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NHL Blades of Steel 99 (N64) Review

Publisher: Konami
Release Date: Spring 1999

Background Info

Blades of Steel holds a place of honor in video hockey history, as both an early arcade version and a much different game for the NES. Both games were abstract renderings of the game, devoid of stats, players, GM options, and so on. Now, after several years of waiting, Blades returns to video consoles at a most opportune time. Aside from NHL 99 for the Playstation, video puck games in recent years have not keep up the rate of exciting innovation and improvement evident in earlier efforts. The N64 has yet to see a first-rate hockey game; indeed, most of the games available have proven to be inferior ports of earlier versions for the Playstation (NHL '99) or minimal updates of uneven first editions (Midway's Gretzky series and Acclaim's Breakaway series). Appearing just as the NHL embarks on the battle for Lord Stanley's chalice, Blades offers video pucksters another choice. Will buyers dance with joy or feel like they've just been beaten like a rented mule?

Presentation/Graphics : 75
Of all the games out on the market, Blades most closely approximates Gretzky in appearance. Players are generic and cartoonish in appearance; rinks are also generic, although the logo of the home team adorns the center ice circle (this is not always accurate). Unlike Gretzky, the crowd is rendered, albeit in stiff 2D (as if the whole place was filled with cardboard cutouts). There are no names on the uniforms, and I did not come across any third jerseys.

Player animations are good (not great); goaltender animations are especially good, as are some of the fight animations. In-game overlays are informative, featuring a headshot of most players as well as pertinent information (goals, assists, penalties, goalie stats and other information). There is a special animation following a hat trick (featuring a rabbit), which is a bit jarring the first time and increasingly boring thereafter (whatever happened to showering the ice with hats, as in NHL 94?).

Menu graphics are adequate but not spectacular; far better is a pregame sequence which does a good job of building up drama (although it does not always come on). Also of interest is an animation of plays using symbols on the strategy menu screen. Once more the animations surrounding celebrating a goal, a victory, a series win, and winning the Cup are adequate but not inspiring.

Two aspects of the graphics have a fairly serious impact on gameplay. There are seven in-game cameras: a "player" camera, two side ("television") views (high and low) and a high and low camera for each end. If you want to switch ends between periods, you'll have to go to the options menu to switch cameras from end to end. People who use the end zone cameras will recall the back-and-forth motion of the Powerplay cameras; should you want to move up ice along the boards, don't simply push the joystick due north, for your player will simply push against the boards. Everything's relative, so to speak. In time, players will adjust; more irritating is the game's failure to use easily-understood icons or symbols to indicate who has the puck. A small arrow that changes colors is suspended over the puck, offering more of a distraction than a clarification.

There's a replay system, and the game offers multiple (and automatic) replays of goals (but no goal judge or disallowed tallies here--crash the net and jam away). Another camera option is "shot zoom." This serves only to break up the flow of the play by offering different camera angles for the shot (it is not the slot zoom in NHL '99). Avoid it.

Presentation/Audio : 73
Much of the audio for this game is par for the course for an N64 game. There's the usual cart intro which fascinates the first-time user before falling victim to impatience; the play-by-play is pretty generic, with few player names, the public address system is sorely incomplete, limiting itself to "Phoenix Coyote goal" or "Detroit penalty" (no names, no details). But the in-game music offers a pretty skilled rendition of rink music circa the early 1980s with a few updates--one might have thought one was back at Nassau Coliseum, watching Trottier, Bossy, Potvin, and Smith (at least until one hears the "Let's go" cheer, which sounds like "Let's go, Rangers, regardless of where the game is taking place). Otherwise, the crowd is pretty good.

Interface/Options : 65
Let me start off with a warning. If you count the instruction manual as part of the interface of the game, then Konami falls short, failing to offer players enough information on various options. Now, I like to dive into a game without looking too much at the manual, but as questions arise I often consult it. That's a mixed experience with this game. On most screens, press C up for help.

Players can choose between playing an exhibition game, a "quick game," or diving right into a season (26 or 82 games) or the playoffs (best of 1, 3, 5, or 7). You can determine playoff matchups (and even violate conference boundaries to do so). You can choose to have between four and six skaters under the poorly-named option "play person." There are five levels of play ("rookie" in this case is in the middle), a choice of period length (5, 10, and 15 minutes), five game speeds, and a series of toggles for fighting, various rules, goalie control, line changes, and, most important, "change cursor" (player control).

Why is "change cursor" so important? Simple: the default--"auto"--makes the game unplayable. It will always give you control of the player nearest the puck, which can create havoc when the puck is being passed or shot. "Manual" means that once you let go of the puck, it is up to you to take control of the puckcarrier (or you can continue to control the player without the puck, although the manual (again) does not say whether you can call for a pass, force the CPU-controlled player to shoot, and so on. Use "semi auto" if you like controlling the puckcarrier.

