While NHL 96 is probably the best PC hockey game available today, it may also be the first PC sports sim to suffer from being too realistic for its own good. Anyone who knows hockey knows that it is a low-scoring game; far too often in NHL '96, it is a no-scoring game. During one stretch, I played three consecutive full time games that all ended in 0-0 ties. A testament to my lack of shooting ability? Perhaps, but I don't think so. More skillful players may disagree, but I found what little scoring there was to be fairly arbitrarya move would suddenly work when it had previously failed time and time again. This unsettling sense of randomness is felt throughout the game, including in the calling of penalties and the outcome of brawls.
But having said all that, NHL '96 is still fun to play, both on the ice and off. The graphics are superb, from the on-ice reflections to the numbers on the back of the player jerseys, with graceful player movement and fluid animation. (You will need a very powerful machine to see all this in hi-res mode.) After a few games, you'll be able to pass with relative precision and disable your opponents in any number of ways, from simple body checks to full-on fist fights. Your ability to trade players and immediately jump into exhibition, regular season, or playoff mode allows you to play with the team you want in the game you want, and the head-to-head option is almost fun enough to make you forget what a bore the single player game can sometimes be.
EA has built the foundations of a terrific title with NHL 96. Let's hope they finish the job with NHL '97.