Bleed all over ’em. Let ’em know you’re there
I fondly remember the first time I decided to watch a hockey game. I was the age of 11 and at a family gathering where there were no other “kids” besides my younger brother and myself. We’ve been entertaining each other all day, doing what brothers do best – beating one another to a pulp until our parents intervened – and I was getting tired of being scolded. I decided to escape into the basement where a few of the teenagers went to seek refuge, and took notice that they were watching the pre-game show of a Philadelphia Flyers vs Detroit Redwings hockey game. I had nothing better to do so I decided to plop myself down on the floor (since all the teenagers took over the couch and recliner) and watch a handful of guys try to put a piece of rubber in a goal. What I witnessed has stuck with me to this day. A Redwings player named Bob Probert threw off his gloves and dropped his stick to the ice with such grace that Brian Boitano would be impressed, and then this Probert guy proceeded to beat the living daylights out of not just one, but three Flyers players throughout the hockey game. “Was this hockey?” I thought to myself. “This is amazing!” The Flyers managed to beat the Wings that night 3-2, but the thing that stuck with me most was this mammoth of a man using his fists to instill fear in all the members of the Flyers team. On the way home that night I spouted off to my mom about the WWF-like hockey game that I’ve just witnessed and she informed me that back in the 70’s the Flyers would have never been beaten up the way that Probert dealt out knuckle-sandwiches that night. She taught me all about the “Broad Street Bullies”, the Flyers team of the mid-seventies that decided intimidation is the best way to win hockey games. The 1977 movie Slap Shot was also mentioned, and she said it was pretty much a documentary about the Broad Street Bullies. I needed to watch this movie!
Slap Shot is a drama/comedy starring Paul Newman as player/coach Reggie Dunlop, who is the veteran player of the Charlestown Chiefs. The Chiefs are the worst team in the Federal League and rumors are spreading around the locker room that once the local mill closes the team will fold and all the players will be out of jobs. Being the leader of the team, Dunlop decides that he needs to get in contact with the owner of the organization and attempt to get him to sell the team to a southern state, since that’s where most of the retirees from the north are relocating. After having trouble tracking down the owner, Dunlop takes matters into his own hands and decides the best way for his talentless team to win hockey games is to beat every other team to a pulp. Luckily, the team’s general manager had just acquired three brothers from the rough and tumble Iron League, and these “Hanson brothers” are just what Dunlop needs to get his team to see how intimidation can win hockey games. What follows is 2+ hours of what most consider being one of the best sports movies of all time.
Here we are in 2017, forty years since the movie Slap Shot was released into theaters, and the Taito game Hit the Ice is the closest thing any gamer has gotten to experience the wacky side of minor league hockey. Vancouver developer V7 Entertainment is here to stop the draught of “fun” hockey games and give gamers a taste of what pre-fight instigator hockey is all about. I was extremely excited when I heard this was going to be an arcade hockey experience but when I saw the 70’s style that V7 was incorporating into Old Time Hockey, I immediately thought of the movie Slap Shot. Could this be Slap Shot the video game? Will this replace my trusty old copy of Hit the Ice on my Sega Genesis? Could V7 incorporate a solid hockey game around what should be primarily a fighting game? Well, in a way I can say yes to all of these questions, but getting this game to its full potential takes a whole lot of time, effort, and broken controllers.
Upon booting up Old Time Hockey for the first time I was treated to “The Hockey Song (The Good Old Hockey Game)” by Stompin’ Tom Connors and I immediately had a smile on my face. It didn’t stop there though, because the soundtrack to Old Time Hockey is full of hockey themed music, surf rock, arena organ tunes, and even the classic Addams Family song – all stuff that you’d hear if taking in a hockey game back in the 70’s. The whole soundtrack can be enjoyed by selecting extras in the main menu. Also in the main menu was an option to play an exhibition game or story mode. I wanted to get a feel for the game before beginning the story so I opted for exhibition mode. After the faceoff I immediately noticed that the controls were not of the EA sports variety where the right thumb-stick controlled the player’s shot, so I took a trip to the options menu to see if this option was available, which it was, but the “advanced controls” option was locked until those control tutorials were completed in story mode. The control scheme that’s available from the start is the “retro” option, which limits controls to pass, shoot, and check. Poke check, hooking, slashing, and even slap shot could only be unlocked by completing the tutorial in story mode. This would be disappointing had I invited a few friends over to try out the game for the first time. Imagine your buddy having to sit there watching you play through the tutorial in story mode before even picking up the controller. It’d be nice if the developers trusted in the player to have played EA’s hockey series in the past decade, but being limited to retro controls from the offset is baffling to me. So I jumped into the story mode thinking the control tutorial would be completed quickly, but this is where it got weird and I fell down a rabbit hole that I wouldn’t get out of any time soon.
I didn’t want to be spoiled by the story just yet so I quickly pushed through the introduction and jumped right into the first game. The pop-ups started almost immediately after the puck dropped, with the first lesson being a skating tutorial. Yes, the game had to tell me to push forward on the left stick to move, but shortly after that I was able to at least use the right stick to take a wrist shot. Once I completed these tasks the pop-up would have these items checked off the tutorial list, but winning a faceoff was something I was having all kinds of trouble with. Each faceoff would remind me with the same pop-up telling me to win a faceoff, and after the several attempts I got frustrated to the point where I almost exited the game. I pushed on and when the final buzzer sounded I won the game 2-1 but didn’t complete the primary objective of winning a faceoff. Upon returning to the main story menu I noticed that the game I just completed didn’t register and I needed to play it again. Even though I won the game I couldn’t advance in the schedule since I didn’t complete the primary objective of winning a faceoff. Oh well, at least I completed the tutorial and now the advanced control option would be available and I could hone my skills in an exhibition, right? Nope, the retro mode was the still the only available option and here I am being forced to jump back into the story before inviting someone over to play. I wasn’t able to unlock the advanced controls in exhibition until I was about ten games into the season mode, and that’s a big knock against a game that’s pushing a couch co-op experience. Instead of the full tutorial being introduced in one single game, they’ve managed to spread it over several games making a typical hockey play, such as a poke check, not be available from the start. I can’t think of a reason why these basic controls aren’t available from the get-go in exhibition mode, but I can understand why V7 Entertainment slowly introduced them during the game’s suburb story mode.
The story begins in the middle of the Schuylkill Hinto Brew’s hockey season. You control the fate of the fictional hockey team from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, who currently reside in last place in the league’s standings. The team’s owner & coach, Marty Lisman, has had enough with his team’s losing ways and is looking for a way to get them in the winning column, which in turn should put asses in the seats. The Brews just plain suck and this is why the story mode slowly introduces even the most basic hockey fundamentals. It wants you to see how bad this team is and you will most likely lose the first few games since you can’t poke check or play any kind of defense at all. It’s when coach Lisman finally makes a deal and picks up a pesky winger named Barrett that the intimidation tactics such as hooking & slashing start to get introduced. You’ll gradually start to string together a few wins with your new abilities and completing objectives will increase your teams overall stats. During this early part of the season mode is where the writing really starts to shine. You’ll be treated to players getting arrested, the team bus being taken out for a joyride by the team’s captain, and team moral taking a dive after the locker room beer fridge is traded for another player. The story mode is told by way of newspaper headlines in the story mode’s main menu and on-screen text/artwork during the loading times between games. You can also get a glimpse into your team and other team’s players if certain secondary objectives are met during a hockey game. Hockey cards with player bios will unlock throughout the season and the bios written for each player are pure comedy.
Progressing through story mode isn’t an easy task. I mentioned before that since I didn’t complete a primary objective of winning a faceoff that I had to play the game all over again. I couldn’t advance the schedule until my primary objective was met, even if I managed to win the hockey game. This was infuriating, especially when I was tasked with getting 32 shots on the opposition’s goal. These are 2 minute periods mind you, so we’re talking over 5 shots per minute! I won games 10-0, but since I didn’t get 32 shots it didn’t’ mean squat. I must have played 5 games before I gave up and called it a night, but I’m stubborn and attempted it again the next morning. Upon firing up the game and entering season mode the primary objective changed to an easily achievable “get 5 checks with one player”. So whenever I was given an objective that didn’t seem obtainable I would exit season mode and load it back up again to get a different objective. This isn’t a be-all-end-all fix though since some games give you 2 primary objectives to complete. This took a lot of fun out of the game because I wanted to enjoy playing but couldn’t because I was so focused on completing a miniscule objective. I have noticed with the last update that the objectives seemed to be easier, but that could have been me just getting lucky.
Old Time Hockey’s gameplay doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It’s arcadey due to the fact that goals will catch fire (if a player scores while his team is on fire) and body checks often are accompanied by words like “BOOM” in comic sans, but on the other hand, the speed of the game is slow and sim-like. You’ll want to hold down a turbo button but there isn’t one. Starting from a stopped position is life-like due to the player needing to gain momentum. The puck is slow as well, stopping suddenly when it should be gliding across the ice. To speed things up a bit the goalie cannot freeze the puck to stop play so they’ll just toss it behind the net, but they do this no matter who is standing back there, and believe me, it’s the other team 99% of the time. Speaking of goalies, they are horrible. The average save percentage of the entire league in my playthrough was below .600, so expect high scoring games no matter how well you play defense. Another gripe I have with the gameplay is with wraparounds that wouldn’t let me shoot off my backhand. The player would always stop and turn to take the shot with his forehand, causing me to miss several goals. I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention beer mode controls. Basically this will let you hold the controller in one hand and use one side of the controller to attempt to play the game. Honestly, I tried this for a few minutes and didn’t like it at all. All these complaints are probably making you think I hated Old Time Hockey, but even with all these shortcomings, I haven’t had this much fun playing a sports game in a very long time. There’s a lot of fun to be had in Old Time Hockey and it comes by way of the wacky side of the sport.
Flying elbows, stick fights, and bench clearing brawls are what 70’s hockey is all about! Halfway into the season mode you will be taught how to really get under the other team’s skin and make them drop the gloves or wield their sticks in protest. Primary objectives such as “Complete 5 poke checks” will be replaced with “Get in a fight with the other team’s goalie”. Getting into a fight and watching the benches clear was something I always wanted in a hockey video game and Old Time Hockey had me smiling from ear to ear when it finally happened. Sticks and gloves littered the ice as players skated around to find a fighting partner. The fun thing was that I got to control each and every fight since players will jostle with each other until I finish one fight to take control of another. The fighting engine is pretty bare bones with just a punch and dodge but it’s was always fun. The first player to take 3 punches loses and often ends up bleeding all over the ice. The player who won the fight will flip off the opposition, bloody knuckles and all. When the play resumes after the fight you’ll notice all the blood splatters on the ice, and it’s truly a sight to behold. The players who lose a fight will have a skull icon over their head and they’ll be more prone to miss shots and injure themselves if they get knocked out in another fight. Injuries can also occur if a player is punched 3 times in a fight without getting a punch in or hit with a stick during a stick fight. If you purchase Old Time Hockey for the fights I suggest you stick to the story mode and complete the tutorials because once they’re unlocked the fun factor gets turned way up.
You may be confused when it comes to the game’s presentation. Graphically it looks like an original Playstation game. It’s ugly as sin. Players with red hair all look like they have Princess Leia bun hairstyles and none of the player’s faces animate one bit. I didn’t seem to mind this though and it actually made the game feel retro in a way. Even though the game is lacking in the graphics department it does have some upsides. A big plus is that the goalies in the game all have awesome 70’s style Jason masks with several different designs to check out. Keeping up with the 70’s theme are players who don’t’ wear helmets since they weren’t really a staple until the early 80’s. A really charming aspect was the different arenas located throughout the league. They all had a different feel and look to them making the game feel alive in a way. If there was one major complaint I have with the presentation it would have to be the lack of a replay feature. I would love to watch the players clear the benches and square off with another combatants, and I really hope this gets added in a future update.
When it comes to audio, Old Time Hockey is pretty mediocre. The commentator is very stale and will repeat the same lines several times a game. An annoying cuckoo clock noise will alert you when a big hit happens but fortunately can be turned off in the options menu. I can say that the further you get into the story mode the more the arenas will start to fill up, and once the playoffs start the crowd noise hits a new level. Fans will react with each and every punch and the boo-birds will come out when you start injuring players on the other team. Again, the fans really add a lot to the game and make it feel lively.
Can I recommend picking up Old Time Hockey? It really depends. If you’re a hockey fan and have been waiting for something like this I’d say spend the $12 and have fun. Just be prepared to play through the tough story mode before inviting over your friends for a night of video game hockey fisticuffs. If you’re a casual sports fan looking for a game to waste a few nights with some drinking buddies I’d have to steer you towards something else. Old Time Hockey, although fun, takes a lot of hours to get full enjoyment out of.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), Playstation, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch ; Publisher: V7 Entertainment Inc. ; Developer: V7 Entertainment Inc. ; Players: 1-2 ; Released: March 26th, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature
Full disclosure: This review is based on review copy given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.