EA has released NHL 2002 on the GBA. Does the game excel to greatness ala Team Canada's Olympic performance, or pull a Tommy Salo? Only one way to find out.
There are two types of hockey fans, my friends. The casual hockey fan, and the other kind. There are fans that will go to the occasional hockey game once a year, and be shocked that their team seemingly changed names from the North Stars to the Wild, thus outdating their green and yellow Brian Bellows cotton jersey. And then there is the other kind. The kind that live and die by their team. The kind that call in to a radio talk show to voice their opinion about the latest hockey team, only to be put on hold for two hours. The kind that spent the night before the Canada vs. USA 2002 Olympic hockey final literally throwing up because of the possible outcome. These kind, are called Canadians. And I am Canadian.
Alright, so there are a lot of Americans who like hockey almost as much as I do. If you despise Bryan Marchment too, I will call you brother. So, anyone reading this that thinks Columbus and Nashville deserve a team more than Winnipeg and Quebec- leave now. Now that we’ve filtered out the dirty people, I’m going to assume that you have played EA’s NHL series in one form or another. Did you ever try their first incarnation, NHLPA 92? Or perhaps you were unfortunate enough to grow up on the ungodly NHL 99-2002. Or maybe, just maybe, you played what many people revere as the best hockey games ever, NHL 94 and NHL 95. Well, if you were interested in NHL 2002 for the Game Boy Advance, you’ll be happy to know that the game is based off of the aforementioned coveted titles from the middle of the last decade. But is 2002 as good?
Visually, yes. NHL 2002 retains the same distinct visual look as its mid-90’s counterparts, from the bluish tinged ice to the (now outdated) semi circle goalie crease. Though the jerseys that the miniscule players feature don’t feature any semblance of a team logo or other details, the stripes and colors are diverse enough to pinpoint what teams are playing were you to browse through some screenshots. There are some nice little details in the game, such as the shadows each player casts, and how the ice surface (mainly the center logo, goalie creases, and red/blue lines) gets scratched up with patches of snow as the period’s progress.
The animation for the game, while not on par with recent GBA titles such as THPS3, is still more than adequate. While the animations do only contain a sparse amount of frames, there is still great detail within the movements of the sprite characters. The players will react differently to body checks from different angles. Nail a streaking winger from the side, and he’ll crumple down. Hit him from behind, and he’ll trip over himself and flip over. The goalies also have different animations for different stances when they’re making a save, but unfortunately you don’t get to see the diversity of them that often. Why? Well for some reason, the goalie won’t try to save the puck, especially if you’re shooting from very close in. Instead, he’ll just angle you off, and let the puck hit him. This is a little disappointing. Aside from that, the frame rate is very smooth, the menus are quick and very accessible, and the little picture in picture presentation for face-offs and referee penalty calls contribute to a very polished look. There’s very little to complain about on the visual side of things.
But then there’s the sound. Borderline atrocious. Who here has been to a hockey game? You know what it sounds like, right? Now who here has played ping-pong? That is what NHL 2002’s on ice action sounds like. The puck makes a dinky “pong” noise when hitting players or sticks that is horrifically out of place. There are different sounds for the puck hitting the boards or the post, but the table tennis sound effect dominates the GBA’s tiny speaker. Crushing someone against the boards omits no sound whatsoever. The crowd boos and cheers whenever a goalie makes a save, and sometimes when a player carrying the puck is decked with a shoulder, but after the three seconds of muddy shouting is leaked through the slots beneath the face buttons, there’s absolute silence. Well no, there’s still the utterly irritating ping-pong ball noise. And of course, whenever someone scores, the crowd is silent. Aside from the abysmal sound effects, the music for the intro is pretty cool, and the BGM for the menus isn’t anything to complain about. There are occasional speech bites (the referee occasionally spouts off penalties, and you get a 1 minute warning on the fly) thrown into the mix, and the classic tunes that were in the early NHL’s which play after you score are in 2002, but overall the sound is a big downer. Very shoddy.
Now this is where things become blurry. The control. NHL 2002 controls ALMOST exactly like the earlier NHL’s did. Move around with the d-pad, shoot with one button, pass with the other, one timers, and the usual. There are a few main differences. In 2002, the shoulder buttons come in to play. When your player has the puck, tapping R will allow him to pull off a spin move, and pressing L will make him do a quick stop. Spinning is usually recommended when you’re not moving fast and surrounded by the opposition. Granted, I have been able to score using the spin move a few times, but the old school forehand to backhand (or vice versa) deke is easily the best way to score. I suppose the quick stop is useful for avoiding the occasional check, but I honestly haven’t used it much at all. When the opposition has the puck, you can use the trigger buttons to both hook or grab a player and block a shot. One problem I’ve found with the button mapping is the placement of the poke check feature. To attempt a poke check, you press the B button, which is also the same button that allows you to switch which player you control. See the problem here? This basically takes away the poke check option, which can be critical at times. Why poke checking wasn’t mapped to the R button (pressing R would poke check, pressing R when a shot is being taken would block a shot) is beyond me, but it isn’t.
