It's a very off fact of gaming that there are so many sports video games that are good, but yet so few that become transcendent - memorable years after their initial releases and played fondly for many years afterward. Part of that, no doubt, is the fact that sports game developers tend to release editions of games for every league every year, so there's that sense of fatigue; developers know they can afford to really coast from time to time. Therefore, a sports game which is potentially timeless could very easily get lost in the indecipherable shuffle of the yearly roster updates.
That naturally makes it a truly special thing whenever a timeless sports game DOES manage to rise above and beyond the updates and become the favored game of its entire series for years. Or, in any case, a classic of the genre. How often has it happened? Let's see - there's Tecmo Bowl, NBA Jam (which can barely be called a sports game), NHL '94, ESPN NFL 2K5, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, Punch-Out, and maybe - MAYBE - World Series Baseball, Virtua Tennis, and Blades of Steel. Gran Turismo is you believe racing games and sports games are the same thing.
NHL '94 came out 20 years ago now, so upon picking it up, you won't be using Patrick Kane to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Chicago Blackhawks, thus winning him the Conn Smythe Trophy. The average NHL player isn't around for that long unless his name is Gordie Howe, so there are currently only six players in today's NHL who were in the league when NHL '94 was first released. There are many marquee players among them, though: Jaromir Jagr - now 41 years old and playing for the Boston Bruins - Nikolai Khabibulin, Teemu Selanne, and Martin Brodeur. The other two are Roman Hamrlik and Ray Whitney. These were definitely some of the halcyon days of the NHL. In NHL '94, the Carolina Hurricanes are still the Hartford Whalers, the Detroit Red Wings hadn't yet morphed into the NHL version of the New York Yankees, Wayne Gretzky still played in his prime, and the Neutral Zone Trap didn't bring on the near-ruination of the entire sport.
The great innovations which are popularly said to have elevated NHL '94 above and beyond the competition are the additions of the one-timer and the wrap-around. Those are certainly nice little things, but as to them making this game a classic, well, nuts to that! As with all great sports video games during the 16-bit era, the greatness of the game had nothing to do with how accurate it was and everything to do with the kinds of insane things that, no matter how accurate the game claimed to be, it would still let players get away with. Indeed, NHL '94 is a primitive beast and an imperfect and occasionally glitchy little monster. This game is still popular all over the place because the only limits imposed on it are those of your own sick, twisted imagination.
Yes, one-timers and wrap-arounds are all over the place in the NHL. They're an important part of the sport - if you don't know how to do them, you should just drop whatever far-flung fantasy you have of ever playing for the Blackhawks, or even a minor league team like the San Diego Gulls or Buffalo Sabres. But the real fun is in the little things you don't notice until you run into them by accident, laugh at, and integrate them into your gameplay. Sabres fans remember a recent incident where Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller was plowed by Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins. In real life, of course, it's the goalie who went down. In NHL '94, however, it would have been Lucic who would have taken the hit because in this game, the goalies are not only damn near invincible, but the players who try to check them end up getting knocked over. I once accidentally charged into an opposing goaltender with Pat LaFontaine, and LaFontaine got seriously injured! After that, my best friend and I made ramming the opposing goalie a big part of our gameplay just because we wanted to see who else we could hurt by running him into a goalie.
The flaws in NHL '94 are really something once you get ahold of what they are and how to use them to your advantage. The vaunted wrap-arounds don't work very often. Hockey being hockey, of course, a goalie who's even half-awake would be able to detect a wrap-around coming a mile away. If you tool around a little bit, though, you'll quickly learn that the goalies don't seem to move from side to side quite as quickly as the players, and so the best scoring opportunities happen as the player skates from one side of the rink to the other while just a few feet from the net. Master this, and you'll soon be getting the puck into the net on every penalty shot, and when you really conquer it, you'll be able to come out on the top of entire games played with no goalie.
