As if having one of our teams named after a Disney movie wasn't enough, hockey fans have always been the middle child to football and basketball, hoping against hope that we would get a video-game version of our sport that was at least as interesting at 10-Yard Fight. In fact, as recently as 1989, we desperately tried to convince ourselves that Blades Of Steel on NES was as good as John Madden Football was on the Apple ][.
Electronic Arts changed everything with NHL '94. Suddenly, hockey fans could skate as their favorite players, change up the lines, modify their offensive and defensive strategies, take their favorite teams all the way to the Stanley Cup, and even make Wayne Gretzky's head bleed for Superfan #99 over there. The game was an instant hit. Video-game hockey had arrived, and we fans had our seat at the table.
Sort of. The next few years saw a glut of terrible games flooding the market, as ESPN and others tried to grab a slice of the pie. Parents (as they often do) got involved, and fighting and blood were taken out of the game. (Honestly, they might as well have taken out the puck.) Hockey fans were so upset, they briefly contemplated walking outside, playing a real game, or even talking to girls.
After a few more years of unsatisfying games, EA Sports released NHL '98, another paradigm shift in video-game hockey. It did all the things NHL '94 did: Announcers offered commentary on our brilliant and not-so-brilliant plays. Network television-style cameras flew through the arenas, showing us slow-motion replays of our brilliant dekes and masterful saves. But this time, we were on the ice. Each year, EA released a new version of the game, which did more than just update the rosters. New moves and better animation joined more complex commentary and camera work to create such an immersive experience that when the 2004-05 NHL season was canceled, hardcore fans shrugged their shoulders, put the latest installment into their PlayStations, and didn't miss a single game.
Which brings us to NHL 06. It has everything expected of an EA Sports title: the teams, players, and arenas are all here, faithfully recreated with brilliant animation and attention to detail. The gameplay is fast, fun, and as close as most of us will ever get to taking a penalty shot on Ed Belfour. The music is loud, and the games are as exciting as anything you'll see on Hockey Night.
So what's new? Not much, really. On offense, the addition of the "skill stick" gives marquee players the ability to execute signature moves (like the spin-o-rama), and expert gamers can have targets to aim at, if they really want to see how good they are at faking out the goalie. On defense, you've got Bruise Control™ (no joke, they trademarked the name), and it's a lot of fun to pick fights to rally your team, though it would be ever-so-cool if we could make players bleed, or at least cry like little sissies.
Patient gamers can create custom players and entire teams, and try Dynasty Mode, where they get to experience all the excitement of being a general manager, which includes mini-games like answering e-mail, dealing with prima donna players who want more money and attention, and the ever-popular "keeping the owner happy" game.
Beyond the gameplay: A full version of NHL '94, the game that arguably redefined what a hockey game should be, is included. Gen X-ers can recreate the Pink Dot Guy scene from Swingers. Everyone else can marvel at just how far we've come in a decade. The free-for-all modes and tournament modes featuring various international teams are also a lot of fun.
Worth playing for: The little details. When the home team gets a penalty, the organ plays "Three Blind Mice" as the player skates into the box, jawing words that look an awful lot like "vacuum" at the referee. The closer you get to the end of the period, the more chopped-up the ice becomes. Between plays, skaters talk to each other, and during the replays, fans (dressed in the home team's jerseys, of course) jump up and down, clap their hands, and cheer.
Frustration sets in when: From deep in your own zone, you aim your defender at the boards and tap the button to pass to your winger, who is breaking out of the zone… and the game's AI decides that you actually wanted to pass right through the crease to your own goalie, who immediately turns the puck over for a goal, and you lose the game.
Final judgment: EA Sports set the standard for sports games a long time ago. NHL 06 meets that standard, but it doesn't bring much new and exciting to the party, which isn't really their fault. There isn't much more to add to an already-fantastic series. If you're a hockey fan, and you haven't played any of the EA Sports NHL titles, where the hell have you been? You're going to love this game. But if you're a longtime fan, you may want to sit this virtual season out.