NHL Video Games: Power Ranking Every Edition of the EA Franchise

Tom Urtz Jr.@@TomUrtzJrContributor IAugust 15, 2012

NHL Video Games: Power Ranking Every Edition of the EA Franchise

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    Video games are a huge part of the lives of many sports fans because it gives them the opportunity to take control of their favorite players and teams in a virtual environment.

    EA Sports has been a groundbreaking company that has created many blockbuster video game series, including the EA NHL series.

    With NHL 13 set to be released in a month, it is a great time to rank each edition of the EA franchise. Some games were busts and others were amazing editions that really advanced the series and made it what is is today.

21. NHLPA Hockey '93

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    This is the only game in the entire series that did not have licensing approval from the NHL. As a result, there were no official team names or logos featured in the game.

    While the game play at the time was still very basic, the lack of official branding cheapened the experience for the hardcore gaming fan.

    All the players of the time were included in this game, but it just wasn't the same when you had teams like the Long Island Islanders instead of the New York Islanders.

    This was one of the most basic games, as it only featured an exhibition mode and a seven-game playoff mode.  

20. NHL Hockey

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    This was the first game released under the EA Sports banner. This game falls in the same boat as NHLPA Hockey '93 because it was incomplete. This game had NHL licensing, but it failed to gain licensing from the NHLPA, so players were referred to by position and number.

    Anyone who has played the NCAA games will understand how annoying this can get because if you want an authentic experience, you need to take the time to edit names. However, there was no customization in this game, so you were stuck.

    At the time, this game was considered to be one of the best sports games in the business, but in terms of this list, it is one of the "worst" games. 

19. NHL 2000

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    NHL 2000 was not a great game for EA Sports. It re-hashed the improvements made in NHL '99, added an expanded tournament mode and it added the Atlanta Thrashers.

    The PC version benefited the most from the game, as online play became more organized amongst the Internet community.

    This is one game that EA really skimped out on.

18. NHL '98

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    NHL '98 was a game that left fans disappointed on many different levels. The biggest disappointment for fans was that EA Sports failed to gain IIHF licensing in order to include the 1998 Nagano Olympic tournament.

    Although NHL '98 included international teams, this was a huge letdown for the fans. This game featured a return of Jim Hughson on commentary and he was joined by Daryl Reaugh, who is currently a color commentator for the Dallas Stars.

    This game was one of EA's worst, and it made them go back to the drawing board for NHL '99.

17. NHL '97

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    NHL '97 was a game that received mixed reviews. Although EA overhauled the graphics engine by introducing 3D player models, play-by-play and special characteristics for certain players like Joe Sakic's wrong-footed wrist shot, this game was full of so many glitches.

    If a player shot from a certain area along the boards, the puck would always go in. The shot-speed calibration was also significantly off for the Playstation version of the game.

    Although the presentation of the game experience was overhauled, this game really could have used more software development.

16. NHL '06

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    NHL '06 was seen as a failure of a game for a few different reasons. The biggest reason was because EA Sports jumped the gun to compete with 2K's Gretzky 2005 video game. As a result, EA released the game without including the 2005 draft class and names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Mike Richards.

    The series also failed to reacquire the IIHF license and the new and improved World Cup of Hockey mode from the year before was renamed the EA Sports World Tournament.

15. NHL 2001

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    NHL 2001 was another dud in the EA franchise because it focused on making more cosmetic changes than actual gameplay improvements.

    The only major improvement made to this game was the inclusion of a momentum bar that would rise or fall based on goals scored, hits made and other momentum-shifting events. After two straight duds, EA really went to work to make sure that NHL 2002 was a winner.

14. NHL '99

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    After a "lackluster" release of NHL '98, EA Sports really made some solid improvements into the NHL '99 version.

    The inclusion of a career mode, which would turn into a franchise mode, really set the foundation for what is now EA's Be-A-Pro mode. This mode gave the ability for armchair GMs to draft players and make trades.

    EA also made some solid improvements to the overall presentation and graphics by introducing a higher resolution and a faster refresh rate.

    This game was good, but its successors would feature minor additions, so fans practically played the same game for three straight years.

13. NHL '95

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    NHL '95 featured a lot of improvements to the overall gameplay.This game gave players the ability to fake shots, block shots, drop passes and it re-engineered the injury setting in the game.

    If a player was significantly hurt during a game, an on-screen animation showed a player sprawled out on the ice clutching their leg.

    This game also featured the inclusion of the end-of-year awards, the ability to create a player, make trades and other transactions.

    Despite these improvements, this game had tons of glitches in the loading matrix and it also had many different ways to score glitch goals.

