Thunderbolt logo

NHL 14: The nostalgic blues

NHL

NHL 94 was one of the formative sports games and remains the standard for what virtual hockey can be. Every year when EA premiers the new trailers, we’re invariably asking the same question: what would it take to get a modern interpretation of this classic. This year, our pleas have been half-answered.

EA have delivered something. They’ve tweaked NHL 14’s presentation, thrown some mechanics sliders around, and made a return to an old-school brand of hockey.

The presentation’s about right. The celebratory organ music’s once again piped through the arena, making sounds that conjure up an idea distinct to the sport. There’s the sheer blue block of ice that reflects all of the lights hanging over the rink. The camera angle’s been moved out.

Some minor elements aren’t retained, like the announcer coming on before the match (as they’re on all the time now) and less forgivable, the lack of Zambonis cruising through between periods. It was one of those features that are fun, just because someone thought it would help immersion for us to see a Zamboni resurfacing the ice, and back then, it absolutely did.

NHL 14’s still the thing. The action plays out like a turbo-charged version of the regular. It’s a sharp looking game and stays within its realistic visual scope for this mode. Perhaps one day we’ll get a new, retro NHL but until then, this is the closest we’ve come since 94’s release. And damn, it’s a nice exercise in nostalgia.

94’s arcade sensibilities keep the action flowing. There’s constant movement, without convoluted physics systems and unnatural television-broadcast shots, the focus on the ice remains on the action. The goalies telegraph significantly and the pacing’s quick enough that the learning curve is accomplished within the frame of a single match, probably the first period. This is the ideal for any hockey game. While it’s nice to capture the essence of a broadcast and have a realistic looking end product, the difference between then and now is that back then the videogame came first.

It took playing locally to know what made the original a classic. And so this is supported, naturally, although online modes are not. There are new, old control options that use only a few buttons, back to basics. It’s still super fun for fast-paced multiplayer and makes for a choice pick-up-and-play game.

We’d be hard pressed to describe the differences between a set of current generation NHL games. There are the significant mechanical changes but nothing that’s truly changed our ideas of what hockey games can be. There’s a welcome finesse behind the new improvements but they’re all converging along the same path, a continuation of last year’s thought. NHL 94 had the luck of timing. It had the right era, coming alongside an unforgettable season for the Penguins. But it’s also a standout in the franchise, with an unlicensed game preceding it and a turn towards simulation to follow. It found the middle ground.

The 90s were the prime era where the tech suited ice hockey. Something behind the crunchy Sega Genesis sounds that complimented the organ music. The look was rigid, precise, and stylish. There was an edgy attitude there. Characters were only abstractions marked with numbers around their active-player stars and we could take the game’s word that it’s the guy and it was all right.

NHL 14 has delivered on some much requested nostalgia before the devs transition to the new tech. It’s been a fun generation for the genre although there’s one less hockey series at the end of it. The visual differences from last gen are vast and the game plays way different. NHL 14 is this generation’s best hockey and until new systems arrive, it’s the one worth picking up. The only thing we’re left wanting is a new defining hockey game that will be remembered in another twenty years, let alone next year.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

Gentle persuasion

You should like us on Facebook.