Friday 27 August 2010

NHLPA Hockey '93

Yeah I went there. Take a trip to your local second hand game shop or eBay sometime. Have a look at all the sports titles. See how they're sold for ridiculously low prices and watch as you find yourself asking "who buys this stuff". There's no doubt about it, the entire sports genre is the very definition of "shovelware", and it's mostly Electronic Arts' fault for shipping this stuff out annually.

So I picked a game at random to see if the older titles once praised by the press are still worth playing today. This is NHLPA Hockey '93 for the Sega Mega Drive, the second in EA's NHL series. My experience with both Ice Hockey games and the sport itself is quite limited (I think I might have played a demo for a later game on the PlayStation once at a friends' house... that's it), so can an eighteen year old game make me into a fan today? Let's find out (spoilers: it can't).

I don't understand sports games as a breed. People buy games such as FIFA or Madden annually, and each year only minor changes to gameplay occur, with more focus being put on updating the licensed teams. I ask what has become of FIFA 2002, or NBA 2K6, or PGA Tour II. Does anyone ever play them after their sequels come to town? It seems like a lot of wasted effort for a product whose lifecycle is measured in months instead of years.

Of course it baffles me that some of these franchises still manage to sell. Granted, lots of people do indeed play Hockey, but as far as I'm aware it's only a really popular game in the United States and Canada, and I wouldn't have thought it would have resonated with many "hardcore" gamers elsewhere, even though the series is sold within Europe. Admittedly EA Sports have cut back a bit in recent years - you don't see annual Rugby, Cricket or Baseball games anymore. Perhaps it's because gameplay is similar to football and so they can recycle stuff in the NHL range. I dunno.

Apparently this is an oddball of a game because it carries the NHLPA license (meaning all the players have their real names) but not the NHL one (so all the players are part of team "Washington" or team "Toronto" etc.). Thankfully I couldn't give a damn about Hockey so this doesn't really bother me, but if its any consolation, it was the last title to lack the full NHL branding. NHL '94 which looks almost identical fixes this problem if you were really that bothered. I'm not sure if different teams have noticably different stats so I'm prepared to say it's all just a bunch of palette changes.

The game was released for the Sega Mega Drive but also for the Super Nintendo, with the latter having to make use of passwords due to a lack of in-game saving. The differences are otherwise minor. I went for the Mega Drive because Kega Fusion is more friendly than ZSNES.

Predictably, I found NHLPA Hockey '93 to be a bit boring. Strictly speaking, it's probably a very accurate Ice Hockey game, but in a video game environment it suffers the same fate as many other games like it (namely football) from the era. You can pass, tackle and shoot long distances... and that's about it. The players are sort-of confined to their positions on the rink - you can take them anywhere on the map if you've got the puck, but if you don't, they'll go right back to where they belong and you won't be able to control them again until they get there. It means you don't have complete control over the game, and so it's impossible to invent new tactics or go mad. It's also a bit difficult to see what's going on because the puck is so small.

Games like these were in high demand but it's very difficult to bring it to video game form when you can only control one player at a time (and with only three buttons, you're restricted even further). Of course this  was improved over time, but here, the full force of the "I'm a developer and I'm not sure how a Hockey game is supposed to play" is in full swing,

Often with the earlier sports titles things can get a bit unbalanced. I remember being able to score 100 goals per match in Sega Worldwide Soccer '97 because the AI wasn't smart enough, and it wasn't the only title to have this problem. In NHLPA Hockey '93 things are balanced in the sense that it's very difficult to rank up your score (as it should be) but slightly unfair on the basis that you don't ever have the feeling of total control. It's like in an effort to make things realistic they've attempted to reduce the amount of influence that the user has on the game, leaving many of the tactics up to the players on the rink. So in essance, you're better off watching the real thing on TV.

Other problems I found were the way the game is presented. There's barely any music yet there's also no commentary, so things are silent most of the time bar the noises your players make when they hit the puck and travel across the ice. Sure the crowds cheer, but they only make two or three different noises so it's barely a plus. Occasionally you get your little jingles but most of them are painful on the ears, especially when you score. The graphics are a bit "meh" too (though this was certainly fixed in later games).

Neat things about older sports titles is the ability to go completely off the rails and pull stupid stunts. In NHLPA 93, you get to fight your opponents if you provoke them enough. It's not fist-to-face, but it's still a bit of a laugh. Sadly it takes a very long time to get to that stage and both players will always be sent off regardless of the outcome. It's not a case where you can legally cripple the opposing team and win by default. Sadly they removed this feature in later games in the series, so it might be an interesting novelty for some.

But as suspected from the start, there's not much to recommend with NHLPA Hockey '93. I'm not even entirely sure why I sat down and played it. While not "bad" it's easy to see why you'd struggle to sell this game, and no, it doesn't make a hockey fan out of me. But on the other side of things, this is the most attention the game has seen for two decades, and may be the last time it's reviewed in any detail for another two decades. Who knows.


  1. Hi.
    I found your tORP page the other day thanks to someone's twitter and it completely blew my mind.

    I'm from Argentina and from 1989 to 1994, more or less, all the videogames you could get were latinamerican familycom copies and hacked games (the first page form tORP I saw was about Mortal Kombat in the NES and it was so funny to see the one I had); so learning all that stuff seemed really weird and somehow tied to my childhood.

    I wanted to ask you if you could guide me to some page (or give me a summarized explanation if it's not too much to ask) about how was the process to extract the information, change it and then make new chips with the hacked versions. The idea was making a character in a shortfilm work as some sort of homebrewer in the 90's, but I fail to fully understand how would the process be.

    Thanks in advance and, if it wasn't clear, I fucking loved your page.

  2. Thanks a bunch =)

    I'm not actually all that sure how it was done back in the day, though I suspect there was a lot of reverse engineering involved. Pirates would have had to reverse engineer official consoles in order to create their own cheaper knock-offs anyway so it's fair to say there's a lot of technical expertise in those regions.

    I suspect it would be similar to how ROM hackers work today (though more primitive) - equipment is purchased to dump the ROM from a legal cartridge, altered via the use of computers and then sent off to various manufacturers to be re-sold as a new product in the same way as Nintendo or Sega would produce chips in Japan.

    The major difference of course is this method isn't legal.

    As to what software/hardware was used... I couldn't say. I suspect large parts of code was stolen from official games when it comes to pirate originals. It's a very under-researched area of gaming history - you're more likely to know what's going on than I am since Argentina was packed with console clones back in the day.

  3. Thanks a lot for giving me somewhere to start. I think I'll try writing about this for a script writing class.

    If it comes to that, could it be possible to arrange an interview through skyP with you?