12. NHL '96

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    NHL '96 was an interesting game, and it was the first game in the EA series to support online play. On the PC version, you could play against others online with the use of a modem. NHL '96 was the first game to feature full-fledged fights and it even had three different animations accompanied with it depending on how the fight ended.

    Double-minor and major penalties were added to this version, which gave the game a more realistic feel. This game was unique in the fact that it gave players the option to play a 48-game or an 82-game season.

    This was included because the year before, the NHL went through the infamous 1994-95 lockout. One major criticism of this game was that it failed to include the Colorado Avalanche, even though the transition from Quebec to Colorado was completed before the game was finished.

    Overall, this was an average game that featured concepts that would be worked out in later editions in this series.

11. NHL 2005

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    NHL 2005 was a great game, and it was unique in the fact that EA secured IIHF licensing for an inclusion of a World Cup of Hockey.

    This game had a very international feel, as there were ton of tournament improvements that included new teams, new arenas and other features to create a realistic experience.

    The big gameplay improvement was EA's Open Ice Control, which allowed users to control players without the puck and it allowed more control for when players had the puck.

    This game also included the ability to view league statistics as your custom season progressed, so it made the game more realistic for stat junkies.

10. NHL 2003

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    NHL 2003 was one of the most enjoyable games released by EA Sports. The biggest feature added to this version was the "GameBreaker." The GameBreaker was a function that was unlocked after a player completed enough tasks.

    Tasks included completing successful dekes, throwing big body checks or making a great defensive stop. Once unlocked, the momentum swing would enable the user to score a big goal, win a big fight or it would affect the outcome of the game in another positive way.

    EA improved the trading card feature of this game to include medals for tasks accomplished throughout the game.

    This game took a bigger step in the right direction and it was one of my favorite games growing up.

9. NHL 2002

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    This review from GameSpot does a good job describing the trading card feature that tons of fans enjoyed because it was a precursor to the Xbox achievements and the Playstation trophies of today.

    NHL 2002 adds a lot to the core game, including an in-game NHL "trading cards" book, similar to the ones found in some of EA Sports' PlayStation 2 games (NCAA Football 2002 for example). You can accumulate points by completing various specific objectives, such as scoring a hat trick or reaching the 20-goal plateau in a season. These points can then be spent on trading cards, which in turn unlock other special features.

    The most common of these is the ability to turn the player on the card into a hero for varying periods of time. Others include unlockable goal celebrations and arcadelike power-up items, such as superfast shots. As with the commentary, most hard-core fans of the series will likely prefer to ignore a lot of this stuff, aside from the fun of trying to collect all the available player cards.

    For the first time in years, fans felt like they were playing a new game, and these subtle additions really made the game experience so much more enjoyable.

8. NHL '07

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    NHL '07 was the first game in the EA series that was released on the Xbox 360, and the animation and software engine blew all previous editions out of the water. This game made some drastic improvements that made it one of the best sporting games at the time of its release.

    The major new feature was the "Skill Stick Revolution." This feature allowed a user to take different types of shots and the dual analog stick control allowed a user to execute various dekes.

    The integration of analog sticks put control into the user's hands and gave them the most authentic experience ever.

7. NHL '08

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    NHL '08 is another next-gen game that changed the landscape of the series. The EA team continued making significant developments with the Slick Stick Revolution, which was renamed the Skill Stick in this game.

    The Skill Stick allowed players to have more control with the puck when it came to dekes. A player could engage a defender one-on-one and push the puck past the defender and then skate around the defender to pick up the prone puck.

    This development made the game more realistic because anything could happen, as opposed to computer-generated animations in previous games.

    There also was the inclusion of a "goalie mode" in which a player could control the goaltender through a special third-person camera.

    In terms of accuracy and realism, all 29 AHL teams are included and they can be controlled by the user. In dynasty mode, each player can control their NHL team and the AHL farm system by making call-ups and demotions with ease.

    In addition, Sweden's Elitserien and Finland's SM-liiga leagues are included and playable in exhibition modes.

    When you consider all the improvements and the realism added to the game, NHL '08 is one of the best EA games of all time.

6. NHL '09

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    NHL '09 was another game that introduced some new changes. The defensive Skill Stick was added, defensive styles were added to the game and zone strategies like forechecking and dump-and-chase were included in the game.

    In addition, the PS2 version of NHL '09 featured the Be-A-Pro mode. In B.A.P. mode, the user creates a customized player and they can choose their NHL team. This mode was expanded in greater detail in later versions, but the B.A.P. mode really made this game an addictive habit for hardcore gamers.

    The major criticisms of this game included the inclusion of incorrect alternate jerseys for multiple teams.

