At a time when US sports games were trickling into the UK, one remained mercifully simple and fun – but it was still packed with all the extras that true fans needed. Matt Gardner discusses EA’s true breakthrough hit.
For two simple reasons, NHL ’94 may be the greatest sports game ever released on the Mega Drive. Firstly, for loyal fans of ice hockey, it was a true homage to the sport, with plenty of modes, countless stats and an incredible attention to detail that paired perfectly with what proved to be the perfectly balanced simulation.
Secondly, NHL ’94 was so fun and easy to play that the franchise – and the sport itself – became hugely accessible to a whole new generation of fans around the world. At the tender age of nine, I was converted to ice hockey within days of buying it.
A new sport state of mind
By the time the mid-90s rolled in, the Mega Drive was the perfect console for bargain game deals – and NHL ’94 wasn’t an exception, even just months after its release. There were plenty of understandable reasons most games came cheap:
- Cartridge mass production: Common second-hand games were owned by nearly everyone (e.g. Sonic 2, Mega Games I, Micro Machines), so cost very little;
- Old games aged badly: Compare Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle to The Lion King and you’ll see how much four years does to a 90s game – and this made them less desirable;
- New competition: The release of the 32X and Sega Saturn brought about a fire-sale mentality for both old and new games. It’s ironic, really, as both platforms proved to be hugely underwhelming.
Yet NHL ’94 fell into a fourth, more obscure bracket: there was no captive audience for it in the UK, so the game just didn’t sell like it did in North America. But nine months after the release of NHL ’94 – and mainly due to the fact I was in love with EA Sports’ FIFA International Soccer, the first thing I ever played on the Mega Drive – I took a risk by buying it. Saving up a couple of weeks’ worth of pocket money was a no-brainer when it was touting 90%+ reviews.
EA, High Score
For £4, NHL ’94 gave me a glimpse into a weird, alien sport that was talked down by my culturally (and accidentally) jingoistic 10-year-old friends who thought it was stupid American nonsense because, well, it wasn’t football.
I now kinda feel sorry for those people now, because they never got to experience the thrill of organ music, the majestic crawl of Zambonis on the pause menu, and the gravity-defying mullet of a young Jaromír Jágr, the Czech powerhouse who was already in his fourth season when the game came out – and is, as of 2017, still playing full seasons for the Florida Panthers, at 45, as the only remaining active player from the 1990 NHL Draft. The man’s a machine.It’s not altogether surprising, though. Ice hockey, like American football, baseball and basketball, was basically unknown to British gamers in the 90s; the internet didn’t exist, Ceefax didn’t cover them, and specialist magazines and newspapers were hard to find. What you had was Trans World Sport, if you were awake at 6am on a Saturday morning – and lucky enough for the NHL to get a spot between the Asian Kabbadi Championship and a mini-feature on Scottish shinty’s MacAulay Cup.
Brave new world
The time I loaded up the game for the first time is still seared in my memory. I immediately fell in love with the Pittsburgh Penguins, just because of the name. Alongside them were some teams I’d heard of: the New York Rangers, the Detroit Red Wings and, obviously, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks – while others just sounded like team names created by a game developer that didn’t secure licensing, as if it was Sensible Soccer or ISS Pro Evolution. The St Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers, San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils were just too American to be true. For all I knew, they were invented.
After picking your teams, you had the surprise of learning how good they were out of 99 – and with a league you don’t know, it wasn’t the easiest guessing game. As you checked the hand you were dealt, EA Sports stalwart Ron Barr introduced you to the evening’s proceedings, while you saw the match-ups between players – the first toe dipped into the ocean of stats that the game had to offer.
Given the amazing isometric world created by FIFA International Soccer, there were high hopes from me that NHL ’94 would pull off similarly impressive graphical trickery – yet it kept things simple with a standard vertical rink. But given the manoeuvres you had to learn, it was – and still is – the only way to play a hockey game.
The graphics were simple, yet clever; face-offs were accompanied by a simple inset image showing when the puck was dropped. Cameras lingered a third behind the run of play, switching seamlessly to uncover the exact field of vision you needed to set plays up. Colours were as vivid as the jerseys the players wore in real life. It really was the most colourful sports game, despite dedicating 80% of the screen to blueish-white ice.
Give ‘em the ol’ one-two
Yet NHL ’94‘s biggest strength in terms of both early and enduring appeal was, and still is, its controls. You had a three-button input on the Mega Drive – A, B and C – and even then, the only two buttons you needed on the attack were pass and shoot. If you were defending, all you wanted was the ability to switch player, then another button to deliver a fucking devastating body check to anyone who had the puck. Poke checks were for amateurs. The body check button also doubled as a speed boost of sorts (removing directional control), so it was all about timing.
Combined with the graphics, landing a smash into an opposing player was powerful enough to make up for the lack of force feedback on mid-90s controllers. You felt it, right to your very core, and god did it feel good. Collision detection was spot on, too – while there was still a real skill in knocking a player on his arse, it needed far from pixel-perfect delivery to nail it. Unless, of course, you tried to hit him in the face with the puck. That required one-in-a-million luck.