But two of the biggest and easily most glaring problems with NHL 2002 reside within its control. The first problem is the collision detection. Guess what happens when you take a snapshot from the point with Al Macinnis that hits Paul Kariya in the gut? Kariya immediately gets possession of the puck and skates up ice with it. Guess what would happen if it were to hit his stick? Same thing. In the actual game of hockey, taking a shot from the point, especially during power plays, is usually a dangerous threat and an essential part of the game, but in NHL 2002, it’s completely useless. Guess what else is practically useless? Passing. I’ve scored maybe three one timers during the past week of playing the game. One timers have always been an essential part of an Electronic Arts hockey game, but they’re meaningless now. To make matters worse, your player rarely passes to the teammate you want him to, despite whether or not you’re pressing in the right direction.
But the most daunting problem with NHL 2002’s control? The speed. Imagine two teams consisting of genetically engineered, half robotic Pavel Bure’s, with four robotic legs, rocket powered skates, on crack. Sure, this might sound like a great concept for a Sega game, but for the love of God, NOT HOCKEY! When players like Jason Strudwick and Kevin Hatcher skate faster in the game than a player like Federov does in real life, you know something is wrong. Granted, the game isn’t rendered unplayable because of the speed factor, but you’ve got a one in ten chance of skating up the screen and nailing someone at a vertical angle, as opposed to dashing past him.
From a gameplay standpoint, the speed at which the players skate, coupled with the lack of motivation to attempt passing, really hurts the strategic side of the hockey game. Whenever your player gets the puck, you’ll always find yourself dashing up the ice in breakaway fashion, despite the number of opposing players or teammates are in front of you. Hitting is often difficult because of the speed, poke checking is pretty much automatically a non-factor, passing is usually out of the question, so what do you end up with? Ten players taking turns at breakaways. The aforementioned two factors hurt NHL 2002 a lot, and it’s something I really hope gets fixed for NHL 2003.
Yet for some reason, I find myself playing the game again and again. Though you’re often not given the option to fine-tune the areas, there are a lot of features when it comes to what you can play. If you choose to, you can jump right into a game (consisting of 5, 10, or 20 minute periods), which is the norm. A very cool feature that I never really thought about before witnessing is the practice mode. The big attraction here is the option to customize the number of players on the ice. Therefore, you can have five skaters on your team versus none on the opposition for a little goalie torturing. This also gives you the opportunity to both simulate (and thus practice) your powerplay and penalty kill or play a little three on three. It’s something that is definitely appreciated.
The other main mode is Season. The way it has been set up is quite odd, as you don’t actually choose a team. You’re basically given the actual schedule for the 2001-2002 season, and the option to play any game on each day. So if you want, you can play as Toronto against Boston on Friday, and then as Vancouver against San Jose on Saturday. It’s unique, and if the team you want to play is isn’t playing on the day you’re at, it takes mere seconds to simulate all of the games, so there are no complaints here either. You’re also allowed to toggle penalties, offsides, and fighting before you start your game, and you can edit your lines and such during the game. If you want, you can trade players, sign free agents, and even create your own players! A pleasantly surprising feature for a game such as this, considering the players don't even have faces. As for the multiplayer side of things, I’m pretty sure it’s official that I’m the only person in Vancouver who owns a Game Boy Advance, so when that situation is upgraded, I’ll be sure to not update this review, ASAP.
By now, I’m pretty sure I don’t even need to tell you the potential replay value that NHL 2002 offers. To this day, I still play NHL 94 on my SNES, and I’ll continually play NHL 2002 for months, if not years to come (unless 2003 improves over my main problems with the current game). Whether you’re looking to play the great season mode, which would most likely take around 100 hours to finish if you were to play as just one team on normal settings, or a quick 15 minute exhibition game, which literally takes less than thirty seconds to get started, you’re going to find yourself coming back to the game again and again. I can only imagine how glorious the four player link up play would be.
Overall, I’m disappointed with how the developers of NHL 2002 have practically taken away the aspect of passing, which is essential to the sport of hockey. This, and the overly fast paced nature of the game makes it less of a hockey game, and more of a cluttered on ice show boat mode. That’s not to say the game is bad, because it isn’t. Despite these nagging problems, I still find myself doused in nostalgic memories of recreating old plays. The game offers a nice wealth of options when it comes to different play modes, and the difficulty is nearly always quite challenging. You can’t find yourself showboating too often, as the computer is often very precise with its checking. This means that it will often take skill in dekeing and skating to score a goal. I’d suggest renting NHL 2002 at your nearest Blockbuster to try it out, and please do play it for more than a few days. I was ready to set the cart on fire initially, but after looking past the bundled problems, I found great enjoyment in a somewhat flawed game. I’ll hope for more from EA with 2003, and while I’m not perfectly content with 2002, I still enjoy it. And really, that’s what matters.