Day 099: NHL 94 Was Basically Perfect
It was Christmas break, 1994. Or at least I think it was. It might’ve just been a random snow day. It was snowy outside and I didn’t have school. I remember because it was a Tuesday. I had just recently gotten a Sega Genesis or I was about to get one. Either way, I had no games and I was too young to know what I wanted out of it. My Mom dropped me off at my older cousin’s house and to my dismay, he wasn’t watching Sportscenter. In an early morning haze, he quietly played a hockey game on his Genesis. There was a lot of hockey games he could’ve been playing. It could’ve been Brett Hull Hockey, Mario Lemeuix Hockey, ESPN National Hockey Night, Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars, the possibilities were as endless as the titles were long. But the game he was playing had a short title. Maybe even the shortest possible title. It was NHL 94 and it changed my life.
I didn’t quite understand hockey, but this game broke it down in a simplistic manner that even 7 year old me could understand. It had fast and fluid gameplay, not like that Blades of Steel bullshit. Within minutes, he got into a fight and my jaw dropped. I didn’t think that was possible, for a sports game to suddenly turn into a fighter. After a couple of games, Johnny had to get ready for work, so he passed on power to his TV. I gave the game a shot. I got my ass kicked handily. And then it was kicked again and again and again. After I got sick of losing, I flipped over to Sportscenter and payed special attention to the Hockey highlights. When the episode repeated, I kept watching. I tried to memorize what was going on in the NHL and who the key players were. In one snowy morning, I became a hockey fan.
I do have to correct a major lie. The game wasn’t NHL 94. It was actually NHL 95. But because I was a broke ass kid who got no allowance, the affordable NHL 94 was the game I actually grew up on. Aside from Madden 95 and Sonic 2, it got the most playtime on my Genesis. There was a certain allure to it that sports games just didn’t have at the time. I could talk for days about the gameplay, but you’ve probably heard it all before. It’s got in-depth line changes and actual strategy. That in itself was revolutionary. But what had me hooked for all those years was actually the presentation.
Yes. That’s how much of a nerd I am.
I loved NHL 94 because it felt like I was actually watching Hockey on TV. The score bug remained in the corner at all times, in a style that you would see in a broadcast. The team logos were printed on center ice. Glass sometimes shattered when the puck hit it too hard. The crowd sounded real. When you perform a hat trick, they actually throw hats into the ice! When you win the Stanley cup, your team actually celebrates with the cup. There was an organist playing at every face-off, with plenty of catchy tunes that never got too repetitive.
[Fun fact: the organ soundtrack was recorded by Dieter Ruehle, who at the time was the organist for the San Jose Sharks. He went on to record future games in the 16-bit era. He is now the organist for the Los Angeles Kings and…the Los Angeles Dodgers. In other words, Dieter Ruehle is literally the only organist that I’ve ever known, as I’ve been a fan of his work for 26 years.]
Before each game, the “commentator” gave a text breakdown of each team and what their advantages were. In between periods, you could watch the Zamboni drive back and forth while other scores from around the league were displayed on-screen. If you were lucky, they’d show you a highlight from one of those games. That idea blew my mind. There were fake games going on while I was playing my own fake game.
Little things like that added so much realism to the game and that’s probably why I’m still fascinated by it today. In a time when sports games relied on an arcade-style to be appealing, this one kept the arcade gameplay but made it a hyper-real simulation. As time went on, I eventually got out of hockey and I really haven’t gotten into an NHL game since the Dreamcast. A few nights ago, in attempt to find a palette cleanser after beating Cyberpunk, I saw that NHL 21 was on sale. Desperate for something new, I downloaded it. Within 20 minutes, I had already regretted my decision. I couldn’t even get through the training mode. The art of the deke is something that I can’t wrap my head around. There are so many complicated movement combinations that I’m never going to remember in the heat of an actual game. Scoring a goal shouldn’t be as complicated as performing a fatality in Mortal Kombat. While I once championed NHL 94 for being so realistic, I can’t stand NHL 21 because it’s too damn realistic. As it turns out, I want realism, but I also want talentless hosers like me to be able to play it. In that regard, NHL 94 was basically perfect.
But my $30 didn’t go to waste. I knew what I was doing. I purchased NHL 21 solely because it included a bonus game, NHL 94 Rewind. It’s exactly what it sounds like. EA Sports ported over NHL 94 and updated the teams and rosters without tweaking anything else. And it’s a magical godsend. In an instant, I was immersed in the 16-bit universe that I fell in love with almost exactly 26 years ago. And it feels so goddamned good. It’s encouraging me to get into modern day hockey. I want to know who these damn people are. For example, I’d really like to know why the Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in the game. They were total chumps in 1994! Connor McDavid is faster than Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. It makes me want to dust off my Oilers hat and subscribe to NHL.tv. That is, you know, when hockey starts again.
Video games are constantly improving. But that’s not to say that they’re getting better. Sometimes you need a balance of realism and simplicity. That balance didn’t get much better than NHL 94.