What's old is new
As one of the most iconic sports games of all time, NHL 94 remains beloved in many circles. It did pretty much everything beautifully--simple gameplay, memorable sounds, colorful visuals, real NHL players and teams, and an undeniable charm that transcended the genre. For many, 94 remains the highlight of their sports gaming memory, as todays ultra-complex simulations cater to a hardcore crowd that simply didnt exist twenty years ago. So the makers of NHL 14 decided to bring it back.
Not an actual NHL 94 gameplay mode, mind you--they already did that a few years ago in NHL 06. That effort, as NHL producer Sean Ramjagsingh told me, was less than stellar. When people played the emulated NHL 94 on the PS2 disc, he said, the memories were actually better than that experience relative to what the current game delivered. With that in mind, the development team took their current gameplay engine and built an entirely new manner of play on top of it, paying homage to NHL 94 in a number of ways while leveraging much of what makes todays series so strong.
We asked ourselves what were the best parts about NHL 94, Ramjagsingh continued. Simple controls, a pick up and play experience, and replicating that experience where its just you and your buddy on a couch playing an accessible game. So with that in mind, I sat down in New York City on Tuesday at an EA Sports event to check it out--and came away feeling (mostly) excited for it.
Everybody can play
While the NHL series is arguably the easiest of all modern sports games to pick up and play, theres no denying that the combination of sticks, triggers, and buttons to control the action is intimidating to newcomers and old-schoolers. Much of that complexity has been removed; the only controls are buttons to pass, shoot, hit, and use turbo--and of course the left stick to move around the ice. Within a couple of minutes, youll be piling up goals and big hits without having to remember more than a few simple thumb presses.
When you look back in the day, it was easy to pick up any sports game, recalled Ramjagsingh. As weve become more authentic and added more depth, it makes that more difficult. The beauty of this mode is that a lot of people who havent played our game on the console recently are able to go back, pick this up, and have success quickly.
Scoring is actually easy
Its obvious to say, but scoring goals is fun. Thanks to the stripped-down controls and removal of much of the on-the-fly strategic adjustments and player fatigue, its much easier to light the lamp in the 94 mode than the standard gameplay. Even better, this translates into allowing all those moves you made back in the day--cross-ice one-timers, wraparounds, and left-right-left--to work again. Its not a complete goalfest, but youll definitely put pucks in the net.
You dont need to worry about whos on the ice, what strategy youre using, or how tired they are, said Ramjagsingh. You just have a fun pick-up-and-play experience with lots of goals.
Big hits aplenty
One of the biggest additions to NHL 14 proper is the introduction of a powerful collision physics engine that translates into more vicious hits than ever, and the NHL 94 mode gleefully takes advantage of that. Simply press the turbo and hit buttons and your player will annihilate your opponent--provided you match up the hit at the right angle, of course. Dishing out punishment along the boards or at center ice Scott Stevens-style has never been easier.
Lame penalties have been benched
Icing and penalties are non-existent in NHL 94 mode, so the game turns into a wide-open affair from the opening face-off. It will take veterans a few minutes to acclimate themselves to it--I waited for teammates to come back onside a couple of times before I realized it didnt matter--but quickly becomes second nature. Another benefit of the almost-no-rules mantra is that games are shorter, so blasting through a few matches in under an hour is easy.
Old school returns
When you remember NHL 94, chances are that blue ice, star icons for players with their number and position, organ music, and the "wheeeeeeeee" of the home teams goal horn are at the top of the list. All of those are part of the NHL 94 mode presentation, even though the standard games arenas, players, and announcers are present. Before the game starts, old-school NHL 94 highlights play on the arena jumbotrons, hearkening back to the games 16-bit roots. Its hard not to smile the first time you play.
The Stars are everywhere
Gretzky. Lemieux. Roenick. These are the names--along with Steve Larmer, who isnt exactly a Hall of Famer and isnt in the game--that people remember the most when they recall their favorite moments of NHL 94. Theyre all available to play with, adding just another element of nostalgia. Before you ask, though, you cant make Gretzkys head bleed a la Jon Favreau Swingers, as theres no blood in the game at all in any mode. Such a shame.
WAIT, WHAT? REASON 1 WHY ITS NOT AWESOME
The biggest surprise of all about the NHL 94 mode is that its not available for seasons, careers, or online play. Its meant strictly for couch co-op, further replicating the era of playing against your buddies seated right next to you and the comradery (and/or fisticuffs) that came from that. We talked about what made NHL 94 so special, said Ramjagsingh, and it was that social experience of sitting on the couch with your buddy, talking smack, punching him in the shoulder when he broke the house rules. 94 was about your friend coming over to the house and playing, not over the internet. We wanted to replicate that experience first and foremost.
However, based on user feedback, it is possible that we could see the NHL 94 mode opened up in new ways post-launch. No promises, but when I asked around, the window for that was not definitively closed.
Dropping the puck
Any nostalgia play feels fun for a few minutes, and the challenge NHL 14 has with the NHL 94 mode is its longer-term viability. Thats likely why the team chose to implement it on top of the current engine instead of simply putting the old game inside it; it feels fresh and exciting while looking old-school.
Will its higher accessibility translate to fans? Will more people play NHL 14 because of it? Will online and offline options be added? We wont know for sure for a while. However, theres no denying the development team made an interesting--and gutsy--choice to try and get their game appreciated by more fans during the wildly busy fall sports game avalanche. Well see how it pays off.