'"The Great One's" 3D legacy continues', so suggests the box cover.

Other than sitting in the dark looking at hockey stats and making dumb jokes on my Twitter feed, I spend some time in this basement playing video games on my old Nintendo 64. I was maybe 10 or 11 years old when my brother wanted us to trade in the N64 for $15 credit towards some Sega Dreamcast game. I aborted the mission at the eleventh hour (I used to get up before noon back then) and kept the N64 away in storage to use at a later time.

I realize now what a terrific investment that was. Being the only kid on your block with this video game console was real cool when you were 6, and also real cool when you’re 23. Rather than sit out in the cold and wait for the release of Modern Warfare 3 Monday night, I stayed home and played GoldenEye, a game with an infinite amount of replay value and won’t need to be replaced next year. Going through some old games, I have a few of the classic standards, but also found one I don’t remember: Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey 1998. I popped it in to give it a go and see if it’s any good.

The short answer is that “no, it isn’t any good at all”.

The game is produced by Midway, the same brains that came up with NHL Hitz and NFL Blitz, which were cartoony, arcade-style sports games that aimed at promoting the ridiculous aspects of the game over the simulation-style of the EA Sports games. I think it’s a concept that works better on the more primitive systems because the players look way more animated. Gaming systems even 15 years ago weren’t powerful enough to have detail such as player names on the back of jerseys or facial features, so NHL Hitz took full advantage of it, creating a 3-on-3 game with hard hits (as the name implies) where you could just charge a guy from the opposite end of the ice and slam him into the second row. It was goofy for the sake of goofy, and you could just blow a weekend by renting that game and playing deep into the night with all the unlockable content.

It looks just like the Air Canada Centre!

Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey 1998 is the furthest thing from that. I think it was aiming for simulation-style, but, man does it ever look bad compared to what I remember out of NHL ’99 on the same system. NHL ’99 was sharp and colourful (and missing from my collection), the jerseys were vibrant and the commentary, provided by Bill Clement, focused on delivering funny lines rather than attempting insightful analysis. Sample line, when a guy got hit, he’d yell out “Freight train! Choo-choo!”

But the first thing you notice about this game when you start playing is that it’s completely dark. Ice, which I think of as a blank page to be written on, should be bright and reflective. Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey is just generally dark, and to compensate for this, the game designers made the puck a flashing disc. The second thing you notice is that none of the controls seem to have a basis in reality: anybody who ever played sports games on the N64 know that the ‘A’ button is the pass button and the ‘B’ button is the shoot button. It’s not a hard concept to follow, but Midway apparently never played a hockey game before packaging this together.

So, after playing and continuing to hit ‘shoot’ instead of ‘pass’ when you’re trying to make an outlet, you instead dump the puck well in. Now, in NHL Hitz, that’s not an issue, or any other arcade-style game, but WG3DH is invested in calling you for icing, making you feel guilty over the fact that their control scheme is horrid. It also tells you which player iced the puck, or brought it in offside, presumably so that you can bench them in the future.

I have a lot of other complaints about this game. You don’t get to choose your opponent, and the team selection screen offers a view of three top forwards on your team. As soon as you’ve selected a team to browse their roster, you’re pretty much locked in. This leads to somewhat disastrous results, such as accidentally selecting the San Jose Sharks without knowing that Teemu Selanne still plays for Anaheim in this game.

I took a brief video of one of my attempts at finishing a game to the end just to see what happens with three stars and the like, but the game is tedious. Look at how the camera is mounted. Look at the visuals. Look at how little support Pavel Bure has on his rush:

I think the worst part about this game is that Midway put it together and rather than stopping saying “wait, nobody will ever get to the end of this game. Can we really expect anybody to play a full season?” they packaged it up and sold it, insulting the intelligence of the average hockey fan who might feel compelled to buy this game.

It’s good that Midway decided to produce Hitz after this one, because nothing is less violent than this video game. This game is tame compared to the hockey played in Don Cherry and Mike Milbury’s nightmares. Phantom penalties are called all over the ice, the virtual referee seemingly taking players at random for hooking and holding even when nobody appears to fall over or get held up. Once you find the ‘hit’ button, you press it for your player to lazily hold his hands out in front of himself, and it will slow down the opposing player slightly if they happen to run into you. The command seems to turn every player on your team into Dustin Penner rather than incorporate unnecessary violence.

More harrowing: scoring is rare and random. You can set up a one-timer on a 2-on-1 with the goalie coming well across to make a save. You can also mistakenly hit the shoot button from your own end and score if you’re lucky enough for the puck to hit the net. If the game has one redeeming factor, it’s that the animated goalie takes every goal out on himself, slamming his stick and looking generally unhappy, but that gets old pretty fast.

I’m sure if I wanted to play a hockey game for the N64, I’ll go to the vintage bargain bin and find an old copy of NHL ’99, a game that I actually remember being kind of good. As for now, I don’t see any reason to continue playing this one.

Commentariat: what’s the worst hockey video game that you’ve seen or played?