The period between 1992 and 1993 was arguably the greatest run of excellence in the history of sports video gaming. Aside from NBA Jam, a game so outstanding that you and I would gladly drop whatever we’re doing and play it at this instant, the year saw the release of RBI Baseball ‘93, as well as delightfully unconventional sort-of sports games such as Mutant League Football and Road Rash 2. Madden ‘93, a nearly flawless football game, was released to compete with Joe Montana and his weird talking football game.
During this time, we also saw the release of NHLPA Hockey ‘93. Not only is this the best hockey game I’ve ever played, it’s one of the very best sports games, period. (Time out: I’ve used "greatest," "excellence," "outstanding," "delightful," "flawless," and "best," and I’m only about a hundred words into this. It... listen, it was just a great time for sports video gaming.)
Oh God, this music.
Like Madden ‘93, as well as most EA Sports games for the Sega Genesis, NHL ‘93 was held inside an unusually large cartridge, complete with that strange yellow divot on the side. As familiar as we all are with the video game industry’s interest in duping us with trite gimmicks, we would perhaps expect the larger cartridge size to be completely unnecessary, but I imagine that Jeremy Roenick just needed more space in which to skate laps while the game wasn’t being played. More on him later.
The gameplay in NHL ‘93 was without fault. Players skated as one would expect them to skate, controls were responsive, and the cheap tricks present in most video games were almost nonexistent. The graphics are such that oddly enough, it didn’t look state-of-the-art in 1993, and it doesn’t look primitive today. It’s an interesting phenomenon that doesn't apply to games of other eras. For example, look at these two screen shots.
The one on the left is NHL '98 for the PlayStation, and the one on the left is NHLPA '93 for the Genesis. '93's appearance is inviting; it looks like a no-frills game you immediately pick up and play. '98 is probably something that Jules Verne warned us about in a long-lost manuscript. The players are glorified block-fisted boxes. Everything looks jagged. The crowd looks like a waterfall from Contra. And though I must confess to never having played it, I'm willing to bet that '93 was simply a lot more fun to play.
It's especially hard not to have fun if you have Jeremy Roenick at your disposal. Here, I'll let these anonymous fellows tell you about him. NOTE: there are cusses in this video, but in fairness to Mr. Swingers, esq., this game, like most worthwhile games, inspires a lot of cussing.
I'm not completely certain that Jeremy Roenick is the fastest player in the game, because I never, ever bothered to play as any team but the Blackhawks. But he was quick, he was nimble, and he could shoot. He scored most of my goals, because I usually tried to juggle my players around near center ice and get the puck to Roenick before I headed for the net.
Everyone has a favorite video game athlete. My personal pantheon of video game sports heroes, in brief, looks something like this.
Walter Payton (Tecmo Bowl)
Vince Coleman (RBI Baseball)
Derrick Thomas (Madden '93)
Jeremy Roenick (NHLPA '93)
Nick Anderson (NBA Jam)
Lindsey Hunter (NBA Live '99)
Jamaal Charles (Madden 10)
Roenick is up there with the very best. His only weakness was his inability to fight; that's what Steve Smith was for. Smith was guaranteed to start a fight at every opportunity, and as a consequence he usually spent half of any given game in the penalty box, but the man had fists of iron and a heart filled with rage. He never lost a fight, and occasionally he'd knock a player out of the game entirely.
Let me explain something to you.
For some kids, NHLPA Hockey '93 was a life preserver. Mortal Kombat was released around the same time, and it was the game everyone wanted to play. These kids' parents, though, refused to allow them to play it; they would usually cite the copious amounts of blood and gore. So these kids sought refuge in games such as Street Fighter II and Fatal Fury. The situation then devolved into a labyrinthine maze of logic that would inevitably backfire.
Kid. Can I get Mortal Kombat for my birthday?
Kid. Why not?
Kid. Can I get Fatal Fury, then? It doesn't have any blood in it.
Kid. What's the difference between Fatal Fury and Mortal Kombat? I mean, they're both fighting games. Shouldn't I be allowed to play Mortal Kombat if I'm allowed to play this?
Parents. You can't play Fatal Fury anymore.
Kid. But there's a no-blood code in Mortal Kombat! You can turn off the blood! It was in Sega Visions this month!
Parents. Okay. Turn on the no-blood code.
Parents. I just spoke to your other parent. Nevermind. Go pick up your room.
Kid. How am I supposed to "pick up" my room? You should say "clean up" instead. Saying "pick up" is total munch.
Parents. You're grounded.
Parents. Hey, you're playing a fighting game. Turn that off.
Kid. It's a hockey game!
Parents. I don't care.
Kid. You're not going to let me play a hockey game? Are you serious? I'm going to end up like that home-schooled kid down the street who spends all day listening to Adventures in Odyssey and playing that board game about the Bible. Yesterday he started crying because the lady at church forgot to give him pretzels.
Kid. He got snot everywhere.
You see, NHLPA Hockey '93 was the solution for kids like us. It wasn't until years later, when I started playing fighting games, that I realized that they were little more than button-mashing and eye candy. NHLPA '93's fighting mode wasn't terribly inferior. Unfortunately, as a consequence of my upbringing, I don't know how to flip enemies over my head and into a wall of oil drums, like most adults do. All I can do is slowly back away, wait for my foe to throw a punch, and flail away. I will let you know how well this works if I ever get in a fight.
One final question: WHO IS THIS MAN
I mean, yes, I know, he's Ron Barr for EASN. He offers small bits of analysis before each game. On the inside back cover of the game's instruction manual, he's there in front of a microphone, part of an ad for something called the Electronic Arts Sports Network. It perplexed me. Why did a video game company have a sports network? How would I possibly tune in to such a thing? It had a phone number I could call to order the EA Sports Network. How does that work? Do they mail me a special radio box thing that allows me to tune in? Is this like how Prodigy works?
I eventually resigned myself to the idea that I'd never know what the hell the EA Sports Network was, and that it would be known only by the sorts of kids who had Neo-Geo game systems and ice makers built into their refrigerators. Ron Barr sure did seem to know a lot about hockey, though.
Like RBI Baseball, which I have already addressed, NHLPA Hockey '93 is no less fun to play today. I just fired it up and played a game.
Hockey is a sport of unbearable tension. It's similar to soccer, in that goals are hard to come by, but more time is spent on the edge of our seats because time and time again, we come so close to seeing a goal. The pace can be terrifyingly quick. To abandon strategy in the midst of this is to give away the game. These are the things that make hockey great, and NHLPA Hockey '93 captures all of them.
Down 2-0 to the Kings in the third period, I managed a goal with Steve Larmer, with an assist from Jeremy Roenick. Roenick then broke away for another goal, but with only 45 second remaining -- it should be noted that the clock moves twice as quickly in this game.
Video game Jeremy Roenick, you beautiful bastard.