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NHL Weekly Reader: Blades of Steel vs. Nintendo Ice Hockey, 30 years later

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-11-03 00:01:02

This year marks the 25th anniversary of EA Sports' "NHL 94," which is considered the greatest 16-bit hockey video game by everyone who apparently never got around to playing "NHL 95."

"NHL 94" is the game that featured real players and real teams. It's the game whose simplicity made it attractive to non-believers and whose deke-tastic attention to detail made puckheads swoon. It's a game that still has a passionate following today, as evidenced by the popularity of the annual "King of 94" tournament.

It's an anniversary that has inspired long reads and oral histories, and one that has Jeremy Roenick once again answering more questions about his place in video game history than his actual career, quietly cursing the day Jon Favreau decided to have him make Gretzky's head bleed in the script for "Swingers."

Look, it's a great game. It's an important game. Many Sega Genesis controllers in college dorm rooms were worn out because of this game. But as far as sports video game anniversaries in 2018 go, there's an even more significant one to the history of the medium, because 30 years ago the world was introduced to one of hockey's greatest rivalries:

"Blades of Steel" vs. Nintendo's "Ice Hockey."

To frame this in modern terms: It's Crosby vs. Ovechkin for the 8-bit set. It's a straight-laced, traditional and superb encapsulation of hockey's fundamental greatness vs. an adrenaline shot of joy pumped into one's hockey heart, with ridiculous power shots from hulking players.

"Blades of Steel" was a coin-operated arcade game created by Konami that was ported over to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in December 1988. It was, at the time, perhaps the noblest attempt at hockey realism: Five skaters on the ice, shots and passes, and a fighting engine that made in-game fisticuffs better than some boxing games at the time. (The fact that the loser of the fight got the penalty was, perhaps, the game's most underappreciated innovation.) There were eight teams that represented NHL states and cities, but since the game wasn't authorized by the league, the colors of the teams were wildly off: The Minnesota team, for example, was purple. Vancouver wore green and brown.

While not as quirky as its rival "Ice Hockey," the game had its memorable weirdness. Witness the "mini-games" that were played between periods, which were in-game ads for other Konami games like "Contra." Witness the fact this "realistic" hockey game had icing but no offside, and games ended in a shootout roughly 17 years before they would in the NHL.

And then there was the raging controversy over the voice samples used in the game, specifically when a pass is attempted. Was he saying "with the pass?" "It's a pass?" "Hit the pass" was the most popular option, but those who played the coin-op version swear it's "get the pass."

There are no voice samples in Nintendo's "Ice Hockey," which was released on NES in March 1988. Heck, there were only four skaters on each team, too. But for a generation of fans, this game's charms eclipsed its more blasphemous aspects.

Four words: Skinny, medium, fat, fat.

That was my player configuration for my "Ice Hockey" team -- selected from six national teams, rather than NHL-adjacent teams, including Canada, the U.S. and the Soviets. (The European version of the game included a seventh team, noted hockey powerhouse ... Portugal?)

The skinny guy was great on faceoffs, fast as the wind but could be knocked down with a feather; the medium guy was perfectly average in every way; the fat guy skated like an ocean liner but had the ability to uncork an unstoppable slap shot that would find its way into the net from the red line.

Then there were the "fights" in which all the players scrummed until one was taken to the penalty box. There were the Jason Voorhees-masked Zamboni drivers who bopped up and down while cleaning the ice. Did we mention some of the players were built like Ndamukong Suh?

"Blades of Steel" vs. "Nintendo Ice Hockey" is the Stones vs. Beatles of sports video games: Some shared DNA, a mutual admiration from fans of both, but at the end of the album you're either into the raffish allurement of the game with the uppercuts and off-brand jerseys or you're into something transcendently effervescent that takes itself about as seriously as Gritty.

So, which game you got? We asked some of our hockey friends to chime in.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer, NBC Sports:

"This isn't even a debate. 'Blades of Steel' is on another level here. There are so many reasons why it's better than NES 'Ice Hockey.'

For starters, 'Blades of Steel' is 5-on-5 hockey, none of this 4-on-4 nonsense. You had equal types of players on both sides, not the archetypes of skinny, medium, fat guy like 'Ice Hockey.' We've all played against that friend who only used the skinny guy to speed around the ice or the fat guy to bulldoze through opponents.

