Hockey video games have made an incredible journey over the past three decades, from pixelated characters to the spitting images of real players, from mindless fun to managing a salary cap, from something little kids play to something NHL players compete to represent. THN delves into the world of consoles to unearth the nuts and bolts of every
landmark release and paradigm shift in how our great sport has appeared in game form.
THE 1980S: COLD, HARD STEEL
It is 1988. I am five years old. I kneel before a large Zenith television, encased in wood panelling, inches away from a black screen, brow furrowed in frustration. It worked yesterday. I thought Dad fixed it. I pop the hood of my Nintendo Entertainment System and yank out the cartridge. I stick my bowl-haircutted head against the console and blow inside of it until my lungs are empty. He said it was dust. I jam the game back inside, turn it on and hear the sounds I’ve giddily awaited. First the high-pitched SCHLING! Then the familiar, muffled voice: “Blades…of Steel.”
It brings Dad jogging into the room. We grab controllers, choose our teams and go head-to-head for three hours straight. He beats me 10 times in a row. I cry. His rapid puck movement reminds me of those Red Army guys he told me about. The game’s voice, which I swear has a hand covering it, haunts me: “HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS. HITS THE PASS.”
Mom, furious, tells Dad to let me win. “No way,” he says. “When he beats me for real, it’ll be that much better.” And he’s right.
Ice Hockey. The simplistic name implied its creator didn’t understand the material. You know who calls our sport “ice hockey”? People who don’t watch or play it.
It was thus not a huge surprise the Nintendo Entertainment System’s 1988 release Ice Hockey had four skaters per team, not five, and a few faceless nations to choose from. Colin Moriarty, senior editor for the juggernaut video game publication IGN and a classic games expert, describes it as one cog in NES’s nondescript sport series, which included such original titles as Golf and Baseball.
“The ice was a little bit more wide open and the game wasn’t a simulation at all as much as it was a very arcadey experience,” Moriarty says. “But it was still fun. It was still a classic game.”
Anyone who played Ice Hockey remembers it fondly for one fun feature. Among those gamers: Sean Ramjagsingh, producer of EA Sports’ NHL series, the pinnacle of modern hockey gaming.
“Nintendo hockey: the skinny guy, the fat guy and the medium guy,” he says. “Very basic game mechanics. The fat guy was strong and the skinny guy was quick and fast. That’s how it started. Back then it was figuring out the easiest way – the consoles weren’t anywhere close to what they are now – to get something that looked like hockey. That being a player moving on an ice surface, as opposed to all the other sports with running, and trying to make that as real as possible.”