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Hockey Video Game Memories: Wayne Gretzky Hockey

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Bethesda Softworks is more known for publishing and developing large role-playing and action games; but they started in sports. And their second release was Wayne Gretzky Hockey, a game that was more of a sim than an action-packed game like Faceoff! or Blades of Steel.

Yes, that Bethesda Softworks made a hockey game.
Yes, that Bethesda Softworks made a hockey game.

When most video game enthusiasts read or hear the name “Bethesda,” many things come to mind. Such as how they published or developed some of the biggest franchises in gaming today from the Elder Scrolls series - mostly Oblivion and Skyrim; Fallout since Fallout 3; and the return of the Wolfenstein and DOOM series among others. Frustration with buggy games and nickel-and-diming players also comes to mind, especially with their recent Fallout title, Fallout 76. However, this post is not about the Bethesda Softworks of today. This is a hockey blog and as part of the network-wide video game week so it is about a hockey game. Believe it or not, it is the second title that Bethesda Softworks released and their first licensed game: Wayne Gretzky Hockey.

According to what I could find at MobyGames, this is also the first licensed title for Wayne Gretzky. You know him as The Great One. Arguably the greatest player ever. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime player. As he was a superstar in the sport and at the epicenter of one of sport’s biggest trades ever in August 1988, it made a lot of sense to have a game with his name and likeness. And so the task went to Bethesda Softworks to make the most of it. They had one previous release, Gridiron!, which directly led to the groundbreaking John Madden Football. Did they make the most of it? At the time, yes. Yes, they did.

Originally released in 1988, Wayne Gretzky Hockey was released and it made its way to on multiple platforms. There was a version for the Amiga, the Atari ST, DOS, and MacIntosh. There was even a later port to the NES. It was a success. Per MobyGames’ entry, the game would sell over 350,000 copies, lead to two sequels and two companion titles (more on that later in the post), and would be regarded as one of the great sports games even eight years after its initial release. (It was included Computer Gaming World’s Best 150 PC games back in 1996. Yes, eight years later in a post EA NHL world.) This is remarkable given that the game was an overhead view of a hockey game and a lot more simulation-based than an fast, action-packed game of hockey. Look at it:

Younger me did not like this game. Having first seen hockey on TV and first seen hockey games like NHL Hockey on the Intellvision, Blades of Steel on the NES, and Faceoff! on the PC, I had trouble processing what I was seeing. Who am I on the ice? Where does this cursor go? Why is it like this? Why does it go to another screen when something happens and why do I have to go to a menu before a faceoff? What happened to that cool intro where Gretzky skates up and fires a puck through the screen? Why does it look like a bunch of blocks with little sticks making little tiny dots on the ice as they skate instead? Younger me was about seven, eight years old so I wanted action. Also keep in mind that PCs back then were not as powerful as they are today so loading up the game and going through all these menus and seeing the game stop for a faceoff or a goal or a penalty on another screen and another menu all meant waiting. Waiting is not ideal for anyone, especially a six to eight year old me that wanted to play. I preferred Faceoff! over this.

That said, current-age me wishes younger me was a little more mature about hockey, games, and life to better appreciate this title. This was indeed not like Faceoff! or Blades of Steel. This was a game with real players, locations based on real teams, and real stats for the players. You could edit the team name, change lines, change the coach, and look at how good someone was at shooting. You could even print out stats from the games you played - or did not play as you could let the AI play the game by itself and you could watch it. And you would see the player’s fatigue decrease as they would play before their next line change (or a player change to one line). Which you would select in those menus that appear after icings, offsides, frozen pucks, and so forth. The game was much more like a game of actual hockey regardless of how it looked.

The control scheme was definitely not intuitive. Using just a joystick - yes, they were joysticks and not controllers back then - was difficult. Going keyboard and mouse was the way to go. The idea is that the cursor on screen would control how fast your player moved and other keys would control what they would try to do on the ice. It did not help that the only way you would know who you were controlling was if their small pixel helmet was a different color. It was a steep learning curve and one that six to eight year old me did not want to scale. But if you learned it, I can see how you could be functional with it.

So younger me was not a fan of this, but plenty of people were. If you wanted a more serious, life-like hockey game, then this was your choice. And if you were really into it, then you probably would have been interested in a companion piece of software by Bethesda Softworks: Hockey League Simulator. The base Wayne Gretzky Hockey game only allowed single games to be played. Hockey League Simulator, which came out in 1989 for the Amiga and DOS systems, represented the management and league side of the game. As a GM you had the ability to take over a team, call up and demote players, check the waiver wire, fire the head coach, and make trades. You could take control of the league, which opened up more possibilities. You could rename the whole league; set up either one to four divisions; and move, add, rename, or even remove teams. If you were patient and imaginative, you could set up your entire fantasy league or just make one up of your own. And then you can simulate away.

The real feature to Hockey League Simulator was that it interfaced with Wayne Gretzky Hockey. So you could set up the league in Hockey League Simulator, import the league and team files into Wayne Gretzky Hockey, play (or watch) the game in Wayne Gretzky Hockey, and then import the results of that back into Hockey League Simulator. So if you had a group of people really into Wayne Gretzky Hockey or you wanted to run different seasons using the game, then you could do so with both games. I did not have access to Hockey League Simulator. I can tell you that I would not have had the patience or desire to do that when I was young. Again, were I older and/or more mature like I am now, I could have appreciated it more.

