NHL 99

Developer: MBL Research
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: October 10 1998
Regions: NA, PAL
Genre: Sports
Multiplayer: 1-4 players
Cart Size: 12MB/96Mbits
Saving: Controller Pak
Rumble Pak?: Yes
Expansion Pak? No
- Required? No
The best N64 Hockey game?

Let me paint a picture for you. You've just rebounded the puck from your goalkeeper's pad. Ten seconds left in the final period, score tied and there's one more chance. You carefully avoid your opponent's wingman and boost just out of his center's reach. You push the puck to your own wingman, he feeds you back just before the attacking blue line. Now it's just you and a teammate against a defender, the distance to the goal shrinking. Two seconds left: you and the defender drift right. The puck slides parallel to the net to your teammate's wound-up stick and, with a thunderous follow-through, the puck sinks into the net as the final horn sounds.

It may be the ambition of every sports game to enact this drama, however, precious few do. EA Sport's NHL 99 simulates gameplay tension because it takes a no-nonsense approach to representing the game of ice hockey with good graphics, fluid controls, a variety of game modes and one hell of a co-op play. The game is ported from NHL 98 for the PC and Playstation, and although that may have been a minor disappointment in the new additions category, NHL 99 takes the cake for ice hockey games on the Nintendo 64. Sure, there is a glaring misrepresentation of collision detection, which leads to unnecessary off-sides calls and aborted fast breaks. But the overall gameplay is a masterpiece, especially when taken into account what some consider to be an awkward phase in sports video games.

While some no doubt expected EA Sports to change the formula for the N64 transition, the conservative approach proved genius. NHL 99 capitalizes off the simplicity of a 2D, rooftop lay-out, allowing its contemporaries to struggle with 3D presentation. Although Blades of Steel 99 has a similar grunge opening and "quick-play" option as NHL 99, the similarities end there. It's necessary for Blades to allow the user to edit strategies pre-game, because most players are not visible on the screen at one time. Conversely, in-game strategy is adjusted in NHL 99 with the flick of a c-button. This satisfies coaches at heart without taking focus away from the integral part of sports games, the gameplay. Increased friction-sensitivity results in a botched collision detection effort, and probably a failed effort to utilize the Rumble Pak, but with proper speed bursts and dump-off passing this glaring mistake can be abated.

With a solid footing in fantastic gameplay, stringing games together becomes a treat. A Controller Pak is a borderline must as you'll want to burn pages by saving the progress of your team's record and players' statistics. Going through a season with a created player is a crucial experience--and if you can go through one alongside a friend's avatar then all the better. Season mode has franchise-like qualities, so you can ensure your player garners enough millions to keep him off the street. The Pak is useful for other modes, such as saving your custom tournament or playoffs.

NHL 99 is blessed with a truly challenging difficulty setting, under which one must know the rules of hockey. Competing at the top level means your icemen will learn the lesson of ass-meets-ice, especially in the attacking zone, so unfortunately off-side is incredibly easy to trigger. The difficulty of passing makes icing occur unintentionally, and the quick-paced game makes running into your opponent's goalie all too likely. Penalties will happen at inopportune times, but they are even across the board. Then there is the "sixth man" effect, in which the crowd can motivate a team to compete seemingly beyond its ability. The player must be ready for these momentum changes, as defending against teams with formidable first-lines is incredibly difficult.

For once we have a game using the controller's entire alphabet: Pass, shoot, spin, line change, formation change, dive, and speed burst/check are helpfully accessible with one button, allowing the gamer to keep in the action. One also has the option to treat goalie involvement manually, as he is prone to leaving his five gap open in apparent attempts to toss the game (thus earning the nick-name 'tosser'). A bit of re-mapping may be in order, unless you enjoy having your defender dive several seconds after your opponent has scored, because you use analogue and couldn't access 'L' without crossing hand over controller. Fitting the speed burst/body check function to a conducive home is necessary, as getting the hang of its use can be challenging.

Somehow, the great games are able to keep things simple. In NHL 99, the penultimate experience is the one-timer, which of course calls for the two basic functions of pass and shoot. Perhaps this is in homage to Nintendo's two-button roots, but more likely EA Sports successfully found that extra element that brings gamers together. As if one-timing with a friend isn't enough, one can co-op against a pair of friends doing the same. It just happens to be that addicting aspect of a game that can make it worth playing well past its time.

Presentation: 9.0
An obvious port from a previous title, NHL 99 is by far the best presented ice hockey game on the system.

Graphics: 8.5
Clear players with detailed stick movement. 2D gameplay is easy on the eyes while the cut-scenes provide a healthy dose of 3D.

Sound: 8.0
Riveting opening sequence and great arena music in-game. The only drawback is Mr. Clement's commentary.

Gameplay: 9.0
If you can forgive the collision detection misstep, you've got a nearly perfect arcade/simulation.

Lasting Appeal: 8.0
Timeless co-op. Plenty of reasons to come back when equipped with a Controller Pak.

Overall: 8.5

Written by Joseph Moore
Screenshots by Kevin Ames
February 23 2013