Video games have perhaps never looked so good. But we’re barely living in a golden age when it comes to sports games. We can see this when it comes to hockey video games. About two decades ago, EA and 2K went head-to-head with competing simulation-style hockey games. Not only did you have options when it came to realistic hockey games, but there were also options that were more explosive, silly, and arguably more fun. Half-way NHL Kickstarter brought arcade-style hockey to consoles, and the results were a hit.
Hitz is a franchise that’s been dead for nearly two decades, while EA’s exclusive deal with the NHL means EA will still move units around without having to do much more than an annual roster update. What if you’re a fan of arcade-style hockey games? You are unlucky.
You are also out of luck if you are a Nintendo Switch owner and want to play hockey. Super Blood Hockeya violent take on 8-bit style games like NES ice hockeyis the only hockey title to be released within the Switch’s first five years.
Until May, that is. V7 Entertainment ported the 2017 releases bush hockey league at the switch. Not only BHL bring a modern hockey game to the console, but it’s also a love letter to an old-school brand of hockey, classic hockey games, and the lesser-known stories of hockey homes.
BHL recognizes that Boston, Detroit and Minnesota are not legendary hockey areas due to games in massive arenas like the Boston Garden, Joe Louis Arena or the Met Center. Their love of hockey was born in half-empty barns in Charlestown, Grand Portage and Warroad. The team you will be playing with BHL gives you that side of hockey.
“We wanted to deliver an experience that wasn’t about the biggest stage and the brightest lights,” V7 Told 10K ice rinks by email. “We wanted to represent places where hockey has a history and is a way of life. Places where hockey was born.
Places like Warroad, home of the Warroad Ice Anglers, who hold a special place in BHL traditions. The Ice Anglers are one of the two original teams in the league. To V7, it was essential to highlight Minnesota’s contributions to hockey history. “We knew we wanted an in-state hockey team because Minnesota Towns has a long line and strong pedigree of players.”
Undoubtedly, countless people are fuming at Hibbing, Edina and Thief River Falls right now. So we have to ask ourselves, why Warroad?
“I wish I could tell you that we scouted and visited locations for the game, but we didn’t have the budget to do that on our indie game,” V7 said. “So honestly, we landed on Warroad because our research has undoubtedly told us there’s a solid grassroots hockey history there.”
As for the choice of the admittedly radiant name Ice Anglers, V7 explained: “Digging into the history of hockey, we learned that the teams of the time were formed by people who worked together and had a common love for hockey. We wanted to connect the lake with the fact that ice fishing is a great activity, so we imagined a group of ice fishers coming together to form a semi-pro hockey team.
The game’s aesthetic is delightfully old school. Slap Shot ’70s influences are worn on their sleeves with players with names like Dr. Hook, amazing hockey hair (both flowy and facial hair), and classic-looking jerseys. These range from basic (Cobalt Silvers) to colorful (Charlestown Stonemasons) and even an homage to Vancouver’s “V” jerseys (Warroad). Each team has an alternate jersey, all of which can be unlocked by entering the Konami code on the title screen.
What about gameplay? There’s a lot to like. You can play with the forward (analogous to the modern EA skill stick style) or retro (buttons, which I prefer) controls. It goes for, and accomplishes for the most part, that NHL 94 feel. It’s got the arcade touches I want, the Batman-style “BOOM” when landing a big shot is always fun to see, but with its realistic skating physics it looks pretty familiar to those on the side spectrum simulation.
“We wanted to capture a balance between arcade gameplay, but still grounded in understanding the game of hockey,” said V7. “Video games don’t often provide an easy way to experience games of yesteryear, so our game provides a bit of what old games were like without trying to completely modernize them.”
If there’s one complaint with gameplay, it’s that playing with the puck, especially passing, doesn’t feel as quick and snappy as most hockey games. Whether it’s the all-too-real physics (e.g. players had to retrieve the puck with their sticks before firing a one-timer) or a lag issue, it’s hard to say without knowing more about Games. It’s a little shocking, but after a game or two you start to get a feel for the timing of a point shot or rebound.
Speaking of slower paces, pre-game load times take around 90 seconds. It’s understandable for an indie game, especially on the Switch’s limited hardware, but it still feels like a long wait between games.
Another disappointing potential victim of being on Switch is the lack of “beer mode” on this version. Beer Mode is a control setup found on other builds, designed for playing the game with one hand while holding a beer in the other. It wasn’t designed to be used with the Joy-Con in mind, but it feels like a match made in heaven and a tragic omission on the Switch.
That doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun, it’s just things you need to know from the start. If these aren’t deal breakers, you’ll probably have a lot of fun with it. BHL. There’s a single-player story mode, complete with AI strategies pulled straight from the 70s.
It’s not a joke either. “We have old ring hockey training books from the 70s and often based on how the AI plays on the strategies of the time,” V7 told us. “Players may unknowingly find themselves playing against an AI that tracks the X’s and O’s of how the game was played at the time.”
But where the game really shines is with the local multiplayer. There’s just something so satisfying about meeting up for a slap shot, smashing the net for a rebound, or landing a big hit against your friends.
It’s certainly not perfect, but as is the case in hockey itself, no rookie is. The seeds are there, however, for a formula that could blossom in hockey’s response to the super mega baseball franchise. The aesthetics and personality are there, the uniforms are really fun and cool, and the gameplay vision is excellent. With more resources and finishes, it’s easy to imagine how awesome a sequel could be.
But as it stands, it’s a fun but flawed game that I’d have no qualms about returning to or showing my hockey-loving friends. Equally important, V7 deserves praise for trying to revive a lost and badly missed version of the hockey title. The love of hockey bleeds out of every nose and every fist in this game, and if checking it out for yourself gets us closer to a more perfect version of this game, that in and of itself is worth it.