on the fad of roller hockey which was sweeping the continent at the time. Very much unlike any of the other games on this list, it featured no known players or team, instead focusing on digitized actors in the style of Mortal Kombat. These characters have names and personalities which personify the 90s tendency to give everyone and everything an attitude, and were probably at the time referred to as “radical.” There’s the guy with the plaid shirt hanging around his waist and the neon spandex-covered ninja. They’re a cool-looking bunch. The games are played on a variety of surfaces all of which are not really suited for hockey, such as the bottom of an empty pool or a construction site. It’s very comical in its interpretation of the sport.
While the controls are a bit stiff, the game is still impressive because of the details of the digitized characters. The animations are smooth and really fit with the kind of atmosphere the developers were going for. While it is not the best game on this list, it is definitely one of the most refreshing.
11 NHL Stanley Cup (SNES)
Most hockey games of the 90s offered a scrolling view of the action, trying to fit as many players on the screen at the same time as possible. NHL Stanley Cup aimed to be different, and its bombastic ad campaign focused on its incredible Mode 7 graphics and its feeling of immersion, supposed to be like nothing else before. For better or worse, it delivered on everything it promised and the result is a game which is inadvertently comical, frenzied, but which must be enjoyed in small doses. To the game’s credit, I still haven’t seen anything else like it to this day.
NHL Stanley Cup chooses to focus on the player in possession of the puck, and follows him in a third-person perspective. Every pass or turnover changes the focus to a new player and the camera frantically tries to follow the action. Needless to say, there’s a lot of spinning, thus a lot of dizziness, but the game redeems itself with its 2-players mode. Because the camera focuses on one player at a time, whoever is not currently controlling the puck appears as an arrow pointing off-screen. With enough skills, that player can reappear on screen at the speed of light for a bone-crunching body check, sending the adversary flying out of the frame. It’s jarring, unexpected, and it never fails to make players laugh. NHL Stanley Cup is still able to keep modern players interested with its shenanigans.
10 Mario Sports Mix (Wii)
Mario and his gang have been playing every sport under the sun, so it’s no surprise that they would lace up their skates and take it to the ice someday. Mario Sports Mix might not be a dedicated hockey game, but its take on the sport is everything you have come to expect from a Mario sports title: it is simple yet charming, and endlessly replayable.
The puck here is replaced by a coin, but everything else is still more or less what it should be. Sure, the game includes Mario’s trademark items for a little bit of mayhem, but the slap shots, the passes, and even the checking are all part of the proceedings. There’s something weird but very satisfying about sending a Toad crashing to the ice, and if that isn’t enough, the stick itself can be used as a weapon to whack your opponent out of the way. Needless to say, there are no penalties here. As a single-player game, it’s a bit shallow, but as a party game, it’s perfect for those hockey fans that also enjoy Super Mario Kart.
9 Ice Hockey (NES)
Ice Hockey is one of those rare sports games which could still please non-sports fans. Its addictive gameplay was simple enough to understand without an instruction manual and its comical depiction of hockey was memorable in many ways. Most gamers who are old enough will remember composing their own squad, choosing between the average, skinny or fat players to fill up their rosters. For the record, the correct team was composed of all fat players with a single skinny one for scoring purposes.
A lot of Nintendo’s early sports games, such as the appropriately named Baseball and Tennis, did not age gracefully. Ice Hockey goes past the limits of its technology by discarding realism in favour of frantic gameplay. The action barely ever stops, even for goals, and fights up the stakes by making the loser be the only one to get a penalty. Most games are extremely high-scoring and the goaltending is loose enough that even beginners will be able to get a few goals in. It’s the perfect game for a retro night with fans and non-fans alike.
8 Eastside Hockey Manager (PC)
For those who prefer the Franchise Mode of NHL 17 to playing the actual games, there’s a series out there which has been going on infrequently for a while now. Eastside Hockey Manager released its latest version in 2015 after a hiatus of eight years and it is as detailed as ever. In EHM, you will not play a single game of hockey. Instead, you will take care of every other aspect of the game, from scouting and drafting players, to setting tickets and hot-dogs prices, to making your lines and practicing them. It’s hockey’s answer to the insanely popular Football Manager and features the same attention to details.
The only downside of Eastside Hockey Manager is that it does not feature any licences from real professional leagues. However, because of the game’s popularity, it’s easy to find mods and players packs which update the rosters and the leagues to feature the NHL, the KHL, and even junior leagues. For the more statistically minded gamers, EHM is even better than EA’s NHL series.
7 Old Time Hockey (PC, PS4, XB1)
This is a game which is not even out yet, and still, the trailer and screenshots have me hyped as hell. Scheduled for an early 2017 release, Old Time Hockey is an arcade experience which drops you in the middle of the 70s, meaning no helmets, minimal padding, lots of fighting and plenty of blood. Completely devoid of online multiplayer components, it is supposed to focus on the couch multiplayer aspect, with up to four players being able to play against each other or cooperate in the game’s story mode.
The developers cite Blades of Steel as an influence, but their promises make it seem like they are going much further than Konami’s classic. The story mode is inspired by the landmark hockey flick Slap Shot!, putting you in charge of a small-time team in the middle of a losing season. Finally, showing that they really know their audience, the developers want to introduce something called “Beer Mode,” where the game can be played entirely with one hand: either the left or right analog stick with the shoulder buttons taking care of everything else. Your other hand will thus be free to hold the beverage of your choice, probably a Gatorade or something, right?
