Genre: Sports Developer: High Score Productions Publisher: Electronic Arts Players: 1-4 Released: 1996
Say what you want about Electronic Arts, but whenever it supports a console, it definitely sticks with it even way beyond the machine’s heyday. In 1996, Sega had all but abandoned its old, 16-bit battle horse and bet all of its money on the next generation follow-up, the Saturn. But EA was amongst the few companies that still stuck it out on the trusted old Genesis. Sure, it didn’t develop anything groundbreaking anymore – the 1997 and 1998 editions of its Genesis sports titles are all more or less tweaked versions of the game engines created for the 1996 games. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and those hungering for a “new” game for their old consoles had to make do with some roster updates and a handful of minor features. A tradition that EA firmly sticks to until this very day (looking at you, PS2 version of FIFA 13).
With that being said, the 1997 games all suffer the fate of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are only marginally updated versions of their usually critically acclaimed 1996 predecessors, yet they aren’t among the final games of their generation either, since most of them (with the distinction of College Football USA ’97) saw another series entry for the Genesis the following year. Such is the case with NHL ’97. What can be said about a hockey game wedged between one of the best entries in the entire series and one of the final releases for the once-great console? Well, at least this much: it’s a good game.
Well, it’s basically NHL ’96 with a new paint job. The intro and main screens look slightly different and have a new main theme, and as to be expected, the game received a roster update as to reflect the 1996/97 hockey season. The game mechanics are practically the same as the year before. The gameflow is still pretty fast and smooth, and even though it has become a smidgen harder to score (the almighty one-timer has been mitigated a bit), newcomers will have the controls down in no time.
Speaking of roster updates by the way, the general manager mode deserves a mention here. It allows you to trade, sign, release and even create players. It can be considered a bit of a cheat to use this mode, as you’re able to create a super team out of the best players the league has to offer by making them sign up to your favorite hockey team. Sure, the game makes a little mention like Detroit objecting to having to trade Yzerman away, but there are no real consequences in doing so. However, you can create up to 19 new players, which allows you to basically make up your own team. Picking the weakest team in the league, kicking out all of the players and replacing them by freshly created rookies of your own is pretty fun, actually.
The graphics look remarkably similar, albeit a touch darker, and there are a couple of nice extra animations in there. For example, if you slam a player into the rink somewhere near the benches, you can actually send the opponent over the side. He immediately jumps back onto the ice and the animation looks somewhat jerky, but it’s fun, nonetheless. The sprites have been reduced a bit in size, which makes them look a bit more crisp on the big TV screen. However, if you own a Nomad, you’ll find that the smaller size also makes the game a little bit harder to play on the handheld screen. It still works pretty fine though.
There are, however, a few new features that go beyond roster updates. For instance, the save feature has been expanded and now allows up to four simultaneous seasons. So, if you and your sibling always wanted to play their own entire season run, only with different teams and on different levels of difficulty, now your dream has come true. Another new feature is the skill challenge mode. Those are basically four mini-games based around the game’s basic control mechanisms that help you get a better feel for playing, a traditional feature of EA sports games nowadays, but back then a brand new addition. In puck control relay, you control three players and have to pick up the puck, maneuver around a course set up by cones, pass the puck along to the next player, and repeat. In puck blast, you simple run up to the puck and shoot it, and the game tells you the speed of your shot. The reaction time mini-game lets you manually control the goalie and challenges you to keep the goal clean as players shoot 10 shots at your goal in a rapid succession. Probably the most challenging mini-game, but also the one that best trains you for the actual game, is accuracy shooting. Hit as many of the four targets as possible within the given tie limit. It’s a pretty handy feature if you’re a newcomer to the series (especially in its Genesis incarnation). If you’re already familiar with the games though, it doesn’t really bring anything new.
So, it’s all good, yes? So we have another 10 out of 10 hit on our hands? No, not quite. For one, while it does bring in a few new things, they aren’t really all that impressive. The graphical overhaul is okay, but doesn’t really appeal to me as much, especially since I prefer to play the game on my Nomad which has now became a bit harder. A few of the animations look a bit more jerky now, too, and while it may be a minor issue, I thing it deserves mention that while playing an entire season, I encountered at least one bug in the game. If, after finishing an entire season and entering the playoffs, you finish two games in overtime, winning the first and losing the second but both with the same score (like winning the first one 3-2 but losing the second 2-3), both games might end up being counted as victories for your team. It may be a minor issue (it only happened to me after entire seasons and only in the first series in the playoffs, but it was reproducible), I think it still deserves mention as it is a programming oversight I had never noticed in the NHL series before.
Bottom line, if you don’t know either NHL ’96 or NHL ’98, then there’s nothing wrong in checking out this game. It’s basically the same with a few minor tweaks. However, it hardly brings anything new to the table when compared to its excellent predecessor, and what it does introduce is executed a tad better in the Genesis sequel. If you’re looking to get every single NHL game released for the Genesis, feel free to go ahead, as complete copies of this title can be had for next to nothing. If you’re only looking for the best of the best, then it’s easy to dismiss this game and pick up ’98 or ’96 instead.
SCORE: 9 out of 10