It's got some pretty steep system requirements, and its numerous bugs and questionable design decisions can lead to some frustrating moments. But in spite of it all, NHL 97 is one of the most downright exciting sports titles I've ever played.
What makes NHL 97 so much fun are its stunning graphics and jaw-dropping animations. It's hard to imagine players more lifelike in appearance than those you'll find here, at least in a PC-based sim, and the animations are even better: when these guys skate, shoot, check, and block shots, you'd almost swear you were watching a match on TV. Subtle touches abound, from glove saves to poke checks - every time I play, I spot something new.
All NHL teams are included - thanks to the game's NHLPA license, all the player names and stats are accurate - along with national teams from the U.S., Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, and Europe; play modes include exhibitions, seasons (of variable length), and playoffs. If you want to keep your roster current, there's an option to trade, re-assign, and create players. The interface for doing all this stuff could be a little more intuitive, but once you've gotten accustomed to it you'll be breezing through the menus with no problem.
Various features for toggling rules, injuries and fatigue, and period length mean you can make NHL 97 as real as you like. Don't feel like dealing with line changes? Then set it to automatic and let the computer handle the job (and it does it pretty well, too). Or if you're in the mood for an arcade-style shootout, turn off line changes and penalties, along with offsides and two-line pass rules, and get ready for truly brutal nonstop action.
One of my favorite features is the play-by-play announcer (only available in the 16MB version). Though his commentary tends to lag slightly behind the onscreen action, it's still very good, one of the few play-by-play features I've ever bothered to leave on in a sports game. My favorite lines are "He's got the puck on a string!", a breathless "He carries it right out in front," and - of course - "He SHOOTS!" Some users have reported oddities in the commentary such as garbled speech, incorrect names, constant repetitions of certain words, and more, but I've played the game for many hours and about the only problem I ran into was the delay in the commentary I mentioned before.
Make no mistake: I love playing this game. But several problems keep it from being all it could have been. Passing in earlier editions of this series was probably too easy, but now it's much too difficult - even a short pass from a center to a wingman is likely to go astray. Scoring, too, is harder: I've seen computer-controlled goalies shut me out when I've taken 50 or even 60 shots (and these weren't hopeless slapshots from impossible angles, either).
Though NHL 97 supports the Gravis GRIP (up to eight players can compete using the GRIP, four per side) only two buttons are used, and because the same button is used for checking and shooting you'll see a lot of accidental icings. (Speaking of icing , the computer-controlled teams do it way too much, slowing down gameplay unnecessarily.) Even more odd is that the two buttons that ARE supported on the GRIP are the two "paddles" at the top of the pad - strange, considering there are six buttons more conveniently located on the pad. Another problem with two-button support is that on offense you have to constantly tap the directional pad to speed up, resulting in a weary thumb and near-impossible "steering" during acceleration. Finally, NHL 97 doesn't work with any processor but a true Pentium, a situation that's caused owners of Cyrix and other "clone" chips to raise such an uproar that EA is currently working on a patch.
But there's so much fun to be had here, especially playing against a human opponent, that I can overlook the problems. That doesn't mean I don't think EA shouldn't address the issues, but it does mean that even with all its flaws the game is still a real blast. As a matter of fact, I think it's time for a face-off right about now....