Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Monday, April 20, 2020

A Tribute to the Non-EA Hockey Games of the Sega Genesis

A heartfelt celebration of the rink-related cartridges NOT featuring an Electronic Arts seal on them


By: Jimbo X

I’m gonna’ tell you something you should already know: that the Electronic Arts NHL games on the Sega Genesis were (and still are) fucking tremendous. 

OK, that’s not to say the series didn’t have some lulls in it. Pretty much everybody and their mothers still hate the dogshit out of NHL ‘95, and NHL ‘98 is just a piss-poor imitation of the REAL game EA  gave us on the PS1. But for the most part, it’s next to impossible to even TALK about the Sega Genesis without bringing up Electronic Art’s holy trinity of video hockey NHLPA Hockey ‘93, NHL ‘94 and NHL ‘96 (with Mutant League Hockey also getting its proper regards as an unofficial NHL series spinoff, so to speak.)

I’ve already gone on record saying NHL ‘94 is my all-time favorite game, period, but for some reason, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to justify to the unwashed masses out there who loathe sports video games. In the past, I’ve tried to explain how, unlike a game like Super Metroid or A Link to the Past or Final Fantasy III or any other critically-adored title of the like on the SNES, the titles in the NHL series are TOTALLY different every time you play them, with no two games every playing out identically. As good as Super Mario World or Chrono Trigger may be, the sprites still show up at the same places and the A.I. actions of your enemies never throw any new tricks at you each time you boot it up. You genuinely have no idea what to expect out of the computer playing NHLPA Hockey ‘93, though, and that’s doubly true when you take on a human competitor. The mechanics are so refined and so nuanced that you, realistically,could play the games forever and never truly master the title like you would those guys who speed-run through Castlevania and Mega Man. In that, the NHL games are more like chess or Othello than, say, Sonic the Hedgehog or Phantasy Star — the replayability, simply put, is just plain off the goddamn scale.

But you know, it’s WAY too facile for us to pimp and promote and hoist adulations and aplomb on the EA hockey series. By now, we all know how great ‘93, ‘94 and ‘96 are, and there’s not a whole lot more I can say to extol them properly. So rather than retrudge the same old ice as everybody else, I decided to celebrate this lugubriously Stanley Cup Playoffs-less spring with an ode to the lesser-known (and virtually unregarded) hockey titles on the Sega Genesis.

Granted, none of them are necessarily what I would consider “great” games by any stretch and to be fair, most of them are pretty mediocre, but hey, at least one or two of them are halfway decent, and that’s reason enough for me to conduct my retro research on the matter. And let’s face it — stuck here in the collective quarantine zone, it’s not like we have THAT many more important things to do with our lives than wax nostalgic on just kinda’ OK Genesis sports games, do we?


Brett Hull Hockey ‘95 (1995)
Developer: Radical Entertainment
Publisher: Accolade

Considering the nature of the sport, you really can only do so much to reinvent the proverbial wheel with video game hockey, and wisely, Accolade opted to only slightly tweak the tried-and-true blueprints here. With essentially the same mechanical set-up as EA’s NHL games, Brett Hull Hockey ‘95 on the Genesis switches things up a bit in two major ways. Number one, unlike the NHL games on the Genesis, BHH ‘95 actually has RUNNING audio commentary, and from Al “Do You Believe in Goddamn Miracles?” Michaels, no less. Secondly, the default camera for the game is locked at this slightly off-kilter, halfway-horizontal angle so that it more closely resembles the normal televised product we’re used to seeing outta’ the NHL. It takes a while to get used to, but after a couple of exhibition games, you’ll have the fundamentals down fairly well. Gameplay-wise, it doesn’t feel as slick and intuitive as the NHL series, and the game modes aren’t terribly robust. Even worse, the game lacks a proper NHL license, so all of the uniforms and logos are just generic as fuck. Still, it’s a respectable little ice-burner that’s worth taking a gander at if you’re a hardcore enough hockey-head. And it’s way better than the version that got released on the Super Nintendo, which looks, sounds and plays like a really, really watered down version of NHLPA Hockey ‘93 — and with FAR clunkier controls, to boot. 


