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Hockey Video Game Memories: NHL Stanley Cup

While Electronic Arts’ NHL series became the standard for hockey games in the 1990s, there were some notable attempts by others, such as Sculptured Software and their heavy use of Mode 7 in NHL Stanley Cup for the Super Nintendo in 1993.

Embrace all of the Mode 7.  Also, yes, if you leave the game running from the start, it will automatically play a game such as the Devils playing Florida.  The puck carrier is about to be launched about 40 feet by the way.
Embrace all of the Mode 7. Also, yes, if you leave the game running from the start, it will automatically play a game such as the Devils playing Florida. The puck carrier is about to be launched about 40 feet by the way.
Source: Screenshot from NHL Stanley Cup (SNES)

Growing up in the 1990s, it was a halcyon time to be into games. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and Sega Genesis ruled the early 1990s, the Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and Dreamcast closed out the decade, and the PC games moved on from DOS to Windows and, increasingly by the end of the decade, online. It was a time where some genres and types of games raised and set new standards in their area. Plenty of them still hold up remarkably well today. In the realm of hockey, you probably know this one: the NHL series by Electronic Arts. NHL Hockey, NHLPA 93, and arguably the grandest of them of them all NHL 94 came out annually from 1992 to 1994. From the top-down perspective to the licensing to the ratings to the one-timer introduced in NHL 94 and a near-perfect blend of action and simulation hockey, it is a game that, well, changed the game for hockey games. Even to this day, decades after the 16-bit generation had its time, NHL 94 still has a dedicated following.

It is because of games like the NHL series by EA that others have faded in history. There was still a little experimentation going on, even in hockey games, and there was one I distinctly remember from my younger SNES-playing days. Was it as good as NHL 94? No. Was it memorable? Absolutely. The game was NHL Stanley Cup, developed by Sculptured Software and published by Nintendo of America.

You may be familiar with Sculptured Software, last known as Acclaim Studios Salt Lake City, if you played a lot of SNES games and/or sports games in the 1990s. They were the developers of the Super Star Wars series of side-scrolling action games which were well made and challenging. They were also the developers of the various WWF games on the SNES (e.g. WWF Royal Rumble, WWF RAW, etc.) and later were the developers of WWE Attitude for the PlayStation, well after Acclaim bought them out in 1995. If you remember the SuperFX gimmick, they developed Dirt Track FX which makes it the only non-Starfox game I played that had it. They also did a number of notable ports like the infamous Mortal Kombat for the SNES which had sweat instead of blood and DOOM (the original) for the SNES in 1995. They’ve been around and even developed a number of hockey games. Their first was NHL Stanley Cup, which game out in July 1993 per MobyGames.

What makes NHL Stanley Cup memorable can be described in two words: Mode 7. This graphical option was one of the features of the SNES. It allowed a background layer to be scaled and rotated. Used properly, this could be used as an effect to give the illusion of a horizon in a sprawling world. The linked Wikipedia page lists a number of both classic and not-as-classic SNES games that used it in part. NHL Stanley Cup used it for the actual hockey gameplay itself.

With their use of Mode 7, the entire game was on a rotating, 3D-style rink with 2D graphics. The rink would rotate with the player you were controlling. Should you move the puck, change characters, or the opposition would take possession, then the rink would rotate along with it. All in real-time. Unlike EA’s NHL series where you would have a top-down view angled towards one end, the view was closer to your player and the rink itself. This resulted in a closer in-game experience. Throw in the rink becoming marked up from the skaters moving about and getting knocked down and it is a visual experience. Here is a clip of the game’s introduction and about six minutes of game play from a Youtube user called retrogameguidecom:

This was not a new thing for Sculptured Software. They employed the same technique for NCAA Basketball, which came out in June 1992. I do remember taking some time to getting used to it. It definitely is not intuitive if you were used to playing hockey games either from a up-and-down perspective or a left-to-right perspective. I could see how the action would be dizzying to some. Especially when a player took a penalty. I do not know if it was intentional or not, but the game seemingly ran faster with fewer players on the ice.

That was one of the quirks of this game. Another was the ability to fake a shot and try and pick a corner when you do. Good luck trying to beat the goalie, though. For some reason, goalies seemingly do not give up rebounds. That is something to get used to in a sport where it is common for rebounds to happen and are put back into the net. For another reason, goalies had super-human strength. Go near a goalie? You’re knocked down onto the ice. Think about crashing the net? You’re knocked down onto the ice. Try to set a screen? You guessed it: knocked down onto the ice. In this game, some of the checks - like what appears to be a two-handed shove to the face - will move a player a good ten to forty feet. If I recall correctly, there were three different types of hits to throw. The big hits in this one were definitely big and it made for a very physical game with plenty of grunting noises. The biggest quirk was a massively cheesy trick to score. The game had a dump-in button. As a puck carrier, if you hit it just after crossing the red-line, then the puck will arc over the goalie’s head and into the net. Once you find it, it is hard to not use it to run up the scoreboard. Similar to how wraparounds in the early EA NHL games would just have the AI defenders push the goalie out of the way, it was a sure-fire way to score. Alas, the younger version of me never figured that out.

The younger version of me did partake in its season mode, playing as the Devils and promptly simulating games because over eighty games of hockey was a lot to play. While you could shorten the period length to 5 or 10 minutes, it was a lot. The simulations lended itself to a lot of violent games with the in-game sports broadcaster - who would also provide the intermission stats and some generic text about the game - detailing how a game had well over a hundred penalty minutes in it. I do not recall if there was fighting, but it indeed had a lot of penalties to be called. Standard rules applied, but of course, those were optional as the player saw fit. Just as the player could play a single exhibition game, a season’s worth of games, or a playoff-style best-of-seven series.

In terms of depth and presentation, NHL Stanley Cup kind of fell a little short. You could change lines. You could change or pull goalies. You could not edit them. I am trying to remember if you could trade players in the season mode but I do not recall. I do know that you needed to know the player’s numbers. NHL Stanley Cup had a NHL license but not a NHLPA license. The players did have some kind of stats as #66 on Pittsburgh was a whole lot better than, say, #24 on Pittsburgh. It did make for some odd arrangements, such as #44 on New Jersey (Stephane Richer) being a center, but at least the developers tried to make the players a bit different. The only way you would know that would be in the upper corner of the screen as there is no indication or player number on the player. In fact, there is no logo or any detail on the uniforms beyond the players. All the players look pretty much the same on the ice; no changes in height or weight as far as I recall. Same for the goalies. Even after a goal and the game cuts to an animation of a goalie angrily sweeping a puck out of his net, only the colors of the uniform change. While coming from one of the duller goal horns I’ve heard in a game and every arena is pretty much the same. It may have worked in 1993 but it was a step down from the presentation of the EA NHL games even with a closer, Mode 7 style view of the game.

Ultimately, that goes to why I think this game is more in the dustbin of history. It was swept in there by NHL 94, which I think came to the SNES towards the end of 1993. While NHL Stanley Cup was closer to the ice, NHL 94 was easier to immediately follow and play since the rink was not rotating with the game. The game had plenty of hits but nothing where a player would fly halfway across the zone, or goalies that just dominated any player in there. There were totally cheap ways to score but if you were playing with friends, one of them could control a goalie and take away some of that cheapness. They could also one-time a puck in that game too. And while the rinks looked all the same in EA’s game, the different organ music clips added enough individuality. The presentation included other bells and whistles like Ron Barr’s pre-game quotes and a noise meter. More importantly, NHL 94 had both the NHL and NHLPA license. It is a lot cooler to younger me to play as Scott Stevens instead of #04 LD on New Jersey.

Given that there was never a sequel to NHL Stanley Cup and there continues to be sequels to the NHL series and a following for NHL 94 itself, I think most game players would agree which game stood the test of time. That would be NHL 94. I would agree. I could play NHL 94 today and have some fun. I had my fun with NHL Stanley Cup back when I was younger, but looking back on it now, there is not much of a reason to go find a way to play this one. I think I would get more annoyed at it as opposed to getting into the game proper. Perhaps by the fiftieth grunting noise from players bumping into each other or trying to get something past the wall that is the goaltender. Say what you want about NHL 94 but it closer to how a hockey game is played and it is much easier to jump in and play. There is no need to get used to all of the Mode 7 as the rink rotates with the game.

Interestingly, this was not the only hockey game Sculptured Software (a.k.a. Acclaim Studios Salt Lake City) would develop. They did the SNES port of Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars, which was a side-scrolling ice hockey game that was developed amid the NHL lockout in late 1994 and came out in 1995. They also developed NHL Breakaway 98 and NHL Breakaway 99 for the N64 as part of Acclaim Sports. I have not played either of those three games, so I cannot speak to their quality. I can speak to NHL Stanley Cup for being good for what it was at the time. It was different. It was memorable. That is a lot more than what I can say about plenty of the other hockey games not made by EA in the 1990s.

Did you happen to play this game for the SNES? Did you find the Mode 7 graphics disorientating when you did play it? Or was it more about how the game was actually played? Please leave your thoughts about this game in the comments. Tomorrow: A hockey game by a developer who is not known for its sports titles anymore. Thank you for reading.