The Stanley Cup Final is just around the corner, meaning one team will drink from the best-looking trophy in professional sports. Gamers who want to play along at home, however, will have to buy a Playstation 4 or Xbox One. EA Sports hasn’t released a PC hockey game since the year before the first iPad came out.
Pre-Internet, the story would likely end there. Hockey fans would either buy a console or stop playing hockey video games. But this isn’t a pre-Internet world. So fans took the matter into their own hands.
The result is NHL 2004 Rebuilt, a patched version of a game first released in 2003. The graphics are, by today’s standards, woefully outdated, but the mod is surprisingly modern otherwise. There’s the latest rosters, player photos, arena designs, and a complete alternative to the default interface.
Sure, it’s a pain to set up. But this is the best PC hockey game you’ve never heard of.
It’s in the game (because fans put it there)
In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Manitoba and became the Winnipeg Jets. You might assume, then, that you can’t play as the Jets in NHL 2004 Rebuilt.
“This is the only game, for me, that still feels like real hockey.”
Fire the modded game up, though, and you’ll find the Jets. Their rink, the MTS Center, is re-created with accurate on-ice paint, and even advertisements on the boards. Jim Hughson, the game’s play-by-play man, calls the team the “Winnipeg,” and also knows the names of most players who joined the league after 2004. Players and coaches’ in-game faces are up-to-date as well.
There are so many little tweaks that make this possible. So who made this? And why?
Gamers just liked NHL 04 better
Trent (not his real name) is a longtime hockey fan who lives in Finland. He’s the coordinator of NHL 2004 Rebuilt, and feels strongly that NHL 04 is the best hockey game EA Sports ever built.
“When NHL 05 came out, I was disgusted,” he told Digital Trends. “The AI is pure crap.”
NHL 05 to 09 were all, in Trent’s opinion, easy to the point of being broken.
“I was able to win my first NHL 09 game, at the hardest difficultly, 8-0,” he said. “But I still get my arse kicked in NHL 2004. This is the only game, for me, that still feels like real hockey.”
Because of this, Trent and a few like-minded people decided to update NHL 2004, long after most modders abandoned the game in favor of newer titles.
“We had very nice little community going for a year or two,” said Trent.
Then, in 2009, EA Sports stopped offering PC versions of its NHL games altogether. The small community grew. Around 200 people have contributed to NHL Rebuilt at one point or another, according to Trent.
These days, seven people do the bulk of the ongoing work. The game offers not just updated rosters, but a completely new user interface, dubbed “ESPN.” This offers entirely new features, particularly in season mode. Players can read computer-generated preview articles for upcoming games and see a play-by-play breakdown for all simulated games in season mode.
A lot of this is made possible by NHL 04’s out-of-gameplay interface, which was built primarily in HTML and ripe for modding from the beginning. But the team hopes to go further. One contributor, “Vod,” is working to reverse engineer the game entirely to add even more features.
“For the past couple of years, I have been reverse engineering the compiled game code for my program called ’04 Launcher.'” Vod told Digital Trends. He hopes to add, among other things, a lua scripting engine so he can modify the x86 machine code in real time, and add even more features.
That’s a lot of effort to put into a 13-year-old game, but it means that players could end up with all sorts of new features in time for the 2017 season.
A gigabyte of patches
Installing NHL 04 Rebuilt takes a while. First, you have to find a PC copy of NHL 2004. You can do that on Amazon, where copies go for around $30, or by other, legally dubious methods. You need to install the ancient game, which can be a challenge on modern computers. Then you need to download one gigabyte of files, offering everything from the replacement user interface to arena goal horns and photos of the players faces. These all need to be unzipped and dragged to the proper folders.
This is not, shall we say, a user-friendly process. And hockey is far from earth’s most popular sport. All the same, members of an active community keep downloading updates on a regular basis.
“I think it’s safe to say that at least 10,000 to 15,000 people play this mod more or less regularly,” said Trent.
Not all these gamers play the version with up-to-date NHL rosters. Russians play a mod that converts the entire game to include Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) teams. Fans of minor league teams, like the Canadian Hockey League or the American Hockey League, can find dedicated versions with those rosters. Nostalgic hockey fans can relive specific vintage NHL seasons, including most any year from the 1990s.
We could go on. There are so many variations, all built around a long-forgotten game from over a decade ago.
13 years and running
On the Internet, if your favorite hobby is one-in-a-million, you can find thousands of like-minded people. It’s just math. This is why active communities can pop up around anything, including updating a 13-year-old hockey game long since abandoned by the company that made it.
There is no way that EA, back in 2003, could’ve guessed that people would still be playing this game 13 years later, let alone transforming it into something else entirely. But that’s what’s happening, and Trent thinks it can go even further.
“The growth potential is huge,” said Trent. “But many people simply refuse to believe that a game this old could be so good.”