Best Games - NHL 96
I don’t play a lot of sports games. I have definitely dabbled. The odd baseball or football game. Maybe a basketball game or two. Many car racing games. I have always preferred video games that were fantasies. Things I could never do in real life. I have a ball glove and a baseball. I don’t have a rocket pack or a sword. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to use it. Playing a game of catch wouldn’t get anyone to look twice, but I really couldn’t walk down my back path with a katana.
The real world sport that I have played more than any other is hockey. I have only spent a few years of my life not playing hockey. Those were the first few and the most recent few. For the first few, I couldn’t skate, and for the last few, well, no one could.
There are a lot of sports game that are not simulations. They are arcade style games with a loose sports attachment. A sort of vestigial draw that people can recognize. Games like NBA Jam or NFL Blitz. They don’t really have a lot to do with the sports they are based on. Something like 90% of all car racing games are not really about the sport of racing.
This tends to work out in the game's favour. The closer a game hews to actual simulation, the more likely it is to come up short. There are simply not enough buttons on a controller, not a granular enough interface available, to describe the intricacies of most sports. You can pretend to Quarterback the Dallas Cowboys, but you can’t simulate throwing a perfect thirty yard spiral with a game pad. Not really.
There is no way to properly simulate playing hockey in a video game. No VR system will ever have the fidelity to incorporate the full body experience of skating, slapping a one timer, or executing a poke check.
Still, I know what hockey is supposed to feel like. How the game is supposed to move and flow. NHL 96 (on PC, and even somewhat on consoles) was a massive leap above every video game representation of hockey before it. NHL 96 took the momentum and agility of moving on ice, and actually did a pretty good job of representing it. AI players made an attempt at playing their positions. The puck slid and bounced in ways that approximate realistic.
A lot of simplifications were made to keep the game fun and accessible, but, for someone who had, up to that point, played a lot of hockey, the game felt like hockey. Up until that point, I had never played a game that felt anything like a real sport.
Is it perfect? Of course not. Are any of the subsequent versions of the game perfect? Also, a big nope. They never will be, and that’s okay. Sometimes you want the feel of hockey without going to the rink and lacing up your skates. The developers of NHL 96 seemed to feel the same way. This is not an arcade game that looks sort of like hockey, it’s the feeling of hockey in a simplified form.
It probably won’t go down as the best sports game. Hockey games will never match the popularity of soccer, football, or basketball games. None of them will ever have the universal appeal of racing games. For one, brief shining moment, there was a sports game that aimed to simulate what the game felt like, and that deserves some recognition.
NHL 96 is one of the best games.