My formative years were in the golden era of arcade sports games. You didn’t have to give a damn about sports to enjoy the endless fun of early-90s classics like Super Baseball 2020 and Mutant League Football; mid-90s masterpieces such as NBA Jam; and late-90s/early-2000s hits like Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98 and NFL Blitz 2000.
Of course, as consoles became more complicated -- both in the quality of their visuals and the number of buttons on their controllers -- sports gamers thirsted for ever more realistic experiences. And regrettably, it seems that the heyday of arcade sports titles has passed. With a few notable exceptions (MLB Power Pros comes to mind), there hasn’t been a truly exceptional arcade sports game since the early part of this decade.
EA is aiming to change all that with 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, which is, amazingly, the publishing giant’s first foray into the arena of digital-only games. The ten-dollar downloadable title was developed by EA Canada, the same team that gave us one of the best sports games ever made in NHL 09. That’s a tough act to follow -- does NHL Arcade live up to that modern classic’s pedigree? Read on to find out.
3 on 3 NHL Arcade (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: February 5, 2009 (PSN) / February 11, 2009 (XBLA)
MSRP: $9.99 (PSN) / 800 Microsoft Points (XBLA)
All the best arcade sports games share the following qualities: (1) they provide a pick-up-and-play experience that everyone can enjoy, and (2) they’re a hell of a lot of fun. On those two essential fronts, 3 on 3 NHL Arcade is a rousing success. It’s not overly complicated, especially since there are two different control schemes available, and the power-ups make it a blast to play. NHL Arcade hearkens back to the halcyon days of arcade sports videogames that I talked about above: it’s the quintessential sit-next-to-your-buddies-and-hurl-insults-back-and-forth game.
NHL Arcade runs on the same engine as NHL 09, so its basic mechanics and physics are just as tight as in that vaunted hockey sim. For example, EA Canada nailed the feel of skating in NHL 09, and they brought that over to NHL Arcade intact. And checking, which is a huge part of NHL Arcade, results in some awesome (and often hilarious) post-collision animations. Visually, the title looks as good as NHL 09, though it’s difficult to compare minute details because NHL Arcade doesn’t get closer to the action than the gameplay camera.
The game’s title is a bit of a misnomer -- technically, games are four-on-four, although goalies are computer-controlled. Unfortunately, instead of featuring real NHL teams, NHL Arcade pits a “red” team versus a “blue” team (the jerseys are vaguely reminiscent of the 2008 All-Star away sweaters). You can pick any combination of three players from a rosters of 36 NHL stars, including Sidney Crosby and NHL 09 cover athlete Dion Phaneuf, and there are four goalies to choose from. Although games are separated into five-minute periods, they’re played to a score -- you can play to any total between five and twenty goals -- so if you’re playing to ten and it’s 7-4 after three periods, the game will continue until someone scores ten goals.
Here’s where the game’s lack of depth starts creeping in. Skaters can either be Fast, All-Around, or Strong (the trade-off is between speed and size -- larger players are more difficult to check and push off the puck, but they’re slower). I understand the desire to simplify the game, but there aren’t any other attributes to differentiate players. Even NBA Jam rated players in four areas (speed, defense, and ability to dunk and shoot three-pointers). Why bother selecting between Daniel Briere and Pavel Datsyuk when they’re both All-Around players (i.e., they’ll play identically)? And as far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter if you pick Brodeur, Lundqvist, Luongo, or DiPietro as your goalie; there are no attributes, not even the standup/butterfly/hybrid classification that NHL 09 provided.
There’s also a mystifying and irritating bug in the player selection screen. Each team has a “default” configuration that you can’t change (unless you’re playing as that team). So when you play the computer, you’re going to play the same team every single time. (Default blue team: Iginla, Roenick, Weber, Luongo; default red team: Koivu, Malkin, Chara, DiPietro.) There’s no good workaround, either -- you can’t just set up a two-player game, pick the players for both teams, and then change the second player to the CPU, since messing with the controller assignments precludes the earning of Trophies or Achievements. Hopefully, it can be fixed with a patch.
