**\u2018The Coolest Game on Earth\u2019** was the National Hockey League\u2019s late \u201890s advertising tagline, as they made a concerted push to promote the game of ice hockey. During the Genesis (MegaDrive) days, NHL games \u2013 and especially EA Sports\u2019 produce \u2013 were fast, frenetic, and most importantly fun gameplay experiences that struck a balance between arcade-type action and simulation, with the emphasis leaning towards the arcade gameplay. During its commercial lifetime, the Saturn was blessed with no less than five ice hockey games \u2013 all of them bearing both NHL and NHLPA licenses for that added authentic feeling. But are any of these games worth a play today? How to they measure up against each other? Let\u2019s have a play at them all, and document the strengths, weaknesses, merits and quirks of each title, arranged by release date for your reading pleasure!\r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/hockeysmall.jpg) Here they all are, in order of release date.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_232329small.jpg)\r\n\r\n**NHL All Star Hockey** *(Gray Matter/Sega, 1995)* \u2013 first out of the gate, and boy did this game try LOTS of new things that have never been tried in 16-bit hockey! Developed by Canadian-based Gray Matter and released shortly after launch in 1995, this initial effort used sprites for all the players and polygons for a 3D rink. The use of sprites in a 3D environment means that the rink rotates smoother than the sprites do. This effect is serviceable - if not dated - compared to later Saturn hockey games, with the sprite/polygon combination being a reflection of techniques used in early 3D game modeling. It supported up to 12 players with the use of two \u20186Player\u2019 multi-pad adaptors, which is the Saturn\u2019s limit and means that all players on the ice can be independently controlled by different humans. Gameplay modes include all the standard fare (quick game, exhibition, season, playoffs, and trades & build-a-player/team). \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_232610small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*The ice surface details are very exact to the 1994-95 NHL season.*\r\n\r\nGameplay itself however is relatively weak, and this is where this title falls the hardest. Controls that are not intuitive and the control scheme tries to do too much all at once. The players are therefore difficult to control (aiming your shot, in particular, is highly aggravating), and they tend to glide around the ice in a stiff and stilted fashion. This is not helped by the camera angles, most of which were never attempted before and in practicality are not well suited to facilitate gameplay. The framerate is smooth enough, feeling like it lives somewhere around 30 FPS, however, the rotation of the 2D player sprites in concert with the 3D elements is a bit jarring to watch and works against the overall fluidity of the visuals. Computer AI is a mixed bag \u2013 on one hand CPU players sometimes act so poorly as to violate basic rules such as offsides; on the other hand, the AI can quickly ratchet up to super-pro levels of proficiency and utterly decimate you. In terms of the overall package, Gray Matter saw fit to take advantage of the much-expanded storage space of the new CD medium to include a visual FMV tour of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada, and the video is both neat and displays well. Not only that, there are hockey cards for all the 1994-95 players form the game available for viewing front and back, and these are not just any generic made-up cards: they are Fleer Ultra-branded trading cards from the day. Both the Hall of Fame and the cards are a neat touch and are unique to this game out of all the Saturn hockey offerings. One of the main strengths of the game is its\u2019 presentation \u2013 it is spot-on, featuring real details of individual arena ice surfaces, neat and clean score displays, and fairly stylish loading screens and menus. There are also random, neat PA soundbites in the arenas that serve no other purpose than to give you the feeling of being at an actual game. These features really popped for players just graduating from 16-bit hockey back in 1995. To boot, all of these touches are interspersed with \u2018pure cheese\u2019 mid-90s music and videos of fake coaches berating your players\u2019 game. You half-expect The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to somehow make a cameo appearance here, such is the mid-90s atmosphere. This charming kind of cheese adds to the mountain of \u2018firsts\u2019 this game pioneered. It should also be noted that out of all the Saturn hockey games, only two support the maximum controller load of 12 players, and this is one of them. If having a large gathering is your jam, then this could be the game for you! \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_232635small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*The sprite players, like the boards, are devoid of any detail.