The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us. Much like any playoff, there’s intrigue, passion, rivalry, and guys getting their teeth knocked out and returning to the ice. The RB staff has mixed hockey emotions, as several of us are from an area that doesn’t have an NHL team, but that doesn’t stop us from volleying worthless opinions out into the web.
Being born a fan of other sports aside from hockey allows me to look at the task at hand more clearly: I am not jaded by any allegiance to a hockey team, nor a hockey game. I am simply a guy who knows how to find the best hockey video game of all time, and this one didn’t take much searching.
What are some things that a good hockey game needs? First, it needs to be fast-paced. No one wants to wait behind their net for ten seconds during a line change so you can slowly pass down the ice. Second, it needs to have star power. Whether you play as the best players or try to beat them, it’s important to know that studs are in the game. Third, it needs to have fighting. This is self-explanatory. Fourth, bone-crushing body checks. Duh. Fifth-and-finally, a good hockey game (or any game, really) should occasionally be frustrating as hell, making your victory sweeter when it eventually comes.
Does this sound like any game to you? It should.
Winner, Best Hockey Video Game
In a runaway victory, the best hockey game of all time is Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey for the Nintendo 64.
Gretzky hits all of those above requirements and more. Is it the most realistic hockey game of all time? Absolutely not, but it did feature a “simulation” mode where the gameplay became much more realistic and low-scoring. The rink expanded in size and you had to make smart passes in full-team games.
But that’s boring. Gretzky was not boring. This game had it all – most notably full-speed power checks that would elicit a satisfying sound/visual of an ambulance racing across the top of the screen. Speaking of sound, the announcer for this game has been burned into my brain for nearly 20 years. I miss him. I wish he would provide color commentary for the rest of my video games (Side note: IMDB says his name is Mike Albaugh and he has no credits since about 1996. He may be dead. His alias on the site is Dr. Bizarro. Can someone dig into this deeper?).
Routinely, games would end with scores of 14-12 or 11-10. If you failed to score in double digits, your friends had every right to make fun of you, not that it was your fault. You see, Gretzky made sure that no game would be a blowout. You might take a 9-4 lead in the second period, but you had to be prepared for the seven-goal third period from your opponent because they would unquestionably score on four straight possessions. Thought you might have had a breakaway and were prepared to score from in the crease? Nope, the goalies punch you away and you lose the puck anytime you’re near them. It was maddening beyond belief, but it worked both ways. If you trailed early, you were never out of a game. It was commonplace to see five goals scored in the final minute of a game.
For F’s sake, it was 3-on-3 hockey; what more could you want?
Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey is emblematic of the N64 as well. It was the first game to have four-player capability and the two-player mode was extra intense against the computer. The AI was good enough to beat you, but not good enough to enhance your team, which is what made it a genuinely adrenaline-pumping game.
On a personal note, as I moved in with a friend of mine in 2013 in Chicago, he pointed out that he had a Nintendo 64 that would be used regularly. My first question was “Do you have Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey?” and his answer was an immediate “One hundred percent yes I do. Let’s go.”
We played a 27-game season that month. We did not go undefeated.
Gretzky has peak replayability. Know how you fondly reminisce on old video games, then play them for 15 minutes before realizing that it’s hard to stay excited about them? Games like Bases Loaded 2 or Rampage (which I played at an arcade bar not so long ago – woof) are great in your memory until you play them again. WG3DH – a nickname which most certainly never stuck because it’s terrible – sucks you right back in to where you were the last time you played.
If anyone would like to issue me a challenge, I’ll gladly turbo-check you right into the hospital.
The NHL franchise has dominated the past decade with its ’06, ’07, etc. games and almost all of them are well-received and well-rated. The NHL2K series faded out about five years ago, although 2K Sports generally makes pretty good games.
For a true competitor to Gretzky, you’ll have to go all the way back to Blades of Steel, one of the original hockey video games. It debuted on the original Nintendo in 1988 and is the one name that consistently gets mentioned as a threat to Gretzky‘s throne. Blades of Steel did feature fighting and a welcomed ignorance of the offsides rule, but it just can’t hang with Gretzky if you turned them both on today.
If anyone wants to fight about this decision, you can complain in our comments section or to me directly on Twitter. You can also pitch some suggestions for future sports games that are in the running. Sports that don’t yet have a clear winner include golf and tennis, most notably.