NHL 12 and the 17 Best Hockey Video Games of All Time

Franklin Steele@FranklinSteeleAnalyst IISeptember 1, 2011

NHL 12 and the 17 Best Hockey Video Games of All Time

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    Hot on the heels of NHL11—widely considered one of the best sports games ever made—comes NHL 12.  It will be tough to match up with last year's version stride for stride, but the folks at EA are not coasting back into the defensive zone for this installment.

    In NHL 12, a totally responsive environment will be introduced.  Glass will shatter, helmets will pop off and even the goaltenders can be crashed and run into, unlike former versions of the game.  

    Making the goalies fair play for contact will make online play a nightmare, one would assume, but at least I'll be able to make a top-10 NHL 12 trolls slideshow by the middle of October.

    EA has been on a roll for the last few years—every NHL release from the studio since 2007 has been met with outstanding reviews, and the creators have been pushing the bar for a more realistic hockey experience since the XBox 360, PS3 and Nintendo Wii created a new way to present and play games.

    Playing hockey video games has always been a stellar way to kill time during the offseason (and in between periods if you're really feeling antsy).  Some of the games have been better than the others.  There have been some really bad hockey games, but there have been just as many great installments.

    Here are the 17 best hockey games of all time to hold you over until NHL 12 drops in September.

NHL Hitz 2002

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    While EA was working on cranking out the most realistic hockey titles that technology would allow, Midway Entertainment decided to take the game in another direction.

    The cover athlete should give you a general idea of what that "direction" was.

    Four-on-four arcade style puck, as opposed to 20-minute periods with minors for slashing.  This game was best played with a few friends while surrounded by empty bottles of Mountain Dew and pizza boxes.  This was the NFL Blitz for the NHL, and was one of the funnest hockey games ever.


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    Sega managed to crank out some pretty awful NHL titles with their 2K series.  2K2 is one of the exceptions to this rule, if for no other reason than because 2002 was a magical year for hockey video games.

    The Dreamcast was well ahead of its time as far as ideas went, with games like Shenmue and Skies of Arcadia coming out at least a decade before true interest in sandbox games and MMOs began.

    But I digress.

    The rosters are spot on for this time period, and even include the Olympic teams from the 2002 Winter Games.  Sega knew that it was going head-to-head with NHL Hitz and decided to take their game in the totally opposite directions.

    The game play was slowed down with the focus on simulating an NHL game in real time.

NHL Hockey

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    NHL Hockey came out on the Sega Genesis and was the genesis for EA's NHL franchise that is still up and running to this day.

    The game featured a multiplayer option that lead to many real-life hockey fights over cheap goals, hacks and "cheating."

    This is the point "A" for hockey games.  It all started here, and within a few years this game would spawn one of the most beloved titles of all time.

NHL Slapshot

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    EA Sports took another shot at changing the game with NHL Slapshot on the Nintendo Wii.  The game could make the list for the advertising campaign alone, but there are other merits here as well.

    The cool thing about the Wii is the same thing that is kind of lame about the Wii.  It encourages players to get up off the couch and get more involved in gameplay.  I know am not the only one that walks away from a Wii Tennis match needing to change shirts and cool off a bit.

    (And I'm sure the success of Wii Sports had nothing to do with the creation of this game.)

    The standout feature here is obviously the stick that you use to play the game with, but there are several outstanding gameplay features that I really hope stick in other hockey titles.  The Peewee to Pros mode allows you to take your fictional player from the pond as a kid and work all the way up to the NHL.

    This kind of mode has been successful in NFL and NBA games, and has yet to really be fleshed out in a hockey game.  Slapshot could change that, and a whole lot more if EA continues to evolve this idea.  The game is here currently for the innovation involved.

    If they can continue to build around the active stick, then they could have a fun gem on their hands.

NHL 2002

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    Everything that EA managed to botch on NHL 2001 (which wasn't a lot) was fixed for NHL 2002.  It isn't very often a studio can turn around and fix nearly everything that fans didn't like within a year, but the trick was turned here.