    This game was very well received and it won the following awards:

    • IGN Best of 2008: Best Xbox 360 Sports Game
    • GameSpot Best of 2008: Best Sports Game
    • Spike TV Video Game Awards: Best Team Sports Game
    • GameTrailers Game of the Year Awards: Best Sports Game

5. NHL 2004

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    NHL 2004 was a huge turning point in the EA NHL franchise. This game was groundbreaking in so many different ways.

    The overall presentation of the game included a better checking system, more puck control and advanced game modes. For example, the franchise mode was renamed dynasty mode, and it gave the player more chances for an authentic gaming experience.

    The game also featured the inclusion of a Stanley Cup victory celebration in which players skated around with the Stanley Cup hoisted over their head.

    This game had some glitches on breakaways, it had some random goaltender fights and a difficult trade system, but it was better than previous versions of the game.

    The biggest reason this game was such a success was because of the PC version of the game. To this day, there are league games that continue within a gaming community. There are even modded versions of the game online that allow it to rival more recent version of the game.

    Overall, NHL 2004 really gave fans creativity, control and a really entertaining gaming experience, and it is considered to be one of the best games ever released.

4. NHL 10

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    NHL 10 is widely considered to be the best game of the EA NHL series. There were so many different additions made to this game that longtime subscribers to this series had to learn on the fly.

    Some of the major improvements made included Be-A-GM mode, battling for pucks along the boards, highlight reel goals, increased A.I, increased goaltender A.I., precision passing and post-whistle action.

    The physics engine was completely re-designed, making the gameplay very authentic. It rivaled real NHL action.

    These improvements allowed a player to engage in all types of real life NHL scenarios. 

    There are so many good things that can be said about this game, and it was the launching point for improvements in NHL 11 and NHL 12

3. NHL 11

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    NHL 11 was a game that took all the successes and failures of NHL '08 through NHL 10 and it rolled them into an impressive piece of gaming.

    The reinvented physics engine got rid of all older animations that had been featured in previous NHL games. This allowed a player to score a goal from any place on the ice.

    Big changes in this physics engine allowed players to break their sticks when playing defense while trying to block shots or when a player would wind up for a slap shot or wrist shot.

    This game received very good reviews and the additions of restricted free agency to the Be-A-GM mode, the new faceoff system and the hockey trading card game—known as Hockey Ultimate Team—were some of the biggest documented improvements.

    Just when fans thought NHL 10 was an amazing game, EA released NHL 11 and blew fan expectations out of the water.

2. NHL '94

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    NHL '94 is considered to be one of the greatest video games of all time. It isn't just one of the best sports games of all time, but it has been featured on all-time lists featuring other genre games as well.

    The transition from NHL Hockey and NHLPA Hockey '93 to NHL '94 was so monumental that EA decided to incorporate elements from this game in future releases of the series.

    The inclusion of realistic organ music, the one-timer, dekes and other realistic moves made NHL '94 an amazing game to play. 

    The biggest improvement to this game from its predecessors was the inclusion of new game modes.

    The new game modes in NHL '94 included regular season, playoffs, best-of-seven playoffs and a shootout mini-game.

1. NHL 12

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    NHL 12, simply put, is one of the greatest sports game of all time. Not everyone appreciated this game, but when you consider the realism added to this game, it is hard to understand why so many people didn't like this game.

    The Winter Classic was finally added to the game after years of petition through various messageboards and websites. The Winter Classic mode was featured in the NHL 11 demo. This was just one of the many changes added to the game.

    The animations and physics engine was improved once again and as a result, players could break the glass, shots could take wicked deflections en-route to the net, helmets could get knocked off and players could be knocked into the bench.

    There were major improvements to puck physics, as the puck was no longer tied to the player in an animation. In previous years, a player could wind up for a slap shot and the puck would be tied to the stick like a yo-yo.

    NHL 12 also featured goalie fights for the first time since NHL '07.

    The biggest improvements came in the form of the Be-A-Pro mode. In NHL 12,  the player could choose to start in the NHL or CHL, or they could choose to enter the NHL draft. After playing in a prospect game, the Be-A-Pro character is assigned a draft ranking and they are drafted accordingly.

    The game then fast forwards to the preseason and the user is placed on the first line. Each shift the player has to do their job and earn more ice time. After the trial, the player is assigned in the NHL or they are sent to the CHL or AHL based on their age and their other preference settings.

    This huge revamp to the Be-A-Pro mode made the game as real as a video game could get. In addition, EA added a Be-A-Legend mode.

    Through the experience unlocked during the EASHL online play, legends like Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Bobby Orr and assorted others are unlocked via the EASHL action tracker.

    Other minor details included the addition of additional alternate jerseys and teams like the Winnipeg Jets. 

    Overall, it is hard to argue against NHL 12 being EA's greatest release.

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