Transcribed directly from an audio recording
This is my top ten rankings list on the best hockey video games of all-time ranked worst to best. I was born in 1986 and grew playing these games. I have seen the evolution of their development over the past thirty or so years from basic two-dimensional sprites all the way up to the current realistic offerings. My formative years corresponded nicely with the start of hockey video games and their subsequent development and with that said, I’ll be taking a look at hockey video games featured on consoles over the past three decades from the original Nintendo all the way up to the Xbox One.
In the early days, in particular, the mid-nineties to the mid-two thousands, there were vast improvements made year-to-year, especially going from the fourth to the sixth generation of consoles. In the past few years, however, the development has been incremental, at best. It feels like the past half-decade or so, these games have seen only minor improvements to graphics, physics and gameplay.
I’m a hockey player, a goalie specifically, and I’ve been collecting hockey video games my whole life. My collection is quite comprehensive and aside from a few missing Wii titles, I’ve had a chance to build out my hockey video game collection extensively. As a collector, I also own every major system that has come out in the past thirty-five or so years.
For this list, I’ll be taking a look at a few key qualities. Firstly, accuracy to detail and hockey in general. Secondly, gameplay and playability. Thirdly, realism and lastly and most importantly, how much actual fun the game is. This is the most important aspect for me. I’m not a huge fan of all the bells and whistles. I don’t particularly enjoy overly complicated video games in which you need to learn a specific set of skills to play. Truthfully, I’m simply not a gamer. I collect video games because I enjoy the history of their creation, but aside from a few select titles, I rarely play video games. To this end, I want a hockey game that is intuitive and easy to play. I want to pop the game into my console, press a few buttons and get going. I can appreciate the excitement that fans have for features like GM mode and player customization. I, however, haven’t delved much into this myself. I can objectively understand how having features like this in modern games is fun for those fans looking to build out their rosters and develop the ultimate hockey squad. There are fans out there that specifically choose hockey titles based on features and modes like this. I am not one of them. With that said, this list will probably be a little controversial, especially for hockey players and fans, but in my opinion, these are the best hockey video games from worst to best.
Number 10 is Blades of Steel on the original Nintendo and Game Boy. This game is far from perfect and it is very basic, but with that said, it is a whole lot of two-dimensional fun. I remember playing this game as a child when it came out in the late eighties. You have some quirky sound effects and animations at key moments in the game and it also, surprisingly, features fighting. Generally speaking, this is a straightforward “Pongesque” title that is simple to play and enjoyable. I have always preferred the Game Boy version of Blades of Steel because I can take the game on the go. When I was a child, this game was quite satisfying.
Number 9 is NHL Hitz 2003 on the PlayStation 2. There are a couple of games featured in the Hitz series, but I think 2003 nailed it. This game is straight-up arcade and gets its inspiration from the popular football title NFL Hitz. The game is completely ridiculous and that’s what makes it fun to play. You can customize your players with actual shark heads as an example. This game featured over-the-top arcade-style action which isn’t intended to be realistic. This is an awesome Saturday afternoon game with your buddies.
Number 8 is NHL 07 from EA Sports on the Xbox 360. This is the title that brought you the “Skill Stick”. This is the first entry that introduces you to a new style of playing hockey video games with the ability to control the player’s stick via the analog joystick instead of the typical A and B buttons. This configuration is a joy to use and super intuitive. When you start up 07, you are forced to complete a tutorial on how to use the Skill Stick and after a few moments, you are ready to go. This is a delightful addition to hockey video games and has changed the course of playability. This was a huge evolution for hockey video games at the time and since this title, we haven’t gone back to A and B button mashing. There were a couple of other companies that attempted their own Skill Stick, but EA Sports really nailed it, and this has been the staple in hockey video games since. This title came out when I was in University and at the time, I lived in residence with three other guys. We probably played two or three matches a night. We also played NHL 08 which came out further in that year. All around, this was a fun and relatively realistic game to play, at the time.
Number 7 is NHL 2004 from EA Sports on the PlayStation 2. Around the late nineties, we had the transition from PlayStation 1 to PlayStation 2 and with that came a drastic improvement to graphics in hockey video games. The first game that came out on the sixth generation of consoles, was NHL 2001, which was a decent title. They even released a PS1 version of this in tandem with their PS2 version as a transition. By the time we got to NHL 2004, EA Sports really upped their game and honed in on what this series would be about. They really worked out the kinks in the past couple of titles for this generation of console and gave us a polished NHL game. This is when cinematics were also introduced to the series and we’ve had these ever since. If you won the Stanley Cup as an example, there would be a celebration afterwards. For the time, this game was a decent hockey title and as realistic as it could have been on this generation of consoles.