ESPN National Hockey Night (1994)
Developer: Stormfront Studios
Publisher: Sony Imagesoft

This one is kinda’ the inverse of Brett Hull Hockey — while the game does have all of the official NHL team names and iconography, it doesn’t feature the names or likenesses of any real-life NHL players. Probably the most interesting thing about this game (outside, of course, the stunningly crisp introduction by a fully digitalized Bill “Hands of Cement” Clement) is the ability to play the title from either the Blades of Steel horizontal POV or switch things up to the tried-and-true, vertically-stretched EA-vision perspective. Alas, while the presentation is very good (complete with graphics that, from an objective standpoint, clearly outdo those of the NHL games on the system), the Achilles heel for the title is a very sluggish pace. Even the iffy controls and awkward collision detection might have been given a pass if it wasn’t for how goddamn slow the game feels — it legitimately takes you a good 10 seconds to skate from one end of the rink to another in this fucker. Throw in the brazen lack of game modes (yeah, you’re pretty much left to make do with only an exhibition feature, I’m afraid) and you have one ho-hum hockey title that’s really skimping out on you. In case you were wondering, the game looks, sounds and plays pretty similar to the SNES iteration of the game, which — somehow, someway — is even slower than this incarnation! If you just have to play ESPN National Hockey Night, I’d recommend scoping out the Sega CD version; it’s not that much faster than the molasses glow Genesis title, but at least it has moderately better animations and sharper organ music during the faceoffs.


Hit The Ice (1992)
Developer: Aisystem Tokyo
Publisher: Taito

This two-year-late coin-op  port doesn’t offer much in the way of longevity or depth, but at least unlike so many other arcade sports titles from the 16-bit era, it at least TRIED to increase its shelf life with a full-fledged “season” mode, even if there’s no discernible differences between the playing styles of the Skyblues or the Yellows whatsoever. Alas, while Hit The Ice may not have the mechanical nuance that NHL ‘94 has, it does have quite a few things going for it in the style department. I guess you could call HTI the hockey analogue to Arch Rivals, a super-simplistic scorefest in which you control two players (plus a goalie) and take turns one-timering each other into submission. Of course, being a hyper-violent, licenseless arcade title from the early ‘90s, this thing is just glutted with all sorts of cartoony mayhem, running the gamut from breakaway shots that LITERALLY explode the goaltending net to special uppercut attacks that literally send the opposing player’s helmet flying towards Saskatoon. Hell, every now and then you’ll see obstacles scattered on the ice, including live octopi and what appears to be a half-eaten sandwich (isn’t that what they throw on the rink during the playoffs in New Jersey, by the way?) Yes, it’s very much a one-note game if there ever was one, but the core gameplay is pretty fun and I think you might enjoy the two-player mode a lot more than you’d imagine. Still, it doesn’t have that much replayability going for it, and holy hell, the music is just balls-out terrible. That said, it’s nonetheless a superior port to the one released on the SNES — the music may have been better, but hot Jesus on a crucifix, was the gameplay in that one slower than a tax refund.


Mario Lemieux Hockey (1991)
Developer: Alpine Studios
Publisher: Sega

This game came out in the pre-Sonic epoch of the Genesis, where Sega thought the best way to topple King Nintendo was by spending millions of dollars to sign star athletes like Joe Montana and James “Buster” Douglas to their ranks. Obviously trying to cash in on the Pittsburgh Penguins-mania of the primordial 1990s, Mario Lemieux Hockey is a halfway decent arcade hockey game that plays kinda-sorta-but-not-really like a cross between Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey. Alas, MLH has a LOT of strikes against it, beginning with the downright awful graphics and music. Really, this game LOOKS more like a Sega Master System game than something that should be on the Genesis, and the core gameplay is nowhere near nuanced enough to convince/cajole you into overlooking the downright shit presentation. As far as game modes are concerned, you get a half-hearted tournament mode, the standard exhibition mode and a fight-only screen, which is quite the disappointment considering how crappy the punching mechanics are. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the “shootout” feature — it’s so poorly constructed, it may as well be a broken gameplay component that somehow snuck past Q.A. And the really devastating thing about all of this? The central control scheme isn’t that bad, and HAD the people behind this fucker spent a little bit more time fine-tuning the gameplay, it actually could’ve turned out to be a good (but not THAT good) little unlicensed hockey title. If you’re looking for the presumptive frontrunner for the worst hockey game on the Genesis, look no further — this game truly is the pits, and you have no reason whatsoever to go out of your way to experience it. 


