An objective comparison of two of the greatest hockey games ever made
You know, something just dawned upon me a few days ago. Did you know that “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” turns TWENTY YEARS OLD this year?
It seems almost impossible to accept that it’s been two decades since I first picked up the game for the Sega Genesis, but here it is. I have written extensively about why I love that game, so I really don’t think I need to give too in depth a back story here, but for those unfamiliar with the tile, here’s a super-brief intro.
“NHLPA Hockey ‘93” wasn’t the first great hockey game to be released. You had “Blades of Steel” and “Ice Hockey” on the NES years earlier, and the very first EA hockey game on the Genesis, simply entitled “NHLPA Hockey,” wasn’t too shabby either. That said, “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” is a noteworthy title for two reasons: first, it was probably the earliest TRUE sim-hockey game on the market, and secondly, I loved the game so much that it ultimately led to me becoming a fan of the real-life sport by extent. Clearly, “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” has had a massive level of import upon me, and in some ways, my generational culture. Even now, I periodically hear from fellow fans, and we’ll exchange stories like two war veterans or something. The significance of the game - as both a video game landmark AND a pop-cultural watershed - is pretty hard to overstate.
That said, many people think that the greatness of “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” was eclipsed by “NHL ‘94” - the next game in Electronic Arts’ series - just a year later. Although both games are equally revered and celebrated by video hockey fanatics, there’s been a great deal of debate as to which of the two is, objectively, the superior experience.
Now, if we’re making the decision based on any and all platform incarnations of the two games, I would most likely throw my support behind “NHL ‘94” on the Sega CD - a visually, aurally enhanced “port” of the Sega Genesis game that I not only consider to be the best video hockey game ever, but in my humble opinion, the single greatest video game EVER made.
But, to keep things a little more competitive, I decided to evaluate “NHL ‘94” and “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” as most of us originally experienced them, on the Sega Genesis. Now, I guess, would be a good time to remind everybody that, while both games DID in fact make it to the Super Nintendo, they were games DESIGNED BY ENTIRELY DIFFERENT developing houses than the Sega Genesis games. While both SNES games are pretty good (with “NHL ‘94” clearly the best hockey game to be found on that system), the games are graphically, musically and - definitely in regards to game play - inferior to either incarnation on the Genesis. Trust me - once you play the Genesis versions of the games, there is NO way in hell you’ll ever be able to go back and play the SNES iterations.
I figure that, after two decades, it’s been long enough to decide an objective winner here. If we were to declare ONE game king of 16-bit hockey, which one would it be: Jim Simmons’ “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” from 1992, or Mark Lesser, Doug Wike and High Score Productions’ “NHL ‘94” from 1993?
To determine a clear-cut victor, I decided to evaluate the games based on four criteria: visuals, audio, challenge and overall gameplay. Admittedly, it was a narrow decision, but at the end of the day, I reckon only ONE of them rightly deserves to be called the greatest hockey game of all time…
Of all the categories we could use to compare the two, I think this is the only one in which a clear cut winner is all but indisputable. “NHL ‘94” is simply the better looking game, with crisper sprites and smoother animation. That, and it’s nice to see pixelated ice that’s actually the same color as frozen water, too.
That’s not to say that the graphics in “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” are that inferior, of course. Although the visual update in “94” isn’t exactly a quantum leap in 16-bit technology, even the slight graphical overhaul in the “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” successor makes the game more realistic looking, with an overall color palette that seems to be sharper and more distinct than its predecessor.
The player animations and attention to detail, however, are what really makes “94” a superior experience, in terms of sheer visuals. The stick handling is more realistic and the goalies have more human-like dives than in “93” (where, most of the time, it looked like goaltenders were just making snow angels in front of the net.) That, and come on! Who doesn’t love watching shards of pixelated glass fly across the rink every time you check Doug Gilmour into the board?
ADVANTAGE: NHL ‘94
Whereas the graphical advantage between the two games is a pretty obvious call, deciding which of the titles has the better audio is a way, way tougher decision.
While it is true that “NHL 94” has more in-game music, I would actually give the tilt to the earlier game in regards to the chip tune organ music. That said, the sound effects in “94” are definitely a lot better than in “93,” so at the end of the day, I would have to call it an even keel between the two in terms of audio.
Really, I think this comes down to preference. Undoubtedly, the music in both games are among the greatest chip tune ditties ever recorded, so maybe it’s your mood that will ultimately dictate which game you feel has the better overall audio. If you’re looking for a more fluttery, upbeat soundtrack, I’d go with “94,” and if you’re looking for a more rock and roll oriented ass-kicker, I’d definitely go with “93.” Oh, and if you’ve never heard the theme song of “NHL ‘94” on the Sega CD version of the game before…oh, my, god, is it ever freaking awesome.
Ultimately, this one is just too close to call, and since the music in both games kick monumental amounts of ass, I really can’t say you can go wrong either way here.
For all intents and purposes, “NHL ‘94” is, overall, a less challenging experience than its predecessor. This is due largely to the addition of the one-timer, which makes it a little bit easier to score on face-offs, and ultimately, makes the game less dependent on breakaway and wraparound goals.
