Whatever else you say about NHL Open Ice 2 on 2 Challenge, one thing's for sure: You don't have to be a hockey fan to get a kick out of it. Come to think of it, hard-core hockey fans might be the ones who like it the least because NHL Open Ice bears about as much resemblance to real hockey as tee ball does to baseball. Yeah, it carries both the NHL and NHLPA licenses, and gameplay consists of big guys on skates trying to whack a flat, cylindrical object into a net guarded by someone wearing bulky pads, but those are about the only things this PC conversion of the popular video game has in common with the real McCoy. This is down-and-dirty arcade action, plain and simple - and it's pretty damn good arcade action at that.
Just as with NBA Jam and NBA Jam Extreme, the teams in NHL Open Ice consist of only two players and a goalie (four players are available from each team, however). You have complete control over one player, but you can make a computer-controlled teammate pass, shoot, or check. NHL Open Ice takes all the "extraneous" stuff - penalties, line changes, power plays, and so on - and chucks it right out the arena door, leaving you with only the basics: shooting, passing, and delivering earth-shattering body checks.
Each player has a turbo meter and a hot meter; the turbo meter starts shrinking the longer you hold the turbo button (naturally) for more speed or a brutal check, and the hot meter begins to fill up as you score goals, make assists or steals, or check an opponent. Fill up that hot meter, and you've got unlimited turbo power until the other team scores - not to mention a fiery puck and a flaming net whenever you score.
There's a slew of options and power-up codes that do all sorts of stuff, from giving you baby-sized players with huge heads or huge players with tiny heads, to providing increased speed, faster checking, and quicker turbo recharge. Thankfully, all the power-ups and options, except one (a way to play as Gordie Howe), are either listed in the manual or are available from game menus, so you don't have to scour the Net looking for them.
The action here is unabashedly simplistic - pulling off one-timers is a piece of cake, and you can unleash a check from an ungodly distance - but what NHL Open Ice lacks in depth it makes up for with plenty of flashy moves, ridiculously violent checks, and gameplay that moves near the speed of light from start to finish. Especially cool are the "specialty shots" your player will fire if you press turbo and shoot at the same time. It sure as heck ain't realistic, but I for one get a kick out of seeing my player do a triple somersault or blurring out as if he were out to enter warp speed before taking a shot.
As you can imagine, high scores are a way of life in NHL Open Ice: Even with three-minute periods you'll grow accustomed to scores like 10-8 or 9-7, unless you activate "super goalies," that is. The gameplay's just as frenzied, brutal, and hilarious with this option on, but it seems that no one ever scores; I played three games using five-minute periods (the max) against the computer and wound up with 0-0 ties. I realize this is an arcade game, but there should be some middle ground between these two extremes.
NHL Open Ice has a couple of other blemishes, too. The rink dimensions are kinda screwy - normal-sized players look like Goliaths, so you'll wind up using baby players almost every time so you'll at least have a little room to maneuver. Another curiosity is the level of graphics quality: In full-screen mode, the players are awfully blocky and pixelated, especially if they're normal-sized. That problem's eliminated when you choose a lower resolution, but then the viewing area is so small that you have to get almost on top of the monitor to make out what's happening out on the ice. And while Chicago Blackhawks' announcer Pat Foley does a great job with the play-by-play, Midway should have told him to skip the stuff about penalties ("he could get a major for that!") since there aren't any in the game.
NHL Open Ice isn't the kind of game you'll play for hours on end, but it is the kind that you can fire up just about any time for 20 or 30 minutes of fun, or leave running at your next party for your guests to enjoy. Except for the graphics in the full-screen mode, they'll think they're at the arcade - and with a game like this, you can't ask any more than that.