Blades offers you a choice of controller layouts (sorry, no icon passing). The choices should satisfy most gamers.

When it comes to being a coach, Blades offers players a choice of several offensive and defensive setups, as well as powerplay and penalty-killing options. Under the name of each play is a multicolored bar that can be lengthened or contracted using the left and right C yellow buttons, but the rulebook (which does not even mention the ability to manipulate the length of the bars) does not say what they represent (press C up to discover that the bars represent "intensity"). You can set your own lines (four of them) and three defense pairs, and you can change them independently during play.

The general manager options are limited. Although the box proclaims that you can "create new players," there is no reference to this in the manual (or anywhere else). You can make trades and update rosters; a careful examination of the free agent pool reveals that you can bring Mike Gartner or Pat LaFontaine back for one more try for the championship neither ever won. Roster space is limited, however, and so you may have to make free agents out of some players who are currently seeing service with an NHL team. Stats management is also fairly straightforward; the stats represented are adequate but not deep; there is an assortment of post-season awards. The game does not keep user records.

Rumble pack fans can vibrate away; memory-card management is pretty straightforward (and uses most of a memory card).

Gameplay : 70
It is unfortunate for Blades that several of the defaults result in a game that is nearly unplayable, at least for the first-time user. Indeed, until I shifted "cursor control" to "semi auto," the game seemed doomed. However, once I spent a good deal of time working with the controls, I learned to manipulate the controller well enough to have fun with the game. Simply put, Blades is an acquired taste.

Having said that, the only reason I came to that determination is because I am a determined video hockey player. Many players will simply abandon the game rather quickly, in large part because of the problems with player control, in-game cameras, and identifying puck possession noted above. Even with work, one finds that only a long time with the controller will help players aim shots with accuracy (attempting to hit the corners often results in a shot going wide). Konami and other hockey game designers might do well to follow EA's decision in NHL 99 to offer players an auto-aim option, separating the control of a player's motion from determining where he aims his shot. Moreover, the players move a little too slowly for my taste (and far too slowly for those players who believe that every contest involves 60 minutes of end-to-end action with players on speed).

All of that's too bad, for if Blades has a somewhat different feel to it (once again, Powerplay 98 comes to mind), and in many ways that feel is like real ice hockey. There's no turbo button here to burst past defenders; instead, skaters pick up momentum; speedy forwards outflank defencemen; crafty stickhandlers find open ice and split opponents. One-timers are not easy to execute, but shots off the faceoff are; there are flip and drop passes, slappers and wristshots; with practice one can find the 5-hole by forcing goalies to move from side to side. Checking is difficult (sometimes a little too much so), forcing players to rely upon better positional play and getting back after turning over the puck.

In testing the game, I took the Phoenix Coyotes through a playoff, beating in turn the Kings, the Blackhawks, the Stars (Roenick's revenge!), and the Devils. It was not until the Stars series that I felt adept enough with the controls to pile up the scores; I also noticed that the game favored puckcarrying and driving for the net over playmaking. Again, blame the interplay of the camera and the controller for the decision not to depend so much on passing. Here and there, however, I saw signs of promise. In short, with work, Blades could have been a really good game, instead of offering just a tempting taste of the real thing. Most players may find it too frustrating to invest the time and energy to get to that stage.

Difficulty : 70
There are five levels of difficulty, offering players a range of challenges; the computer AI could place more offensive pressure on the player, but usually plays fairly good positional hockey. Unfortunately, what presents the most difficulty is not the other team, but controlling one's own players, for reasons already cited.

Overall : 71
Konami had a chance to score big in the N64 hockey wars; here and there Blades of Steel offers glimpses of what could have been. Although Breakaway 99 offers far better team management options (including "create a player"--why advertise it if you don't have it anywhere in the manual?), on the ice Blades may be the better representation of hockey as it is really played, not as non-skaters think it is played. Still, most players (especially those without a Playstation) will opt for that old fan favorite, NHL 99 (even if the N64 version pales beside its Playstation counterpart). If in appearance Blades resembles Gretzky and in camera angles Powerplay comes to mind, in the promise of innovation (and missed opportunities) there's a hint of National Hockey Night, the 16-bit forefather of the Faceoff series, which in its first two years on the Playstation outdid its EA rival before losing its edge in gameplay. For now, however, N64 owners will have to wait another year to see if anyone will develop the sort of hockey games for their system that helped make the Genesis and the Playstation the consoles of choice for most video hockey fans.

By: Brooks Simpson 4/26/99

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