While gamers’ choices in hockey video games have slimmed down tremendously over the past decade, thanks to the fall of 2K’s hockey titles and the dominance of EA Sports, the 16-bit era saw a plethora of puck being played on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. From the arcade port of Hit the Ice and the wacky Street Hockey 95, to the classic NHL series and Wayne Gretzky and Bret Hull-powered games, there was no shortage of choices.
All with different licenses and gameplay mechanics, each game played differently and created memories. But which ones were the greatest? In this exclusive Old School Gamers list, we name the eight hockey games that made enough of a historical impact to be considered the best puck games of the 16-Bit Era.
NHL Hockey: This was the game that started it all for the Electronic Arts Sports Network, now known as EA Sports. Although it didn’t feature real players, it featured real teams, player numbers, and ratings, making it the first time on a 16-bit console that gamers could play a “real hockey game.” Although it caused a ton of friction with the NHL due to the inclusion of injuries and fighting, it laid the foundation for the best hockey games of all-time and is still playable today.
NHLPA Hockey 93: After NHL Hockey, NHLPA 93 continued EA’s legacy by adding real players to the mix. Although it plays similar to NHL Hockey, the continued inclusion of fighting and the absence of blood makes it a historical title. Without an NHL license, there are no team names either, so Shark fans had to play as “San Jose” instead. Regardless, it’s a classic hockey game that’s still playable today. There will always be a debate on what was the best NHL game of all-time and while it’s easy to say NHL 94 is that game, it wouldn’t have gotten there without the gameplay improvements EA made in NHLPA Hockey 93. It’s also featured in the cult-classic guy flick, Swingers.
NHL 94: This is “the” hockey game. Continuing with the gameplay improvements from the first two EA hockey games, but adding the “one-timer,” or for non-hockey fans, the ability to shoot the puck right after receiving a pass, changed the gameplay formula entirely. Overall, it made for what was then a one-of-a-kind hockey game.
It all came at a cost, however, as EA Sports was forced to drop fighting from the game entirely in order to secure the NHL license. Nevertheless, with gameplay improvements and four-way play, it’s a game that is still played today by thousands, thanks to an active homebrew community that updates the rosters. There’s even a documentary on the game, Pixelated Heroes.
Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars: This is easily the best-looking game on the list because it came out at the end of the 16-bit era. The addition of international teams was cool as well. The gameplay is solid and although not sexy in terms of gameplay, it’s a capable game of puck that features the greatest player in the game on the cover.
Mutant League Hockey: For a game that was rushed in development after EA Sports decided they didn’t want mutants playing sports games anymore, Mutant League Hockey is a classic. The ability to kill your opponents and being forced to avoid hazards all over the ice just never gets old. Playing like a comic book version of EA’s NHL series, MLH is the best non-licensed hockey game on the Sega Genesis.
ESPN National Hockey Night: Programmed by Craig Broadbooks, who’d go on to create the NHL Faceoff series on the Sony PlayStation, National Hockey Night is like Faceoff Lite. Allowing the gamer to change camera views, play with four-players and featuring ESPN color commentator Bill Clement, the game is absolutely ahead of its time. Visually, it’s a better-looking game than EA’s NHL series and was a solid hockey game when it was originally released.
Pro Sport Hockey: Jaleco’s contribution to this list was an interesting game. Although it had no NHL license, it had a NHLPA one, which meant it had real players, but not real teams. The skating mechanics were also solid, as it made you feel like you were actually skating. The gliding across the ice feel, combined with real players made it a solid alternative to the NHL series. The game’s one caveat is that you’ll have to play the game with the sound off. At times, the soundtrack almost feels like it pulls sound effects from Contra.
NHL Stanley Cup: If this game didn’t make you incredibly dizzy with its “Mode 7” camera, you were in for a good time. Changing camera angles depending on who had the puck, Stanley Cup was always in motion, literally. The actual hockey was fun though and it had a great feel of trying to get up the ice and maintain possession. Nintendo’s only published hockey game on the Super Nintendo (it was developed by Sculptured Software), it can’t hold water with Ice Hockey on the NES, but it’s a serviceable game, even with the camera issues.
Patrick Hickey Jr. is the author of the upcoming book, “The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews With Cult and Classic Video Game Developers,” from McFarland And Company. Featuring interviews with the creators of 36 popular video games–including Deus Ex, NHLPA 93, Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, Wasteland and NBA Jam–the book gives a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of some of the most influential and iconic (and sometimes forgotten) games of all time. Recounting endless hours of painstaking development, the challenges of working with mega publishers and the uncertainties of public reception, the interviewees reveal the creative processes that produced some of gaming’s classic titles.