NHL meets N64.
Oh, what a happy kid I was when the folks at Game Revolution handed me a copy of NHL '99. Not only have I been a fan of the series since its quiet inception in 1992, but I have also been eagerly awaiting its debut on the Nintendo 64. The N64, I figured, would propel the franchise to a new and exquisite level; a level that feeds the eyes, pounds the ears, and exhausts the thumbs. What I feared, however, was that EA would change the fast-paced, fluid gameplay that made the series so darn popular in the first place. With all these lofty expectations packed into my tiny little brain, I flipped on my N64, sat back, and nit-picked this sucker to bits.
Here's why the game rocks the house: graphics and gameplay.
And boy, oh boy, are these some graphics. I know, I know, we should expect this from the N64 (and EA, for that matter), but I do have to say that these graphics are all-around eye candy. Were talkin' players that look and move more like the real-thing more than any game ever made for the consoles. Try hitting the 180 button on defense (Z button, a new feature this year) and you'll see what I mean - when these guys skate, it looks unbelievable. EA grabbed five NHL players and even a few professional Hollywood stuntmen to make sure that their new motion-captures were spectacular, and they are.
As far as the arenas go, EA should be patted on the back for these. I played a game in the Forum with the Kings (still getting used to that new logo...) and was blown away by the detail. The ice alone looks amazing; it shines like fresh powder on a Tahoe morning at the beginning of a period, gradually dulls during play, and is restored to its pristine perfection for the start of the next period by our friend Mr. Zamboni.
As everyone who's ever played an EA hockey game knows, the one element that makes the series obliterate its competition is gameplay, and NHL '99 is no different. EA has masterfully translated the smooth, fast-paced fun of the NHL series onto the N64. I'd even dare argue that this game one-ups its predecessors because of one single addition - the analog controller. No longer are you forced to wear down your thumb trying to turn your guys around. Another new addition that will woo longtime NHL fans is the slap shot meter. That's right kids, now you know exactly how long to hold that button to get the shot you want.
As with all EA sports games, NHL '99 is chock full of options that you may never even bother with, but that are appreciated nonetheless. You've got all the usual suspects this time around; Exhibition, Season, Tournament, and Shootout (an organized penalty shot game... whoopee). One thing I would have liked to have seen is a Madden style Franchise mode. Although it would merely compliment the regular season mode, it is quite an experience for those fans that really like to take control, and for some reason EA left it out. Frankly however, the Season mode is enough to keep your hands full for a good long while.
The AI is usually hit or miss with hockey games - it's either too easy or too hard to score. NHL '99 is a good compromise. It's got a bunch of fancy new features as far as the computer intelligence goes--"odd-man rushes" and "neutral zone play" anyone? What all this jargon means is that the computer plays more like a real NHL team would play. Chances are, however, your typical armchair center won't have a clue about this stuff, opting instead to simply move the puck towards the goal. And on the easy modes this armchair center will have very little problem getting the puck in the net. Turn up the difficulty setting and it'll will be tougher, but scoring is still possible. And that is good, because nobody wants a hockey game without goals, goals, goals. And as far as multiple player modes go, you're going to find that 3 periods of play will give you high scores like 8-7. Although this is a bit unrealistic, it makes for a good time. Oh, and don't even think about controlling the goalie manually, because it just ain't fun.
Last but not least, I have to let you know where the game just bites: sound. Although it's still early in EA's N64 career, it is abundantly clear that they are having trouble translating the glorious sound that they are known for onto the cartridge format. That is not to say that the sound in NHL '99 is horrible. The hits and crowd noises are, in fact, fantastic. The commentary, however, is on par with its 16-bit predecessors. Whereas NHL '98 featured a color commentator as well as a play-by-play announcer (that very well could be the most impressive commentary in any sports game, ever) the N64 version of NHL '99 has Bill Clement handling both the color commentary and the play-by-play. The result is a series of lame statements that are skimpy and repetitive ("STONES HIM!" and "THEY'VE GOT A BREAKAWAY!" to name a few). Ultimately it comes off as a last minute addendum to an otherwise stellar game.
And there you have it. For the most part, this fancy-dancy new 64-bit NHL has lived up to, and even surpassed most of my towering expectations. It is, bar none, the all-around coolest hockey game for the N64. And that's good--after all, hockey is "the coolest game on earth" right?