*\r\n\r\nOverall however this game is not the best way to experience playable hockey action on the Saturn. The gameplay is outdated and relegates this title to \u2018interesting footnote\u2019 status, albeit a charming footnote that affords a glimpse at early 3D(ish) hockey gaming and a mountain of fresh ideas executed to varying degrees of success. Grab it for the history; pass on it if you are looking for an awesome gameplay experience. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_232853small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*Here we go!*\r\n\r\n**NHL PowerPlay \u201996** *(Radical/Virgin, 1996)* \u2013 Developed by Radical Entertainment and published by Virgin Interactive, this effort is what you would expect of a 32-bit NHL game! With EA Sports sticking to 16-bit and not publishing NHL \u201996 for any of the \u2018Next Generation\u2019 platforms, Virgin sensed an opportunity with Radical\u2019s effort. As an aside, this title actually came out mid-1996 and not in the previous calendar year, as is common with annual sports titles. The emphasis in NHLPP\u201996 is more on arcade-type gameplay as opposed to full-on simulation with only basic stats tracking, which fits nicely on a console. All the standard modes are included \u2013 exhibition (pick up and play), full NHL season, and playoffs. There is also a coach\u2019s option to select between preset strategies (how to attack, defend, etc.) and this adds some variety to the game, as your drone teammates will behave a certain way. This is one of the defining features of the game, and the implementation \u2013 simple selection of play style from no more than 3 choices \u2013 is perfect for console gaming. Changing coaching strategies can be done at any time but the player must bring up the options menu, and that involves 5 seconds to load out of the game and another 10 to load back in \u2013 therefore, it\u2019s best to set play style at the beginning of a contest, and adjust during intermission, when you have to endure the loading times anyways. Changing lines is much more intuitive \u2013 the gamer uses the L and R shoulder buttons on the fly to bring up and cycle through the offensive lines and defensive pairings. Aside from all the (1996) NHL teams, all-star and international teams are also included. The presentation is adequate \u2013 everything is covered nicely but not in any particularly memorable way, and it does have a bit of a generic feeling \u2013 you know you are always looking at graphics instead of photos of the locker room, for example. During actual gameplay, the visuals are great. The framerate is smooth and the players animate quite fluidly. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233009small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*This animates very nicely indeed.*\r\n\r\nWhen a goalie sprawls out to make a save, it looks very appealing \u2013 a noticeable step up from 16-bit hockey games (and the pixelly sprites of NHLASH). Replays are at the player\u2019s command and the zoom, angle, and playback speed can all be manipulated. Crowd noise and reactions are also good \u2013 when there is a big hit, save, or a home-team goal, the crowd reacts appropriately. At 1-6 players, this is a great effort, and some judge it to be superior to the PlayStation version of the game. With NHL PowerPlay \u201996, Virgin Interactive and Radical Entertainment make a great first entry into the ice hockey arena of gaming with a game that looks good, plays great, and is loads of fun overall, even today. A top-notch choice for the Saturn hockey gameplay enthusiast!\r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_232131small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*Quite blocky and uninspired, wouldn't you say?*\r\n\r\n**NHL \u201997** *(Visual Concepts/EA Sports, 1996)* \u2013 EA Sports\u2019 inaugural Sega Saturn NHL effort is unfortunately not EA\u2019s finest hour. Programming duties were farmed out to Visual Concepts for the Saturn (and PlayStation) version. The game received largely positive overall reviews however there were many criticisms levelled against it as well. The retrospective feel is that the press of the time gave it those positive reviews based on the pedigree and momentum of Genesis EA NHL efforts rather that this game\u2019s actual merits, because there are plenty of flaws to be found here. For instance, the front-end presentation looks gimmicky in some respects and amateurish in others. Case in point: the generic FMV commentary by a fictional EA Sports broadcaster may have seemed like a great way to use the power of the 32-bit machines, but even back in 1996 this came off as quite tacky and actually detracts from the realism of the game rather than adding cheesy charm like NHLASH did. The menus and options selection screens are low-res, clunky and look terrible, and not just through the lens of time: it feels like the lowly intern at Visual Concepts was tasked with creating them. In-game graphics are serviceable however they lack the fluidity and range of animations of Virgin\u2019s earlier effort, and this does detract from the gameplay experience. On the plus side, much like NHLASH, rinks are replicated with more detail and accuracy when compared to Virgin\u2019s game. