It’s a special time for everyone. The fall season. Leaves are changing colour, the weather is getting colder, and people are already missing summer. And if you work in an office like I do, sooner or later, you won’t see the sun ever again, because when the five o’clock whistle blows, it’s already set for the evening.
But it also means one other thing. Hockey season starts!!!
So, as I get my Maple Leafs jersey out of the closet, and start my bets on if my team makes the playoffs, let alone going all the way to winning the Cup (we here in Toronto are aiming high this year, we only missed the last six playoffs, no biggie), I thought it would be great to start off the season with a bit of 8-bit classic hockey. Thus, Blades of Steel for the NES is under review.
Published by Konami, and easily one of the most recognizable sports games on the NES. But does it hold up to modern hockey games? Let’s find out.
But first, a mini rant. One thing in this game annoyed me, and I need to get off my chest. Don’t worry, this won’t take long.
There are only eight teams to choose from in this game; New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Minnesota. That’s out of the 21 teams in the NHL at the time. They didn’t use actual NHL team names due to legal issue. The colour palette were pretty close to the NHL teams, and some actually mimic their football teams (NFL and CFL), so we’re under the assumption that they are mimicking the teams associated with the city.
The game came out in 1988, so for the purpose of this rant, let’s use the 1987-1988 season as our measuring stick. The Edmonton Oilers beat the Boston Bruins four games to none (a game was cancelled in the second period due to power failure, so it didn’t count towards the tally) to win the Stanley Cup. So, why not include Boston in the game? I mean, they were the Prince of Wales Trophy winner (Eastern conference champions). And if you think about it, Detroit is the other original six cities not included in the game, and they’re nicknamed Hockeytown. That would have been cool to have the original six in there. Also, Calgary was the President’s Trophy winner for that season (Most standing points in the regular season), so where are they? And this was the first year in a long time that Gretzky wasn’t the lead goal scorer due to injury. Mario Lemieux from the Pittsburgh Penguins was the leader (even though they were last in their division), so where are they?
And while I’m being ridiculously strict about it, why is Vancouver an option? They didn’t even make the playoffs that year. Neither did Minnesota (North Stars, not Wild, they got moved to Dallas in 1993, and the Wild came in 2000). And is New York supposed to be the Islanders, or the Rangers? The Islanders were the Patrick Division leaders at the end of the season, and the Rangers didn’t even make the playoffs. And hey, Winnipeg was a hot city at the time, and they just got reinstated for this season, where are they?
In summary, why were these cities selected? Was it random, or were there specific reasons for these cities to be in the game. There really isn’t much consistency over why these cities over other cities.
There, I got that out of my system, I feel better. Glad you got a quick history lesson in hockey? Good. Now onto the game.
The game starts out with the title screen, and a digitized voice calling out the title. This may seem hokey to modern gamers, but this was an awesome thing at my time. Konami tried the digitized voice effect with many of their games, including the Adventures of Bayou Billy and Double Dribble. There are other voices in the game, like “Face Off”, “Fight”, and the always popular “With the Pass”. It was different to hear something like that, and it was pretty cool to see advances like that, when most games just had text.
As with all Konami games, the code was tested. You know, the code? Up Up, Down Down, and so on. That code? Well, apparently it unlocks a sound test area, but I couldn’t get it to work. Too bad, I was hoping I would get 30 goals at the beginning of the game.
You can have one or two player games. If you choose one, you can select if you just want an Exhibition game, i.e. One game, or do the tournament, which is all 8 teams in a bracketed 1-game playoff setting. Beat them all, and you get the trophy (not the stanley cup, but oh well). Blades doesn’t have individual players, or drafts or trading, like in most EA sports games. It’s just grab controller, three options, and you’re playing. It’s simple, but effective.
To score, simply select “A” to shoot. The puck will go towards the arrow that goes up and down the opposing net. If the goalie is there, the shot is blocked. You can hit the post, so watch out when you shoot them.
One minor thing to complain about is the controls. It’s not that they are cumbersome and unplayable, far from it. In fact, they are smooth and well in control of the character. The issue is that they take a while to get used to. If you were playing heads up with a friend, the person that has played the game first has a distinct advantage. D-pad controls the selected player, but it also controls your goaltender, and for first-time players you’re not realize that you have to stop the goals as well as play defence when your opponent has the puck. It makes it harder to defend your goal, because you have to choose between your defensemen or goalie to stop the offensive onslaught. After a few games under your belt, it become far more fluent, but it’s that initial bump that drives the controls to the boards. “B” is to pass, but while passing, both hockey players stop dead in their tracks to get the pass. It feels like it kills momentum.
The final gripe I have with the game is the Penalty Shot. They only occur when two players fight in front of the net, or if the game is tied. Yup, this game has shootouts. And yes, I am in that class that hates shootout finishes in the NHL. What’s wrong with tie games? Penalty shots looks amazing, but it works like a soccer kick in the game. Aim with the D-pad which corner you want to shoot, and hit A to shoot. But no matter what difficulty you have your computer set to, they will always block it. I only succeeded once in scoring on a penalty shot. I held up for about 5 seconds, and just as I was to hit A, I held right on the D-pad and hit A. The goalie still thought I was shooting up, when I went glove side. But I couldn’t recreate the victory, for the life of me. There’s no reason to take penalty shots with that in mind.
Now, the negative is out, let’s get to the positives of the game. Mainly graphics and sound. Everything looks crisp and clean, all the players look like players. Sometimes, though, with the colour uniforms, it’s hard to tell which team is which, depending on which teams are against each other, like Montreal and Chicago look similar. The sound is memorable, with some crowd sounds borrowed from Track and Field II.
I love the subtle nuances of the game, the crowd cheering, the charge song that plays whenever someone scores, and most importantly, the blatant advertising you see after the second period. Yup, during second intermission, the billboard show ads for other Konami games like Jackal and Contra, and even has a mini game of Gradius. Cheesy? You bet. But hey, made me want to play Contra and Jackal, so it’s effective.
But the most fun you can have in the game, is the fights. I know there is a lot of negative views of fighting in hockey these days, but in Blades of Steel, it’s just great. To start a fight, bump into the same character on the opposing team three times without touching another, and you get this mini fight on the ice. Button mash like there’s not tomorrow, and get to the fight sub-game. I would say that the fighting can even compare to some dedicated fighting games out there, like Street Fighter 2, and so on. It’s simple, and it’s quick. Both players get 5 hit points, you can block or punch, either regular, or hold down for a gut punch.
But here’s the beauty of it, if you knock out your opponent in the fight, they get the 2 minute penalty, not you. No 5 for fighting, no 10 minute instigator, nothing. In fact, it’s the only penalty in the game, and with the exception of Icing, there aren’t really any other hockey rules to follow. Imagine that in the NHL, every game would be Thunderdome. Just anarchy.
At the end of it all, once the Zamboni comes out, this game is fun. Very fun. It’s coming from a guy who doesn’t play a lot of sports games too. It’s more fun with a friend, or a bunch of friends, who are into NES and hockey, for a good night. Have your own round robin tournaments, and share hockey stories, and just a grand old time. Just remember, I already called Toronto, so pick another team to get your butt kicked by the “Leafs”.