I might not have spent many hours of my youth in the library reading books, but I did enjoy many a fun filled scrimmage of roller hockey with my friends in the library parking lot. Here, hard earned allowance money was spent on sticks, roller blades, knee guards — anything to give us a leg up on the competition. Those who followed pro hockey pretended to be NHL stars while the rest of us were content to form ‘flying Vs’ inspired by the Mighty Ducks films. I found my niche as a defensive player, and saved my wicked moves for home where I could play the likes of NHL Stanley Cup on my Super Nintendo. What I’ve found recently is that if I had the chance to try Brett Hull Hockey, I might have liked it just as much. It certainly has a knack for recalling to mind those hockey on pavement moments of yesteryear.
From the get-go we recognize a balanced presentation in Brett Hull Hockey (BHH). A catchy Casio beat transitions into a mood-setting title screen accompaniment. Even the selection sound of a puck ripped across ice whets the appetite for action. Then in the rink a bright, clean playing surface reflects light off the ice. Lines are clearly drawn and the teams are recognizable in their colors, especially the velvety violet Ducks of Anaheim. The voice of legendary announcer Al Michaels comes in clear and no big play is missed by this crowd. When emotions run high, the gloves come off and we’re in a grainy, live action match of fisticuffs. We’ve got roaring slap shots and diving goalies — just about everything you’d want in a high-flying hockey game.
The goal of BHH’s developers, Radical Entertainment, was clearly to present an action-driven experience. It’s a pleasure for the user to handle a speedy player from the front line and weave in and out of defensive pressures. Indeed the A.I. plays a consistent method of two-over-the-goal defense, so creeping up for an open shot is not likely without a daft maneuver. The rink has a shrunk feeling which adds to this highfalutin energy level. A balance of poke check and cross check are in order, as the CPU will zip in for the shot if your slow, or if a heavy-hitting defender misses a check up rink, or if your center fails to muddle the middle. It’s a wobbly effort at first to control your avatar and avoid smash hits, but all told pacing and execution of action feels realistic. At least realistic enough for someone whose primary encounter with the game of hockey growing up was roller blading on a slab of parking lot.
When it comes to goal scoring in BHH, I find a quantity-over-quality method to be the most effective. Sometimes out-shooting, out-checking, and even out-passing wasn’t enough to secure the win — it was only because I peppered the net enough that an opponents’ own goal was the decider. Responsibility doesn’t fall to the user to aim for exposed net, but rather to deke and duck in hopes the goalie will leave such gaping holes that your little nephew couldn’t miss. In that regard I was reminded of the legendary Blades of Steel on NES, where the user’s shot is governed by a sliding red arrow in front of the goal. While this method worked for the purposes of the 1988 Konami classic, it’s not altogether endearing for a contemporary of the lifelike NHL ’94.
While the CPU plays admirably stiff defense, I detected a flaw in the A.I. that robs this game from a healthier flow. If ‘offside’ is not taken off in the options, it becomes clear early that these guys just don’t know how to avoid being called offside. You may wrest the puck from an opponent’s attacker with hopes of beginning a quick counter-strike, only to learn that such desires are generally in vain. The rink is just too condensed for fast breaks; likely your front icemen are past the blue line if you push it up as quickly as you’d like. One can of course perform the quick-fix of taking offside off, and I can imagine this would be agreeable for most multiplayer matches. But if trying to take the Cup in tournament mode, where’s the integrity in this? If that’s the case then I’ll keep penalties and line changes on to boot. I don’t think it’s too much to anticipate that in a hockey game, the avatars know the rules.
The Brett Hull Hockey League differs from the NHL in a few ways. Lack of a league licensing means teams are referenced by their city, with the Islanders of New York being renamed “Long Island.” I found the jerseys to be dazzling in their distinction. We do have a silver cup for tournament champions to hoist after completing a traditional quarter-final, semi-final and finals format. Tournament rounds can be adjusted to best of 3, 5 or 7. Likewise seasons can be played in lengths of 11, 42 or 84. There are 26 playable teams, including the expansion Florida (Panthers) and Anaheim (Mighty Ducks).
The replayability of BHH takes a hit when the polish of its season mode is put under scrutiny. I completed a fun and challenging mini-season, but when I was finished I was anticlimactically sent back to the title screen. Also, there is no season stat-tracking. Stats are kept for individual games, but there is no method of watching your stats accrue. I don’t expect a sports game from 1994 to come with all the bells and whistles of a franchise mode, but the tracking of some stats ought to be a given. Instead the game seems intent in using the least amount of bits on memory, as an archaic password system is needed to save any progress made in season or tourney mode. Thankfully, BHH is solid in its core, which is exhibition mode. It has consistent, fast-paced action and that, at least for me, is a sports sim’s rudimentary requirement.
During his long and illustrious career, it was muttered by some that Brett Hull was a one dimensional success: a keen goal-scorer who seldom chipped in on defense or embraced the fierceness of his sport. To a degree, the first SNES game of his namesake is a one trick pony as well. We have a solid arcade experience somewhat disconnected from aspects of gameplay that robs the user of the identify that comes from a journey. In short, it’s no “Stanley Cup winner,” but it does get you into the playoffs. I found it fun. It is one of those middle-grade keepers I will return to every so often. I’ll even look forward to coming across Brett Hull Hockey ’95 in the future, which is not a bad accomplishment for a prequel.
Three out of Five Stars
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