The History of Hockey Video Games 1970 - 1985
by INTVGene
If you're Canadian, and even remotely familiar with the concept of team sports, you know that Hockey automatically assumes ICE Hockey. What else could it possibly mean? Hockey is a pretty distinguishable sport, unless of course, you consider Lacrosse to be a sport. And Field Hockey? I don't think so. But, in other parts of the world, they continue to differentiate Ice Hockey from all the other Hockeys. It's like a secret handshake that Canadians all over the world can use, to instantly recognize their compatriots.

But, it's hard to imagine how anyone can confuse Hockey with any other sport. The speed, the hits, the excitement are all part of Hockey's greatness and uniqueness, but when it comes to Hockey video games, the sport was not always so distinguishable. Often confused with Soccer or Table Tennis in the early days, Hockey's video game history begins with the early Pong machines.

In 1967 Ralph Baer, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, while designing early pong systems, came up with arguably the first Hockey video game. It was quite sophisticated, and even captured subtle details like having the speed of the electronic puck depend on how hard you hit it. The game was never released commercially, but the trio eventually did go on to make the Magnavox Odyssey (which would release a landmark Hockey game later). There were a mass number of pong systems produced by different manufacturers, and Hockey was a staple game on many of them. The Fairchild Channel F, for example, had a built-in Hockey pong game, and Executive Face-off also included a Hockey game.

So, what were the games like? The pong systems incorporated a dial-like controller, so movement was limited along a single plane. The "Hockey" games were often similar to Soccer games, which were similar to table tennis, etc. And the Hockey ones were basically the same as the other pong games, sometimes adding another paddle to simulate the three forwards in the game. Sound was almost non-existent, but the early programmers didn't have much to work with. With more resources and experience, the games would start to develop into something great, something worthy of Lord Stanley's cup.

Golden Age
On came the Golden Age of video games and the development of true Hockey excitement. Although it didn't exactly jump out of the gate. It still began with the Odyssey 2 release of the Hockey/Soccer (1978) cartridge, as Hockey didn't yet merit its own cartridge. The programming of the two sports were similar, and due to their reduced popularity, were combined to a single cartridge. However, the game had developed significantly. Five players and a goalie were present for each team as well as the contact between the players.

Intellivision hit the market with its major league franchise sports, NHL Hockey (1980), a great two-player romp, but still needed a single player mode. Three players a side, hits, penalties and crowd noise added to the action. The NHL franchise was for marketing only, and no players, teams or even logos are present in the actual game. Later, near the death of the Intellivision, the NHL licensing is removed, and Super Pro Slap Shot Hockey is released with a one-player version and little else. Unfortunately, a four-player version of Hockey was never planned, even though the ECS adapter eventually supported it.

Atari unfortunately didn't release a Hockey game for its VCS line (other than the Video Olympics pong version), but Activision's Ice Hockey (1981) was a simple classic, and made up the void left by Atari. Offering one or two player action, hits and the unusual use of geometry to score goals, the game was a popular seller for the Activision in its early years. There were two players to each side (including the goalie).

The Colecovision and Vectrex systems, neither strong in their sports lineup, never released Hockey games. Damn, I was hoping for a good version of vector Hockey too. I guess I'll have to wait for a homebrew.

The Early Computers
Atari's 8-bit line of computers produced the first four player Hockey game. Major League Hockey (1983) covered all the basics but with few bells and whistles. There are 4 forwards, and a defenceman way back in front of the goalie for each team. The players looked strangely like golfers, and the animation was left to two alternating frames of standing or sitting. This was also the first game to offer co-operative play, with up to four players and one computer player per team. The game had lots of features, unfortunately none of which was interesting graphics or fun gameplay.

Commodore-- anyone who thought that the battle was only Atari vs. Intellivision was wrong. Atari was fighting a home computer battle against evil Commodore, and losing out badly. It comes as no surprise that Slapshot (1984) was a great Hockey game then, much better than anything on Atari. It captured the feel of being at the rink with crowd noise, digitized voices, penalties and intense action. It also offered us the first time to raise the puck off the ice level. This game reminds me of Blades of Steel (1987) because you still control your goalie as you move your other players. But, there's one thing that I still don't get--the game uses international teams (thumbs up), but it has defensive zones longer than two football fields (thumbs down). It still plays a little like Soccer, mainly from the supersized ice rink.

While the home systems were rapidly developing, the arcades were not exactly teeming with Hockey excellence. And to add further disappointment, Puckman turned out only to be Japanese Pac-man, and had absolutely nothing to do with Hockey. Yet Eastern Micro Electronics, comes up with another Hockey/Soccer crossover game: Hoccer (1983). However, this is truly in name only, and is only a deceptive shade for a lacklustre arcade game. The gameplay involves you controlling a single player who must avoid your opponents and deadly obstacles to score into a moving net. Sounds a lot like Hockey, doesn't it?

Finally, Bally/Sente arrives with a good, realistic, one-on -one Hockey game. It had sharp graphics, skate trails, and even a Zamboni that cleaned the ice after games. Hat Trick (1984), was considered one of the better arcade sports games of the early 1980's and lead the way for great games like Blades of Steel.

Finally, we end with the Great Video Game Industry crash. As the market has been flooded with terrible games, sales slump and funding for new games dries up. Projects are shelves and many companies file for bankruptcy. But, the end is not near, the video game industry is just re-balancing itself, and clearing out the junk, like cleaning the ice for the next period of action. Great Hockey games are still to be made, including Blades of Steel (1987), Face-off (1989), Wayne Gretzky's Hockey (1989), Hit the Ice (1990) and EA's arrival into the sport. More next time.