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NHL ’98

Genre: Sports Developer: High Score Productions Publisher: Electronic Arts/THQ Players: 1-4 Released: 1997

One thing that I noticed growing up owning a Sega Genesis was that for some reason, fighting and sports games generally always wound up being better on Sega’s console than they were on their 16-bit rival, the Super Nintendo.  Hence my love for EA’s NHL series, which seemed to always deliver the goods in terms of 16-bit hockey action, even if the different yearly variations of the game didn’t appear to offer many differences from one another.  NHL ’98 is no different, as it helped send the Genesis off to the video game console afterlife by being the last hockey-themed video game to ever hit the system.

As I’ve already said, on the surface it appears that not much has changed cosmetically in terms of this edition of the series, and you’d be right to think so too.  However, one thing that NHL ’98 includes is a full-season mode, something that hadn’t been included before on previous games in the NHL series thus far for the Genesis.  While playing throughout a whole 82 game season followed by the playoffs is the most standard mode of gameplay in hockey video games (or sports video games in general for that matter) today, seeing it unfold here back then was a revelation of sorts.

Other game modes include typical features like exhibition, playoff series, and a penalty shootout mode in addition to the regular season, plus NHL ’98 also features the debut of the first appearance of the Carolina Hurricanes, who had relocated from being the Hartford Whalers of years past.  Also included here are international teams which are spectacularly fun to play around with, albeit they aren’t the player rosters that were featured in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano since Midway managed to swipe the video game rights before EA could even attempt to.  Despite that though, the international teams are a nice little bonus regardless.

Graphically nothing has really changed from previous releases in the series, but there are other changes and improvements made here that really help make NHL ’98 so good.  There’s “on-the-fly” style coaching tactics during gameplay which was a whole new feature at the time, and really enhances the overall gameplay mechanics instead of the usual “shoot, pass, hit” style that gamers had grown so accustomed to by this installment of the franchise.  This also involves a bit of a change-up with the game’s control scheme, which includes the removal of the usual “double-tap” that was necessary to perform certain actions in past installments.  All of this adds up to being the fastest and most refined installment of the NHL series on the Genesis, which is kind of fitting considering that this was the last hurrah of Genesis hockey.

The game’s overall presentation has been slightly improved as well, offering a fairly decent representation of a television-based broadcast.  Various player and game stats are provided during stoppages in play, rounding out the overall package.  The commentating has seen a bit of an upgrade as well this time around, and there’s even some all-new dialogue to boot.  Even the arena crowd seems to have gotten a bit of an upgrade in terms of exuberance; with louder and more frequent cheers and jeers to go along with the typical crowd chants and rhythms of yelling “defense” and clapping along with the arena music.

Also debuting around the same time on higher-powered consoles the Playstation and the Genesis successor the Sega Saturn, NHL ’98 was sort of seen as an afterthought by Electronic Arts for releasing on the Genesis and its 16-bit rival, the Super Nintendo.  So much so as an afterthought that EA decided to employ THQ with the task of distribution rights for both systems, as well as doing the same with the 16-bit  ’98 editions of Madden and NBA Live as well.  Personally, I always kind of found it ironic that the hockey coda on the Genesis would be one of the very best sports games to grace the console.  NHL ‘ 94 will always be my favorite installment of the series, just based on the fact that it was the very first hockey video game I ever played and truly fell in love with, but make no mistake that NHL ’98 ranks a very, very close second.

As mentioned before, the graphical drawbacks of NHL ’98 fail to detract from the overall superb experience to be found here.  Even though it was released in the final days of the Genesis’ lifecycle, this installment managed to take what had already been done so well, and only improve on it.  What’s really disappointing though is how few people know about this overlooked gem of a 16-bit sports video game.  Newer, fancier, more powerful consoles were out and making an impact on the video game industry, so it really isn’t any surprise that the Genesis edition of NHL ’98 got lost in the mix, but the good news is that the game can be fairly easily found to this day, usually with a cheap price tag.  That in itself only sweetens the overall deal, especially if you’re a hockey loving Genesis enthusiast, and if you are, NHL ’98 deserves to be in your collection.

SCORE: 9 out of 10

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