Take on the NES Library

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#120 – Ice Hockey

Skinny, regular, or fat, they are all great players!

Here there are more players than allowed on the ice.

To Beat: Win a game
To Complete: Win against all teams
What I Did: Completed the game
Played: 4/6/19
Difficulty: 3/10
My Difficulty: 4/10
My Video: Ice Hockey Longplay

I am surprised at how few hockey games there are on the NES. There are only four of them. Hockey may not be one of the more dominant professional sports in the US, but there are many NHL teams and tons of fans all over. I’m surprised that there are more wrestling games than hockey games, for instance. I am not huge on hockey, but I have spent a lot more time playing a couple of the NES hockey games than many other sports games. Ice Hockey is in the conversation for the most popular NES game of the sport.

Ice Hockey was developed and published by Nintendo. I couldn’t figure out if it was made by either their R&D2 or R&D4 divisions at Nintendo. It was first released in January 1988 in Japan on the Famicom Disk System. The NES release launched first in North America in March 1988 and in PAL regions in April 1988. That’s a pretty quick turnaround for converting an FDS game to an NES cart and launching worldwide within months of each other.

Ice Hockey on NES is a simple game. This is a five-on-five game with four players on the ice for each team and a fifth player serving as goalie. The action all takes place on one screen that pans side to side to follow the puck. Games are three periods long. To beat the game, all you have to do is win a single match.

I always pick two skinny and two fat.

At the start of the game, you can choose options for your match. There are six teams to pick from: The United States, Sweden, Poland, Canada, The Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia. Choose your team and your opponent. Each team is a different difficulty level, but it’s hard to tell which teams are easier or harder aside from experience. In a two-player game, each player picks his or her team. Next, choose the game speed from one to five, which is from slowest to fastest. You can also choose the length of each period. They can be either seven, ten, or fifteen-minute periods. Press Start to move to the next screen. Now each player can select the lineup of the starting four. Use the D-pad to move the cursor between players and press A to change the player type. The three player types are skinny, regular, and fat players. At least that’s what most players I’ve heard call them. The players are also numbered on this screen. Players 1 and 3 are supposed to be defensive players while 2 and 4 are offensive players. To finish up here and get started with a game, move the cursor to END and press A.

Each period begins with a faceoff. You can set up your players in the formation you want. Use the D-pad and the A and B buttons to swap players around before the puck is put in play. The referee will blow a whistle to signal the end of setting up the formation. The two players nearest the referee will wait for the puck to drop. Mash the A button to hopefully pass the puck to a teammate before the opponent gets a hold of it.

I found the controls to be a little tricky but not too bad. The D-pad moves you in all directions on the ice. You only control one player at a time. The buttons do different things depending on if you are on offense or defense. On offense, the A button passes the puck to a teammate. Control moves to the closest player in the direction of the pass. The B button is used for shooting. You can hold down B before releasing to perform a more powerful shot. On defense, the B button changes which player you control. The flashing player is the one you move. You can also move the goalie to protect the goal. At all times, the A button is used for battling for the puck. Get near the puck and press A to fight for it. This can help you steal the puck away from an opponent or knock away a defender trying to steal from you.

Large players tend to knock over smaller ones.

There are some advanced techniques that are handled by the B button. On shooting, the longer you hold down B, the more powerful shot you will take. Keep in mind this leaves you open the longer you prepare for your shot. Instead of holding B, if you quickly tap the B button while holding the puck, you will pose for a shot but not actually shoot. Sometimes faking out your opponent like that is helpful. The manual mentions that you can do “flip shooting” by storing enough power in a shot by holding B. This lets you shoot through an opponent. I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand how or if this works or how to pull it off. The final B button control is a defensive one. If you are actively defending the goal, rapidly tapping the B button causes all the players to move in near the goal, helping you in defense and probably recovering the puck after a missed shot.

