Blades of Steel

PHT remembers hockey video games: “Blades of Steel” made the cut for NES

Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look back at “Blades of Steel,” best known for its Nintendo (NES) release.

Among hockey-loving gamers of a certain age, “Blades of Steel” or “Ice Hockey” can ignite a fierce debate.

As someone with vague “Blades of Steel” memories and who either wasn’t good enough at “Ice Hockey” to remember it, or someone who never did, I can’t say that the discussion moves me. Certainly not as much as playing bits of Konami’s “Gradius” blew my youthful mind during the occasional “Blades of Steel” intermission.

Really, I think most should realize they were very lucky to get to choose between “Blades of Steel” and “Ice Hockey” on the Nintendo NES. Both games came out sometime around 1988,* marking that period as one of the watershed moments for hockey video games.

Let us remember “Blades of Steel,” from what players might remember to facts that many never even knew.

* – Release dates could be fuzzy in those days. Depending upon where you lived, you might have needed to wait months or more to even get your hands on a Nintendo NES console, let alone specific games.

An attempt at recreating the real thing

The “Ice Hockey” vs. “Blades of Steel” makes for a fun debate because they’re not just classic games; they’re also strikingly different. “Ice Hockey” presents a more cartoonish, Nintendo-fied version of hockey, with “skinny, normal, and fat” players. There are also only four skaters and a goalie, breaking from traditional hockey.”

If you were looking for a closer simulation of the real deal, then “Blades of Steel” was your poison.

Heck, Konami continued its tradition of um, “homages” by using a Wayne Gretzky – Thomas Jonsson photo as “inspiration” for the game’s cover art.

“Blades of Steel” featured five skaters plus a goalie, and aimed at authenticity by using city names. Like most sports titles of that era, you weren’t getting official logos or player likenesses.

Quirks were part of what made “Blades of Steel” special

But, really, the areas where the game wasn’t 1:1 often ended up being very charming. Perhaps inspiring “Mutant League Hockey,” the loser of a “Blades of Steel” fight was penalized.

(If that rule existed in the NHL, Alain Vigneault’s Rangers-era fascination with Tanner Glass wouldn’t have been so regularly ridiculed.)

Rather than trying to deke your way to a goal in a shootout, a penalty shot in “Blades of Steel” more closely resembled a penalty kick in soccer. One could see the guessing game element of picking a corner being pretty fun, and also almost certainly easier to program on an 8-bit console.

Blades of Steel penalty shot
via Konami/Moby Games

The sound effects were ahead of their time. Along with featuring some fantastic music, “Blades of Steel” included some basic play-by-play announcing. The technological limitations of sound effects on the NES meant that the “get the pass” call created considerable debate.

“Blades of Steel” spiced things up with different intermission entertainment. For my young self, playing a few bits of what appeared to be “Gradius” was pretty mind-blowing. Honestly, this gimmick never really got old for me, as I’ve been entertained by random min-games right down to playing some platforming oddity while “Splatoon” loaded.

As someone who hasn’t had the chance to play “Blades of Steel” in long time, I wonder about how certain sound effects — and blinking players — might age. But it’s also clear why people love the game so much.

Other versions of “Blades of Steel,” and other bits of trivia

Thanks to a fantastic “Blades of Steel” post by Sal Barry at Puck Junk, I learned some surprising things about “Blades of Steel.”

  • The Japanese version seemed to be missing quite a few things that made “Blades” great. It was called “Konami Ice Hockey.” Maybe most startlingly, Barry notes that the teams had names, not just cities, in this version. That included the New York Devils and … the Minnesota Wilds?
  • Over the years, video game historians such as Jeremy Parish have captured how ambitious developers were with Game Boy games. That realization softens the shock of how impressive the Game Boy “Blades of Steel” version seems … at least a bit. Still, whoever worked on this was a wizard at minimum:
  • There was an arcade version of “Blades of Steel,” which is where Barry and others believe they confirmed “get the pass.”
  • Konami attempted to reboot the series during the Nintendo 64 era, releasing “NHL Blades of Steel ’99” and a 2000 version. It … didn’t take, and didn’t look too hot, although at least it starred Jaromir Jagr on both covers.

The reboot didn’t work out, but people still fondly remember “Blades of Steel.” The Lightning put together an eye-popping 3D projection inspired by the game called “Bolts of Steel.”

You should really check out Sal Barry’s Puck Junk article on it for even more. Barry’s rec league team is named after the game and at least at one time, he used the music as his alarm clock. Few will top that love of the (video) game.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT remembers video games: Hockey on the Nintendo 64

Nintendo 64 hockey video games
Getty Images

Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look back at hockey video games on the Nintendo 64.