6 Crash ‘n The Boys: Ice Challenge (NES)
First of all, this one was released only in Japan, so you’re going to have to get creative if you want to get your hands on a copy. Originally released in 1992, the North American version was previewed in Nintendo Power magazine, but was cancelled before completion. It is a loose interpretation of hockey, being very creative with the rules, but the game stylized depiction of the sport can be right up some nostalgic gamers’ alley. That is because the game was developed by the same team that gave us River City Ransom and, thus, the characters are exactly the same.
Combining some beat ‘em up mechanics with its sports origins, Ice Challenge allows you to not only check your adversaries, but also punch them if you so choose. A story mode, playable by one or two players at the same time, provides every member of your team with different stats for categories such as power, speed and weight. It’s like an unofficial sequel to Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, if the violence was turned to 11. Certainly one of the most peculiar titles on this list, it probably would have achieved cult status had it been released outside of Japan.
5 NHL Hitz 20-02 (GameCube, Xbox, PS2)
This entry is for any of the three games from the NHL Hitz series. While the Pro version different slightly from the first two entries in that it featured 5-on-5 action instead of 3-on-3, it retains most of the features from the series: arcade-style gameplay which is fast and casual, along with hard-hitting plays and humorous teams. For example, you can play against a team composed of scary clowns and the match will take place in space.
Taking a page out of NFL Blitz, it concentrates on the hits and fast-paced gameplay. The regular games are fine, but I strongly suggest the game’s Franchise Mode, which allows you to create a team from the ground up, including a custom jersey, logo, and players. The players can be anything you want within the limits of the game, so you can place a snowman and pirate on a line with a horse, while your goaltender will be a literal shark. If you have a few hours to spare on a week-end, there’s a lot of fun to be had creating your own squad and taking them through the NHL alongside your friends.
4 Hit The Ice (Arcade, SNES, Genesis)
Originally an arcade game from 1990, Hit The Ice was later released on most 16-bits consoles and featured a minimalist, yet surrealist take on the sport. Each team only had two players and a goaltender, and the players did not skate as much as they tip-toed around the ice. Super slap shots can be attempted from anywhere around the ice. Sometimes, an octopus will make its way to the top of the boards and try to pull down your players’ pants.
The game’s character are huge, even by 16 bits standard. Because of that, every player in the game has a unique name and features, often caricaturing hockey stereotypes. Most players are ugly as sin, but with names such as Dicky Fontaine and Ben Dover, I don’t think subtlety was ever one of the developer’s concerns. A bit more leisurely in its pace than other games on this list, it is still worth your time if only because it basically cuts every rule out of the sport. The result is chaotic, but never boring.
3 Mutant League Hockey (Genesis)
Following in the steps of the popular Mutant League Football, this game turns hockey into a supernatural competition: robots, trolls and skeletons compose the teams and players can die during the game. Their bodies will stay on the surface, becoming obstacles until the Zamboni picks up everything in-between periods. Games take place in many different stadiums, ranging from regular ice to caves,and each arena has its own set of traps, including spikes and chainsaw. It’s pure mayhem, but the unpredictability of each game makes it easy for newcomers to get into it. It’s a more macabre version of Mario Kart, but for hockey.
The game’s main attraction is how creative it gets with hockey. Power-ups can be thrown on the ice by spectators, causing pucks to explode and create holes in the rink. You can also bribe the referee to call fake penalties on your adversaries or simply take him out if you are dissatisfied with his calls. Finally, I have to mention the great nicknames of the available teams, most of them a parody of actual NHL teams. For example, the Pittsburgh Penguins become the Pucksucker Pukes, while the Red Wings are the Dead Things.
2 NHL 2K series (PS2, XB360)
The NHL 2K games were the closest thing to a competitor EA had for a few years, until the series slowly withered away, a victim of its own success. Arguably reaching its pinnacle with the release of ESPN NHL 2K5, the series offered a presentation which was very close to what you would actually see on TV, along with a fun franchise mode which allowed fantasy drafts and other features which were not included in EA’s juggernaut. Most of all, it was the price which made gamers take notice, as the game was $19.99 on the day of its release, which most people would agree is a more reasonable price for a game which you basically have to buy again and again every year.
EA’s move to counter 2K was swift: they signed an exclusive deal with ESPN, stripping away the series’ trademark presentation. The subsequent games, such as NHL 2K6, were still good, but their sales number never matched their rival’s. The series was officially put on hiatus after the Wii-exclusive 2K11 version. These days, I would recommend the 2K5 and 2K6 version specifically for the fun franchise mode, but also for the engine, which will give NHL regulars a challenge as the goaltenders have a tendency to be stronger.
1 NHL Open Ice 2 on 2 Challenge (Arcade, PS1)
Released for arcades by Midway in 1995, Open Ice Challenge is a mythical game which took the NBA Jam formula and applied it to hockey. This isn’t “inspired” by NBA Jam, it’s the real thing, but with skates. The turbo button is there, and players can catch fire and the moves are outrageous. It was my favourite arcade game for a long time, but it was so rare that seeing it in the wild was almost unheard of, and on such momentous occasions, at least an hour had to be set aside for you never knew when you would see the machine again.
Open Ice Challenge was released almost a year later on PlayStation, finally bringing the action home. The graphics were slightly uglier, but everything was still there: the specialty shots, the superhuman speed and strength, and the frenzied action. To this day, I would argue that as a multiplayer experience, it is one of the most fun hockey games available. It might be a lot harder to get a copy now than it was then, but trust me when I say that it will be worth every dollar. If you are a hockey fan, or just a sports fan in general who still has fond memories of NBA Jam, you owe it to yourself to try Open Ice Challenge.