ESPN National Hockey Night
- North American release in March 2001
- Never released in Japan
- Never released in Europe
- Published by Konami
- Developed by Konami
Best of the Worst
I’m Québécois, so I have been surrounded by hockey during all my formative years. For all intent and purposes, I should be a hockey aficionado. Yet I have never played hockey, I have attended a game from start to finish only once, I barely know the rules of the game, I do not know how to skate, and I do not like hockey video games. While everyone around me was thinking about hockey, I was playing Game Boy. To finally remediate this issue, I have decided to merge both fields of interest: I’ll look at the complete history of hockey games on Game Boy.
This article is ostensibly about the last hockey release on the console: 2001’s ESPN National Hockey Night by the people working at Konami. But really, we’ll look at every hockey game on Game Boy in release order and we’ll all collectively learn why the last release is the only one somewhat worth playing.
|Earliest Release Date
|World Ice Hockey
|Japan only, by Athena
|Blades of Steel
|NA, Europe and Japan, by Konami
|Hit the Ice
|NA only, by Williams
|NA and Europe, by Malibu
|NA and Europe, by Probe Entertainment
|NHL Blades of Steel
|NA only, by Climax
|Game Boy Color only
|NA only, by Tiertex Design
|Game Boy & Game Boy Color
|NHL Blades of Steel 2000
|NA only, by Climax
|Game Boy Color only
|ESPN National Hockey Night
|NA only, by Konami
|Game Boy Color only
World Ice Hockey
The first hockey game is World Ice Hockey. Released in early 1991, but only in Japan, the game was made by Athena, a small Japanese developer who overwhelmingly released games that only came out in Japan. Back in the early ’90s, a large contingent of Japanese companies only catered to their local market, with barely any of their games released outside the island nation. Even games that needed no translation like World Ice Hockey and could have been successful in North America, the home land of ice hockey. It’s fascinating. Did they lack the money to release their games in North America? I’m pretty sure that’s why they stayed in Japan. They never got big enough.
World Ice Hockey is incredibly barebones and simple. It’s making me think of my beloved Ice Hockey on NES but not in a good way. It’s got small chubby sprites similar to Ice Hockey, but the ice rink is ginormous. You’re supposed to be playing international hockey, which has a bigger rink but this is way too big. The characters are way too small, skate super slowly, and the AI is not very competent. Perhaps the AI is OK; I was playing Canada against Japan and that might have had something to do with it. You see, except for the fact that Japanese developers made these games, Japan has no reason to be in an ice hockey video game. The Japanese national ice hockey team can’t even play competitively against mid-tier teams from the Québec semi-pro league, so a game against the best hockey players in Canada is no contest. To reflect that sad reality, the Japanese team’s stats in World Ice Hockey are laughably low.
Anyway, on to the next game.
Blades of Steel
The second game is the Game Boy version of the famous Blades of Steel. Released in late 1991, this Game Boy version came out as Konamic Ice Hockey in Japan. Yes, with a C. Blades of Steel is a side-to-side game, and it has a strong action-oriented feel. Originally released in arcades, the NES version of Blades of Steel has a reputation as a solid hockey game. I’ve always heard it placed at the same level as perennial classic Tecmo Bowl. Is the Game Boy version just as good? I played both the NES and Game Boy versions one after the other to figure out the differences and I can’t really see any missing features. The shots you take at the net are done with a moving arrow, that goes up and down until you take your shot. This is the core idea of the game, and is present in both versions. What is different between them is the fluidity. The Game Boy version is slower, choppier. Unfortunately, this lessens the experience. Maybe the developers simply didn’t have enough time and money to replicate the snappy response you see in arcades and NES. Or, as is often the case on Game Boy, the speed of the link cable severely limited their ambitions. Since Blades of Steel is a multiplayer title, the game has to be playable with two Game Boy consoles connected with a Link Cable. This means the developers had to make sure they could transmit the exact position of 10 characters plus a puck 60 times a second from one console to another. This is a tall order for a transfer rate of one kilobyte a second. If you do the math, one kilobyte a second allows you to send 16 bytes every sixtieth of a second. That’s not even two bytes per hockey player. I’m pretty sure the game cannot update 60 times a second with that low transfer rate. They probably set the game’s speed to be as fast as the link cable would allow. This gives you a choppy experience on Game Boy, when most players never had two copies of the game to play with a friend.
