1997 might not seem like that long ago, but from a hockey video game fan's perspective, it may as well have been the 19th century. Unlike today, where there are only two or three NHL video games to speak of, not counting 989's upcoming Gretzky NHL 2005 and the recently revived hockey management sim NHL Eastside Hockey Manger, 1997 saw the release of five solid hockey titles, including NHL Breakaway '98 and NHL Powerplay '98.
EA Sports, not to be outdone, released a puck title of its own with NHL 98, another installment in EA's legendary hockey series that is perhaps second only to the venerable Madden NFL series in terms of longevity and consistent popularity. In this, the first installment of GameSpot Sports Classic, we'll take a look at this exemplary hockey title. Specifically, we'll reveal its strengths and weaknesses and divulge why the game is still worth a look, even today.
Based on how NHL 98 plays, it's clear the EA Sports crew had two things on its collective mind during the development of the game: speed and intensity. From the brutal, intense, full-motion video that opened the game (which showcased some amazing scores and big-save highlights from the previous season), EA was determined to up the ante in terms of high-octane excitement and up-and-down action.
The result is a game that places a premium on speed and offensive play. This focus on scoring and quick-paced gameplay meant that NHL played at a speed that was, for its time, shocking...and more than a little difficult to get used to. Forget the relatively plodding (yet more realistic) pace of recent games like NHL 2K5. NHL 98 was all about getting up the ice, dumping the puck at the goalie, and hoping for the best. Amazingly, and despite its speed and decent-looking character models, the game suffered from next to no slowdown. Players such as Anson Carter might balk at that last statement, however, because the game made no concession at realism in depicting African-American players.
NHL 98 piloted a mini-revolution in camera angles by offering more of them than had ever been seen in the NHL series, including two overhead options, a scoreboard cam, and the traditional ice and chase cams. Specifically, the overhead cams, while a bit awkward in some situations, made finding open players up-ice much easier, and they eliminated a lot of the guesswork in the passing found in previous versions of the game. Players could also change their preferred camera angles on the fly by using the R2 button on the PlayStation controller. This was a friendly option, sure, but it was one that proved disastrous at times. Too often in the heat of battle, it was easy to unwittingly change the camera angle by grazing the R2 button accidentally, thus throwing your entire game into chaos.
A Matter of Control
Control-wise, EA Sports' NHL series was still a year away from adding Dual Shock support, so the digital controls facilitated the easy missing of long up-ice passes and rendered it more difficult to make interceptions on defense. Similarly, the clunky control scheme resulted in lots of missed checks, especially when using the boost button.
Changing both your skating lines and your offensive and defensive strategies on the fly by using the shoulder buttons meant you could alter your game plan quickly to suit whatever situation you were in. However, you could not adjust offensive and defensive pressure, which is usually a much more effective method of swaying game outcomes, without exiting to the menu screen. For those not familiar with the difference between the combination and funnel offenses, a relatively primitive (by today's standards, anyway) chalkboard demo gave you the basics on how each style of play unfolded on the ice. This demo came illustrated courtesy of then-Avalanche coach Marc Crawford, who acted as a technical consultant for the game.
Jim Hughson and Daryl Reaugh provided their old-school commentary, which has progressively grown staler as the series has gone on, but it was actually a bit understated in NHL 98. Upon reflection, it's easy to see how much work companies like EA put into their voice and sound production these days based on comparisons to older games such as this. While the commentary is usually specific and appropriate in NHL 98, there is still a real sense of "cutting" in between comments and during the mention of a specific player's name, for example. Volume-level spikes between individual lines of commentary are relatively common as well.
The game was pretty sparse in terms of features. These were the days before complicated franchise modes in hockey games, after all. You could play a full season, set up custom tournaments, or go straight to a playoff mode for a quick shot at the Stanley Cup. A feature that let you check out the masks of all then-current NHL goalies (including the ability to rotate them to see the intricate artwork on them) seems charmingly quaint in retrospect.
In the end, the game played like a nitro-fueled import tuner drives: fast and loud. This was about as far away as you could get from simulation hockey and still have 12 guys on the ice. However, the results were mesmerizing. Up-and-down action was the order of the day, and the only consistently effective scoring strategy was crashing the net and hoping the puck fell in. In the seven years since the game was released, the number of goals scored using a modicum of the triangle-offense option can be counted on one hand.
NHL 98 remains a wonderfully addictive hockey game full of devastating speed and enough actualized scoring to keep you engaged. Take a trip to your local game shop, and see if they have this one in the bargain bin...if for no other reason than to relive the days of Ray Borque as a Boston Bruin. Despite its flaws, the game is still as fun and addictive as it was back in the 20th century.