Player types were generally broken down into three key sets of abilities, regardless of stats. First up was your aloof, bulletproof defenceman who couldn’t shoot for toffee but would land a dependable hit on anyone with the puck – or the player they planned on passing it to. This choice of target was one of the most important calls to make in NHL ’94, as teams score much more easily with a quick pass-and-shoot manoeuvre across the net. Smash one, smash the other, smash both – just make sure you smash something.
(As a quick yet nonetheless important aside, the best time to smash someone is always, always when play has been stopped – a face-off, conceded goal and especially a lost match gives you free reign to absolutely destroy anything that moves in the short window you’re afforded. This, again, is a tradition that has carried on for millions of hockey game fans to the present day.)
Then there were your left and right wingers, who were really quick and great at passing, alright at shooting, but lacked stopping power against a charging counter-attack. They were, meh, alright. Then, of course, you had your centre – a behemoth of a man capable of doing everything at once. An absolute star. This may or may not have been based on my sole choice of the Penguins, and subsequent luck of having the magic Mario Lemieux (player rating: 99) at that position.
An evening at the pantomime
The other truly brilliant thing about the game was its music. You see in the video further up that it features organ music by Dieter Ruehle – a man who still plays for the Los Angeles Kings, Dodgers and Lakers. This superstar, who inexplicably has fewer than 5,000 Twitter followers despite being an early legend of VGM, belted out classics and even performed team-specific ditties for the hell of it, including Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance when playing Buffalo. They somehow got licensing for the Beatles’ Birthday, too, which played when Ruehle’s beloved Kings scored.
Meanwhile, the crowd are in a full-blown pantomime mode with booing and cheering. If you’re at home and score, they go wild. Concede, and it’ll bring about an eerie silence. Yet this robotic-sounding audience are at peak hilarity during a face-off; the puck will come loose, but they only make a sound as soon as the puck’s collected – which often takes about five seconds, depending on how disastrous it is. I still picture their low-definition faces now, mouths agape, waiting for a stick to touch a puck and respond accordingly.
It’s all in the details
The thing that really made NHL ’94 a deep, fulfilling game was its dedication to stuff that, at the time, didn’t matter to gamers like me. These were factors that not only became something I genuinely cared about in this game specifically, but stuff I looked for in any sports sim that followed. Notably, it was a stats bonanza; it thoroughly swept FIFA International Soccer aside in these stakes, and shaped all EA Sports titles to come.
It’s not even worth talking about half of them, as they were so niche (aside from crowd decibel levels. Who thought that was a good idea?); the screenshots speak for themselves.
The weirdest, most wonderful bonus came in the end-of-period menu of any game, when highlights of other games apparently being played the same night – very much the “hot singles in your area!” of 1994 – were reeled off if you didn’t immediately jump back into your own match-up. You’d marvel at the Red Wings putting their third past the Sabres, or gasp as the Calgary Flames pull back an equaliser against a hapless Ottawa Senators defence. Why did they do this? I don’t know, and I don’t care, but you found yourself rooting for teams in transient, automatically generated ties.
Meanwhile, on the ice rink, you could tackle someone into the sin bin. It was the first time I’d really seen a game let you contextually “interact” with a fixed environment, and only one of three times I felt like a traditional gaming architectural barrier was broken, alongside the destruction physics of Red Faction and the first encounter with the Imp under the stairs in Doom 3, when it pulls the staircase open to attack you. And occasionally, a kid would get out of his seat behind the goal and bang on the glass. EA didn’t need to do that, but it did.
Going back to NHL ’94 for the first time in a good ten years was a real eye-opener, not least because it just holds up so incredibly well. You might be 6-0 down to the Winnipeg Jets midway through the second, but you still keep playing – and you enjoy it. It’s a fair, even-handed game that puts people of all skills on a level playing field. It might not just be the best sports game on the Mega Drive – it might be the best NHL game. Hell, it could be the best sports game ever for me – but for entirely personal reasons.
Thank you, NHL ’94. Thank you for an amazing game, and for giving me an interest and subsequent addiction to ice hockey. Cheers to you giving me a more open mind to American sports – and America in general – resulting in a lifetime dedication to American football, an obsession with the Penguins and Steelers, and a personal goal to get a job in America. Thanks for pushing me to actually get a job in America, letting me predominantly use my time to shore up my vast collection of US sports clothing that my friends rarely see me out of now, despite being 30 and a fully grown adult male. Thanks for making my pilgrimage to the Hockey Hall of Fame so fulfilling. Thanks for being the initial inspiration that resulted in countless holidays to North America, and an enduring awareness of people taking the piss out of me because of this obsession. It’s been well worth it.
NHL ’94 made me, well, me. I don’t think there’s a greater compliment to give a game.
- Simple, easy, approachable controls
- More stats than you can handle
- Fantastic music and sound effects
- Gameplay that makes you fight however badly you’re doing
- Sometimes you just wouldn’t win a game, however good you were
- The “hot” and “cold” player performance system was nonsense
- The inability to choose “fair” teams in multiplayer
NHL ’94 was clearly put together by people who loved ice hockey; from the simple, fun gameplay to the complex, often daunting dedication to stats and information at every turn, the game’s developers channelled their passion through the game and into the hearts of both fellow fans and those unaware the NHL even existed. It was the game that turned me from the latter into the former, and I don’t regret a single thing.