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Hockey Video Game Memories: FaceOff!

This week’s theme for SB Nation’s hockey blogs is video games. This post is a look back at a Commodore 64 and DOS game that slipped through the cracks of history: FaceOff! by MindSpan and published by Gamestar.

FaceOff! for the PC. This is the DOS version that came out in 1989 and I indeed played this when I was younger.
FaceOff! for the PC. This is the DOS version that came out in 1989 and I indeed played this when I was younger.

We know the NHL intends to return to play and what the format of that will be. We do not know if and when it will happen. With respect to the New Jersey Devils, the next date that directly matters is June 26, which is when the first phase of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be. Throughout the SB Nation collection of hockey blogs, there have been theme weeks to help fill in the time as our sport remains on pause. This week’s theme (which will be delayed to a time to be determined later) is something I have plenty to say about: video games.

Gaming is one of my past times. I have played a lot of them as a kid, as a teenager, as a young adult, and to this very day. After all, I am playing Eastside Hockey Manager for this site. For this week’s theme, I want to go over past hockey games that may have fallen through the cracks of history. The thing about nostalgia is that it is usually represented by the standout games (or music or movies or whathaveyou) of that era. If I bring up hockey games from the 1980s, then Blades of Steel or Ice Hockey for the NES will likely come up. As they should; they were great games for its time and Blades of Steel holds up remarkably well even today. However, there was a game in the late 1980s that stood out to me even though it was not as popular or well-remembered as those games. This game is FaceOff! for the PC.

FaceOff!, not to be confused with Face Off (a 1988 arcade game by Namco, and also a 1989 game for the Amiga and Atari published by Anco) or Face-Off (a 1991 game for the Amiga and Atari by Krisalis Software and also a 1976 pong-style game for a TV) originally came out in 1987 for the Commodore 64 and 1989 for DOS. I did not have a Commodore 64, so I played this game on DOS. Developed by MindSpan Technology Corp. and published by Gamestar, this was a game that seemed like it was all about the fighting. The cover had two players in nondescript jerseys throwing hands. The title screen has a player removing an old-style goalie mask to reveal a bruised eye, a mouth missing its two top front teeth, and a grimacing face. Advertisements for the game had the typical line about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out. The game itself was a lot more than just that.

The easiest way I could describe it is a more realistic Blades of Steel. Which is a bit odd since the first version of FaceOff! came out in 1987 and Blades of Steel’s arcade version came out in October 1987. The game is played from a side perspective. Similar to Blades of Steel, fights would often take place in their own setting with music and two dudes throwing down with different controls for blocking, throwing high punches, or throwing body blows. The loser of the fight would go to the penalty box. However, that is where the similarities really end.

With the fighting alone, FaceOff! had a bit more going on in it. The game would tell you the names of the players fighting with one of them having a generic line about it. In some fights, you could jump on your fallen opponent to give him more of the business. And the game would arbitrarily call a penalty for the loser of the fight, such as charging or hooking rather than just . This would lead to a power play, which would be adjusted for length based on how long you set the periods to last.

Yes, you did have control over how long the game would play. The DOS version of FaceOff! had many more options for customization compared to other hockey games at the time. (The Commodore 64 version had some but not all of these options.) If you wanted to have one-minute or three-minute periods, then you could do that. If you wanted a full 20 minutes, you could do that too. If you wanted to play with one skater and a goalie, three skaters and a goalie or the traditional five skaters and a goalie, then you could do that. There were some adjustments you could make to the game speed. You could change the rules a bit if you were annoyed by offsides and icing or play with no rules at all. By the way, this game had rules for offside and icing, which definitely added to the realism the game could offer. If you did not want fights, you could turn those off entirely. Lastly, you could decide whether you would want the Shot-Cam on or not.

Despite how the game was marketed, the Shot-Cam was FaceOff!’s defining feature. A number of the games published by GameStar, a sports-focused branch of Activision in the 1980s, had a feature or two that really set it apart. For example, their GFL Championship Football game had first-person quarterback play way before NFL2K5 was even conceived. For FaceOff!, it was the Shot-Cam. When you wind up for a slapshot, the game would cut to a view of just the shooter and the goalie. The player could use the numeric key pad or joystick to direct their shot at a specific part of the net if they are shooting. If you chose the option to control your team’s goalie in Shot-Cam, then you could move the goalie to where you think the shot was going. Instead of the moving arrow in Blades of Steel or just having to guess, the player had more control over their shot. It was an interesting concept.

Unfortunately, this feature also had its issues. This would only happen with a slapshot. Like Blades of Steel, the vast majority of shots were slapshots. But wristers or snapshots were not included. And sometimes you would take a slapshot and there would be no Shot-Cam. I do not know if that was the game’s way of stating the shot was so unlikely to score that it was not worth the effort or what. But it is annoying to have a feature that was not always reliable. The bigger issue is in the cut away to this view. If your PC was not very powerful, then this caused a real delay between deciding to shoot and actually shooting. Worse, the game never stops for this shot. The computer (or your human opponent if they were lucky) could still check you or take the puck while you’re shooting. You cannot see them coming; they are not in the Shot-Cam view. This view was just the shooter and the goalie. If there was any traffic in front of the goalie, then they are not there when you shoot with the Shot-Cam but they are when the game returns to its normal view. You could turn off Shot-Cam if you found it to be a pain. It is telling that the developers at MindSpan made Shot-Cam optional, even though it was a feature intended to make the game stand out from others. Of course, if you shot the puck without Shot-Cam, then I could not tell you how you would control where it would go. Assuming you were able to do so. At least the arrow in Blades of Steel gave the player a direction.

It is a shame because FaceOff! had a lot more going on than that. It may not have been as visually impressive as a Blades of Steel style fighting system or Shot-Cam, but other aspects could have been promoted. It was among the first hockey games to have line changes. (I’m not sure if Mind Before a game, you could set three lines and you were able to make changes on the fly in a game. More than that, you could create, save, and load plays. This gave the player the option to be more controlling of what the computer could do on and off the puck. The DOS version of FaceOff! also had a season and playoff mode in addition to exhibition. (The C64 version just had exhibition and playoffs.) The season mode, which I think was for just one season, gave you access to making trades, calling up players from a minor league team, retiring players (!!), and even editing their names. While the players seemingly did not have their own attributes, they did have a goals and assists listed so you could at least see who was a top scorer and who was not. You could simulate games as well as play them yourself. The playoff mode was similar, albeit just for a tournament to win the Stanley Cup GHL Title. All of these menus came with memorable music. At least I remember it well. Still, the game was ahead of its time in a hockey game genre where some games were still coming out where you would be able to play just one game at a time or with a set rule-set with few options to change it.

There were still limitations with the game. All games took place on a generic rink. Regardless of the teams, one side would wear red with blue pants and helmets and the other would wear neon green with blue pants and helmets. There was no way to customize the colors of the uniforms to make the look different. FaceOff! did not have a NHL or NHLPA license, so generic cities and states were used for the twenty teams (sorry Isles fans, there was no Long Island). You can be assured I played as New Jersey quite a bit. While all of the players had names, there was not always an indication of who was who. There were no numbers on the players in the game much less nameplates. Again, I do not recall any players having attributes so it would be cosmetic, but still, it stands out as something that would not really fly with today’s gamer looking for a hockey game.

The biggest issue was its speed. Even if you turned up the game speed, it did not have the same frenetic energy of Blades of Steel or Ice Hockey on the NES. Those games are fast-paced and the controls went along with it made it perfect for picking it up and playing. Not so for FaceOff! While you could speed through the options by just selecting “Looks OK to me” quickly, the game itself was just not fast-paced enough. The Shot-Cam slowed things down. The game had to load before and after fights. The celebrations after goals scored were not so quick. The controls were not always responsive. And if your PC was not so powerful in the DOS days, these loading screens would take enough time to break up the actual action in the game. If you wanted an arcade-style of hockey game to play with your friends, then FaceOff! only worked if no one had a NES and they were willing to deal with the PC. Even then, Blades of Steel was ported to DOS in 1990. If you wanted a more sim-like experience, then Wayne Gretzky Hockey was likely your choice. (That series will get its own post later this week.) If you wanted a game to straddle both ends of the sports-gaming spectrum, then this would fit best. That went away when Electronic Arts changed the game in the 1990s.

That all stated, I do remember FaceOff! fairly well. It was one of the first hockey games I ever played. While it was not as fast paced and there issues with and without the Shot-Cam, it did quite a few things hockey games often did not do at the time. Being able to make a playbook, play through a season or a playoff tournament with series lengths, change lines in-game, and adjust the game in multiple ways are all features we take for granted in hockey games from the early 1990s and onwards. If you still wanted the arcade-like features of fights or the Shot-Cam, then the game did provide it. Did it give a younger version of me some hours of fun? Yes.

Would I recommend going back to it today? Not really. The NHL games by EA really did this hybrid simulation-arcade style to perfection. If you want an arcade style game from the 1980s, again, Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey on the NES are your best options. It may be worth checking out just to see what it was like, but you can get the same experience from watching someone play it. Such as in this YouTube video (Aside: There is a scene of people who just play games without commentary. Respect to them for playing the games as-is.)

What ever happened to MindSpan and Gamestar? Per MobyGames, this was MindSpan’s first released game. It was also their only hockey game. They did a bunch of different things before becoming the developers of the Hardball series in the 1990s. I do not think they are active anymore; their most recent listed release was Hardball 6: 2000 Edition in 1999. Gamestar, again, was a branch of Activision that focused on sports in the 1980s per MobyGames. Literally in the decade; their first published game was Baja Buggies in 1982 and their last published release was Motocross in 1989. Gamestar did a lot of different sports, but FaceOff! was their only hockey release.

Did you play FaceOff! back in the day? If so, what do you remember from it? Did you achieve anything in it? Do you miss copyright protection tests that required you to read from the manual? (Answer: No.) Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.