Arcade sports games are basically dead these days, which is one of the main reasons V7 Entertainment made Old Time Hockey. The genre alone would be enough to make this game stand out, considering that the only other hockey game on the market is EA Sports’ NHL series. Yet V7 took an unusual approach in making the game one giant homage to the 1977 film Slap Shot and the way hockey used to be played.
Unfortunately, Old Time Hockey isn’t as fun to play as its arcade sports forebears.
Games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz captured the hearts of all kinds of people, regardless of whether they were sports fans. They were able to do that by offering something that their simulation counterparts weren’t: the athletes everyone knew, except amped up to become the larger-than-life figures we thought them to be. As far as I was concerned, Shawn Kemp could totally soar into the air, 6 feet above the rim, and throw down a windmill dunk.
Of course, those games also became classics they were so well-designed. Most annual sports games feel dated after just a year or two because their rosters are no longer current, and because they’re made obsolete by their successors’ new features. But there’s something timeless about the best arcade sports titles. EA Sports discovered this when it tried to reboot the NBA Jam and NFL Blitz franchises in 2010 and 2012, respectively. “Modernizing” those games was missing the point.
Playing Old Time Hockey does feel like going back to the glory days of arcade sports video games. Modern analog stick-based controls are an option for players who are familiar with EA’s NHL series, like me, but the game’s old-school two-button scheme will get the job done as well. Whatever method you use, you will find yourself alternately pleased and frustrated with the way Old Time Hockey plays.
Hits feel incredibly satisfying, especially when you lay a hip check on someone and send them tumbling ass over teakettle. Two knockdowns in quick succession will set your team on fire, a state in which it’s impossible to push you off the puck with a check; instead, opponents have to use their stick for a hook or slash to dislodge the puck.
That move is so powerful that it threatens to unbalance the game. Opponents can easily relieve you of possession by whacking you with their sticks, and because there’s no deke control in Old Time Hockey, it’s difficult to evade those attacks. I’ve lost count of the number of times I wound up for a slap shot only to have the puck knocked away.
Defense in your own zone is also frustrating. Your computer-controlled teammates put up little resistance to the other team, and the goalies in this game are flat-out dumb. In most other hockey video games, you can press the pass button as a skater to have your goalie pass the puck to you. Not so in Old Time Hockey — instead, rather than covering the puck for a stoppage of play, netminders simply toss the puck to the boards behind them. (Of course, you can take advantage of this in the other team’s zone, but that doesn’t make its existence any better.)
I have fewer complaints about offense, but one glaring issue sticks out more than anything else: As far as I can tell, it is impossible to perform a one-timer in Old Time Hockey. You can make a pass and then fire off a shot shortly after your teammate receives the puck, but unlike in every other hockey game I have ever played — going back to NHL 95 on the Sega Genesis — you cannot preload a shot. This is confounding, since one-timers are a key play in hockey and an even bigger element of video game hockey.
These issues are more annoying than omissions like online play or a replay viewer; the lack of those features is understandable, considering the fact that Old Time Hockey was made by a small indie team. Not allowing people to make basic hockey plays limits their strategies, and also ensures that their play will suffer: They’ll give up goals they shouldn’t have, and miss out on goals they should’ve scored.
The problems on the ice make me less interested in going through Old Time Hockey’s story mode — a feature that’s rare in sports games, especially indie titles. That’s a shame, because V7 has written a goofy, bawdy tale for the Charleston Blues, a bunch of not-so-lovable losers playing in the Bush Hockey League (BHL). Most of the story panels in the game’s loading screens got a chuckle out of me, at least. And now that V7 has patched out the absurd, misguided setup that forced players to gradually unlock advanced controls by playing through the story mode, I can recommend it.
I’m less enthusiastic about recommending Old Time Hockey itself. It is not quite the oasis in the desert of the arcade sports genre that I was hoping for. These games trade primarily on how fun it is to play them, and there is a lot about Old Time Hockey’s design that makes it more fun than frustrating. I’ve enjoyed much of my time with the game, but I feel like I’ve just about had my fill of it, too.
Old Time Hockey is currently available on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC for $11.99. It is also coming to Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.