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_231615small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*The Penguins' logo is really pixelated.*\r\n\r\nSo are the player jerseys \u2013 in a first for a Saturn hockey game, they feature actual player names and numbers compared to the generic blurry splotch in NHLPP\u201996 and the complete absence of details in Sega\u2019s NHLASH. That said, the effort is wasted because with the low resolution of the player models, they look like generic blurry splotches. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_232006small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*Only Saturn NHL game to feature names and numbers on jerseys, but can you even tell?*\r\n\r\nAnother callout must go to the Genesis-sounding grunts and groans of the players themselves. Very 16-bit indeed. The glass panels that encircle the rink feature the mesh that Saturn games have become infamous for, and whilst this looks passable from a distance, it looks terrible the closer the vantage point gets. The game also sports more robust options for team and play management, trades, coaching etc. Camera angles are available aplenty here, much like with Sega\u2019s NHLASH, but again aside from a few, they are mostly useless, with special mention going to the helmet cam. What seemed like a novel idea does nothing other than expose the rough textures of the game up-close, not to mention constant polygon tearing at that viewpoint. Overall, this game was modelled more as a sim - closer to the PC version - than the Genesis and SNES versions which were more of an arcade experience, and due to the technical performance of the Saturn version, this works against the game. One odd observation with this game is the funny way in which the goal nets are deformed \u2013 they look far too narrow compared to the real thing. The frame rate feels like a respectable 20 FPS, although again it falls short of NHLPP\u201996 and the much smoother 30 FPS feel there. Finally, a note on the aesthetics of the game packaging: Unlike with their Genesis produce where EA could eschew the official, standard Genesis packaging template, here they conform to the Saturn template\u2026 but the manual is slightly smaller than it should be, the grey on the barbershop stripes is darker than most other titles and consequently clashes with the other colors, and the result is that the cover does not look appealing at all. So strange that every aspect of this title - from a series with such rich heritage - should come off as such an amateurish effort! Oh well\u2026 I suppose that even good guys blow it\u2026 wahahahaha!* Overall, this is a fairly weak first effort on the Saturn by EA Sports and short of collecting EA Sports, NHL games, 1996-97 historical value, or a Saturn full-set, there is no reason to own this game anymore. This is perhaps the weakest Saturn NHL title. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233235small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*That would be the title screen, then.*\r\n\r\n**NHL All Star Hockey \u201998** *(Radical/Sega, 1997)* \u2013 An interesting tale, with this title. In 1996, NHL PowerPlay \u201996 established itself as the premier Saturn NHL game, beating out EA Sports\u2019 and Sega\u2019s own offerings. So it was with anguish that Saturn hockey fans learnt that Virgin decided against publishing Radical\u2019s sequel NHL PowerPlay \u201998 (there was no \u201997 edition due to how late \u201996 came out) on Sega\u2019s beloved machine, choosing instead to stick to PC and PlayStation only. However, in a rare move to rescue a great game from USA limbo, Sega stepped in and decided to publish Radical\u2019s effort and re-brand it as their own NHL All Star Hockey \u201998. Thus, despite the lineage in name, this game is for all intents and purposes the sequel to the great NHLPP\u201996\u2026 and NHLASH\u201998 is fantastic! First, the good: gameplay remains as intuitive as ever, with small improvements over the PP96 edition, but if it ain\u2019t broke, why fix it? Presentation has taken a big step forward, with very colorful loading screens, options menus, etc. that are far superior to the renders of last year\u2019s game. The game retains that arcade feel and is still quick to pick up and play today. Crowd reactions are good, rink graphics are great (though not necessarily as authentic as EA\u2019s depictions), and the goal announcer sounds just as you\u2019d expect. All the options and game modes you\u2019d want are included \u2013 exhibition, full season, and playoff modes are all present and correct. NHLASH\u201998 supports up to 8 players, so that with the required number of 6Player multi-pad adaptors, controllers, and friends, you can have an absolute blast. With Sega picking this game up, Sega and Saturn logos adorn the ice surfaces of the still relatively generic areas, and the touch is appreciated. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233343small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*Looks just like NHLPP'96, doesn't it? Saturn logos abound.*\r\n\r\nOverall this is a big step forward in every direction over NHLPP\u201996, with the exception of one important aspect: the framerate. Although still very solid and playable, it feels oh-so-slightly choppier when compared to the \u201996 edition. Think solid 30 FPS (NHLPP\u201996) vs living in somewhere in between 25 and 30 FPS for this game. Certainly playable but a quick compare and contrast with NHLPP\u201996 and you will see the difference. This is the only criticism that can be levelled against this superb update. Still fun to pick up and play today, NHL All Star Hockey \u201998 is tied with NHL PowerPlay \u201996 as the best Saturn hockey game, with the former sporting a slightly smoother framerate whilst the latter boasts vastly improved presentation. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233533small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*EA Sports' second Saturn effort.*\r\n\r\n**NHL \u201998** *(EA Canada/EA Sports, 1998)* \u2013 EA Sports\u2019 final Saturn NHL game, and also their final game overall on any Sega platform\u2026 and they go out with style, with a massive improvement over last year\u2019s game. Developed by Vancouver-based Electronic Arts Canada, the game is a presentation and simulation tour-de-force, easily beating out the previous year\u2019s NHL \u201897. The game released a few months after the PC and PlayStation versions upon which it is based, actually missing the start of the 1997-98 season and landing in January 1998, and thus shares the distinction of being one of the very few North American Saturn releases of that year. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233709small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*The presentation in this game is second to none.*\r\n\r\nUnfortunately, despite the delay, game code was not optimized for the Saturn, and it shows. The framerate hovers around what feels like 15 FPS, and whilst it doesn\u2019t take too long to get used to it, a glance at either NHLPP\u201996 or NHLASH\u201998 and it becomes clear how ridiculous this game updates. This does saddle NHL\u201998 with the dubious distinction of the choppiest framerate of all the Saturn hockey games, and until your eyes adjust, it really takes away from the experience in a tangible, suspension-of-belief destroying kind of way. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233817small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*Blocky player models. Clear glass panes (no mesh here). Amazingly smooth ice paint circles.*\r\n\r\nThe player models are relatively blocky but animate adequately, the sound effects are quite good, and all the detail that EA has become known for is there with true-to-life ice surface markings representative of their real-life counterpart arenas. In fact the ice surfaces in this game are the best-looking of all the Saturn games \u2013 EA must have used some sort of smoothing technique here as the lack of pixelization is remarkable from any angle and zoom level. \r\n\r\n![text](http://www.segasaturnshiro.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/20180223_233915small.jpg)\r\n\r\n*Just how did EA manage such incredibly smooth ice graphics?*\r\n\r\nUnlike NHL\u201997, this game sticks to just the player numbers on jerseys (no names), but these have been cleaned up and look much smarter this time around. Shame, then, for the blocky players and other rink details, but at least the mesh on the glass panels has been replaced by a totally clear glass effect \u2013 this works much better. The gameplay is not overly strong either, despite being a faster experience over NHL\u201997. Framerate aside, gameplay is more utilitarian in nature than the arcade-y experience of NHLPP\u201996 and NHLASH\u201998. The real hook of NHL \u201998 is in its powerful presentation. The game looks completely professional, slick, and aesthetically and aurally pleasing in virtually every aspect (except of course during actual gameplay, due to the framerate) \u2013 so much so that it blows every other Saturn hockey game out the water. The FMV intro is awesome, unlike the dreck from NHL\u201997 and the charming cheese of original NHLASH. The sound effects are intense. The beat-heavy menu music is just right. The whole in-game presentation is done with TV-style camera sweeps and angles in between plays, and the effect is really good. In a first (and only, on Saturn), there is voiced play-by-play and color commentary to be heard during