It comes with a big plastic hockey stick. OK, there are a lot of other observations you could make about NHL Slapshot right off the top. Most notably, the game brings Wayne Gretzky back to a hockey game for the first time in a few years. But nothing about this EA Sports Wii exclusive stands out as much as the fact that you play with the remote and nunchuk crammed into a black contraption that sort of looks like a real hockey stick. Of course, this makes the game sound awfully gimmicky, which it kind of is, especially given its status as the little brother of the more realistic and full-featured NHL 11 available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But this Wii game is also a whole lot of fun. Accurate motion-sensing controls can tell the difference between a slapshot and a body check. An arcade-first feel makes this the ideal hockey game for the whole family. And the range of gameplay options includes a fantastic Peewee to Pro mode that lets you take a tyke all the way from a backyard rink to the show. While there might not be enough depth here to satisfy serious hockey nuts, this is a great arcade game for all ages.
At first glance, however, NHL Slapshot looks like a cut-down version of NHL 11. All of the game options have been trimmed back. You can get into one-off games, journey through full seasons, play for the Stanley Cup, indulge in minigames, and even take on a career mode called Peewee to Pro, but there is no way to be the GM of a club, no Ultimate Team feature, and no online play at all. The game emphasizes a kid-friendly approach. Opening videos show Wayne Gretzky playing minor hockey, and then junior with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and then pro with the Edmonton Oilers. All of the instructional videos lean toward the preteen set, too, with nothing but clips of kids playing on backyard rinks. It's all pretty cute and well done, but at the same time, the limited feature set comes off as chintzy.
After playing for a while, you won't care about the skimpy game options. The controls really make NHL Slapshot something special. A big part of this is the hockey stick peripheral that ships with the game. It's a cheap-looking contraption, a hollow plastic shell with a foam rubber stick blade sticking out of the bottom of it. At first glance, it looks like some weird gun or slingshot. It's only after you wedge the Wii Remote into the middle of the stick and the nunchuk into the top that you start to appreciate the whole innovative setup. Essentially, the stick controller allows you to control the game as if you have a real hockey stick. You take it in both hands, with the lower near the buttons of the remote and the upper with your thumb on the nunchuk's stick. From there, all movements are pretty intuitive. To skate, you use the nunchuk stick. To shoot, you move the whole hockey stick, flicking forward for a wrist shot and winding up and then pushing forward for a slapper. Passing is done with quick taps of the A button, and you can deke by either moving the stick or hitting the B button. Hitting and poke-checking are handled by either shoving the hockey stick forward in a cross-checking motion or pushing the stick forward as if you were trying to spear somebody.
That might sound awkward and even a little complicated, but it's not. The controls feel totally natural after no more than five minutes of play. All of the controls are also incredibly responsive. When you want to shoot, you shoot. When you want to hit somebody, you hit somebody. Manual deking is a touch finicky because it's too easy to accidentally take a wrist shot when trying to just slip past a defender. EA has obviously considered this, though, and included B-button deking so you don't have to bother doing it manually. It's also a little too easy to accidentally hit the A button when winding up for a shot, which instead results in having you pass the puck toward the net. Other than that, everything is finely tuned. The only drawback is that you need a fair bit of room to swing the hockey stick, especially if you're playing with a friend. Without a lot of space in a pretty big living room, you'll undoubtedly wind up clocking each other with your sticks and maybe wind up in a real hockey brawl.
Gameplay on the ice in NHL Slapshot is a touch simplified when compared to what you might find in the game's big brother, NHL 11. Everything here has been geared more for quick arcade fun than an actual simulation of real hockey. So pacing is a little faster, opposition a little lighter, and scoring a little easier. Oh, and there is no fighting. Most aspects of the game have been relaxed to accommodate the controls. So you can pull off moves like bone-rattling checks even if you're actually a split second off when lining up the opposing player. The AI is also pretty sharp, although the game is geared more to solo exploits than pretty playmaking. Playing locked to a position can be a little frustrating, as your linemates often come off like puck hogs. Shooting is the only part of the game that is rigorously modeled. You need to aim your shots precisely with the nunchuk stick to have a chance at scoring, even in high-flying peewee and bantam games where your linemates sometimes seem to be able to touch the twine at will. All in all, this loose style of play fits the unique controller perfectly, as it would be tough to make this kind of twitch-game gimmick work well with a demanding sim.
Modes of play aren't quite as simplistic as they first seem, either. Peewee to Pro is an outstanding if offbeat take on the Be a Pro option in NHL 11, where you take a scrub from junior to NHL stardom. Here, you start off as a little kid playing three-on-three hockey in an outdoor rink under the tutelage of Gretzky himself. It's not nearly as elaborate as Be a Pro, but it's still pretty impressive. You gain experience points for things like great hits, smart passes, and goals then use them after the game to buff offense, defense, and athletic skill categories. These get more involved as you move up the ladder to the better leagues, too. You start with just the three catch-all categories, which are easy to max out by the end of a peewee season, and then move on to multiple classes in each. So you no longer just assign experience points to a generic "offense." Instead you have to choose to put points toward a wide range of specific talents, like shooting, stickhandling, controlling the puck, making accurate slapshots, and so forth. Completing on-ice objectives earns you boosts to these categories, improving the many specific skills. If you hit a target for something like assists, for instance, you unlock boosts that then enhance your passing skill. You can also choose from a wide variety of sticks, including Gretzky's famous Titan model from the 1980s.
Much of the look and feel of NHL Slapshot is reminiscent of NHL 11, with everything dialled down a few notches. Graphics are generally excellent, with sharp player faces and animations that roll out smoothly and realistically. You'll never confuse the game for a TV broadcast, but it still looks really good and includes little broadcast touches like close-ups of players jostling and jawing after whistles. Audio is sprinkled with great atmospheric touches like car-horn honks after goals and parents shouting encouragement in peewee and bantam games outdoors. But it isn't so hot when you move into indoor action because the crowd seems subdued and the commentary of announcers Gary Thorne and Bill Clement has been cut down to generic jabber. The soundtrack features mostly the same lineup of songs as NHL 11, a bland conglomeration of indie hard rock like Bullet for My Valentine and Danko Jones alongside ancient arena tunes. The latter includes such ditties as Europe's soul-crushing "The Final Countdown," the awful "Ole" song played at Montreal Canadians games, and a castrated version of The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" that drops the "shoot" part of the "shoot 'em in the back now" lyric.
Although you might be tempted to dismiss NHL Slapshot as a lesser, kiddie knockoff of NHL 11 geared for the Wii's younger demographic, don't be too quick to rate it as an also-ran. This is a great arcade hockey game with unique controls that is an absolute blast to play with a friend (who should bring his own stick since only one is included with the game) or when you just want to experience something completely different from traditional gamepad hockey.