After playing both games for almost 20 years, I would have to say that the goaltending in “93” is a little less forgiving than in the latter game. For whatever reason, I think the random-dice-throw AI in “93” had a larger “stop-to-goal” ratio than “94,” which resulted in more defense-oriented, lower-scoring games. Granted, it’s not a huge gap in difficulty from the first game to the second, but it’s certainly a noticeable one, regardless.
And it is because of this difficulty curve that I still believe that, comprehensively, “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” is the better multiplayer experience. Without the explosive variable of the one-timer (which made games more exciting, to be sure), the one-on-one games were a tad more strategic, requiring more thinking and pre-planning (and line shifting) than in the follow-up. Games were more realistic, lower-scoring and more defense-oriented, which often turned games into a battle to see who slipped up first. As fun as a 11-12 score fest were in “NHL ‘94,” I would have to say that a thrilling, intense, grueling 1-0 triple overtime victory in “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” was, on the whole, a more riveting and enjoyable experience.
ADVANTAGE: NHLPA Hockey ‘93
And this, I suppose, is what it all comes down to. Having superior graphics, audio and total challenge are all boons, to be sure, but when it’s all said and done, what really matters is the extent and enjoyability of the gameplay. No doubt, this is a hard one to decide, but with everything taken into consideration, I suppose a comprehensive assessment would leave the title of “King of Sega Genesis Hockey” in the court of but one title.
As far as presentation goes, “NHL 94” has “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” beat handily. Not only does it have all of the official teams and logos, I think the game more accurately replicated the NHL experience - circa 1993, anyway. The vibe was just more captivating, and authentic feeling with so many little touches, like the Zamboni and the crowd animations and those ridiculously in-depth stat cards.
Clearly, if we’re reviewing these two games based on quantitative categories as opposed to qualitative ones, it’s glaringly apparent that “NHL 94” is the superior title. The game, simply put, just has more to offer than “NHLPA Hockey ‘93.” You have more teams, more animations, new control options and new multiplayer setups. The key variable here, of course, comes down to the sheer experience of the game itself - a notion that gives “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” some decisive leverage against its successor.
As before, I think “93” was a better multiplayer experience than “94,” because it was, generally, a more strategic, defense oriented game. In many ways, your preference here may come down to simply your tastes at the time - meaning, whether you want a faster paced, more offense oriented hockey game, or a slower-tempo, lower-scoring, more defense-centric one.
In terms of old-school video hockey simplicity, it is hard to top “NHLPA Hockey ‘93,” with its fist fights and Minnesota North Stars-containing goodness. As a sheer pick-up and play experience, I think “93” may be a mildly more enjoyable short-burst type of experience, while “94” - with its far superior season mode - is the one you want to go with if you’re seeking long term companionship.
With all of these factors combined, I would have to say that “NHL ‘94” just outdoes “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” in the gameplay department. While “93” is a more simplistic (albeit challenging) experience, all the new additions to “94” make it a more enjoyable experience as a solo-player title. There are so many changes to player controls (especially regarding goaltending movement) that it’s kind of hard to revert back to the no-frills style of gameplay you will find in “93” after playing “94” for awhile. Furthermore, I think the controls are a little bit more fluid in the later game, which makes it a less frustrating game by all accounts.
ADVANTAGE: NHL ‘94
At the end of the day, as an objective analyst, I would have to say that “NHL ‘94” on the Sega Genesis is a better overall game than “NHLPA Hockey ‘93” on the same system - although, as I have mentioned several times, it’s certainly not a vast discrepancy at all. As such, I would like to restate something I said while evaluating the gameplay of both titles, and that’s reiterate that your enjoyment of the games is really dependent on what sort of hockey game you want to play. If you’re all about the single-player experience, then I would go with “94,” and if you’re looking for a more competitive multiplayer experience, I’d go with “93”. If you like your video game hockey fast, high-scoring and offense-oriented, I’d go with “94”, and if you like it slower, more strategic and more defense-oriented, I’d go with “93.”
Hell, maybe the big “X-factor” here is whether you enjoy fisticuffs or making your opponents’ head explode instead. Really, there’s no such thing as a truly “inferior” title here, because both games kick so much ass individually that it’s a moot point. If you play “NHL ‘94,” you’re going to have an awesome time, and if you play “NHLPA Hockey ‘93,” you’re going to have an awesome time, too.
You can talk about objective greatness all you want, but at the end of the day, it’s our subjective tastes that ensure that we’ll be talking about - and playing - BOTH of these all-time classics for another 20 years to come.
And if you haven’t given either Genesis game a shot yet…what the hell are you waiting for, man?
In the mood for more Sega Genesis goodness?
Check out my countdown of the five greatest Genesis games American audiences NEVER got a chance to play RIGHT HERE!
BONUS SUPER HAPPY MEGA FUN TIME VIDEO FOOTAGE:
Celebrating 20 Years of "NHLPA Hockey '93" (by looking back on just how ridiculous video game packages were two decades ago!)
My super-duper, 100 percent without fail mega-guaranteed picks for this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs!