Last week, Grantland published my version of the concise NHL Dictionary. I used the opportunity to make fun of Gary Bettman, the Lady Byng Trophy, enforcers, advanced stats, people who don’t get advanced stats, several players, and most teams. And as it turns out, everyone was fine with that.
Then I said NHLPA Hockey ’93 was a better game than NHL ’94. That part didn’t go over so well.
Look, I understand that this is a divisive issue that hockey fans feel strongly about, and I’m willing to admit that’s it not an easy call. It’s even possible that I’m wrong. That’s been known to happen once or twice a decade.
Clearly, we need to dig into this in a lot more detail. And so that’s what we’re going to do, 20 years later, by breaking down the head-to-head matchup in a dozen key categories.
First, a little bit of history for those who may not be familiar with the two games because you’re too young or too old or your parents never loved you. NHLPA ’93 and NHL ’94 were the second and third versions of EA Sports’ NHL video game series, which — to this day — is easily the most famous and critically acclaimed hockey game ever made. (The first version was technically just called NHL Hockey, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll be referring to it as NHL ’92.) They were revolutionary, and along with Tecmo Bowl are the only things from the early ’90s that aren’t horribly embarrassing in hindsight.
And I think it’s fair to say that most people seem to like NHL ’94 better. That shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, NHL ’92 introduced the series and NHLPA ’93 advanced it, and all things being equal you’d expect NHL ’94 to take things another big step forward. And in many regards, it did. It was a very good game, and everyone loved it.
But was it really better than its predecessor? There’s only one way to find out: on to the head-to-head.
NHLPA ’93: As the name suggests, the game was licensed by the NHLPA but not the NHL. That meant that all the real players were included, but there were no team names or logos to be found. (This was a reversal of the original NHL ’92, which had the teams but no players.)
That sounds like it would be a pretty big issue, but it was surprisingly easy to get past. Instead of the Montreal Canadiens, you just had “Montreal,” a nameless team that through a weird coincidence just happened to have the exact same uniform colors as the Habs. As long as you weren’t an Islanders fan stuck playing as “Long Island,” you might not even notice the lack of an NHL license.
NHL ’94: This was the first game in the series to hold both licenses. So you had everything: player names, team logos, and even the Stanley Cup (instead of the weird-looking knockoff in NHLPA ’93).
Edge: NHL ’94.
NHLPA ’93: There were no one-timers, which meant that if you wanted to score you had to get creative. Plays had to be set up, shots chosen carefully, and specific players used in the roles for which they were best suited. Scoring goals in NHLPA ’93 was hard.
Unless, of course, you just used one of the many glitchy moves that seemed to work all the time, like piling into the crease, doing that wraparound move, or flipping the puck in so it bounced off the goalie’s head and then scoring into the empty net while he was stunned. But I’m assuming you were an honorable person who would never resort to such chicanery.
NHL ’94: The addition of one-timers was the single biggest improvement to NHL ’94, and is a big reason why so many people still love it. And understandably so — one-timers were super fun. They were easy enough to execute once you got the hang of it, and they worked.
In fact, they probably worked too well, and this is where I part ways with some NHL ’94 fans. While it was cool to have a new way to score, it quickly became apparent that the one-timer was essentially unstoppable. It didn’t matter who the shooter was, or whether they were in position. If you could get the puck to Stu Grimson on his backhand while he was facing the wrong way, he was going to roof a laser beam. And the AI rarely used them, so it basically became impossible to lose to the computer in a game of NHL ’94.
Edge: NHL ’94. In hindsight, the one-timer probably ruined a decade’s worth of EA Sports hockey games. The problem got even worse in NHL ’95, with its weird Pacman-on-ice skating system, and to this day the old “skate down the wing, circle back, and throw it blindly out front for the one-timer” move is still a staple of the NHL series.
But when it debuted it was great, and way more fun than the dirty goals you had to rely on in NHLPA ’93. Speaking of which …
Existence of That Cheap Breakaway Move That Worked Every Single Time Once You Knew How to Do It
NHLPA ’93: That breakaway move existed.
NHL ’94: That breakaway move continued to exist.
Edge: You, because if your friends used this move then you knew they were irredeemably terrible people and you could cut them out of your life immediately. Get bent, breakaway move people.
NHLPA ’93: Not only did the game have fighting, but you could make a strong case that it had the best fighting implementation of any hockey game ever. That sounds like a crazy thing to say about a game that’s more than 20 years old, but let me explain.
The fighting engine was fairly basic: Two guys stood across from each other, and you could move back and forth while punching high or low (there was also a “grab” button, which literally nobody has ever used). The fight lasted long enough to get a decent number of punches in, or until one player was knocked down. It wasn’t just about button mashing — there was a timing to it, and the key was to get into a rhythm (or, failing that, trap the other guy up against the boards or the net). It was easy to lose, even to the computer.
More important, NHLPA ’93 did the best job I’ve ever seen of generating realistic matchups. Tough guys fought tough guys. Middleweights fought middleweights. You’d even get occasional fights right off of a faceoff. Each player had ratings that controlled their fighting ability as well as how often they dropped the gloves, and it all worked together beautifully. Mismatches were rare, and if they happened then the weaker guy would usually get destroyed. If you could manage to KO Bob Probert, you really felt like you’d accomplished something.
Compare that to the modern hockey games, which somehow still can’t get any of this stuff right. Instead, we went through an era when the developers turned NHL fights into rapid-fire Streefighter rip-offs that later morphed into a first-person button-mashing mess. Meanwhile, every matchup seems random, and Marian Gaborik can destroy Zdeno Chara with three punches.
I am so angry about this right now.
