The Legend of NHL 94: A Link to the Past

Why NHL 14's retro-inspired mode is making us pine for the era of simpler sports games.

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NHL 94 holds a place in history that no modern sports game can possibly match. Whereas current entries get consumed and spat out on a yearly basis, the Genesis classic has achieved immortality by straddling the line between two distinct tastes. Hockey enthusiasts and neophytes alike can enjoy the glacial escapades, and it's that inclusionary mindset that has fueled NHL 94's relevance almost two decades after it first came out. EA Sports is commemorating this milestone by including an updated version of its seminal sporting event in NHL 14. More than just a happy nostalgia trip, NHL 94 Anniversary highlights the growing divide between the sports gaming landscape and potential players.

Modern sports games are defined by their technological advancements. Physics and artificial intelligence have improved to such a noticeable degree that the wall separating real sports from their digital counterparts has begun to slowly chip away. Cornerbacks can read the eyes of a quarterback and react quickly enough to knock down a pass; point guards can use a crossover to make the defender off balance and then drive to the hoop; a penalty-killing unit can play keep-away with the puck long enough for their punished teammate to rejoin them. It's incredible how lifelike sports games have become. Casual viewers could be fooled into thinking they're watching the real thing, and it wouldn't even be fair to make fun of them for their gaffe.

Modern sports games are defined by their technological advancements.

However, as much as we should applaud sports developers for their achievements, virtual sports now reside firmly in the uncanny valley. No matter how authentic these games look, there is always the gnawing feeling that what you're playing is very different from what you're used to watching. When a tight end walks lackadaisically out of bounds before securing a catch or a center forget to roll to the basket after setting a pick, we take notice. These games are supposed to mirror the real thing, after all, so every time they veer from reality, it takes us out of the experience. That doesn't make these games unenjoyable, but it does show just how far developers still are from reaching their goal.

Contrast the "something's not right" feeling that permeates current games with the "anything goes" mentality of the genre's most beloved games. In NHL 94, for example, the game frequently clashed with reality. But it had no ambition to emulate the real thing. The technology wasn't even close to where it is today, and the game chose to embrace that disconnect rather than fight against it. Instead of appealing only to the dyed-in-the-wool hockey fans, NHL 94 had a broader reach that welcomed everyone to its blue-tinged ice. You didn't have to understand the rules and minutiae of the real sport (even though most of the basic elements were included); you just needed a willingness to get your gloves dirty. NHL 94 was closer to a competitive action game than a simulator, and that opened the door to a much wider audience.

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Current sports games have left all but their most diehard fans (and hardcore players) in the dust. The controls have become so complex that anyone who doesn't live and breathe the sport will be utterly lost. Trying to dribble through a crowd with the right stick while anticipating when your teammates are going to be open and then delivering a perfect pass is a routine that flies over many people's heads. And the attempts to boil such endeavors down to just a single button press fall flat. When EA introduced arcade-style modes in Madden for the Wii, they were devoid of any depth, so you went through the motions without ever feeling invested. Trying to cater to both the biggest sports fans and casual players at the same time is incredibly difficult, so those with only a passing interest have been largely ignored.

Current sports games have left all but their most diehard fans in the dust.

The beauty of earlier sports games is that they embody the raw appeal of the sport without burdening you with all of the hardcore elements. NHL 94 is nothing more than shooting, passing, hitting, and skating. That's it, the entire sport stripped down to just four parts. Mike Tyson's Punch-Out is just punching and dodging. Tecmo Super Bowl is running, throwing, and hitting. These earlier games were able to communicate the inherent appeal of their sports without ignoring those who weren't intimately familiar with the in-depth strategies. And those who loved the NHL could still squeal when they made Gretzky's head bleed or notched their second hat trick as the unstoppable Jeremy Roenick. These games had to stand on their own because they couldn't fall back on their resemblance to the real thing, and they succeeded wildly.

NHL 94 Anniversary not only brings back a beloved game, but doesn't fall into the same trap as so many reimaginings. Repackaging nostalgia is a tricky proposition. People have built up the past in their minds, so developers have to compete with what you remember rather than what actually happened. We've seen companies try to churn out a poor imitation and fail miserably. Remember Tecmo Bowl Throwback? The less said about that, the better. But Punch-Out (for the Wii) tapped into the core appeal of the Tyson original while updating it for a current audience. The same could be said for NHL 94 Anniversary. The physics have been borrowed from NHL 11, so it's not as tight as the original. However, it's still fast and smooth, and the added momentum makes the hits that much more satisfying.

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Sports games have been moving in the same direction for far too long. There is a bigger audience out there than just the diehards who desperately want to replicate what they watch on television. As NHL 94 Anniversary proves, cutting sports to their raw elements is still incredibly fun. All of the advanced physics and strategies that have alienated a large part of the audience are not necessary to create an entertaining game. Developers should rekindle what made older games withstand the test of time. Right now, sports games are tossed out whenever a sequel hits. If developers make something that doesn't rely on technology and up-to-date rosters, however, the fun can stretch on for decades down the line.

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