Hit the Ice
Up next is Hit the Ice. I first played the arcade game on MAME and didn’t see a particularly good game. It is nonetheless interesting. It’s a two-on-two hockey game more focused on antics than legitimate hockey plays. Basically, it’s doing the same thing as NBA Jam. The crazy thing is that Hit the Ice released in arcades three years before the basketball classic. It’s even more irreverent than NBA Jam, with fictional players that look like they’re rejects from Toxic Crusaders and a big focus on punching your opponents. It made me think of Clayfighter a little bit. Not in artistic style, but in attitude. Both games are not taking themselves seriously at all, both are very unfocused. I do not personally like the art style nor the gameplay they went with but I can see the amount of time it took to achieve the desired effect and respect it.
As for the Game Boy version? It’s dreadful. Hit the Ice for arcades is a graphical showcase. Its core appeal is its cartoony sprite work. On Game Boy, you’re playing a terrible port of a game that has no business being on Game Boy. You can’t make a graphical showcase on that console, the screen’s resolution is too small to make it feasible. So you end up with an inferior copy in every way. It’s like Plato’s allegory of the cave. You’re stuck seeing a shadow projection of a game that exists as a lifelike experience only outside of Game Boy.
NHL Hockey ‘95 and NHL 96
Then we have NHL 95 and NHL 96. The fact that they’re on Game Boy is somewhat of a surprise. I guess that’s when the NHL series by EA Sports hit its highest peaks of popularity. It seems even people with no interest in the sport of hockey enjoyed the series in the mid ’90s. It also coincided with the most famous hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, playing for the most valuable hockey club in the world, the New York Rangers. So you have this great confluence of events that helps to propel Electronic Arts’ hockey games. They’re on every important platform, so why not try Game Boy and Game Gear versions? They subcontracted small developers to make the games. Then they clearly abandoned the idea after the first year on Game Gear and after two years of miserable releases on Game Boy. They even switched the development company after the first year. If I had to bet, I’d say they didn’t make any money with those portable games.
Let’s talk about one thing that massively irks me about both the ’95 and ’96 titles: start times. A Game Boy is a peculiar thing; it’s a portable console you often play for very short play sessions. Perhaps you have only five minutes in between two tasks to pull out your Game Boy and play a bit. For that reason it is vital that a game starts quickly. However, a ton of Game Boy titles didn’t respect your time and take forever to get to the point. NHL Hockey ‘95 is the worst example of this problem. Look at all the screens the game forces you to go through before you can start the process of playing some goddamn hockey:
They even force you to go through the credits every time you start the game! Every single one of those screens has a mandatory amount of time they need to appear on screen but they don’t move on without pushing the Start button. This is the worst. I clocked the minimum amount of time you have to waste trying to get through them as fast as possible. You have to mash the Start button for 30 seconds. In the world of Game Boy, that’s an eternity. Then you get to the game proper and it’s somehow even worse. The game is running so slowly I assumed my emulation was busted. It’s even worse than Blades of Steel, and it doesn’t even have multiplayer to explain its slow tick rate. I assumed the second title, NHL 96, would solve all the issues of the first game. No! It’s got the same exact slow tick rate issues. The interface is also terrible: I could not figure out how to have a goalie in your net. I’m not an idiot, and the goalie selection screen was completely inscrutable for me. With NHL 96, the goalie screen is the same but you start with a goalie, so I couldn’t find out how to swap them out. Supremely dumb stuff.
Since neither of the Eletronic Arts games have multiplayer, they really only have one interesting feature: playing a full season with playoffs. However, the games don’t have a save battery. So you have to enter a loooooong password every time you want to pick up where you left off. 30 seconds to start the game, easily two minutes to punch in the 18-character password. Then you start the game and it’s a low frame rate mess with bad gameplay. Those two games are despicable. Why oh why did I decide to play all those horrible hockey games. I wished I had always been dead.
NHL Blades of Steel
With my morale at its lowest point, we get to another Blades of Steel game. I really do mean another. It’s the same game as the Game Boy one from years ago, with a fresh coat of paint to hide the fact this game is eight years old. Its developed by the people at Climax Studios, who had only ever done ports of preexisting games. They added colour with this reissue, of course, but outside of that nothing is visually different. It has the same goal screen and everything. However, they have improved the players’ movement speed. It feels smoother. Perhaps the faster Game Link speeds of the GBC allowed them to increase the speed of the game?
