Perhaps it was sheer luck that the year I picked up a hockey game for my brand new Sega Genesis was the year NHL 94 was released. Or just maybe it was fate.
I’m gonna go ahead and say it was fate.
See, not only was this game responsible for breaking my reset button on my Genesis (I was trying to ensure that I’d be playing the Chicago Blackhawks in a playoff round), but also for the fact that I still played my Sega Genesis throughout college. Sure, it was nice taking a stroll down memory lane with my friend Sonic and the gang from Streets of Rage. But that’s nothing compared to leading the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup title. But as we all know, sometimes nostalgia can make things seem better than they were. So how does NHL 94 stand up today? As it turns out, pretty damn well.
Immediately, the game’s pace demands to be noticed. This isn’t some slow-paced, technical affair; games are fast and frantic. Passes need to be executed with precision and purpose and shots need to be fired on time and on target. Your opponent isn’t afraid to be aggressive and slam you into the boards, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to be facing an odd man rush or, even worse, a breakaway where the only thing between you and a deficit is your goalie.
Sure, at times Ed Belfour is an unstoppable behemoth, but it’s not something that crosses over to other teams. Mikhail Shtalenkov of the Anaheim Ducks? Awful.
Despite being a game that’s now nearly 20 years old, NHL 94 offers something subtle yet impactful in a sports game: tactical strategy. You can’t just skate up ice, greet the goalie with a puck in his direction, and expect it to light the lamp. Heck, you can’t even properly position yourself half the time: for a 20-year-old game, the AI defense is incredibly stout. I’m not saying they’re going to poke check all the pucks, but they’re going to be a deterrent. A deterrent that’s not afraid to hit you with a huge check across the boards, set up a long distance pass to a runaway winger, and have a breakaway. But if it’s you that made the big hit to set up an excellent scoring chance? You’d better be able to not only fake out the goalie, but also shoot off your strong side; more often than not, backhanded shots will effortlessly float towards the net only to be stopped. As they, you know, should be.
Then there’s the crowd. In certain sports, the crowd can be that extra man to help the home team out. Hockey is one of those sports. Ever notice how loud it gets in hockey rinks? How deafening the roar can be? That’s the effect you get with NHL 94‘s crowd; they feel alive, like part of the game. They’ll cheer for every goal, face off, penalty, and big hit. And they’ll boo just as often too. Combine that with the organ’s ability to pump your adrenaline and you have the atmosphere of the game coexisting perfectly with the fast-paced action. When you line up the perfect one-timer, only to be robbed by a beautiful kick save, the crowd gasps. Chances are, you will too.
This is a combination we don’t see often in modern sports games. Some try to focus on giving users complete control and more of a realistic, simulation type affair. Personally, I see nothing wrong with that. But that doesn’t mean all the fun needs to be drained from a sports game. The Forza series, while not directly a sport, is still a fantastically fun simulation game. I enjoyed my time with NHL 2K6 back in the day, as well as enjoying some trash-talk-filled Madden games where Tim Tebow leads me to a game winning 4th Quarter drive. But NHL 94 is on a whole different level. Combining the best of arcade style play with some pretty realistic and tactical gameplay (for 1993 anyway), and combing top-notch and exciting gameplay in a realistic experience (sorry, NBA JAM, NFL Blitz, and Blades of Steel), it’s pretty easy to see why NHL 94 is still regarded today as one of the best sports games of all time.