Yes, you can do that. The game does come with an option to remove the goalie at any time so, if you play your cards exactly right, you'll be able to come back from a multiple goal deficit by yanking the goalie. Of course, to get it to work the best possible way, you'll want to make sure your lineups are in order, and the game gives you ways to customize two scoring lines, a checking line, and the lines for the power play and penalty kills. That means if your coach is an idiot, you can use NHL '94 to correct his mistakes and place the players with other players who make more sense.
Despite the heavy emphasis on simulation, there is a slant in NHL '94 geared toward casual, arcade players as well. This is mostly because of the way body checks are executed - use the C button to perform a speed burst, which doubles as a body check. The game is rather lax about calling some of the harder hits, so even though there's no fighting, NHL '94 provides an accurate but fast and loose hockey simulation. It isn't quite as fast as the uber-smooth advanced hockey games of today, which sometimes emphasize the hitting and fighting over everything else, but it keeps pace with the other options available at the time pretty easily. Even in spite of the fact that the offsides and icing calls are there to ruin your momentum once again. Fortunately, the lack of fighting is addition by subtraction, because not having to worry about slugging with a badass enforcer means there's only action left to concentrate on.
1994 in hockey video games was the last year before EA Sports let everyone walk into the NHL and decimate every roster in the league by sliding into the GM chair. You're not getting the world in play modes in NHL '94. There's a basic exhibition, tournaments of either single games or seven-game series, and a shootout mode. Those tournaments, of course, lead to the ultimate prize of hockey, the Holy Grail of sports: The Stanley Cup. There are profile pages to help you decide who should go on every line, though, so that helps. They even come with nice little corner thumbnail photos. You will, however, notice a few stupid roster quirks. For one thing, where the hell is Paul Kariya? Also, Wayne Gretzky - who, at the time of NHL '94, had a recent Hart Trophy to his name and was leading the Los Angeles Kings to their first Finals ever - somehow only gets a numerical ranking of 87. Among the players with higher ratings are: Alexander Mogilny (96), Pavel Bure (90), Teemu Selanne (90), Jeremy Roenick (89), and Doug Gilmour (89). Scott Neidermayer only gets a 58, John Vanbiesbrouck is a mere 63 while his fellow New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter (MIKE RICHTER!) is a 61, Mats Sundin seems pretty low at 79, and Denis Savard is a 75. And the team rankings seem a lot more balanced for a league without a salary cap. Aside from the All-Star teams, the highest team rating is the Blackhawks who, with a recent Presidents' Trophy and Finals appearance in their recent past back then, earn a 78 which is still three points higher than the Pittsburgh Penguins team that beat them to the Stanley Cup in 1992.
The graphics use small sprites without a whole lot of detail. What they lack in detail, though, they more than make up in their color and fluidity. While I'm pretty sure there aren't a ton of animation frames, the sprites are small enough for EA Sports to have gotten away with it, as long as they looked good in motion. There are also a few pleasant little animation details which, while not necessary for the game, are nice to have: You can see a siren going off after every goal. There's abundant crowd animation, which is cool and sometimes ever funny. It beats a lot of the crowd animations in the other games in the series.
The sounds just rock! The slapping of the puck is more than passable, but the real fun comes in dishing out the hits! There's a good, hard sound which, although muffled, is still a joy to hear on a murder spree! And the organ music is fantastic. It includes fight songs for certain teams, like "Here Come the Hawks" (Chicago Blackhawks), "When the Saints Go Marching in" (St. Louis Blues), and "Sabre Dance" (Buffalo Sabres).
The gameplay is as smooth and fluid as the graphics, and the vaunted one-timers and wrap-arounds are all performed with smooth ease. There's no limit on the number of times you can use speed bursts, since they also double as body checks, and therefore you can check your way up the ice rather easily. The vertical rink gives off a better vantage point than the horizontal rink which had been traditional until that point, which makes it a lot easier to make accurate shots on goal and accurate passes. Plus the rinks just feel bigger.
Should you get this game? How addicted do you want to get? There are very few better games with which to bond with other people over…. At least, if you can tear yourself away from it long enough to meet people.
PS: If I come off at times like I was using this review to brag about the Chicago Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup, I was!