The only interesting thing about this game was that it was released in 1999. By that point, Pokémon had revitalized the Game Boy, with the Gold & Silver games coming out next year. Pokémania was at a fever pitch, and thus the Game Boy Color was a viable console for a resurgence of Konami hockey titles. Game Boy literally had its best sales year in 1999. It explains the large gap between NHL 96 and this game. During the gap of 1996 to 1998, no one cared about Game Boy. Most people assumed the console’s life was over, since its sales were abysmal. So no one made hockey games during those gap years.
As I just said, from 1998 to 2000, the Game Boy was hot. So not only did Konami rerelease their Blades of Steel game with an updated roster, faster gameplay and coloured graphics, EA also tried its luck again on Game Boy.
You’d think that just like Konami, EA would rerelease their 1996 game with an updated roster and colour. That’s surprisingly not what they did. It’s a brand new game with completely different gameplay. The game is top-down and made by a better team; the developers at Tiertex, which we have already covered once. They would make Toy Story Racer just two years later.
The game’s still bad. No surprise here. I played it a bit and it was just hard to move around. It felt like the worst mixture of floaty and unresponsive. I didn’t like it.
NHL Blades of Steel 2000
Did Konami release the same game three times? Yes, they did! I don’t even care enough at this point to even check if there’s anything new. As far as I’m concerned, I’m clocked out of the Blades of Steel games. Let’s move on to the last game, once again by Konami. This time, however, they developed a brand new game instead of asking a small team to rerelease their old game.
ESPN National Hockey Night
We now come to the main course of this exploration. The only game in this whole sad list that’s actually worth playing. All the other titles we looked at have glaring flaws. This one has terrible flaws too, but because it was made by a team of good developers who understood the Game Boy Color, it’s somewhat tolerable.
It’s not the best-looking game of the bunch, with the sprites of the hockey players being weird pixelated blobs. Its graphics might be messier but its gameplay is far less disorganized than Blades of Steel. Playing it, you understand you somewhat need to construct plays. Passing the puck does not feel like an exercise in futility. In Blades of Steel, passing feels like a useless thing. Why pass when you can just skate around everyone trying to stop you? That’s ultimately the reason why this game is the best one on the console. It’s the only one that resembles a game of hockey. So let’s move on to extremely weird name of the game.
Why does this game have the ESPN name? Konami clearly tried to compete on the hockey game front in the late ’90s, initially using the Blades of Steel name. They released games on TV consoles for a couple of years, with the previous two GBC Blades of Steel games. They then tried moving to the ESPN name, for what would end up their last year of Konami hockey titles. The next year, another ESPN hockey game came out, but this time made by Sega. Konami had clearly given up. Sega used the ESPN name and turned the ESPN licence into their sports title name until 2004.
The history of hockey games on Game Boy is the North American history of the little portable console itself. You have some rinky-dink early games when the console was still burgeoning in 1991 and 1992. It was successful, but developers did not know exactly what to do with the console. So they ported, with many issues, their arcade titles.
Then games get more complicated, as the same time as they become mere versions of more successful console releases, with NHL 95 and NHL 96. Those releases dry up, without any 1997 or 1998 release, as the console is slowly losing any sort of momentum. People barely buy any new Game Boy games. Then, a large number of games come out between 1999 and 2001, due to the massive renewed success of the platform coming from the Pokémon craze. Everybody is crazy for Game Boy Color.
And amongst all these games, the same exact multiplayer problem: if you want to play a Game Boy hockey game with a friend, you need two copies of the same game. This means that outside of Tetris, which came bundled for a long time with the console and was thus ubiquitous, it was very difficult to arrange a multiplayer session with another player. So barely anyone could play against a friend; the most fun you can have with a hockey game. No wonder they were never popular.
I want to say thank you to my wife for tolerating me, once again. When I started saying my next article was about hockey, she said it was cute when it was Mario or Yoshi, but I don’t even want to hear you talk about hockey. Then she told her friends I was writing about these games, and everybody started making fun of me. This article was brought to you after much social hardship. I suffer for my writing playing those dumb hockey games, and then people make fun of me for playing them. I think I deserve it.