Atari Video Computer System
Game: Ice Hockey
Year Released: 1988
I skipped Throwback Thursday last week because I felt that Luke did a good job giving you guys your nostalgia fix with his excellent Metal Gear Retrospectives. However, now that the launch of Metal Gear Solid 4 has come and gone and things are pretty much back to normal, it’s time for me to bring back the weekly throwback review.
It may come as a surprise that I’ve chosen a sports game for this week’s Throwback Thursday, given that I famously hate sports games in this day and age. To be fair, I’m not much of a sports fan to begin with, outside of baseball, so that probably has a lot to do with it. However, I’ve always thought that one of the many things the 8-bit era did right was sports games, because, for the most part, they got that simplicity could equal lots of fun for all gamers.
I have been a huge fan of Ice Hockey ever since first laying my hands on it in the early 1990s. I actually have not one, but two copies of this game for the NES, not that I could tell you why (blame it on my pack rat insanity). Everything about it is fairly simple, right down to the name (Ice Hockey? Really creative, Nintendo). Though the gameplay is straightforward, that doesn’t mean that the game is dumbed-down or boring; it’s actually a ton of fun, especially if you have a friend around to play against.
In Ice Hockey, you control a five-man team, which includes the goalie. Before each game starts, the player chooses a team from one of six countries, and then selects the body type of the four main players. There are three types to choose from: fat, skinny, and average. This is actually an important aspect of gameplay, because the different body types cause the players to act differently. Fat hockey players (who seem to resemble a certain mustachioed plumber) are ridiculously slow, but shoot harder and are more likely to get the puck in a scuffle. Skinny players are quick, but easily knocked over or blocked. As you can probably figure out, average-sized players are somewhere in between. I’ve always found it important to have a well-balanced team; you’re really not going to get very far with four overweight players trudging along on the ice.
Ice Hockey’s controls are fairly simple, with the D-pad controlling the players, one button being used to pass, and one to shoot. That being said, the controls work well, so there was really no need for Nintendo to try to tack anything else onto the game. Another aspect of Ice Hockey that I have always been a fan of is the fact that the player can choose the length of each period (7, 10, or 15 minutes apiece). This makes Ice Hockey a good choice whether you only have time for a quick game, or are settling in for an all-night gaming binge.
In addition to the basic gameplay, Nintendo included one of the most famous aspects of hockey: fighting. This was something of a surprise, because back in the NES era, Nintendo was famous for being a completely family-friendly publisher (even moreso than they are now). Yes, your players will sometimes get into fights, assuming that they’re evenly matched, and the longer the fight goes on, the more players will get into it, until it’s just a big pixilated brawl that, eventually, the referee will break up. Fighting is one of the more fun aspects of the game, until one of your players gets put in the penalty box.
Like any sports game, Ice Hockey is not without its problems. Most of these stem from frustrations caused by playing a computer team. I don’t remember having this problem before, but when playing it again last night, I noticed the opposite team’s goalie making a lot of impossible—sometimes nearly miraculous—saves. It felt cheap and unfair, but never enough to make me want to stop playing. Still, playing this game with an actual second person is definitely the more ideal way to go.
Ice Hockey may not be the most perfect gaming experience on the NES, or even the best sports game, but 20 years later, it’s still fun to play. It’s hard to imagine a time when Nintendo published first-party sports games that didn’t feature Mario and company, but that was once the case. Despite the simplicity in the controls and the lack of options when creating a team, it’s hard not to have a good time while playing this game. The good news is that this game is available via Nintendo’s Virtual Console, and well worth the $5 price tag. If you’re a fan of an era where sports games focused more on fun gameplay than realistic graphics, then chances are you will enjoy Ice Hockey.