The blue ice is what really clinches it. EA Sports’ NHL games have only ever been a few slider tweaks away from the arcade-style play NHL 94. Change a few settings and it’s 1993 all over again, only you’re wiping the arrogant smirk off of Sidney Crosby’s face instead of Mario Lemieux’s. What sets NHL 14‘s new “NHL 94 Anniversary Mode” apart then? Blue ice. The Sega Genesis-era hockey game is memorable for any number of reasons, but it’s the unusually deep hue of the game’s frozen water that we think most fondly of. You can tweak sliders all you want to create a big hits/big plays-focused NHL sim, but the new Anniversary Mode gives you all of that as a preset, and a rink full of blue ice to play it on.
Let the good times skate. The basic concept of any EA Sports NHL game is simple: deliver a video game simulation of professional hockey. The NHL 94 Anniversary Mode, new to NHL 14, is a reversal of that idea. It’s a loving look back at a time when gaming hardware wasn’t powerful enough to deliver anything that even resembled a proper simulation. NHL 94 was, and still is, a work of arcade-style play mixed with the trappings of real-life hockey: you’ve got the rulebooks, the rosters, and the line rotations sitting next to exaggerated physics. No fighting though. NHL 94 temporarily banished on-ice scraps to the penalty box.
NHL 14‘s Anniversary Mode attempts to capture the over-the-top flavor of the original Genesis game while cramming it into the elaborate, finely tuned physics engine that powers EA’s modern-day pro hockey sims. All of the time and effort spent over the years in creating a convincingly realistic physic sim for ice skating… GONE. Who needs that crap when you can smack one virtual human into another virtual human at 90 mph? Also, there’s fighting now. Game on.
Strap on your skates, Gordie. NHL 94 Anniversary Mode is all about embracing a simpler time for video game hockey. While players have the option of using analog controls for passing and shooting, “classic” button commands are the default setting. You’ve got one button for pass, one button for shoot, one button for turbo, and one button for hit. If your finger ever hovers over to the right analog stick, then you’re doing it wrong. Skate fast, hit hard, leave a bloody and battered opponent on the ground behind you covered in ice chips.
You immediately feel the difference if you’re used to playing the recent NHL sims from EA Sports. Physics are assigned nosebleed seats in Anniversary Mode as players zip around the ice and barrel into each other with all of the grace, elegance, and force of an out-of-control semi. Helmets fly freely and goals are scored frequently. It’s fast and exciting in a primal sort of way. It’s also limited to offline 1v1 play only, just like it was in the old days.
5-minute major. Fighting returns to NHL 94 in the Anniversary Mode. The original game famously did away with fighting as a result of the series’ first-ever licensing deal with both the NHL and NHL Player’s Association. The new arrangement eliminated the obstacles that prevented teams and individual skaters from appearing all together in previous games. Unfortunately, that sort of access required a small sacrifice. In the name of putting a positive spin on hockey and distancing the pro sport from the barbaric practice of beating the crap out of another person, fighting was removed.
Silly NHL. Without fighting, what do you have? A bunch of dudes on ice. Isn’t that what the Radio City Christmas Spectacular is for?
The fisticuffs in NHL 14, and in NHL 94 Anniversary Mode by association, are actually based on the engine used in EA Sports’ Fight Night boxing series. The camera sticks to its zoomed out perspective and the controls (shown on screen) are relatively simple, but fighting happens a lot in Anniversary Mode. Players drop their gloves with only the slightest prodding. On-screen pop-up text prompts you to hit Y (on an Xbox 360 controller) when one of your players is ready to throw down. The game is also smart enough to automatically pull star players out of a fight and let an enforcer step in. It happened during our hands-on: Jaromir Jagr put a big hit on an opposing player, but Zdeno Chara stepped in at the last moment to ditch his gloves and bloody his knuckles.
Blue ice. The biggest visual difference in NHL 94 Anniversary Mode is the color of the ice. You might have picked up on that earlier in this preview, but on the off-chance that you didn’t: the ice is blue. Yup. It’s not the only backwards-facing nod, but it’s the most obvious one. Sharp-eyed players will also spot actual clips from NHL 94 playing on the jumbotron screen at the start of any Anniversary Mode game. The retro organ music is back too, as is the legendarily ridiculous double fist-pumping hockey stick celebration that accompanies every goal.
This isn’t to say that the Anniversary Mode presentation takes on a strictly retro flavor. With the exception of the jumbotron clips and the blue ice, the visual execution here is on par with the rest of NHL 14. With the exception of the aforementioned tweaks, the mode’s difference is felt entirely on the play side. Even the rosters are current. Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, and the dreaded Jeremy Roenick are the only playable relics of NHL 94‘s lineups.
NHL 94 Anniversary Mode might not be the sole reason to purchase NHL 14, but it’s a fun throwback mode that serves as a great diversion. It’s too bad that you can’t play it online, but it should deliver lots of old-school fun at parties and for the dozen of you that still like to play multiplayer games in the same room as your opponent.