'Blades of Steel' was as real to hockey as you were going to get in 1988 on your NES. The players skated out for warm-ups, the referee was dressed in the traditional black and white stripes, you celebrated with your teammates after a goal, not in some weird tornado dance at center ice like in 'Ice Hockey.' There was also legitimate Rock-N-Sock'Em fighting and you got to play a spaceship shooting mini-game after the second period. And if your team won the championship, they skated around the ice with the trophy.

So I'll 'hit the pass' and fire up some 'Blades of Steel' over NES 'Ice Hockey' any day."

Tim Kavanagh, ESPN NHL editor:

"I'm #TeamIceHockey, and my preferred lineup is one fat guy, one regular guy and two skinny guys. 'Ice Hockey' had a better theme song, which was played throughout the game action. It also features country vs. country action, and as noted on the Oct. 30 episode of the 'ESPN On Ice' podcast, international rivalry games have a lot more meat on the bone. It also had a fun, physics-gone-wild Easter egg in the form of the 'Super Puck.' The Zamboni drivers had weird masks on and danced while performing their duty between periods two and three. But the main argument in favor of 'Ice Hockey' vs. 'Blades of Steel' is the lineup customization aspect, which added a layer of strategy that wasn't present in the entrant from Konami.

Why not 'Blades of Steel?' It's a good game -- and the fighting was obviously much better in this than in 'Ice Hockey' -- but here are some flaws:

* For some reason, the players are in full body monocolor suits under their gear, given their non-human complexion.

* Try teaching your kids about sportsmanship when the goalie pitches a fit after every goal allowed.

* Sure, the vocal effects were a nice touch in an era far before that was commonplace. But while most of us were engaged in the 'flip the pass/with the pass' debate, it was actually 'get the pass,' which doesn't make any sense."

Jen "NHL History Girl" Conway:

"The words I always associate with my memories of playing 'Blades of Steel' begin with F: furtive, fun, frustrating and fighting. My mom banned video games from the house; I had to play at friends' houses on the down-low. I don't think I've ever quite forgiven her for killing my skill and coolness before it even had a chance. I am terrible at video games. Your dog could probably beat me.

Man, it was fun though. Scoring goals felt like the easiest thing in the world, probably because the game did everything but put the puck in the net for you. You always knew who had the puck (the guy blinked like a demented Christmas light), and the helpful little arrows along the net let you know just when to press A and shot. Even I could handle that! Finally, a game where I wasn't going to explode or get eaten by a plant or fall to my death? COUNT ME IN.

Scoring that much got boring though, especially since the teams were evenly matched. No matter which team you picked, you never had to take the roster or anything into consideration. No snipers, no enforcers, nothing. At least in 'Ice Hockey' I could choose from skinny, medium and chubby and their accompanying stats, but we could never play that for long. We got bored with scoring. We tried our hand (and mostly failed) at trash talk. We argued over who'd win if we had actual players on our team, and a couple of times we'd set out hockey cards as our lineup. Nerds that we were, we tried to use the stats on the cards to make play on the screen better somehow. Don't do that. It's a terrible idea, especially when you're 9 and are not equipped for things like SV%.

There were, of course, lots of fights. Fights over our ideal lineups, fights over whether or not a goal should count, fights over what mode to play, and, of course, the highlight, in-game fights. Jab! Wait, is that A or B? Doesn't matter! Mash A and B! Five punches to win! Raise your arms in victory! Aim for a 5-on-1 advantage! Penalty shots! For 15 seconds on a screen I could be Petr Klima. Infinitely better than 'Ice Hockey,' where the best you could hope for was all the guys on ice merging into one mega dude that spun and shimmied until one dude popped loose with the puck.

In our 9-year-old minds, 'Blades' was the game. We could score! We could fight! The players didn't all look like Mario knockoffs who did a weird butt to butt pre-puck drop ritual with a ref that looked like a Mega Man knockoff. Plus, during the second intermission of 'Blades' you could see a hockey-playing bear. Or refuse to play mini-'Gradius' (like I said, just this once, I didn't have to get blown up, therefore I refused to get blown up even in intermission).

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get a big bowl of ripple chips, a couple cans of Tab, and play College mode. Don't tell my mom."

