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NHL Stanley Cup (SNES) artwork

NHL Stanley Cup (SNES) review

"There’s no question that hockey can be done better than this. NHL Stanley Cup is an ambitious attempt to capture the close-up excitement of hockey by using a 3D perspective and trailing camera; unfortunately this was executed clumsily and with decidedly mixed results. Even besides the camera however, there are some other issues that make the game far less enjoyable than it could have been. "

There’s no question that hockey can be done better than this. NHL Stanley Cup is an ambitious attempt to capture the close-up excitement of hockey by using a 3D perspective and trailing camera; unfortunately this was executed clumsily and with decidedly mixed results. Even besides the camera however, there are some other issues that make the game far less enjoyable than it could have been.

As someone who’s fairly knowledgeable about hockey, I was happy to see that this game made an effort to be authentic by incorporating as many of the real-life rules of the game as possible (something that not all hockey games, especially the older ones, have done). The game will penalize you for icing the puck or making two-line passes; proper face-off positions are observed, line-changes occur and penalties are called. The goalie even has the power to smother the puck for a face-off, which is a nice touch. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with the game and are scared by some of the intricacies, you are able to turn off certain options like the line changes and icing calls.

However, the game can only be authentic to a point seeing as it doesn’t have an actual NHL player’s license. So while the 26 NHL teams do appear in the game, the individual players on each team don’t, which means that your team is a bunch of nameless clones who all look exactly the same and are identified only by the numbers on their jerseys. This I found very disappointing; not so much the lack of NHL names, but the fact that there were no differences between the players. Even an ancient game like Blades of Steel for the NES let you customize your players somewhat. Granted, you only had a choice of “the normal guy”, “the skinny fast guy” and “the big bruiser guy”, but at least you could personalize your team and form a strategy based on how you knew your players would perform.

The camera has some serious problems. It was a good idea…it really was…hockey is known for its fast-paced action and having a camera that always follows the puck seems like a good way of translating this in to a video game. But alas, it didn’t work at all. The problems are numerous, but let me start by saying you can only see one part of the rink. Not knowing where all your players are at a given time is frustrating, because it always works out that they are never where you need them to be. It’s hard to coordinate passes or power-plays because it often seems like the player with the puck (who the camera is following) is the only player on the rink, and you just have to pass blindly and hope that your team-mate is in the right place.

Also, whichever direction the camera is pointing in is “forward”, and as soon as someone gets the puck, the camera swings nauseatingly around so that it’s behind them. This results in having to change directions on the controller each time the camera swings, simply to maintain skating in the same direction. This awkwardness makes certain strategies like the “dump and chase” next to impossible. To those who don’t know what that is, it’s when one player on the team dumps the puck into the opponent’s end and other members of the team charge to the puck for possession before the opponent’s defensemen can reach it, thus creating a good scoring opportunity. I found consistently that whenever I dumped the puck, the camera would swing around and there would be a moment of disorientation when all the controls became backwards and I couldn’t see anything, and none of my team-mates had bothered to advance towards the puck and were too far away now to do anything about it.

The controls themselves are actually quite easy and intuitive, but any ease is totally overshadowed by the awful camera. You basically use three buttons in the game: one to pass, one to shoot (or, if you don’t have the puck, to bodycheck your opponent and attempt to steal the puck from them), and a final button to cycle between your players on the ice. However while the controls are easy, they also lack finesse.

But this also reflects a deeper problem in the game that has to do with difficulty and human error. Basically, there is no human error in the game. Goalies will always block the shot. Opponents will always knock you off the puck. You will always know your opponent off the puck if you challenge him. There’s no margin of error--no human element. Not surprisingly then, games are very low-scoring affairs. Hockey is by nature not a high-scoring game like basketball, but having frequent 0-0 ties after 60 minutes of real-time play is ridiculous and totally kills the fun factor. The only way you can score is by drawing the goalie out of the net, then quickly passing to another team-mate who shoots into the open net. Boring, repetitive and Not Fun. There is a wonderful game mode that lets you play an entire season of hockey, saving your progress after each game, but I imagine few people would want to play an entire season of 0-0 ties.

My last gripe has to do with the penalties. It’s nice that they included them, especially the lesser known ones like charging and elbowing. But penalty calls occur all too frequently and seem mostly arbitrary. For example, one time I clearly cross-checked someone off the puck but was called for tripping. Huh? The fact that so many penalties are called means that most of the time you’re playing 4 on 4 or 3 on 3 hockey. But beyond that, the frequent stoppages of play and face-offs that result from a penalty call are just obnoxious and disrupt the flow of the game.

All-in-all a very disappointing game. But what saves it from a total bashing? At the risk of sounding superficial, it’s mainly the graphics and the audio. Like so many SNES games, NHL Stanley Cup has very good quality sound. The opening theme song is a high-energy rock song that really gets you pumped up for the action ahead. The traditional arena pipe organ is also there playing little ditties before the puck drops, just like the real thing. Sounds include everything from the skates as they scrape along the ice, to the slap of the stick against the puck and the grunts and panting of the players. Crowd noise is also a prominent feature of the game and is quite intelligently done. The crowd will cheer and boo at the appropriate moments in support of the home team, and also cheers during break-aways or after a particularly exciting body-check. All-in-all the sound helps to create an extremely authentic hockey rink atmosphere. (Really all that was left out from the true arena experience were the drunken hecklers and the tone-deaf guy with the trumpet.)

The other contributor to a good hockey atmosphere was of course the graphics. While at first the absence of a crowd in favor of blank space in the stands was rather odd, it becomes less noticeable once the puck drops for the first time and the focus is on the ice. There are high levels of detail on both the players and the rink surface itself, which contains all the necessary painted markings as well as the dents and scratches of the players’ skates.

The only other things to mention in NHL Stanley Cup are the well-done little cutscenes after scoring a goal or winning a game, and the bland announcer whose pointless comments I could have done without. If you really love hockey and can find the game for $1.00 like I did, it might possibly be worth it. I didn’t think so though. One use that my friends have for this game takes advantage of the fact that during the “entire season” mode you don’t actually have to play each game, but can skip the game and have the computer calculate the outcome. They used this feature during the hockey strike a few years ago to have their own little Stanley Cup betting pool where they would each pick a team and see how they did in the season. A cheap way to get your hockey fix, but there was a strike on and all. But stories aside, if you want something entertaining and aren’t as concerned about realism, buy Blades of Steel. Buy almost anything else, to be honest.

alecto's avatar
Community review by alecto (January 19, 2003)

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