Thursday, April 18, 2019

COIN-OP Review: NHL 2 On 2 Open Ice Challenge (1995)

Midway gave hockey the NBA Jam treatment in the mid-1990s — and yes, it WAS every bit as awesome as you’d have expected it to be.


By: JimboX

The Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing, which means I have the perfect excuse to drudge up this one 25-year-old arcade sports game I’ve been meaning to write something about for a couple of years now.

When you think “video game” and “hockey,” naturally, your mind tends to drift toward Electronic Arts’ vaunted and venerable NHL series. And for good reason, since I (and a whole lot of other people, too) consider NHL  ‘94 to be the single greatest video game EVER of ALL-TIME, always. Alas, EA’s franchise wasn’t the only officially branded National Hockey League product on the market in the mid-90s, which brings us to what I’ve long considered to be one of the most underrated sports arcade games ever: Midway’s NHL 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge from 1995.

Yes, at heart, 2 on 2 is basically just a redux of Midway’s OTHER 900-pound gorilla sports arcade title from the epoch, NBA Jam. But while NBA Jam has since gone on to become an immortal, nigh-ubiquitous piece of ‘90s ephemera, even hardcore hockey video game fans continue to sleep on the awesomeness that is 2 on 2 Open Ice Challenge. And this, assuredly, is a big mistake.

I’d have to crunch the numbers again, but I feel that I would have a hard time making a list of my ten favorite hockey games ever and not having this one make the list. There are just so many cool, nostalgic things about it — which we’ll be sinking our teeth into shortly — but what REALLY makes 2 on 2 worth going out of your way to play is its core gameplay. Folks, this is just an instantly gratifying, fun-as-shit, pick-up and play arcade experience that pretty much anybody can get into, whether they can tell the difference between Pavel Bure or a microwaveable burrito or not. And for those of you with enough autism/free time, after awhile you actually CAN get pretty adept at playing defense, which turns 2 On 2 into a legitimately thrilling multiplayer experience.

Before we start getting into the specifics, I’m just gonna’ go on ahead and give you the quick and dirty overview of the core gameplay. Like NBA Jam, you get to choose two players (out of three, who can be mixed and matched in several different combination) and you take on two other players, be they controlled by the CPU or another living, breathing player. One of those characters is automatically CPU controlled, but you do have the ability to take control of your goalie every time the other team is on your side of the ice. So if you’ve ever played Blades of Steel or Ice Hockey on the NES, you kinda’ know what to expect here.

As far as the arcade version of the game, the whole point is to defeat all the other teams en route to a “Stanley Cup” clinching championship game. There are no series in the game, so each contest is a one and done affair. The periods are contested in hyperspeed two-minute long  periods, and although that may sound like a preposterously short amount of time, it’s still ample time for games to regularly conclude with 13-11 final scores. And yes, the goalie can hold onto the puck, thus stopping the clock for a faceoff.

Since you’re basically doing the same thing over and over for 75 periods, there’s not really a whole lot to talk about in terms of the structure of the game. So, instead, I’m just going to highlight my six favorite elements of the game, in quick-and-to-the-point summary statements:


THE ‘90s-TASTIC ROSTER!

Well, the nostalgia appeal for old school hockey fans ought to be apparent to anyone with a working set of peepers, shouldn’t it? In addition to featuring now defunct squads like the Hartford Whalers and the original Winnipeg Jets, the game is smorgasbord of NHL on Fox era hockey ephemera, right down to the New York Islanders’ incredibly short-lived (and ill-advised) logo which appeared to be the serial killer from I Know What You Did Last Summer. And if seeing the likes of Derek Plante and Pat LaFontaine in gaudy Buffalo Sabres blue and gold doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart and make you long for the dulcet tones of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement on commentary, I think it’s safe to say that you can just about go fuck yourself, bucko.


JAROMIR JAGR’S MULLET!

OK, this is a really superficial reason to love the game, but holy shit, are there some amazing ape drapes on display in this one. From Luc Robitaille's neck warmer to Joe Juneau’s squirrel pelt, this game has more grade-A Camaro ‘dos in it than a goddamn Judas Priest show circa 1987. Alas, even in a game that features Radek Bonk’s magnificent rat’s nest, NOTHING compares to the sheer splendor and majesty of Jaromir Jagr’s colossal coif, which can only be described as a cross between Mike Awesome’s haircut and a beehive made out of Sasquatch pubes. When Jagr finally gets enshrined in the hall, this better be the model they work with for the bronze bust, fam.

GIANT MODE!