Number 6 is NHL 99 on the original PlayStation. I was a kid when this came out and for a twelve or thirteen-year-old, this was a heck of a lot of fun back then. I remember renting this game from Blockbuster and spending hours on end playing it with my best friend Dave. After the poor reception of NHL 98, EA Sports completely reconfigured their approach and gave us this title. Even the logo change from then onwards. This game feels completely different from NHL 98 and it is an excellent improvement. For the original PlayStation, this is a quality title and at the time, the best hockey game you could play. For this generation, EA Sports released NHL 2000 and NHL 2001 but NHL 99, in my opinion, is the best of the three. This is the game that really started the trend of quality EA Sports hockey titles. Ever since this game, EA Sports has continued to develop realistic hockey games with a familiar approach.
Number 5 is NHL ’94 by EA Sports on the Super Nintendo. What can I say about this game? I mean, this really started the popularity of NHL games. For hockey fans around the world, this is number one. This game is consistently ranked in the top three on most enthusiasts lists for best hockey games ever. This is really what started it all. This was the mould that every subsequent game developed from. This simply is one of the greatest sports games of all-time. It has an enduring legacy and was featured in Swingers, the cult classic from the nineties. There were a couple of other titles that came out around the same time like NHL Stanley Cup, but with awful three-dimensional effects and poor gameplay, NHL ’94 is the clear winner. Bottom line, NHL ’94 is a legendary sports game.
Number 4 is NHL 2K2 on the Sega Dreamcast. I am a big fan of the Dreamcast in general. The Dreamcast was the in-between console between the fifth and sixth generation of consoles. In fact, the Dreamcast is technically the first console in the sixth generation. At the time, I loved the look and feel of the console and its controller. We didn’t get a lot of titles on this console, but we did get some awesome 2K series sports games. These games featured improved graphics and smooth gameplay and were great to play. There were a few titles released in the 2K hockey series, but I think that 2K2 is the best offering. This game has a completely different feel from the EA Sports games, and at the time, it was refreshing to have multiple choices of hockey video games to play. This game is fairly realistic and easy to pick up and play.
Number 3 is Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98 on the Nintendo 64. This is the most unrealistic and arcade-style game featured on this list. The game is presented from a sideboard’s camera angle, the players are polygonal, the ice is blue, and everything is over-the-top and stylized in a very memorable way. This game is unforgettable and unique. This game is FUN! It is incredibly easy to pick up and play and is a great arcade-style game. You can even light the net on fire with a power shot if you’re timing is right. I prefer setting the game to arcade mode with 3-on-3 action instead of the simulation mode. This game also features tons of cheat codes to manipulate players and gameplay. As an example, you can choose little bodies with big heads and a variety of other cool modifications. Little bodies and big heads is my favourite modification. You have four controller ports on the Nintendo 64, so this is an exceptional multi-player game. Growing up, I’d get my buddies over for a sleepover and we’d play this along with GoldenEye 007 multiplayer all night long. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey came out a year before this. There is also an Olympic port of the game in which you can play as any country featured in the Winter Olympics’ at Nagano. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98 is a slight improvement over the original but I think it’s the best entry of the three. With that being said, I do enjoy the selection of certain teams in the original, like the Hartford Whalers as a prime example. Overall this is a fun arcade-style romp. The over-the-top commentary is pretty awesome too.
Number 2 is NHL 20 by EA Sports on the Xbox One. This is the most recent title to come out from EA Sports and is up to date, the most realistic hockey game ever produced. This is the epitome of realistic hockey games and is an optimal approach to hockey games in general. The physics and gameplay are bar none, the best we’ve seen in hockey titles. The attention to detail in this game are outstanding. From how the players look, to their equipment, to the realistic vibe of the arenas, this game is the closest thing to watching a game live. NHL 20 is probably the best we are going to get on this generation of consoles before the next generation of consoles. If you want the most realistic hockey video game available, this one is for you. It’s challenging to master, but when you do, it’s a joy to play. The controls are intuitive and nuanced and you really get to feel the game while playing. The pond hockey additions and GM mode are pretty awesome as an added bonus. Overall, this is a great title. This is the peak of hockey video games as we know it to date.
Number 1 is ESPN NHL 2K5 on the original Xbox. This game came out in the lockout of 2005 and man, is it fun to play. At the time, this was a great substitution for hockey. This game offered fluid gameplay and smooth graphics for the time. It is a perfect combination of arcade and realistic gameplay and has a phenomenal balance of both. This is a great A and B button-mashing hockey video game. It features large hits, hard shots, big saves, fluid action and is ultimately incredibly fun with an easy to play set up. If you want high scoring games with plenty of action and a well-balanced title, this one is it.
I hope you enjoyed my list and if you haven’t tried a few titles on this list, please check them out. I’m excited to see your choices of the best hockey video games of all-time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.