When people think back to the Nintendo 64, plenty of images come up. Maybe Mario 64 or “The Ocarina of Time” come to mind. Perhaps it conjures memories of Goldeneye, or really good pro wrestling titles, or “Mario Party” wounds.

I’d wager that there aren’t many people who immediately think of hockey video games for that console. Heck, I’d assume that most hockey fans who also play games probably think of SNES/Genesis titles, go back to “Ice Hockey” and “Blades of Steel,” or merely lean toward EA’s modern NHL series.

Even so, there were quite a few Nintendo 64 hockey video games, including ones so obscure they might not make it in this post. (If so, share away.) Let’s look back at the 64-bit console’s most noteworthy hockey video games, then.

Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey (and ’98)

Arcade-style sports games tend to age the best because they’re less ambitious about looking like the real thing, and also about simulating it. So, it’s no surprise that “Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey” seems like it would be pretty fun to play, even today.

Midway churned this one out, which helps to explain the “NBA Jam”-y ness of it all. Goalies could turn into brick walls. Nets caught on fire. You know, the good stuff.

You could see a lot of the DNA of “NHL Hitz” here, which is a series we’ll delve into down the line.

Here are some fun tidbits about the series (which included a sequel):

  • The title’s Wikipedia page alleges that it was the first-ever four-player Nintendo 64 game. As you may recall, the console shipped with four ports for controllers, making it the sleepover machine for nerds cool kids.
  • The series of three Gretzky-helmed titles began on the SNES.
  • Could there have been “Mortal Kombat”-style fatalies during fights? Allegedly.
  • Critics weren’t exactly enthused about the ’98 version getting repackaged as “Olympic Hockey ’98.” IGN even gave it a “zero.” Honestly, I do admire the lazy brashness of just changing trades to “defections,” though.
  • “Olympic Hockey ’98” represented the debut of video game developer Treyarch.

In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Treyarch currently develops some of the titles for the “Call of Duty” franchise, and also churned out the well-regarded PS2 “Spider-man 2” game, ports for the “Tony Hawk” series, and more. Humble beginnings, indeed.

EA sports eventually brings a hockey title to Nintendo 64 with NHL ’99

As far as I can tell, the Nintendo 64 began a stretch where EA Sports titles were by no means guaranteed to appear on Nintendo consoles. (Or, in some cases, Nintendo fans would get warmed-over rehashes, or only one or two titles in a given series. The Nintendo Switch hasn’t received a modern title in the NHL series, for instance.)

While the Nintendo 64 ranked as a success by some measures, it also didn’t receive the same waves of titles as Sony’s Playstation. While Sony went with CDs, Nintendo stuck with cartridges. Such a decision made it tougher to pirate games for the Nintendo 64, yet it also made it far more expensive to manufacture games.

“Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey” released in 1996, while EA Sports’ first foray into hockey games for the Nintendo 64 didn’t happen until “NHL ’99” dropped in 1998.

“NHL ’99” featured Eric Lindros on the cover, and was generally well-received. That said, IGN’s Craig Harris noted that the game was farmed out to MBL Research, and was mostly based off of “NHL ’98” for the Playstation and PC.

So it seems like it was better than nothing, but Nintendo fans still got the short end of the (hockey) stick.

Other hockey video games on Nintendo 64

When it comes to two other series on the N64, I’d argue their greatest impacts came in entertaining covers.

Frankly, there’s a charm in Keith Tkachuk being on the cover of “NHL Breakaway ’98,” which I assume will be a precursor to Matthew Tkachuk and Brady Tkachuk teaming up on the latest “Bratz.”

NHL Breakaway '98 Keith Tkachuk hockey video games Nintendo 64
via Youtube/Acclaim Sports

The “Breakaway” series seemed … fine. Really, any hockey game that included icon passing gets bumped up a half-letter grade. But it’s not shocking that the series eventually fizzled out.

While plenty of people at least vaguely recall one of the “Breakaway” titles (the second one featured Steve Yzerman), I’d guess few knew that “Blades of Steel” made a comeback. Jaromir Jagr served as the cover star for both the ’99 and 2000 versions:

 

via CD Universe/Konami

There seems to be some charm to the “Blades of Steel” reboot, but the slow framerate and weird angle likely limit it to being a mere curiosity.

Overall, it’s pretty easy to see why the Nintendo 64 isn’t remembered for hockey video games. Even so, I can’t deny an urge to refresh my memories about “Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey,” — defections optional.

PHT remembers other hockey video games:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.