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.


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.

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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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Avatar image for specialorder937

Still have NHL '94 for the SNES, still play it!! Definitely wanna check this out! I wonder why Milan Hejduk is shown wearing an Avalanche uniform though; that didn't happen till Fall '95. And why is the Minnesota North Stars team advertised when they moved to Dallas in '93? Confused...

Avatar image for pottedPlant7p

Indeed! NHL '94 is the only sports game I've ever purchased

Avatar image for TrueGB

This reminds of this one unlicensed baseball game I played some years back. The batting system involved lining up a box representing your swing with the movement of the pitch. A circle within the strike zone represented where the ball was going, but the ball could move any number of ways. Curveballs could start high and suddenly drop down, cutters start off the plate and then move in, etc.

The fun was lining up your swing-box with the movement of the ball. A small "x" represented the sweet spot of the bat and of course you're always trying to line that up for a home run. Hitting skill impacted the size of the box. Powerful hitters had big a "X" that made it easier to hit home runs while good hitters had a much bigger swing box. Some hitters could have gigantic swing boxes, but the tiniest "X". Even cooler, you could easily direct where the ball is hit by purposely placing the inside of the box on the ball for pulls or off the edge of the box to send it the other way. You time it right and you could still hit home runs without placing the "X" on the ball just by timing good pulls on inside fastballs and such. You really felt like the ball went where you wanted to in this game and I loved it. And when you faced good, the ball could really dance. It would be a real challenge to land that perfect hit, so you focused on just making good contact. Bad pitchers were so much easier to time because the ball wouldn't move much. Mind you, it wasn't a very accurate representation, especially when you're pitching, but it's still the funnest baseball game I've played.

I haven't played a new baseball game in years, so maybe someone else has implemented a system like that, but the few new games I did play didn't have anything like that. You just time it and press a button with the intention of hitting the ball a certain way and hope you guessed the right pitch. Not nearly as engaging. The sports games I do own I enjoy because of the management stuff. A sports game I enjoyed actually playing? Haven't played one in a long time.

Avatar image for WeepsForFools

I came into this thinking NHL 94 was going to be playable on this.. it's just rule and camera adjustments? Meh.

Avatar image for simulacraman

Ah, I miss The Move. Go in toward the goalie with your dominant hand to the outside, hold the puck in front of the goalie, then pull it back to the forehand at the last second. Worked almost every time. The challenge became whether you or your friends could break the 50 goal barrier.

Avatar image for JoInfo

Blades of Steel!!!

Avatar image for snowblood1970

@JoInfo Yes! Blades Of Steel was the Best!!!

Avatar image for ppopopp

Man hockey sim games are nowhere near as fun as nhl 94. Bring back the fun in the hockey game I say. I played over 1500 games of nhl 94.

Avatar image for mkeezay22

The number one reason I will be buying this game is the fully physics based collisions, they look truly amazing.

To anyone who hasn't watched the collision gameplay video I suggest you do.

Avatar image for Tribesmaster

Love NHL 94, but NHL 13 is awesome too. Will probably buy NHL 14 since I buy them every year. Can't wait to try anniversary mode.

Avatar image for poopinpat

Ahh, the good ol' days of winning hockey games 44 - 0. The wrap around will never be the same :O

Avatar image for AJC3317

I don't play sports games anymore because of exactly this. all the different controls make it a nightmare to just try and learn. one of my favorite sports games of all time was ken Griffey jr slugfest for the n64, and that was about as simple as it gets and was fun as hell because of it. I also enjoyed madden 2001, because again, it was simple and easy to understand and learn

Avatar image for theoasis77

This is cool... But, it won't control or play anything like it. There was no deke moves and other stuff...

Avatar image for backcue

I love NHL 94! I have it on my smartphone with an emulator! Nostalgia will never die lol

Avatar image for nyran125tk

when i play a game llike NBA 2K12(which is my favourite Sports game ever or at least my favourite sports sim, its the most believable sports game ive ever played anyway) im not to good at it , but it really is an example of how complicated gaming is now. There is so many button combinations that need to be used just to play a sports games now, its almost to over the top. Like Madden has so many options before the snap, are they all that necessary? Some of them seem helpful, but do people actually use all those options before the snap?

Sports games now are actually quite daunting, they use to be just fun. IM still shocked they have yet to create the perfect boxing sim, that truly feels like the player is in a real fight in first person view

Avatar image for DeViLzzz

@nyran125tk I have trouble with all the button combinations but others do not. I think the compromise is to have different ways to play games in terms of control options and EA has invited this into their sports games. It is definitely something good they have done. OMG I said evil EA has done something good. Will people shoot me for saying this ? Will EA kill me ?

Avatar image for Wattsburg0

They should have two kinds of commentary you can choose from.They should have realistic commentary and except that it will never really be anything other than the same thing being said over and over and over.But, they should also have a selection for a comedic commentary that has two folks making funny comments on big hits or dumb plays.It is cheaper to get a couple of folks to spend a few months to record a ton of one liners and combine it with some play by play than getting a couple of real sports announcers that only record 100 different statements.

Avatar image for svetzenlether

No sports games have ever really come close to NHL 94 and Tecmo Super Bowl for me...NHL 02 and 06 came close, and I really liked Madden 2005 but other than that...

Avatar image for fallin75

Fifa 98 comes to my mind...

