Review: Ice Hockey (Wii U eShop / NES)

Not that cool any more

Nintendo released a number of sports titles in the NES era, a reflection of a simpler time when having a fancy home console was enough of a novelty that a game simply called Ice Hockey would seem like an awesome prospect. You like Ice Hockey? You've got Nintendo? Get Ice Hockey, which is Ice Hockey on your Nintendo!

That simplistic charm was a part of the whole 'sports' series on the system, which can't disguise the fact that some of these releases are mediocre at best. As one of the stronger entries in this series of sport games with boring names, Ice Hockey does stand as a solid experience; its sport of choice is well set up for fun 8-bit play, as it's based on end to end action that — to the untrained eye — is relatively chaotic. This came before officially licensed NHL games arrived and brought tactics and strategy to the table, and is just basic five versus five mayhem.

Mayhem is the operative word here. While going into a match does allow you to customise your team, this is a title that quickly becomes a frenzied bout of exercise for your thumbs. To get the tactics out there quickly, you can populate your outfield lineup with a mix of skinny (fast but weak), normal (all-round) or large (slow but powerful) players. It's a good idea to mix and match, ideally with a big guy at the back to get his sizeable frame in attacker's faces. If playing two-player with a friend try an all-fat match if you want to brawl, or likewise go with an all-slim line-up for a fast-paced and slightly confusing encounter.

In any case, the actual matches employ an unsurprisingly simple control scheme: A is pass while in possession and body check in defence, while B is shoot in attack and change player when without the puck. It's possible to pull off fake passes and shots if you're feeling fancy, but such is the feeling of frantic chaos — and the fact we're dealing with NES AI opponents here — that we focused on simply passing to team mates and getting shots away.

While in possession the controls work pretty nicely, though there's a stiffness to directing passes and shots that takes some getting used to; the goal tender's passing is even more limited, so adjustment to that quirk is required. It's fun dashing around in attack, with the aforementioned limited aiming options meaning that most of our goals came from lucky rebounds off the goalies — we were so grateful for a goal, due to this game being tricky, that we were often almost past the point of caring how it happened, in any case.

So far, so fun, but proceedings deteriorate in defence. When attempting to manoeuvre your man to execute a body check it's quite easy to aimlessly drift by, looking silly in the process. Somewhat dispiritingly, we found our best hope for defensive solidity was to spam the B button, which when tapped quickly makes players drop back and jitter around in the way of the attackers. Actually engaging opponents manually when defending your own goal is unwise, as you're also simultaneously controlling the Goaltender. If you move your defensive player up to challenge and the opponent shoots, your keeper will likely be hugging the corner of the goal like an idiot. Perhaps controlling your Goaltender and defenders at the same time was standard in that era, but it seems like a crazy design choice to the modern eye.

With practice and development of your own alternatives to resolve the defender / Goaltender control conundrum, this can be an undoubtedly fun and zany game. It has rad music, the visuals are composed of simple but energetic little sprites, and there are fun touches such as brawls that can be initiated when body checking. You simply tap A and watch a flurry of players dive in for a cartoon style brawl underneath comical fighting dust.

As for the longevity of the experience, its single player is down to individual matches. You can adjust the time of each period or, most importantly, the speed of the game itself in five degrees. The first two settings are the most manageable, after which the movement of the match becomes a frenetic blur of button tapping. There's also two player — once you get around the Wii U Virtual Console's annoying setup that seemed to insist we make the GamePad player two — which is certainly fun with a like-minded friend. Not a long diversion, necessarily, but harmless and silly enough to prompt some laughs.

Conclusion

At the standard NES Virtual Console price, Ice Hockey provides a decent option out of the 8-bit sports games to arrive on the Wii U Virtual Console so far. When in possession the gameplay is pretty serviceable and relatively fun, though defending is a fiddly, unsatisfying setup. Taken as a whole it has enough charm and energy to raise a smile, while it may be one of those humorous one-off games for a quirky battle with a friend. It has lost some grace in its age though, and isn't as slick as it perhaps once was.