[Glides back and forth in front of a wall, waiting for the perfect timing to punch it.]
NHL ’94: Fighting was removed. This was the single worst, most disappointing thing that happened to me as a teenager, by the way. And believe me when I say that’s really saying something.
Huge edge: NHLPA ’93. Look, you don’t have to like the continued existence of fighting in real hockey. But fighting in hockey video games is freaking fun, especially when it’s done well. Nobody has ever done it as well as NHLPA ’93.
NHLPA ’93: Awesome.
NHL ’94: Also awesome.
Edge: Even. Seriously, these may be my two favorite songs of all time. It’s like asking me to choose between my two children, except that these two theme songs have never done anything to disappoint me.
NHLPA ’93: While NHL ’92 was the first game in the series, it wasn’t especially popular, and the lack of real player names really hurt the fun factor. So NHL ’92 felt like an uneven pilot episode; NHLPA ’93 was the real deal. For many of us who’d grown up on fun but cartoony games like Blades of Steel and Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, this felt like a major breakthrough.
NHL ’94: The one-timer was huge, and there were enough smaller improvements to make it feel fresh. This was also the first game to have Eric Lindros in it, which for some reason was kind of a big deal at the time.
Edge: Even, unless you somehow missed NHLPA ’93 and only got into the series when NHL ’94 came out. Don’t worry, the rest of us aren’t judging you.
NHLPA ’93: There’s really no nice way to say this: NHLPA ’93 was glitchy as hell.
But the glitches were kind of fun. I was always fond of the way the puck would sometimes stick to the crossbar, then start mysteriously rotating before finally slamming itself into the back of the net, all while the players stood around randomly crosschecking each other in the head.
NHL ’94: Also glitchy, but marginally less so.
Edge: NHL ’94. Side note: MS Word keeps trying to auto-correct me every time I type “glitchy,” which is in itself kind of glitchy.
NHLPA ’93: Does not include the Hartford Whalers theme song, “Brass Bonanza.”
NHL ’94: Does include the Hartford Whalers theme song, “Brass Bonanza.” Also, the song plays every five seconds, all game long.
Huge edge: NHL ’94. Did you know that Brian Burke personally killed “Brass Bonanza”? I feel like this doesn’t come up often enough.
NHLPA ’93: The game rated players in a series of categories, using a scale of 0 to 100. And when I say “using a scale of 0 to 100,” I mean it; NHLPA ’93 had no problem slapping a zero on somebody in a particular category.
Even better, it was equally merciless with players’ overall ratings. The expansion Ottawa Senators had half their defensemen rated a 2 overall. Ken Baumgartner also got a 2. Poor Shawn Chambers was stuck with a 1.
Needless to say, this was a good thing.
NHL ’94: This game began what would become an EA Sports trend: Nobody’s ratings were really all that bad. Even the worst players were at least in the 30s or 40s. Over time, this ratings creep has continued across all EA games. In NHL ’14, Sidney Crosby is rated a 99, and John Scott is a 99.8.
Edge: NHLPA ’93. OK, I made that part up about Scott, but you get the point. The NHL ’94 ratings system was the harbinger of the “everyone gets a trophy just for trying” mentality that has softened our youth and ruined our society. Come back, Shawn Chambers. We miss you.
NHLPA ’93: You couldn’t break the glass. Not even with an Al MacInnis slap shot.
NHL ’94: You could break the glass with an Al MacInnis slap shot. Or a Todd Gill slap shot. Or a Darren Rumble backhand. The glass broke every few shifts, is what I’m trying to say. And you know what? It was fantastic. Especially when you opened up the replay mode and then went back and forth to make it happen 30 times in a half-second.
Edge: NHL ’94. I still think 90 percent of Steve Austin’s heat came from people hearing his entrance music’s glass-break and having spontaneous NHL ’94 flashbacks.
NHLPA ’93: Did not include a shootout mode.
NHL ’94: Did include a shootout mode.
Edge: NHLPA ’93.
NHLPA ’93: Was not featured in the move Swingers, as everyone knows.
NHL ’94: Was featured in the movie Swingers, as everyone knows, in that infamous scene in which Roenick is good and Gretzky’s head bleeds.
BUT WAIT: Everyone is wrong! Go back and watch that scene again. They’re clearly playing NHLPA ’93. As similar as the two games look, it’s pretty obvious when you notice the lack of a team logo at center ice, or the Pro Set ad on the scoreboard. And there’s an even bigger giveaway right at the scene’s key moment: They make Gretzky’s head bleed. There was no blood in NHL ’94.
And yet, to this day, everyone thinks the Swingers scene was about NHL ’94. Why? Probably because of that one line they threw in about the lack of fighting. That’s clearly a reference to NHL ’94, and it strikes a chord with the audience because, again, taking out fighting was the worst thing that had ever happened to most of us.
But that one line doesn’t change what everything else about the scene makes clear: We’re watching them play NHLPA ’93.
Huge edge: NHLPA ’93. Yes, I said “huge edge.” We are righting a historical wrong here, people.
And the Winner Is …
This is clearly a close call, and it’s tempting to just call it a tie. After all, these are two of the greatest games ever. Can’t they both be winners?
No, they can’t, because that would be a cop-out. So I’m drawing my line in the sand: I stand by my original call. It’s the closest of split decisions, but I’m still giving NHLPA ’93 the win.
And yes, your mileage may vary. And if it does, you’re welcome to let me know about it. I’ve already stored up canned goods for the inevitable civil war that’s about to break out on my Twitter feed or the comment section below.
But I’m pretty sure the NHLPA ’93 forces will prevail. You NHL ’94 guys never did learn how to throw a punch.