Avatar image for Mickael

Why doesn't EA let us customize our controls for all the new NHL games? If they did that, I'd buy it. That's the main reason why we long for NHL '94 controls. As it stands now, EA let's us use their complicated control scheme that my friends do not wish to learn, or the way too basic '94 controls.

It's either "holy crap what does what?!" or pass, hit, and shoot. Customization would solve most of the casual gamers concerns.

Avatar image for ydnarrewop

Back in the day I'd own all of you lol NHL 94 SNES... Lol unbeatable :)

Avatar image for theoasis77

@ydnarrewop Cool... But nhl 94 on snes sucked bad.

Avatar image for razorfett147

@theoasis77 @ydnarrewop How so?

Avatar image for geroy69

@theoasis77 @ydnarrewop I thought it was great

Avatar image for gaming_binge

i agree with this article; i have the game and still play it to this day. i also feel that nba jam is also a sports classic (even though it was fantasy basketball)

Avatar image for dem5000

Yes I spent a ton of time on this game. Time I should have been first memorable hockey game was Blades of Steel. It didn't even need NHL branding. It was just AWESOME! I think the last Madden game I actually enjoyed was maybe 95. I do miss the simplicity of the old school sports games. GREAT ARTICLE!

Avatar image for gaming_binge

@dem5000 great comment as well. took all the words right out of my mouth. blades of steel was the shit, and this game was and still is as well.

Avatar image for uklegendkiller

I'm just glad I grew up around this time and experienced these great titles. NBA Live & NHL where always my favorite sports titles back then. Wish these would be released on PSN and XBL!

Avatar image for dr_jashugan

The problem with developers is that they try really hard in giving a REAL experience, but in the process they forget that games are about being FUN TO PLAY. 8-\

Avatar image for GTAKing11

NHL Hitz 2001. By FAR the best NHL game ever.

The new NHL Arcade does not even compare to how Hitz was, you can tell they tried. But it was missing the nostalgia of playing hockey at a disco rink, or on a pirates boat. Plus entering cheats/bonus' prior to the game was genius.

NHL games are good to this day, but man NHL Hitz hit the sweet spot. Best game to play after some beers with the buds for sure!

Avatar image for andfx8

Bring back NHL Hitz!!

Avatar image for uklegendkiller

@andfx8 That game was mad fun!

Avatar image for mkeezay22

I spent countless ours as a child playing nhl 94 at my house and with friends at there place, it was like everyone had a genesis copy.

The only other sports game to suck me in like that was generations later when NFL 2K came out for dreamcast and had me drooling over the graphics and amazing gameplay, animations, and so much voicer it was like watching a game to me back then.

I'm glad EA is adding a 94 mode but those games were top notch for their time so I don't think making games simpler is a step forward, devs should be constantly trying to push the envelope like NFL 2K did and with a new gen of consoles coming it's the perfect time to bring sports games up a notch like NHL 94 and NFL 2K did before.

It's great as an option but I hope they didn't waste resources that could have gone to the main game on it, NHL 14 looks to be the first fully physics based collision game which is a big step forward so I hope the rest of the game lives up to the hype.

Avatar image for lorider25

NBA Live 95 > NHL 94

any day, all day

Avatar image for bizuit

That's the great thing about Madden, we get the same retro game every year!

Avatar image for Loshead

HOLY CRAP!!! Im not a huge hockey fan but I loved nhl 93 and 94 growing up OMG!! im gonna get this.

Avatar image for Rayrota

Wait, what's wrong with Tecmo Bowl Throwback?

Avatar image for wEEman33_IV

@Rayrota Terrible netcode that made the online experience unplayable.

Lack of full editing tools (could only edit player names, not ratings and not teams).

Incredibly poor 3D graphics and animations.

Based off the inferior SNES version rather than the classic NES version.

Avatar image for MariJoe007

I love a sense of unrealism in sports games. That's why I loved games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz for the SNES and the N64. Make sports games cool again EA! Not just on anniversaries. Had a regular realistic mode, then arcade mode.

Avatar image for Sushiglutton

Why not have both? Let EA push technology and let smaller studios/indies do more arcade like sports games.

I love the complexity in something like FIFA. It's fun to practice dribble and shooting before playing a game. There is always more to learn and an endless number of ways to be creative. That for me captures the essence of sports more than NHL94 ever did.

Avatar image for BravoOneActual

But will it have "The Move"?

Avatar image for fatee

@smashthejews @Microsteve

Your name is " smash the jews" how are not banned? and what the **** are talking about?

Avatar image for nezza08

@fatee @smashthejews @Microsteve He is a sick individual. He is on about a soldier in the UK who got beheaded in broad daylight.

Avatar image for smashthejews

@fatee @smashthejews @Microsteve because its the truth

Avatar image for Vodoo

I completely agree and have felt this way for over a decade. The last football game I bought was when 2K Football put out the game for $20 to beat Madden. I knew then that my favorite sports game had surpassed my willingness to keep up with its complicated controls. Basketball games as well. I only play NBA Jam: On Fire Edition if I want to hit the virtual hoops. Baseball has even become a micro-management affair of diving 5+ layers deep into the menu items.

Arcade sports games need to make a comeback. There are far more casual players and wannabe sports game players than publishers realize. EA killed off arcade sports because they didn't treat it seriously. They put out NBA & NFL Street. If they would've had the Street gameplay with the look and feel of Madden, they would've had a great arcade game.

Like Tom says, a realistic looking game with mechanics broken down to the raw essentials of the sport are what myself and many others long for. I just hope that we're not so far past this that it's all but an impossibility at this point.

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