Upon first booting up “NHL ’94 Rewind,” which began as a pre-order bonus for EA Sports’ “NHL ’21,” you get those warm-and-fuzzy feelings. Look at that pixelated Alex Ovechkin! Marvel at those hold sound effects, and the wonderful throwback presentation, with cold streaks and Ron Barr previews. This is it, folks: the NHL ’94 ROM, but with modern players (albeit with rosters that probably won’t get updated from last season).
Let it be known: “NHL ’94 Rewind” showcases the power of nostalgia. But it also serves as a reminder that nostalgia can sometimes warp reality.
NHL ’94 Rewind review: the power and limits of nostalgia
One can imagine how tired EA Sports developers get of hearing about how great those old 16-bit games were. At times, the implication is that the modern version, most recently “NHL ’21,” simply isn’t up to snuff.
Yet, when you first jump into “NHL ’94 Rewind,” the limitations can be striking.
After years of polishing their skating engine — for all its faults, it can be a blast to leave defenders in the icy dust in “NHL ’21” — the herky-jerky, limited animations of the “NHL ’94” engine take quite a while to get used to.
Naturally, teammate artificial intelligence also wasn’t all the way there decades ago. (Pauses for barbs about how that teammate A.I. still isn’t there for “NHL ’21.” Go ahead, that’s fair.)
If you want to experience a truly frustrating phenomenon, leave offside on in “NHL ’94 Rewind.” You’ll encounter the 16-bit hockey version of herding cats.
For the first few playthroughs, I truly wondered why I missed the 16-bit-style, arcade-y titles that included the base for “NHL ’94 Rewind.” But, after a while, the old-school controls started to click, and it was clear why people still battle on emulators to this day.
Breaking the glass when you miss the net with a slapshot? Fun. Scoring a goal when you’re passing with a goalie? Also fun.
Yes, I’d argue that people probably look back at the 16-bit era with rose-colored, anti-polygonal glasses. While I eventually enjoyed “NHL ’94 Rewind,” I’m not sure it’s something that will keep me coming back. (Frankly, once the nostalgia and charm wear off, I jump back into “NHL ’21,” warts and all.)
That said, it’s heartening that there’s still the core of a fun game here. Watching little pixelated Connor McDavid zip around the ice is a real treat. As is seeing teams compete, even though they didn’t exist during the times of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis/Master System.
Yet, there are missing features that leave you wanting more — or maybe for EA Sports to “rewind” a later 16-bit game than the often-mentioned “NHL ’94.”
[More hockey video game fun: “NHL ’21” franchise mode review]
“NHL ’94 Rewind” sorely needs online multiplayer
Upon first hearing about “NHL ’94 Rewind,” it seemed like it would be a no-brainer for EA Sports to release a standalone version. After all, there could be plenty of people who’d pay, say, $15-20 for that spruced-up trip down memory lane. (If nothing else, maybe EA Sports can rectify the lack of any NHL games on the Nintendo Switch, which still feels borderline negligent.)
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was wrong. Charging anything more than, say, $5-$10 for “NHL ’94 Rewind” would be suboptimal. At least in its current form.
Above all else, “NHL ’94 Rewind” lacks legs because you can’t play online. As much as those games were college dorm room staples, a large portion of that audience can no longer get together with the college buddies they’d want to renew rivalries with. That was true even before the pandemic altered life, yet is even more pertinent now.
And, again, based on people playing NHL 94 on an emulator since 2003, it’s probably not too much to ask to get that netcode up and running.
On the bright side, it sounds like EA Sports may make “NHL ’94 Rewind” available outside of that pre-order window, and maybe online play could come at some point.
If you didn’t pre-order, stay tuned because we’ll have more opportunities to play NHL 94 Rewind in early December 👀
— EA SPORTS NHL (@EASPORTSNHL) October 30, 2020
Maybe EA Sports should rewind something else?
Allow this suggestion, instead: take the lessons learned from “NHL ’94 Rewind” and go top shelf with a more fully-featured update of “NHL ’95” or “NHL ’96.”
If EA Sports updated “NHL ’95” and/or “NHL ’96,” they’d be able to provide fans with more tools to keep the games up to date. Generally speaking, people use “NHL ’94” as a catch-all term for the 16-bit NHL franchise, but it’s those later additions that included player trading, and eventually the ability to create players. (“NHL ’96” also includes fights, which were oh-so-much more important in older hockey video games.*)
At Lighthouse Hockey, Dan Saraceni discussed how underrated “NHL ’95” was, particularly for its transactions. Credit EA Sports with leaning into memes from its trade rejecting logic already …
— EA SPORTS NHL (@EASPORTSNHL) December 1, 2016
But just imagine the meme potential of “NHL ’95 Rewind” rejecting real-life trades. Seriously, this image template is just begging to make fun of Peter Chiarelli’s first splashy trade with Inevitable Team X.
Frankly, franchise modes have spoiled me. I want at least a better progression than the more one-and-done feeling of “NHL ’94 Rewind.” While EA NHL’s later 16-bit games wouldn’t cover all of those bases, they’d likely have a better shelf life than the older iteration.
Now, look. EA Sports didn’t even need to dust off that old ROM for “NHL ’94 Rewind” at all. Still, there’s enough potential here to add some perks and make it a full-fledged release. But I’d definitely be more interested in forking over serious cash for “NHL ’95 or ’96 Rewind.”
(Especially if they ported it to the Switch or PC. We can dream, can’t we?)
* – Fighting in “NHL 21” is … only slightly more fun than actually getting punched.