In sports video gaming every sport has their “leap” game, where a title comes along and takes that particular sports’ gaming experience to a new level. Tecmo Super Bowl for the NES was the first football game to do so, with Madden ’95 being the subsequent leap in football gaming. Baseball was the easiest of the main sports to translate to video gaming, and after many years of similar game play and style, World Series Baseball took things up a notch. NBA Live ’95 is the biggest leap in sports gaming history, but it took until the mid ’90s for a basketball game to really evolve. Where hockey had fun arcade experiences in the 8-bit era, the dawn of EA’s professional hockey juggernaut was the catalyst for what has spanned 20+ years. In getting it all started, NHL Hockey and EA Hockey for the Sega Genesis and (Sega) Mega Drive, respectively, were out of this world compared to the other hockey games in the early nineties and set the tone for the franchise with great 16-bit sprites and memorable game play.
With the 1991 game, EA secured a license from the NHL, who conspicuously sat out the 8-bit era to that point (Pro Sport Hockey for the NES only had the player license), to use their team’s likenesses. All the teams from the time are in the game, including the now-retro Hartford Whalers, Minnesota North Stars and Quebec Nordiques. There was no player license for the original NHL Hockey (it would come the following year) so you just have the real player’s numbers to designate them. With the focus on new hockey game play, features like stats and rosters were tabled until later games. There are no player stats or lineup changes in the game, except for the ability to change your goalie. When your team scores, you don’t even get to see who made the goal or assisted on the play.
NHL Hockey would have a modest number of features and room to grow in certain areas, but the game still hit the ice with an experience that is fun to play today. NHL Hockey had a number of game modes including the ability to play a one-game or seven-game playoff tournament with the team of your choosing, the never-used demo mode, as well as your standard exhibition game (dubbed regular season, but at least you could select your CPU opponent). The controls were intuitive in using mostly the “B” and “C” buttons (except to hook on defense with “A”) and while one-timers would be introduced two years later, the game doesn’t suffer from a lack of ways to score or move the puck on offense. In addition to the fast-skating game play, NHL Hockey had line changes, penalties (including offsides) and EA also introduced a very easy to use instant replay system (A big first in sports gaming history). But to top their earliest hockey effort off, one of the biggest highlights of the game is the fighting. I don’t mean a sporadic scuffle here and there either, fights happen more frequently than at a Kardashian family gathering. In addition to duking it out at random times in the period, you can drop the gloves after a goal, after a penalty or even after the whistle has blown to signify the end of a period. One of my favorite experiences was slashing someone as Wayne Gretzky after an offside penalty is called and play stopped, only to have a fight immediately break out and have poor Wayne flattened with one punch. All of this was developed in 1991! Fights were emphasized so much that a counter of “Fights Won” is a part of the very vanilla team stats available during a game.
While NHL Hockey was the title for the North American release, EA did not use the NHL license for their game in Europe on the Mega Drive, instead opting for a game with International teams. This title was dubbed EA Hockey and the engine and game features are naturally the same as NHL Hockey. Given the early release in the system’s history, there is fortunately no lockout chip so the game plays on any NTSC Sega machine and collectors from around the globe can enjoy an instruction manual in six different languages. While the countries may not all be notable hockey powers (Portugal, really?), you’ll certainly recognize some player numbers like Wayne Gretzky’s #99 on Team Canada. EA Hockey is a fun spin on the great NHL Hockey engine, and the disparity between the International teams’ talent is considerably larger than the NHL’s mix and can offer a fun challenge through a tournament. Rest assured, just like its counterpart in North America, fighting and penalty calls are out of control with how frequently they happen. All a part of the fun and mystique of the original NHL and EA Hockey.