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Taking stock of the past, present and future of EA's NHL series

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Nostalgia is a funny thing — particularly when it comes to video games, and especially when it comes to sports video games.

In almost all cases, annual sports games only get better every year. Whether it's 20/20 hindsight in fixing the issues from a previous game, developers' greater familiarity with hardware, an increased investment on a publisher's part or something else, critics and fans are usually able to say that this year's game is objectively better than last year's game.

But nostalgia is a powerful mind-altering force. Our memories of a years-old game are clouded by time, and more than the game itself, we tend to remember the salient points around it: the experiences we had while playing it. (That's why you'll still find fans of football games who stubbornly insist that no Madden NFL title has ever surpassed the holy grail that was 2004's ESPN NFL 2K5 — which is, of course, ridiculous on its face.)

And it's hard for us to go back to something that seems primitive in comparison with modern games, as the developers of Electronic Arts' NHL franchise found out in 2005. That year, they included a retro surprise on the PlayStation 2 disc of NHL 06: an emulated version of the 1993 hockey classic, NHL '94, with 2005 rosters in a 16-bit experience.

"people were like, 'eh, OK, well, it's cool'"

"What we found with 06 was, when people played NHL '94 [within it], they were like, 'Eh, OK, well, it's cool.' And they played it for five or 10 minutes and they stopped playing it," said Sean Ramjagsingh, a producer on NHL 14 at EA Canada, in an interview with Polygon last week. "Like, the memories associated with [NHL '94] were actually stronger than going back and playing it — like they are with a lot of retro games."

With the 20th anniversary of NHL '94 approaching, EA Canada began to notice what Ramjagsingh characterized as a groundswell of nostalgic momentum online, as is typical for any major anniversary of something as well-regarded as that game. In March, the NHL's official website put together a retrospective piece on NHL '94, featuring interviews with current players about their memories of playing the game as well as videos of real-life hockey highlights (with players such as Pavel Datsyuk and Patrick Kane) skinned with visuals and audio from the 16-bit classic.

EA Canada happened to be working on something similar for NHL 14. Its NHL '94 Anniversary Mode looks, sounds and plays like the 20-year-old game, except that it features the current NHL rosters — the league's players association doesn't retain rights to retired players — and the same graphics as NHL 14, not 16-bit visuals.

The Anniversary Mode offers an amped-up gameplay experience that hews closer to NHL '94's speed and simplicity: You have three buttons including unlimited turbo, and with NHL 14's physics engine taking faster skating into account, big hits flatten players and send them flying. Penalties, offsides and icing are disabled, and you'll hear the old organ music when you score.

Another way in which the Anniversary Mode goes back in time is that it's not playable online — a decision the developers made because they wanted to not just bring back the old-school game, but evoke the nostalgia associated with playing it.

"What made '94 so special was you and your buddies sitting on the couch and having that face-to-face interaction, having house rules: You can't play with [Jeremy] Roenick or the Chicago Blackhawks, or you can't do the wraparound or one-timers; whatever your house rules were," said Ramjagsingh. "When people talk about '94, for a lot of people, it takes them back to a specific person's couch and the battles they had on that guy's couch, or in the basement of his house. So we wanted to kind of get back to that."

Playing a full game in the Anniversary Mode left me unsure if it will be consigned to the same fate as the emulated version of NHL '94 in NHL 06: a fun diversion, but not much more than that. And it's unlikely that nostalgic fans yearning for a simpler game will be willing to spend $60 on NHL 14 just to relive their childhood for a bit.

I also played two-thirds of a game in NHL 14 proper against Ramjagsingh. Most of this year's gameplay changes are tweaks geared toward improving existing elements — such as the physics and skating engines — so they're subtle, and thus, difficult to discern in a 15-minute session. Ramjagsingh explained that at the end of the console generation, the developers wanted to "leverage all the technology within EA Sports." I did manage to pull off a few one-button dekes, a much-appreciated new option since I was rarely able to successfully complete dekes with the old controls.

Earlier this year, EA confirmed to Polygon that the NHL franchise won't debut on next-generation consoles until 2014. EA's next-gen technology is the EA Sports Ignite engine, which will power all the publisher's Xbox One and PlayStation 4 titles. The idea behind having one engine for all sports games is to free up developers from having to worry about technology so they can focus on innovation, EA Sports chief Andrew Wilson told me at E3.

Ramjagsingh is excited about next-gen consoles, but he's glad his game isn't one of the launch titles because, in essence, the developers who are working on those games are serving as guinea pigs for next-gen development.

"they're all out there right now figuring out the new consoles"

"When we talk about the next generation — the FIFAs, the Maddens, and the NBAs and the UFCs — they're all out there right now figuring out the new consoles, and what you can and can't do on new consoles," he said. Madden NFL 25, FIFA 14, NBA Live 14 and EA Sports UFC are all scheduled to launch on PS4 and Xbox One by next June.

"So when we start to build on that next generation of consoles, when that time comes, they've already figured out all that stuff. So we'll share all that learning; we won't have to go through the same steps," Ramjagsingh continued.

"That's the big thing for us, and that's the strategy for us. And that's why, you know, I feel like it's a real benefit for NHL not to be on next-generation consoles this year."

NHL 14 will be released Sept. 10 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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