Dave Lozo, writer, "Always Late With Katie Nolan":

"'Ice Hockey' was ahead of its time in some ways and trapped in the past in others. The game was played 4-on-4 instead of 5-on-5, which SHOULD be the future of the NHL. But after a line brawl, the team that lost the fight had a player sent to the penalty box, which didn't send the best message. It also boiled down all hockey players into three types -- big and slow, skinny and fast, and ... medium? Would it had killed the game creators to have a skinny guy with a huge slapshot? They existed!

The controls were simple and the game was before NHL licensing, so looking back now it's hard to imagine playing any sports video game without the real players, but that didn't matter in the pre-NHL90whatever era.

I don't remember much about 'Blades of Steel 'other than the 'BLADES OF STEEL' voice at the beginning. Wasn't it just 'Ice Hockey,' but more complicated? It's definitely a cooler name for a hockey video game but I'd take 'Ice Hockey' over it."

Arda Ocal, ESPN eSports

"'Blades of Steel' edges out 'Ice Hockey' for me overall on the NES. Smoother gameplay, has an announcer (it's 'get the pass' btw). BoS also has a tournament format with a championship, so there's a feeling of accomplishment. 'Ice Hockey' is currently in the lead because it's available on Nintendo switch online so you can play online against other people, which is huge. The character selection is a nice touch, but let's be honest -- if you're not picking two big and two medium, you're doing it wrong (skinny is technically better at faceoffs).

But for the 'Ice Hockey' side of the debate: How can a Konami game not have the Konami code give you something? Weak."

Yours truly

C'mon, it's gotta be "Ice Hockey." What other game can give you a chance to play the "fat, fat, fat, fat" steamroller configuration and give a kid named "Wyshynski" from the Jersey suburbs a chance to beat Canada as Poland?


Jersey Fouls

To be clear, this is not a foul. At all.

From the Pittsburgh Penguins' first game after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

The best hockey Halloween thing ever

In case you were wondering who won Halloween, it was this Chicago Blackhawks fan:

Luke Fanella, 14, has a muscle disorder that makes walking difficult. So he uses a wheelchair and a scooter. He also loves hockey and Halloween. Last year, he asked his uncle Jim DelGenio to create a puck-centric costume: a Blackhawks Zamboni. This year, he had another request: to put him on the Chicago bench with the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. "I wanted to be that kid that got to sit on the bench during their warm-ups and give them all knuckles and high-fives," he told ABC 7.

Thus, this incredible, and incredibly inspiring, costume was born.

Can't wait to see how he pulls off the hat trick next Halloween.


Listen to ESPN ON ICE

Who else do you want breaking down big NHL business news than Darren Rovell? He joined the show to talk about the MGM sponsorship deal and whether the league might be headed to another work stoppage. Plus, Steve Whyno of the Associated Press talks about the Flyers' goaltending and the NHL's stance on legal marijuana. We also introduce a new game-show segment that ... well, has to be heard to be believed. Stream it here or find it on iTunes here.


Puck headlines

  • Evander Kane says that the lawsuit filed against him, by a woman claiming he offered her $3 million to get an abortion last June and then refused to pay it, is "just a bunch of B.S." Someone please reset the "days without an Evander Kane off-ice scandal" clock accordingly.

  • A love letter to hockey on the radio.

  • Look, the hockey portion of this column is like two sentences. But it's Marilyn "Review of the Olive Garden" Hagerty, and she's a legend.

  • The 2018 edition of the Brand Power Rankings for all NHL teams, including the input of over 40 professional designers.

  • This is a really good piece on the retirement of Henrik Zetterberg that somehow manages not to get into the curious cap-related aspect of said retirement.

  • The best thing about the NHL shifting some weekend games to the afternoon, so Europeans can watch them, are more afternoon weekend games, said the father of an 8-year-old.

  • How single fans are using Vegas Golden Knights hockey to make love connections.

  • The return of the Wild Wing jerseys proves that even the most embarrassing third jersey can have a renaissance. Are you hearing us, Dallas Stars?

  • The Nashville Predators going all Honky Tonk Man/Jeff Jarrett on the Vegas Golden Knights pregame ceremony is pretty much the best thing of the week:


Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

Custance's piece on USA Hockey's sensory sensitivity game.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Emily Kaplan's NHL player roundtables have all been must-reads. Here's one that covers topics like "pick a goalie to start Game 7 for you."

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