In late 2007, a friend of mine picked up Electronic Art’s NHL 08 for the Xbox 360. Being a long time video game player and casual hockey fan1, I was excited. After all, I like hockey and love video games. What could go wrong?
NHL 08 introduced the “Skill Stick” system. The basic controls have one of the 360 controller’s analog sticks control the player while the other controls their hockey stick. The Skill Stick offers an unparalleled degree of realism and a myriad of options. It has been further refined in NHL 09, NHL 10, and this year’s NHL 11. The system has grown and evolved to the point where if you can do it in a real hockey game, you can do it in NHL 11. As EA’s slogan says: if it’s in the game, it’s in the game.
The only problem is that the game is a bitch and a half to control. Want to pass? Well…do you want a soft pass, a hard pass, or a saucer pass? Not confusing enough yet? Don’t worry. Soft pass and hard pass are assigned to the same button. Oh, and don’t forget to aim! Make sure you’re aiming with the “player” stick and not the “stick” stick too! Want to lay down to block a shot? I’m sorry, you hit the wrong button. You hit the kneel-down-to-put-your-stick-in-a-passing-lane button, not the sprawl-out-on-the-ice button.
I’ve been playing video games since I was three. I admittedly haven’t been a hockey fan for a long time, but I know my stuff. Literally every day for over two and a half years I’ve been reading hockey news, hockey stories, hockey books, and watching or attending hockey games. I’m not the most knowledgeable person ever, but damn it, I know and love hockey. I’ve been playing the NHL series since the Skill Stick was introduced in 2008.
I still have no fucking clue how to play these games properly.
I’ll admit that I haven’t spent a tremendous amount of time playing the games. To date, the only one I have personally bought was NHL 10. The others I’ve only played at my friend’s place. The entire length of time that I owned NHL 10, I never won a single game against the computer. The last time I saw my friend we played a round of NHL 11. It was the same story that I’ve seen repeated dozens of times since 2007. It’s always close but he inevitably wins. If his other friends are around, it only makes matters worse. I become the handicap other/more religious players get saddled with. I can’t say it does a lot for my self esteem.
I love the game of hockey, but the NHL series is just too obtuse to be fun. The barrier to entry is too high to overcome for me, a dedicated fan and long time gamer. What chance does a non-hockey fan or non-gamer have of having fun with these games?
So what to do? I considered picking up NHL Slapshot, EA’s family-friendly hockey game for the Wii. I’ve done my research on the game and everything I’ve heard about it can be boiled down to two bullet points:
- It’s fun and well made.
Hey, that’s good! Sign me up!
- It’s primarily designed for kids and non-gamers, so it’s essentially a watered-down version of real hockey.
Well, shit. The NHL series gives me a large dose of complexity and realism, a dash of frustration, and none of the fun. Slapshot is a dumbed down experience (apparently). Will it be enough to keep me, a rabid hockey fan, interested?
Both games are sixty dollars. This porridge is too hot. This porridge is too cold. Is there any that’s just right?
Then it hit me. I already own a hockey game I enjoy! Today I (literally) dusted off my Nintendo Entertainment System, jiggled some wires, and blew the dust out of my nearly fifteen year old Blades of Steel cartridge. I laced up the skates of the Toronto Teal Dudes for the first time in a long time. Was it realistic? No, of course not. Twenty fights broke out. For some reason, the team that won each fight got a power play (Note: this is not how hockey works). Goalies seemed less interested in stopping pucks and more interested in working on their Buckingham Palace guard impersonations. It wasn’t licensed. You can’t aim shots or pass properly.
And you know what?
For the first time in a long time, I had almost as much fun playing a hockey game as I have watching one. If Blades of Steel’s ridiculous and unrealistic 8-bit hockey can be fun, maybe Slapshot’s watered-down motion sensor version of hockey is worth a try after all? Or will my initial fears prove to be true? Will it be too “kiddy” to be fun?
Only time (and sixty dollars) can tell.
1 It wouldn’t be until nearly a year later I became a true fan of the sport…but that’s a story for another time!