Going back to the Wayne Gretzky Hockey series, yes, it was indeed a series. Although its relevancy faded over time. In 1991, Bethesda Softworks released Wayne Gretzky Hockey 2. It was their first game to be released after 1989’s Hockey League Simulator. As near as I could tell, it is the same game. Per MobyGames, it came out only for the Amiga and DOS as DOS was beginning to take over as the platform for PC gaming. But it looks and plays the same as the original. It had some smaller, less notable differences like being able to edit plays, look at team behavior, and change the number of referees. Hardly a leap forward in a sequel that one would expect.

Bethesda Softworks must have figured the same because they put much more of an effort into the graphics, presentation, and gameplay in their next hockey game: Wayne Gretzky Hockey 3. According to MobyGames, this title came out in 1992 for DOS and its big change was an actual graphic-based series of menus and a brand new perspective and way to play the actual game. In addition to the overhead view of the first two games, the game had a EA NHL-style vertical viewpoint. You could finally see the chests and legs of players. You could finally see who you were controlling with a highlighted shadow beneath the player. You could finally see that not all shots and passes were at ice-level. You could control your player without the cursor trying to guide the player where you would want them to go. And there was music, voice clips, and still plenty of customization from the first two games. I did not have this game either but, in motion, it looks a lot like EA’s game. (Note: The below video clip was from a version of the game that someone must have modded years after release since Buffalo did not have the Buffalo head logo in 1992.)

While EA did not bring over their NHL series to the PC until 1993, it is clear to me that their first game (or second, I do not know exactly when NHLPA ‘93 was released) was a big influence for Wayne Gretzky Hockey 3. In case you wanted another example of how much of an impact EA had on the hockey game niche, this is a good one. That stated, Bethesda did much more than take the look. They kept a scoreboard on screen with the same kind of fatigue levels on screen so you could see what was going on like in the previous two games. There was still plenty of customization options for your team in the game as with the previous two games. It was still very much a simulation-style game even with its new look and presentation.

Unfortunately, it also contained some of the drawbacks from the previous two games. The base game was still limited to just games. If you wanted to play a full season of games, then you needed Hockey League Simulator 2 - which was a graphic-based upgrade of the original Hockey League Simulator. It functioned a lot like the original and interfaced with Wayne Gretzky Hockey 3 as did the original Hockey League Simulator did with the first Wayne Gretzky Hockey. However, the expectation from game players was that things like a season or playoff series mode were standard with tracking stats and the like. The NHL series by EA had it in their first game for the Genesis in 1991. Asking game buyers to get two games for something some games were doing on in one was not likely going to do well. As far as I can tell, it was not. I can understand that if you only had a PC and were interested in hockey games, then perhaps this would be for you. Although, you could have also bought Genesis then (or a Super Nintendo a year later for NHLPA ‘93) and jump into EA’s game.

The market apparently spoke that way as Wayne Gretzky Hockey 3 would be the final entry in the series by Bethesda Softworks. They would never do another hockey game again. As a studio, they were transitioning more towards publishing and developing action games (e.g. The Terminator) and struck gold with The Elder Scrolls: Arena in 1994, which began a franchise that is still popular today. Bethesda Softworks started in sports and did dabble in a few others in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as bowling (e.g. PBA Bowling), drag racing (e.g. Burnout: Championship Drag Racing), and horse racing (Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships). As far as I could tell at MobyGames, their horse racing game in 2005 was the company’s last sports game they have developed and/or published. Maybe they will return to the sports genre one day. Hopefully, it will not be a mess if they do.

The Gretzky license still had some use in the world of gaming for a few more years. Wayne Gretzky as a stand-alone license only had a few more uses in the gaming world. There was Wayne Gretzky and the NHLPA All-Stars in 1995, the arcade and more cartoony Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey for the N64 in 1996 which I played a lot of, the not-so-improved version in the following year, and the Sony-published Gretzky NHL 06, which had its own “99 Mode” and came out for the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable in September 2005. The gap between 1997 and 2005 is pretty large and if MobyGames is anything to go by (and it is), there has not been a Gretzky-licensed game since then. I never want to write never, but it appears doubtful we will see one for some time.

If nothing else, Bethesda Softworks’ Wayne Gretzky Hockey was a bigger product of its time than I certainly gave it credit for. Perhaps it does deserve a little more respect in the niche that are hockey video games. Where fast action that looked like hockey is remembered, this was a game that took a more realistic approach to the game. For all of its flaws, it did sell well, it was well-regarded in its time, and it did have plenty of features to better represent a game of hockey. When you also add in Hockey League Simulator, it allows for a lot more creativity for those who want to put in the work of running a team or a league. Something that is well-handled these days in games like Eastside Hockey Manager or Franchise Hockey Manager for those who want to be the GM or even EA’s NHL series which has had franchise and season options for years.

It is true that I did not appreciate it then when I did try to play it. I was quite young, it was not what I wanted, and I did not want a game to understand, I wanted a game to play. Looking back, this makes sense because a six-to-eight year old me was not the target audience for this game. This was a game for the hockey enthusiast that was into the minutiae of stats and attributes and wished they could run a team their way, and the PC gamer that was willing to sacrifice presentation and graphics for a more simulation-style experience. I hope with this post, I am expressing some appreciation now for what it was.

Now I turn to you. Do you remember Wayne Gretzky Hockey by Bethesda Softworks? Did you play it back in the day? If so, were they good memories, bad memories, and so forth? Were you aware of Hockey League Simulator or any of the sequels in the series? Does it deserve some more respect than it may get today? Please leave your thoughts about this game in the comments. Tomorrow, I wrap up video game week with a game I had more fond memories of playing.