    The game had an annoying "breakaway cam" that was an attempt to dramatize the action, but really could have the opposite effect on unsuspecting players.  But outside of this feature that was dropped quickly, there were some neat gameplay aspects here.

    The "emotion meter" stuck around for a while where your team would respond to the noise of the crowd.  This put emphasis on making big hits, and big plays more often.  You could turtle, but only if you wanted the other team to gain momentum.  This was a great attempt to capture the way real hockey games work.

    Oh, and the career mode was implemented for the first time in this game.

NHL Blades of Steel '99

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    This slide is in reference to the N64 version.  Not the Gameboy Color version.  One was really good, and one was really bad.

    Guess which was which.

    This was one of the first sports games that really showed how powerful of a visual presentation was on the horizon for hockey games.  It was one of the prettiest sites on the N64 upon its release, and it was one of the first dips hockey games took into the analog style controls for skating.

    Konami published the game, and I can't help but wonder what one of the most creative game studios in existence could have brought to the forefront if they hadn't bowed out.

NHLPA Hockey '93

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    It was all about the little things in the early development of these games.  NHLPA Hockey '93 (a few years down the road from the most easily repeated NHL Hockey, believe it or not) brought a lot of these small elements from the game of hockey and put them in your hands.

    Skating strides were more realistic, power stops were here and the players interacted with each other on a more realistic level.

    NHLPA Hockey '93 held onto the crown of best hockey game ever for roughly one year.  The best was yet to come.

NHL Hitz Pro

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    Two words:  Online gameplay.  That was the huge step forward taken by NHL Hitz Pro.

    The Hitz franchise may have lost all of the steam it had moving forward by abandoning the arcade style game that had put them on the map.  Still, the five-on-five innovations here, and adjustable rules to reduce the realism, still make this one of the top hockey games ever.

    Needless to say, the shift from the more up-tempo game style upset longtime fans of the series, but the online aspect here gave fans a glimpse into the future of hockey games.

NHL '99

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    Heading into the turn of the century, EA Sports really turned on the afterburners.

    NHL '98 wasn't well received in the gaming community, and once again, EA showed an ability to turn community feedback into a better product (if only NHL GMs could do the same thing!).

    The dual shock control was really brought to the forefront here—what would hockey games be without the support and utilization of the joystick-like controllers?  I can tell you, it wouldn't be nearly as dynamic or fun.

    The guys at EA also began to add some more intangibles to the gaming experience, such as more varied play-by-play calls and funny PA announcements in the background.  It all adds up to a more fulfilling NHL experience, and it is changes like these that eventually put everyone else but EA on the mat.

Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey

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    The title of this game should tell you all you need to know about why this game was a landmark.

    It was in 3D!  Anyone else feel like this is how the movies are these days?

    Anyway, I can distinctly remember my neighbor calling me over to his house after he purchased a Nintendo 64, and this game to go along with it.  Needless to say, I was pretty blown away.

    Those were the real names of real hockey players, and that's even how hockey players look, sorta'!  Obviously, the graphics were a bit funny at this stage, but back in the day this game was as good as hockey games got.

    There wasn't a whole lot going on here:  no dynasty mode, or create a player or anything along those lines.  You could play through one season, but that was it.  My, how far we've come.


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    Before EA could really get rolling with the whole "next gen system" thing, NHL 2K7 did.

    A lot of the aspects of gameplay we have come to expect from a hockey game were born here. In a game not made by EA.  Sadly, the guys at 2K sports couldn't figure out what to do with all the positive energy and momentum, and have since been (more or less) swallowed up by EA.

    The gameplay was more realistic than ever, and the AI was vastly superior to that which was found on the XBox and PS2, which wasn't a surprise.  However, just how smart the players were was a very pleasant surprise.

    Defenders were pinching for loose pucks, forwards were finding open patches of ice...this was the most pure example of what a hockey game could be at this point in time.   

