Ice Hockey is the first hockey game to have appeared on the NES, and it is very simplistic. There are no real teams or players, no NHL licenses, just plain ice hockey action. And yet, it's still one of the few sports games that I've played that I actually got some enjoyment out of, as I'm not overly fond of the genre.
Considering this is an early NES game about ice hockey, the graphics aren't too bad. Everything looks clear and is easy to see, but comes off as being a bit minimalist. The rink isn't really shown in correct perspective, but that's probably more for convenience. The players are kind of small and lack detail. You have four kinds of cartoon-like players: regular-sized, tall & thin, fat guy, and the goalie. They are all easy to tell apart, but they just don't look very impressive. At times it can almost look like a bunch of colored blobs running and bumbling around. The audience consists of rows of moving dots, and their colors do not vary. Ice Hockey doesn't look bad, just average.
The sound is about on par with the graphics. The same musical number plays for the entire game, and it never changes except when the zambonis come out. It's a catchy tune that isn't really annoying, unless you listen to it for too long. Some of the sound effects are good. The ref's whistle is possibly one of the most realistic sound effects on the NES. The sound of the ice skates is less realistic, as it sounds more like something sliding through mud. The "roar" of the audience sounds like common static and not as realistic as say the crowd in Punch-Out!!. But perhaps the most out-of-place sound effect is the noise of the hockey players screeching to a halt. They ARE skating on blades, not wheels! Overall, the music is fun, but not great, and the sound effects are sufficient, but not spectacular.
The play control of Ice Hockey can be a little frustrating. It always seems like the player I have control of moves a lot slower than everyone else. It is annoying because everyone else will move to the opposite end of the screen, causing the screen to scroll, and the player I have control of just disappears off the edge, forcing me to switch to someone else. But sometimes it doesn't switch to the one I want it to.
When passing the puck to another player, it doesn't always go where I want it to. Sometimes, it just shoots off into nowhere, and other times it goes right to an opponent! While skating and passing can sometimes be sluggish, shooting is much more responsive. You can choose to shoot right away by tapping the button, or hold the button longer for a more powerful shot. Controlling the goalie is easy, too. But when the puck is near my net, I find it better to forget about controlling the players, and just control the goalie to block the opponent's shots and regain control of the puck.
Well, it's only Ice Hockey, so there's no real story, but the game does have some cute atmosphere. I like how the zambonis come out at half-time to clean the rink, although after seeing it a few dozen times, I wish there was a way to skip it. The players getting into fights is always good for a laugh. It definitely has the feeling of being at a "kids'" hockey game, because the players are so small and there are no NHL licenses.
One thing good about Ice Hockey is that it is a decent challenge. The game has a good selection of teams to choose from and beat. It also has several different speeds and difficulty levels. You can customize the players on your team. For example, you can pick from 3 different character types: normal, thin, or fat. Normal players have average abilities. Thin players move the fastest, but aren't very strong. Fat players are the strongest shooters and knock over thin players, but they are also very slow. Both teams always have four players on the ice (except when one is removed for a penalty from fighting.) Different teams have different strengths, too. Russia and Canada seem to be the best, while Sweden is easy to beat. There's even a code that will take away the goalies to make the game even harder for those who have mastered it! Basically, you can choose your level of difficulty with all the options and teams.
Ice Hockey is mildly entertaining. It's probably even more fun when you have a second player, but the CPU is a decent opponent, too. It's funny how the AI can be in this game, sometimes. Apparently, the CPU-controlled players are programmed to shoot at your goal, no matter what. Therefore, when a CPU opponent ends up behind your goal, he'll keep shooting at the back of it! It's funny just to sit and watch the hapless player shooting at your goal as the puck ricochets off the back and into the player, and then he shoots it back again. I always seem to have some difficulty winning the face-off. I've only done it maybe 5 times in all the times I've played this game. Ice Hockey has all the penalties, and you can even get into fights. You initiate a fight by running around swinging your hockey stick at your opponents and keep hitting the button until everyone gets into a big brawl! Unfortunately, sometimes the enjoyment of the game can be hampered a bit by its sluggish controls.
Despite how early it was released, Ice Hockey is still probably one of the better hockey games on the NES. It may not be as realistic as Blades of Steel, but it's more challenging. If you really like Ice Hockey, or if you're into collecting NES games, this may be one you'd like to check out. Although it seems I am scoring this game rather low, I do have a fond place for it in my NES memories. It's just not a game I'd want to play all the time.
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