Much of the strategy in this game depends on the mix of players on your team. The three player types have different characteristics. The regular-size player is the typical average player that has no real strengths or weaknesses. The skinny player is a weak shooter and he does not hold up well in a puck battle. However, he is the fastest player on the ice and he is really good at winning a face-off. The fat player is just the opposite. He is very slow and is poor at the face-off, but he has a very powerful shot and he is good at body checking opponents in the fight for the puck. You can choose whichever mix of players you want that either fits your playing style or provides balance.

There are some penalties in the game. The main one is icing. I’m not going to pretend to understand how icing works. I’ve read the explanation several times and have even watched videos on it, and I still don’t quite get it. What you need to know is that icing stops play and results in a face-off. You can also be penalized for getting into a fight. If a puck battle goes on long enough, other players will join the fray. Eventually the referee will come in, break up the fight, and send one player into the penalty box for a couple of minutes. The harder you mash the A button during a fight, the less likely you are to be penalized. With one player out of the game temporarily, obviously one team has more men on the ice. This is called a power play. You want to take advantage of the power play to help score as much as possible.

Quite a scrum in the middle there.

The game mixes things up a little bit between each period. Teams switch sides at the start of a new period. After the second period, you’ll see a brief cutscene of the Zamboni machines smoothing out the ice. There is overtime if both teams are tied up after regulation. Overtime periods are two minutes long. If both teams are still tied after that, they go into a shootout. Each player goes one-on-one against the goalie of the opposite team, and any goals scored are tallied. If the game is still tied after the shootout, it loops back to another two-minute overtime period. The game will cycle back and forth between overtime periods and shootouts until a winner is crowned.

Ice Hockey seems to be one of the most popular two-player games on the NES. While I have never actually played multiplayer, I have played the game solo once before as part of the Nintendo Age contest. I was happy enough just to win a game. I’m not skilled enough for any huge blowout scores like would be expected in a contest setting. This is a very common game. I’ve acquired many extra copies and still have several spare carts currently.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not very good at this game, even though that would be expected for not having much experience with the game. I started playing by picking USA every time and playing the remaining teams from left to right on the highest speed. My lineup was two fat players and two skinny players. I was able to win just barely on the first try against Sweden and Poland, and I won with a sizeable lead against Canada. I first lost big then won easily against the Soviets. The Czechoslovakian team was far and away the most difficult team for me to beat. Their team has three heavy guys and they just wrecked me all over the ice. I had a lot of trouble scoring goals because I couldn’t get good position and didn’t really figure out any consistent strategy to scoring. I had the best luck scoring with a skinny player and “passing” the puck into the net. After a few tries, I played well enough to squeeze out a win.

Skinny passing into the net was sometimes effective.

After reading through the manual, I decided that my goal was to beat all of the other teams. If you defeat all the countries on speed level 5, then you get to change the lineup of the opposing team before a match. Ultimately, I was not able to unlock that feature. I had a couple of really bad matches that went off the rails so early that I reset the game. I figured resetting was why I couldn’t do anything extra after finishing off the last team. It wasn’t until several days later that I realized I never actually beat the USA team and that was probably my issue. Oops! I went back and beat USA in a single game, so now I have beaten all teams.

There are a couple of bonus features that you can enable by entering in a code. On the title screen, press and hold the A and B buttons on both controllers, then press Start on Controller 1. This removes goalies from the game. If you do the same button inputs on the team selection screen, this disables puck friction. When the puck gets loose, it will fly about and ricochet until either a player collects the puck or it enters a goal.

I can definitely see the appeal of Ice Hockey on NES and why it is highly regarded as a fun game to play. It is a simple game with a good amount of depth. The graphics are simple but charming. It is clear what is going on all the time. It has good music. The controls are straightforward, yet it has some complexity with some additional features that only use the two buttons. The gameplay is solid and it is an ideal two-player game. It certainly checks all the boxes for what you want in an NES game. For so few hockey games on the NES, this is definitely one you want.

#120 – Ice Hockey

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