EA Sports’ won’t be making its next-gen debut on the new consoles in 2013, so the EA Canada team is instead looking into the past and bringing back an overhauled take on a beloved classic, with the new NHL ’94 Anniversary Mode. The original NHL ’94, released in early 1993 for Sega Genesis (and later for SNES), represents a landmark moment in video game hockey. For the first time, licensing deals were struck with both the NHL and the NHL Player’s Association, meaning that team names and logos plus player names could appear in the same game for the first time. In addition to that, a number of rule tweaks and a focus on fast, precise action elevated the game to “best in the series” status; its popularity endures even today, with an online community at NHL94.com devoted to keeping the classic alive.
NHL ’94 Anniversary Mode isn’t the same as the carbon-copied NHL ’94 mode that appeared as a bonus in EA Sports’ NHL ’06, as producer Sean Ramjagsingh told Digital Trends. “What we’ve done is our own take on reinventing the NHL ’94 experience with modern-day players, modern-day looks and then some retro elements,” he said. Players will spot the difference as soon as they fire up the mode, but they’ll also see immediate nods toward the classic game.
“Right from the load screen going in you’re going to hear some of that organ music that you remember from ’94. We have organ music throughout the gameplay itself. We’ve got the blue ice in there. We’ve also got the star indicator under the players. When you go in, during the intro sequence, you’ll see some NHL ’94 footage playing on the jumbotron. You’ll see some retro artwork on the power rings,” Ramjagsingh revealed. He also confirmed that the classic NHL ’94 goal celebration will be returning… sort of.
“We’ve got a pretty unique celebration after you score a goal. Not exact to NHL ’94, but kind of our take on the NHL ’94 celebration,” he said. “It’s actually something the [CHL’s] Kamloops Blazers did, I think it was last season or the season before, to celebrate goals in recognition of NHL ’94. Lots of cool little things like that, lots of presentation elements.”
Ramjagsingh went on to confirm that there’s more to the mode than just a minor re-skin. The play in this Anniversary Mode moves very differently than it does in standard NHL 14 games. It essentially boils down to heavily tweaked performance sliders, but the play is meant to more closely mirror the pace and the feel of the 20 year old game. “We just amped everything up,” Ramjagsingh said. “So [you’ve got] huge hits, you’ve got the turbo button in there so you can fly around the ice, lots of goal scoring.”
“We’ve really focused on the accessibility. There’s a lot of people out there who are hockey fans and they just haven’t played our game because they fear the controls and things like that. They remember those nostalgic memories of playing with the button controls and being able to high-five their buddies and all that great stuff. We want to give people that experience once again. Literally turbo button, pass, shoot, and hit are the buttons that you have at your disposal.”
Players that prefer the analog thumbstick controls introduced in more recent iterations of the NHL series will have that option as well, but button controls will be the default in Anniversary Mode.
Another tweak: fighting. NHL ’94 is well-known for doing away with fisticuffs. The fighting system from NHL 14 – powered by Fight Night’s Enforcer Engine – appears in Anniversary Mode as well, only it uses button commands. It also features “a few twists just for the NHL ’94 mode,” Ramjagsingh confirmed, though making Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed – or anyone else’s, for that matter – isn’t it. Sorry, Swingers fans.
Speaking of Gretzky, the NHL superstar appears in NHL 14 along with Mario Lemieux and Jeremy Roenick, the dreaded beast player of the original NHL ’94. Ramjagsingh explained that the dev team knows Roenick is a must-have player for the Anniversary Mode, but bringing in others would have been a challenge. “For us to bring in those classic players from back in the day, we need to approach each one of those guys individually and sign a deal with them, which is pretty time-consuming and can get pretty costly,” he said.
“It is something we hear our fans asking about all the time and we’re investigating different ways bring that into the experience,” Ramjagsingh continued, adding that “we’re working with different people throughout the NHL and throughout the NHLPA to see how we can make that effort to bring classic players in a little less cumbersome.” Those who want the full-on retro flavor won’t be completely out of luck, however. NHL 14 features an assortment of classic jerseys, including a selection from now-defunct teams like the Whalers, Jets, and Nordiques, all of which appeared in NHL ’94.
There’s clearly a lot of excitement at EA Canada about bringing NHL ’94 back for a modern audience. Its appearance in NHL ’06 was welcomed by fans, but the old-school presentation and play mechanics ultimately didn’t measure up, as Ramjagsingh learned. “The feedback we got was the nostalgic memories they had around playing NHL ’94… those were almost better than actually getting their hands on the game and playing it again,” he said. “We did research throughout the year on where we wanted to go with this [Anniversary] mode, and people didn’t actually want to play NHL ’94. They wanted a different take on it that brought back great elements from NHL ’94, but wasn’t actually NHL ’94.”
“I think the passion that people have around that product and the fact that it’s still going is really, really fantastic. I just love to see that people are still passionate about the game, and it proves just how iconic that game was. That’s the reason why we’re… honoring that game this year with NHL 14.”