NHL All-Star Hockey ‘95 (1995)
Developer: Double Diamond
Publisher: Sega

Well, the good news is, this game actually DOES feature the NHL licenses, so you get to play as the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings instead of the Generic Ass Motherfuckers and No-Name No-Logo Shitbums. Even better, All-Star Hockey ’95 actually features MOST of the real NHL players from the 1994-1995 season, so for those of you just champing at the bit to take control of a 16-bit version of Bob Corkum and Rob Blake, no worries. As far as gameplay modes go, you get the usual exhibition and tournament features, but there’s not a whole lot in the way of a real season mode. And audio-visually, it’s a mixed bag. The voiceover from Marv Albert (of all fuckin’ people) is pretty cool, but the sprites and animations are just kinda’ ho-hum. And for whatever reason, the jersey colors are kinda’ off, with the Philadelphia Flyers, for example, wearing these icky orange and black ensembles that look more like Cleveland Browns jerseys than anything you’d see inside a hockey rink. Of course, it all boils down to gameplay, and I’m afraid that’s where All-Star Hockey ’95 falters the hardest. Basically, it plays like a VERY weak imitation of EA’s NHL games, only with WAY worse controls and some of the shittiest skating physics you’ll ever experience in a hockey video game. Both passing and shooting feels awkward and unwieldy, and the goaltending is pretty much 16-bit asshole. Granted, it is playable and I suppose you can extend its cartridge life thanks to the multiplayer mode, but at the end of the day, this is just a pale imitation of a hockey video game that’s actually good. Although, to be fair, the fighting engine in this game is pretty solid — indeed, the fisticuffs might be the ONLY reason anybody ought to go out of their way to play this one in the first place. 


Tecmo Super Hockey (1994)
Developer: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo

Well, Tecmo DID give us the single greatest football game of all-time (an even more remarkable feat when you realize the Japanese design team didn’t know the first thing about the NFL), so why shouldn’t we trust them to turn around and give us an equally excellent 16-bit NHL offering? Well, I think Tecmo Super Hockey is a very, very good game (perhaps even the best non-EA hockey game on the Genesis), but it’s certainly nowhere close to being the Tecmo Super Bowl of the virtual ice rink. First things first, while we do get the NHLPA license, we don’t get the full NHL license, so that means you get the likes of Pavel Bure and Patrick Roy in the game, but they’re all playing for generic teams without nicknames whose jersey designs are wholly non-representative of their real-world squads. Unsurprisingly, your game modes are fairly scant (you’ve got a preseason, season and all-star game mode, and those are pretty much it), but at least the core on-ice gameplay is mostly smooth and enjoyable. The graphics (presented in a horizontal, Blades of Steel-type POV) are pretty underwhelming, and the music is definitely forgettable, but the animation is solid and the tempo is pretty damn fast. That, and playing offense and defense are both quite intuitive and engaging, even if there is, perhaps, an overreliance on cut scenes whenever you fire her up for a slap shot or a one-timer (needless to say, such dynamics aren’t integrated into the gameplay as well as in TSB.) It’s shortcomings are obvious, but on the flip side, so are its positives — simply put, TSH is a no-frills, bare-bones, pure arcade-hockey hootenanny, and just in terms of sheer pick-up gameplay, there isn’t a single title on the Genny that does a better job of filling that particular 16-bit software niche


Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars (1995)
Developer: Time Warner Interactive
Publisher: Time Warner Interactive

Well, if TSH is the best non-EA-produced hockey game on the Genesis, this fairly underappreciated micro-gem from Time Warner would be the game Tecmo beat in double overtime in game seven to garner the distinction. The gameplay is basically the prototype for what would become Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey, only in the two-dimensional form and with perhaps even faster gameplay. Indeed, the players in this game don’t just zoom up and down the ice, they practically fly around the rink like a buncha’ rocket-propelled Canadians and Russian immigrants, and while it feels very slippery at first, after awhile the breakneck pace kinda’ becomes endearing, if not even a wee bit intuitive. Of course, the game modes here are about as limited as O.J. Simpson’s dating options, and the lack of a proper NHL license means you have to make do with watching Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier playing for a buncha’ made-up squadrons — some of whom, like Edmonton, have totally inexplicable mascots. Even weirder? During the team selection scene, EACH individual team in the game has a different theme song, which is something you DEFINITELY don’t see in too many sports offerings. The replay value isn’t terribly high, I’m afraid, but the core gameplay is just satisfying enough (and, honestly, so goddamn weird) that you can’t help but find yourself engrossed in the low-key schizophrenia of it all. And if absolutely nothing else, WGATNAS has Electronic Arts absolutely butt-fucked when it comes to a fighting engine — not only is the brawling in this game vastly superior to that engine in NHLPA Hockey ‘93, it might just be the best 16-bit hockey fighting engine I’ve ever experienced. Hey, Time Warner may not have gotten all of the fundamentals down, but you can’t say they didn’t get their priorities straight in THIS motherfucker.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Jimbo’s Quarterly Rasslin’ Round-Up (Q1 2020 Edition!)

Are you ready for a whirlwind recap of the best, the worst and the most random pro wrestling matches of the last three months? Hold on to your Hulkamania t-shirts, folks — it's time to rumble


Tuesday, April 7, 2020