Of course, this being a game designed by the same people who gave us NBA Jam, there had to be some sort of kooky, hyper-unrealistic bullshit thrown into the game, and give these folks some credit, they REALLY thought outside the box for this ‘un. Not only can your players pull of some physically impossible dekes and flipping wrist shots (unless I’m mistaken and Rod Brind'amour actually DID do a quadruple corkscrew before landing a top shelfer one time), at random intervals they can also inexplicably grow 10 feet tall and rattle off slap shots at about 300 miles per hour. I’ve been playing the game on and off for the last 20 years and I’m still not entirely sure what triggers such animations — regardless, I’m just happy the designers had the chutzpah to include it in the final version of the game.


THE WACKY SCORING UPDATE INTERSTITIALS!

This is an incredibly small detail, but one I nonetheless felt was charming and added a lot of character to the game as a whole. Like in pretty much every other hockey game ever made, after a goal is scored there’s a quick graphic that pops up on screen letting the players know what the new point differentials are. But for literally no discernible reason, those update screens are coupled with total nonsequiteur public domain videos of people eating pancakes and getting shot with cannonballs and steam engines colliding into each other and random blonde skanks (more on those in just a bit) holding up signs reading “Hit the Ice.” It’s minute touch that adds virtually nothing to the gameplay, but it nonetheless gives it this really subtle, quirky edge that makes the game as a whole feel so much lighter and airier and jovial.


SCORCHING THE NET!

The whole “heating up” shtick from NBA Jam proved to be too good of a gimmick to not carry over into 2 on 2, and the developers actually came up with a pretty novel way to adopt the hook to a hockey game. So after you score three goals in a row with the same player, your avatar catches ablaze, just like in the more popular/renowned/celebrated basketball game. However, in this game the incendiary animations are just limited to the player — indeed, when a player is “on fire” in this game, the puck turns into a fireball and when you beat a goaltender on a breakaway, the whole freaking’ net catches fire and explodes in an eruption of fiber and hellfire. Not only is it a cool, low-key animation, it also gives us — purposefully or inadvertently, canonically or coincidentally — perhaps the only appearance of the much loathed “FOX glowing  puck” in video game history.


THE GENERIC BLONDE HIGH SCORE SCREEN MODELS!

Well, here’s something I guarantee you won’t be seeing in this, the post-”Gamergate” epoch: random, generic blonde chicks being used SOLELY as eye candy/shameless jerkin’ it material. Hell, for all I know, they used the same yellow-haired, red-lipped trollop — clad in generic NHL regalia — in every still in the game, but you know what? I don’t care, she was hot and if it makes me a bad person to think so, sue me. Shit, if this game was made today, they’d probably replace her with a 400-pound, Hispanic-Canadian trap and post it all over Twitter for confirmation points. And also, make half the roster black, because apparently, that’s what game developers spend half their time doing these days.

Hey, remember that one time they let Stevie Wonder design an NHL mascot on MS Paint?

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a thing or two about the port that came to the Playstation one year later. On the whole, I’d consider the home edition of 2 on 2 Open Ice on the PS1 to be a pretty damn faithful adaptation of the coin-op offering, which are certainly worth going out of your way to play just for the roster updates alone. I mean, who among us DOESN’T want to relive the glory days of Ray Ferraro on the Kings, or Jeremy Roenick on the first-year Coyotes, or Gretzky and Messier reunited on the Rangers? It might be a tad scant on the bonus features (as most early PS1 ports were prone to be), but on the whole it was certainly a fun little translation that excised very, very little in the leap from arcades to the small screen. And, of course, it’s a LOT easier to polish off the Stanley Cup crusade with the aid of a memory card — not to mention NOT having to dump another quarter into your console to play another period of hockey — on the home console iteration, so it certainly has that going for it, too.

There was also a PC version released, but like fuck I’m going out of my way to emulate that one. And contrary to what you might hear on the Internet, no, 2 on 2 did not serve as the basis for Wayne Gretzky Hockey 3D Hockey on the Nintendo 64 — rather, that was a port of an even obscurer Midway arcade game in the fall of 1996. You know, when arcades in the States were dying off like bathhouses in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Still, I suppose you could consider 3D Hockey to be something of a spiritual successor to 2 on 2, although the core gameplay is totally different in each. And hooray me, for only taking a quarter century to find out Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey ‘98 was indeed ported to the PS1; lord knows, I sure as hell wished I would’ve spent $39.99 on that one as opposed to fuckin’ Fox Sports NHL Championship 2000. Seriously — fuck that game, right in its CD-ROM hole.

So all that to say, definitely hit up 2 on 2 on the emulators, if for some stupid reason you haven’t already (and since some great human being already uploaded the ROM to The Internet Archive, you LITERALLY don’t have an excuse for not doing so.) It’s a super simple, super satisfying and super enjoyable little arcade hockey experience that should be accessible to just about anyone who isn’t crippled by severe retardation, and if you’re an old-school hockey fan — especially one who grew up in the 1990s — this thing is an absolute can’t miss retro gaming experience.

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