NHL 2008

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    The deke and stick-handeling controls we have all come to know and love were perfected in NHL 2008.  By this time, EA had more or less run over and away with the competition, and the fact that they continued to develop the hockey game to this experience is pretty impressive.

    The tendency is for game developers to rest on their heels when it is convenient and cheaper to do so.  But EA didn't do that.

    Instead, they gave players total control over the puck, giving them the ability to push the puck to open ice and dance around defenders in a free-handed fashion.  The AI also took a large jump forward, and the general physics of the game were much better than they had been.

NHL Backyard Hockey

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    There is a distinct lack of handheld titles from this list.  And honestly, this is the only one that made the cut.  Because who doesn't love to see little miniature versions of their favorite players?

    Or, just for fun, who doesn't love to see a kid version of Chris Pronger running around with that same deadly scowl?

    This is a game that is certainly aimed at the younger hockey fan, and it excels in being a good game for that audience.

NHL 2010

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    NHL 2010 could easily be considered EA Sports' crown jewel as far as hockey games are concerned.  As the sticker on the box states in a golden fashion, the game was winner of 12 Sports Game of the Year awards, and stood out among years' worth of effort from the studio.

    The online experience that NHL 2010 brought to the table would be enough to land the game a spot on this list.  The inclusion of online leagues and improved gameplay against people who weren't sitting in the same room with you were borderline perfect.

    The GM mode—as opposed to Dynasty mode—allowed wannabe managers to scout the minor leagues and build their teams from the bottom to the top as they saw fit.  Is Steven Stamkos getting a little rich for the cap hit you're allowed?  Then deal him for some picks and talent.

    A personal tip from me to you, though, is this:  acquire Steve Ott.  You'll win Cup after Cup, and teams will clamor for his services.  Not even I know why.

NHL 2011

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    NHL 2011 picked right up where NHL 2010 left off, improving on the outstanding 2010 title in almost every small way possible.

    Player animations were improved upon, and EA continued to give those playing the game as much control over the action as they could.  If your stick broke during a penalty kill, you could still make plays with your hands and feet for crying out loud.

    Finally building on the "Be a Player" mode that had worked so well for other games, NHL 2011 allowed players to begin their careers in major juniors, get scouted and work up to the NHL level.

    Also improved were the online modes.  If you won a Banner in EA's hockey league, you could raise it to the rafters during real ceremonies.  Pretty in-depth.  And it should only get better from here.

NHL '94

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    The best memories of most NHL video game-playing guys like myself rests in between either NHL '93 or NHL '94.  Jeremy Roenick still signs copies of both games, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has played either incarnation of EA's NHL series.

    Just like '93, the gameplay was more realistic, but both games still had a slightly arcade feel that walked a fine line between both styles.  Big hits were the norm, penalty calls were not and slick passing generally resulted in goals.

    Goals were the big selling point here.  Not setting up defensive pairings that had a high enough chemistry to stop the RPG line (though, they all are young enough that they probably took a few rounds on this game).  It was just about end-to-end action.

    The hockey video game has since been taken over by ultra realistic simulations (something I don't mind one bit), but games like NHL '94 still have a place in the hearts of those who played them.

Fantasy Hockey, Every Year

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    Is there a more realistic simulation of the ups and downs and fortunes of a real NHL club than fantasy hockey?  No matter where you play it, winning a trophy typically requires dedication through an 82-game season, attending to the waiver wire, making a good trade or three and going with your gut on who to bench and who to sit.

    Fantasy hockey deserves a mention right next to the NHL franchises that have been created by EA and the like.  Fantasy only requires a decent Internet connection and a rock-solid foundation of hockey knowledge.

    Do you have what it takes?

    Some would argue fantasy tests hockey fans more than any NHL game ever could.   Regardless, this kind of simulation deserves recognition alongside these other games.

Can't Get Enough NHL Action?

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