Back in 1991, Electronic Arts changed the video gaming landscape forever by releasing NHL Hockey, the first in their venture into the world of ice hockey. Since then, EA have released an NHL game annually (the most recent installment being NHL 21), alongside a couple of standalone games, leaving us with over 30 NHL games to get our fill of virtual ice hockey.
But EA wasn’t the only company interested in NHL. In 2000, 2K released their first venture into the sport with NHL 2K, spawning a sport-wide rivalry akin to that we find with FIFA and PES games.
Of course, the games have all, for the most part, been welcomed with fanfares by fans of the sport. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few standout gems over the years.
Let’s take a look back at some of our favorite games, and what exactly made them great.
1. NHL 09
After almost two decades of experience under their belt, EA showed their true colors with NHL 09 by adding a variety of new features.
The most exciting was the “Be-A-Pro” mode where players could create their own unique player and take control of their career all the way from the minors to the mighty Stanley Cup.
Not only this, but NHL 09 added a new dimension to defense with the “Skill Stick” which allowed players to take defensive control of the puck in ways never seen before. This focus on defense, not just the much focused on scoring, allowed the game to show a new side of the series. And, of course, these ideologies also extended to future versions of the franchise.
2. NHL 12
Hailed by many as the greatest NHL game of all, NHL 12 was another landmark title for the games.
One major sought after addition was the “Winter Classic” mode, which featured in the demo of NHL 11 but never received its own mode in that title. Fortunately, after some probing through message boards and forums, EA decided to add it to the roster of NHL 12.
But it wasn’t just this that made NHL 12 great. It reintroduced goalie fights, not seen since NHL 07 and it added all new functionality to the “Be-A-Pro” mode. But perhaps most importantly it levelled up the animations and physics, ensuring that the game reacts with as much realism as possible.
Perhaps this was the game where the NHL series transitioned from arcade fun to near-simulation.
3. ESPN NHL 2K5
While EA may have (more-or-less) a stranglehold on ice hockey in video gaming, 2K certainly gave them a run for their money, especially with ESPN NHL 2K5.
Fixing up a variety of gameplay and presentational issues which surfaced in 2K’s previous ESPN game, this title marked a huge step up across the board.
Not only did they step up all the gameplay to really give EA a scare, but they included an incredibly in-depth franchise mode which, at the point, was by far the most extensive. This included hiring staff, dealing with contracts, scouting new talent among other managerial tasks, much to team-builder’s delight.
Another, albeit smaller, feature the game introduced was the ability to play in the great outdoors. While this may seem like a small change, the game mode was a real hit with fans.
Together, all this solidified ESPN NHL 2K5 as one of the hallmarks of 2000s hockey games.
4. NHL Hitz 2003
It wasn’t just 2K and EA who gave hockey games a shot. Back in the early 2000s Midway Games released three hockey titles under the franchise NHL Hitz.
The best of these was, by far, the second release NHL Hitz 2003. The franchise took a similar formula to Midway’s NFL Blitz series, which allowed players to indulge in an over-the-top, exaggerated version of the sport, instead of a realistic simulation, which is what the other studios were focused on.
This set NHL Hitz apart from the pack, giving it a unique feel for players. Allowing them to score with goalies, kick opponents into the stands and indulge in overall bombast of an over-the-top version of ice hockey. Not to mention that the game’s soundtrack was perfect for early 2000s audiences.
5. NHL ‘94
Generally considered the greatest hockey video game of all time, if not one of the best sports games of all time, NHL 94 was monumental for EA’s series.
While this may sound absurd for a game made almost three decades ago, if you care to go back and give it a go you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised. Its tight controls, responsive gameplay, exciting variety of game modes, including regular seasons, playoffs, best-of-seven playoffs and a shootout mode, mean that it genuinely does hold up all these years on.
NHL is a sport dear to many hearts around the world. Too often the sport, along with the NHL video games, are forgotten in favor of the more dominant sports of warmer climates. Fortunately, game makers have given the NHL the acknowledgement it deserves, delivering some of the most memorable sports games ever made in the process.
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