Pixels and pucks: a history of hockey video games

Matt Larkin
NHL 94 image

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.”

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What’s new in NHL 15? It’s a matter of physics

Matt Larkin
NHL15

Sometimes, it’s OK to enjoy the sizzle more than the steak.

If you’re a diehard hockey video gamer, you know it’s good to temper expectations when a game debuts on a new console. An entirely new generation means new bugs to work out. It’s thus not fair to compare NHL 15, the first release on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, to the final couple releases on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Chances are, there will be some kinks to work out between NHL 15 and NHL 16. Some 13-year-old kid will discover a glitch goal and annihilate the online competition. Much fuss has been made over the lack of game modes in this year’s edition, too.

But when EA Sports officially launched its newest game at the Mastercard Centre outside Toronto on Thursday, there was no point nitpicking. It’s too early for that. Instead, it was a day for wide-eyed appreciation at the latest leaps the game has made. There are many, and most of them relate to the look and feel.

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Brad Marchand sings, Patrice Bergeron recites poetry for NHL 15

Rory Boylen
Patrice Bergeron

At the NHL Awards, Patrice Bergeron was announced as the winner of the EA cover vote and now he’s reciting poetry for the game he’s representing.

With the release of NHL 15 around the corner, the marketing for it is in full gear. Today, EA released two video promotions for the game. In one, Bergeron snaps romantic poetry and in another, teammate Brad Marchand sings about his love for the game.

Both are pretty funny. Bravo. Read more

NHL 15 has no GM Connected or EASHL mode on Xbox One, PS4

Matt Larkin
Oshie15

We’re just weeks away from the NHL 15 launch date, Sept. 9. Early teaser videos have whetted many diehard gamer appetites, as has talk of new game physics and recently released overhead footage.

The gameplay in the new next-generation console clips (Xbox One, PlayStation 4), looked crisp and shiny, but surprisingly similar to that of previous versions, especially in how goals were scored, as my colleague Rory Boylen noticed. The pressure is on to deliver a major upgrade in the hockey gaming experience – especially in light of a disappointing announcement this week.

EA Sports released its NHL 15 game modes for the next-gen consoles. Excluded from them are popular EA Sports Hockey League mode, or EASHL, and GM Connected mode. Both will still appear on Xbox 360 and the PS3. The key hook of both: they allow teams of six humans (five skaters and one person controlling the goalie manually like a maniac) to battle other teams of six humans in a fully functioning, take-over-your-life experience. We’re talking leagues, schedules, and even skill-based promotions and relegations like you’d find in your local beer league. In GM Connected, 30 different people can run 30 different franchises. It means giving up your job and love life but, still, it’s friggin’ hardcore.

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NHL 15 releases overhead game play footage – what do you think?

Rory Boylen
NHL 15

We’ve been tracking the information released about EA’s NHL 15, which is coming up for release in a little less than a month. All the while, we’ve been asking to get an idea of how the game actually plays. The ratings, the graphics and the neat little gimmicks like fans with face paint are nice and everything, but the meat of this game comes on the ice.

EA has released two videos showing an overhead view of actual game play. They include game introductions, which have live action Doc Emrick and Ed Olczyk inside the virtual arena. It will probably be a part of the game people push through after a couple weeks, but I wonder how the intros hold up over a season or career. Read more

Latest trailer from EA’s NHL 15, plus who’s missing from the top 50 player list?

Rory Boylen
Jarome Iginla

We’re less than a month away from EA’s Sept. 9 release date for NHL 15. Yesterday, the company released another trailer that will get the hardcore NHL gamers excited.

And while it looks incredible and cool and everything great, we’re still mostly in the dark about the actual game play. What was done about cheap, glitch goals that happened with great regularity? Won’t a superstar skill stick make it worse? Offline, if you outgrow a difficulty setting, can you move up to the next one without finding it impossible to score at all? The physics are supposedly different, but how meaningful are this year’s upgrades actually? Or is EA just adding some makeup?

Check out the latest trailer that shows some pretty cool fan animations – which are ultimately meaningless – plus some hits and goals. (A Kings player flattens San Jose’s Patrick Marleau, which is fitting.) Read more

NHL 15 promises dangles galore with Superstar Skill Stick

Matt Larkin
NHL 15

If you’re a hardcore fan of EA Sports’ NHL video game series, you remember the transition from button deking to joystick deking vividly. It was like taking the training wheels off. It felt weird and wobbly at first, but once you got the hang of it, there was nothing holding you back anymore.

The Skill Stick, popularized in NHL 07, turned the right analog portion of a controller into your hockey stick, with the left analog functioning as your body. You could deke and improvise like never before. You could shame your friends by undressing their goalies on breakaways and there was a new degree of “ownership” to your goals, as they reflected your ability to maneuver the stick.

Flash forward to the upcoming NHL 15, which launches on PlayStation 4 and XBox One Sept. 9 (Xbox 360 and PS3 as well, but the hype is all about how the game will look in a new generation of consoles). Early footage of the game suggests new leaps in graphics, facial detail, hitting and general gameplay. The latest teaser trailer unveils the Superstar Skill Stick, which takes dangling to a whole new level. Check it out:

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