But of course, as I explained earlier, NHL Arcade was made for multiplayer. The game supports up to six players, so you can bring five friends over and each of you can control one of the skaters. Sadly, there’s no single-player career mode or anything, so all you can do by yourself is play the computer or play online. And unlike NHL 09, you can’t partake in online team play -- six different consoles can’t play in a single online game, but up to three players can team up on one console and take on up to three opponents on another console over the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live.
The online play is a microcosm of the entire game: it’s bare-bones. The only option for ranked games is to select Quick Ranked Versus Play, which will match you up against a random opponent. As for unranked games, you can either play a quick game against a random opponent, search for a session with certain parameters, or create a session yourself. Amazingly, what you can’t do in any of the online modes is invite a friend -- there’s no friends list support. (I can only speak for the PS3 version.) If you want to play a specific user, all you can do is start a session, and then try to coordinate it so that your friend starts searching for a game right when you create the session. I have no idea if that’ll actually work, though. I did try out a few online games, and they were relatively lag-free. NHL Arcade offers full leaderboards, so you can compete with your friends and the rest of the world, which is neat.
In spite of these shortcomings, NHL Arcade is absolutely worth playing because it’s just so damn fun. The gameplay is fast-paced and lends itself to high-scoring games; if you’re even at all competent, you’ll want to set the score limit above five goals (ten is usually a good number for games that will last about 15 minutes). The power-ups really help to mix things up and keep the game fresh. Power-ups pop out of players when they’re checked hard enough, so the game is all about hitting on defense, and avoiding hits on offense.
For that, NHL Arcade allows individual users to select between two control schemes: seasoned pros will go with the Skill Stick controls (same controls as NHL 09), while more casual players will likely pick the Button Controls. The latter option was also available in NHL 09 (it was known as “NHL 94 Controls”), and what’s so great about it is that it allows anyone to jump in and compete with hardcore gamers who have been playing the hell out of NHL 09 for the past five months (like me). It’s easy: on offense, the X button passes the puck and the circle button shoots it; on defense, X changes players, and circle checks.
The only issue with players using the Button Controls against Skill Stick gamers is that they’ll be at a slight disadvantage. Obviously, you can do a lot more with the Skill Stick controls (for example, R1 performs a poke check, and pressing R1 and L1 will have your player dive to block shots). But it definitely doesn’t mean that Skill Stick users are guaranteed to win against Button Control players; the randomness of the game’s power-ups levels the playing field (er, ice).
There are eight different power-ups available; each lasts for two in-game minutes, but if your team scores, any non-goalie positive power-ups for your side will disappear. Freeze essentially gives you a power play by encasing one of the opposing team’s players in ice, and when a Banana pops out of an opponent, any member of their team will slip and fall if they touch it. One player can’t have two power-ups at once, and in general, they’re well-balanced.
What really makes the game awesome is its sound; EA Canada obviously put a lot of effort into it. You’ll hear a man saying “click!” each time you move in a menu, which I thought was pretty funny. But the in-game sounds -- namely, the “Double Dribble speak” -- absolutely blew me away and had me in stitches. There’s no commentary, but that’s for the better, because the rink announcer is hilarious. Whenever you pick up a power-up, he’ll shout one of a number of phrases for that specific power-up, and they’re all great. Get the Small Goalie power-up, and he might yell, “MICRO GOALIE,” after which your goalie will peep in a high-pitched voice, “Oh, no!” It’s cute, it’s amusing, and it makes NHL Arcade special.
3 on 3 NHL Arcade doesn’t have a comprehensive slate of gameplay modes and options, and it’s easy to write it off for that reason. But what’s there is enough to keep gamers coming back again and again: tremendously enjoyable core gameplay, superb sound design, impressive visuals, and a wonderfully old-school-oriented multiplayer experience. And when you factor in the price -- just ten bucks -- it becomes much easier to justify the purchase. If you enjoyed arcade sports games back when console specifications were measured in bits, I’d definitely suggest that you pick up 3 on 3 NHL Arcade.
Score: 8.0 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won’t astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)