The first sports game available for the Wii's Virtual Console was Soccer, and it was an all-around dud. Things are looking up, however, as the next sports title to hit the service is the NES game Ice Hockey. Now almost 20 years old, the game's simple, fast-paced gameplay holds up surprisingly well.
There are six teams to choose from in Ice Hockey: United States, Sweden, Poland, Canada, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. You can also select from three different period lengths and five different game speeds, which basically amounts to selecting a difficulty, because the faster the speed, the harder the game. Next you're taken to the lineup screen, where you put together a team of four skaters of varying sizes: "Fat Guy," who's slow but can check well and has a powerful shot; "Skinny Guy," who's superfast but can't shoot very hard and is easily knocked off the puck; and "Regular Guy," who's the most balanced, but often the least effective of the three. You also get a goalie, but he's always the same.
Once the puck drops, Ice Hockey is a blast to play. The controls are simple, but they offer a fair amount of depth for an early NES sports game. On offense you can pass and shoot. The longer you hold the shot button, the harder your shot will be. You can even perform a fake shot with a quick tap of the shot button. It's great fun barreling down the ice and knocking the opposition to the ground with Fat Guy, and it's just as fun to skate circles around teams with the speedy Skinny Guy. On defense you can switch players, and you can check guys not only by running into them, but also by pressing the 2 button, which gives you a little boost toward your target. You control the goalie by via the D pad, and because you're controlling the goalie and a defender at the same time, you're forced to decide whether it's best to go for the puck with the defender or to try to stop the shot with the goalie. Games against the CPU are typically high-scoring, and while there doesn't seem to be a difference in how any of the teams play, they usually put up a good fight. The game really shines when played against another person--it's always fast-moving, there's plenty of back-and-forth action, and trying to start fights never gets old.
Ice Hockey's graphics are simple, but they get the job done. The frame rate is fast, the rink is detailed and looks nice, and there are lots of little touches such as Zambonis smoothing the ice after the second period, a referee who drops the puck on face-offs, and even a crowd. You're not likely to crank it up through your stereo, but Ice Hockey sounds just fine. The sound effects are decent, and the tune that loops while you play is catchy.
Ice Hockey is one of those rare NES sports games that's almost as much fun to play today as it was when it was released. While the game is at its best when played against another person, it's still fun when taking on the CPU. Anyone who remembers having a good time with the game when they were a kid won't be disappointed when they play it now, and even casual players who have never played before will likely have a good time.