gameplay, and for a first effort, it is quite good (and a revelation for 1998). This may sound trivial, but going back to the silent contests in the other Saturn NHL games sounds very lonely once you get used to live play-by-play. And of course, to balance the awesome play-by-play, the sound of the arena announcer\u2019s voice as he announces goals or penalties is absolutely horrendous and out of place \u2013 he sounds like a dude that\u2019s bored out of his mind sitting next to you, as opposed to being part of the excitement at the arena. Such a mixed bag, this game is. The other strength of this game is the stats keeping. There are so many stats to keep track of and minutia to manage (if you so choose) that it really paints NHL\u201998 as more of a simulation than a pure gameplay experience. The game allows for up to 4 types of saves to be kept (season \u2013 512 memory blocks; custom players and rosters \u2013 256 blocks; game settings so that you don\u2019t have to adjust them every time \u2013 49 blocks; and user stats \u2013 49 blocks). Utilized to its full potential, NHL\u201998 will eat up a whopping 866 blocks of memory! All of this tracking is great for NHL fans but less so for gaming fans \u2013 a definite double-edged sword. Oh, and this is the other game that supports upwards of 12 players, allowing for control of all players on the ice and maxing out the Saturn\u2019s controller load. EA Sports should be commended for putting out such a thorough product as their last Saturn effort. Finally, about the packaging of the game\u2026 Unlike the amateurish and ugly NHL\u201997 cover, NHL\u201998 is slick, clean, and very stylish, and features easily the nicest box of all the Saturn hockey games. Overall, this game wins in overtime for purists of the sport and fans of presentation yet falls short in the gameplay department, but there is definitely enough good in there that a hockey fan will be satisfied. Casual players are better advised to steer towards the Radical games, however.\r\n\r\n\r\nThere you have it, folks. The five Saturn NHL games, each with their own personality, flair, and indeed shortcomings. Not a one of them is absolutely perfect but most will offer some level of enjoyment. Before ranking and recommending, let\u2019s call out some Shiro Challenges:\r\n\u2022\tIn NHL All Star Hockey \u2013 take a gander at the Fleer Ultra hockey cards and the Hockey Hall of Fame presentation, before engaging in a match between the Hartford Whalers and the Quebec Nordiques. See if during a stoppage in play the announcer declares that all hot dogs sold during intermission are now made of 100% all-beef. For hardcode points, visit the actual Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and buy yourself a pack of authentic Fleer Ultra hockey trading cards!\r\n\u2022\tIn NHL \u201997, try \u2013 at least try! \u2013 to complete a short game using the helmet cam. Cringe, but appreciate the effort to try something new. Hardcore challenge \u2013 play a game of real hockey and wear a real helmet cam, then compare the results to the game.\r\n\u2022\tIn NHL PowerPlay \u201996 \u2013, pick the best team, and play & win against the weakest team\u2026 but the catch is, you have to have no goalie for the entire game. Hardcore points for winning via shutout. You have to be absolutely on top of your game to accomplish this, but it can be done!\r\n\u2022\tIn NHL All Star Hockey \u201998, score on 6 one-timers in a single game. Hardcore challenge: win by only scoring one-timers.\r\n\u2022\tIn NHL \u201998, get a \u2018Gordie Howe\u2019 hat trick \u2013 have one of your players get a goal, an assist, and participate in a fight, all in one game! Hardcore challenge: do it twice in one game.\r\n\r\n\r\nAnd now, the rankings:\r\n\r\nNo.5: **NHL \u201997** (Visual Concepts/EA Sports, 1996) \u2013 A mildly competent hockey game that is surpassed by all other efforts. Pass.\r\n\r\nNo.4: **NHL All Star Hockey** (Gray Matter/Sega, 1995) \u2013 Loads of fine details to make this a real NHL experience let down by shoddy sprites for players and by horrible control. Get this for novelty only. Pass on the basis of gameplay.\r\n\r\nNo.3: **NHL \u201998** (EA Canada/EA Sports, 1998) \u2013 The most complete and comprehensive NHL experience on the Saturn with many pleasant surprises is hamstrung by an over-reliance on simulation over gameplay and an atrocious framerate. Still a worthy pickup, and the best game of the bunch by far for sim fans.\r\n\r\nNo.2 and No.1 TIE: **NHL PowerPlay \u201996** (Radical/Virgin, 1996) and **NHL All Star Hockey \u201998** (Radical/Sega, 1997) \u2013 both are gameplay kings lightly wrapped in NHL trappings. Pick up both to experience the best hockey gameplay on the Saturn, with just enough options and stats tracking to get you to the Stanley Cup.\r\n\r\n\r\nEnjoy Saturn NHL action!\r\n\r\nPeter Malek\r\n\r\nSega Saturn, Shiro!\r\n\r\n**even good guys blow it\u2026 wahahahaha!* Is a reference to Virtua Fighter 2.