Remember October of 1993 when NHL ’94 released for the Genesis and Super NES? Well, I don’t: I wasn’t quite born yet. But I do remember the summers, winter breaks, weekends, and years later where my friends and I gathered in a basement with a few packs of Kool-Aid Burst and a metric ton of Dunk-a-roos and ran our own tournaments. It was NHL ’94 that birthed my deep — still enduring — love for the arcade sports genre; a genre that in recent years has become more and more scarce. And so when I found out about Old Time Hockey, an old school arcade-style hockey game inspired by NHL ’94, I was quite psyched and had to have a gander.
On paper, Old School Hockey had everything on my checklist: ref abuse, 70’s hairstyles and mustaches, dirty hits, bench-clearing brawls, and more. Sadly, despite how good it looked on paper and the substantial nostalgia coursing through my veins, most of my time with Old Time Hockey hovered around mediocrity, and at times was plain dispiriting.
My introduction with the game came via an exhibition match: me, the Long Island Rumrunners of Commack, NY vs. the Portage Lake Widowmakers of Houghton, MI. The game started, I won the faceoff, and immediately felt a sense of exultation. Then it all began to go downhill.
The decline wasn’t fast though. The Widowmakers whooped me and I quickly realized my inner, hyped up on blue Kool-aid eight-year-old NHL ’94 prodigy self, had been lost over the years. But this realization didn’t come until later, as for the first match or two I was largely fixated on the game’s style and not by my poor performance.
I wasn’t alive in the 1970’s — and the jury is still out on whether that’s a good or bad thing — but that didn’t matter, as V7 Entertainment did a great job at creating an aesthetic presentation that more than once made me go “yeah, this feels like the 70’s.” Skating around me where dudes with afros, big mustaches, and no helmets. The disco-like vibrancy of the uniforms clashed with the nondescript structures of the rinks. There was something about the style of the game, the PS2-era faces, the janky animations, the animated but soulless crowd, that just worked. The game is far from graphically impressive (which is surely in part done by design), and yet it all came together in a cohesive manner that left me nothing but charmed.
A few exhibition matches later, the initial captivation of the game’s presentation and style began to wear off and, once I escaped it’s distraction, my merriment with the game was hip-checked by the realization that I was not finding the gameplay nearly as adequate as everything built around it.
My first few games were played with a control setup inspired by hockey games of yesteryear: two-button controls. And after touring all of the game’s four different control schemes, I came back to, and stayed with, two-button controls. Why? Because Old Time Hockey’s gameplay isn’t rewarding to master via more extensive control schemes, nor is the gameplay heightened by the complexity of said control schemes. Old Time Hockey is a substandard modern hockey game, but a passable old hockey game, and the more you embrace the simplicity of the latter, the more enjoyment you will be able to abstract.
That being said, no matter what control scheme you choose, many of the frustrating aspects of gameplay can’t be escaped. For one, everything is a bit slow. Too slow actually. Rather than being quicker and more arcade-y, the games moves at a sluggish pace. The slow pace is most obvious in the passing which isn’t snappy enough, and as a result passing the puck around, keeping possession, and working for a better angle often isn’t a viable option, and rarely the best path to goal. The slow pace is also highlighted by how janky the player skating is. It’s clunky where it should be more fluid, and often feels too heavy. If players controlled more precisely it would do wonders for the pace in general.
It would be one thing if the lack of pace was at least taken advantage of, but sadly it’s not. As mentioned above, the passing isn’t good enough to meticulously maneuver yourself around the ice and, while AI design feels largely up to snuff, I did notice that your AI teammates aren’t great at movement off the puck. As a result, there is little strategy in attacking play, and no way to develop a playstyle identity.
The defensive side of things are much worse though. The more I played Old Time Hockey, the better I got. Well, the better I got at scoring. Because despite my two dozen hours with the game I don’t feel any better at defense now than when I started. And this mostly boils down to the fact that — as mentioned above — the player’s don’t control precisely enough.
For example, it’s borderline impossible to take your defender and skate in a straight line at an attacking player with the puck. As a result I gave up trying to defend like you would in a hockey game and rather would just let the attacking player get ahead of me and then hook the puck from behind. If I didn’t deploy this tactic then I was spamming the hip-check because it’s essentially the only other effective way of defending.
But worse than the player handling on defense is the bloody struggle of trying to change players when defending. I can’t even begin to describe the amount of goals I conceded because the player swapping is abysmal. To put it simply, it’s incredibly difficult to switch to the player you want sometimes and even more difficult to switch from defender to defender when defending near your goal. Defending often looks like a team of Sidney Crosbys attacking a pack of headless chickens. At times, all you can do is pray your goalie can survive the onslaught as it’s nearly impossible to get a defender to hit an attacker in tight situations. And this whole thing is only worsened that your goalie feels wildly unpredictable. There is no save too easy, and no save too hard for the goalies in Old Time Hockey.
At this point, I know what you’re wondering: how are the fights? You’re thinking that surely a 1970’s inspired ol’ fashioned hockey game with fights galore — including goalie fights and the ability to hit your opponent over the head with you stick — has good fights. Well, you thought wrong: fights are incredibly boring after the first go, and even in the novelty of your first fight, it still feels uninspired and janky. You hit with circle and dodge with cross. That’s it, really. It’s the one part of the game that desperately could be improved with more depth. It would also help if the fighting felt smooth, but like the rest of the game it handles obtusely. Ultimately, fights are very insignificant, and after about a dozen or so, I dreaded in participating them.
Beyond exhibition, you can also participate in the game’s story mode. In fact, if you want to play with modern hockey game controls, you will have to play the story mode: as it’s the only way to unlock said controls. In story mode you play as the Schuykill Hinto Brews, a team in utter disarray, who you have to save and bring to the championship game.
As you progress through the season you will read through newspaper articles about what’s going on with your team, unlock hockey card collectibles, and grow your team’s morale. Additionally, with each game you will unlock new controls. For example, for the first game you can only wrist shop, as you haven’t learned to slap shot yet. This design of slowly unlocking mechanics is pretty frustrating for the first few games as your options are limited, especially defensively, while the AI has no limitations.
Equally frustrating is the game-by-game objectives. For certain games you are required to complete certain objectives in order to advanced to the next game. The objectives are never overly difficult but they will force you to approach and play the game a certain way, ways that I never found joyful.
Making up for the lack of multiplayer — which is sorely missed — is the ability to play local multiplayer. And like hockey games of yesteryear: Old Time Hockey is best played with other people, in two-button mode, where shenanigans distract from the poorly designed gameplay.
Alas, Old Time Hockey by and large was a disappointing experience. On paper, it had potential to be a good game. But as a finished product it is disappointingly held back by wads of jank and unpolish, and a few too many half-baked features.