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NHL ’94 Rewind: Today’s sport in yesterday’s ROM (and no head bleeding)

Pre-order treat for hockey fans is built on 1993’s code

Screenshot of the throwback graphics of NHL ’94 Rewind
The Canadiens in NHL ’94 Rewind. “To you from 16 bits we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high ...”
Image: EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

Before we talk about NHL ’94 Rewind, Andy Agostini would like to clear something up: No, you can’t make Gretzky’s head bleed in it.

For starters, “He’s not in the game,” says Agostini, a senior producer with developer EA Vancouver. But more importantly, “NHL ’94 did not have that capability, due to the NHL, you know, actually having issues with it.” (The hockey video game everyone remembers from Swingers is in fact NHLPA Hockey ’93, one of the last sports titles licensed by a players’ association but not their league.)

“Based on the fact that this is based on that game, no, there is no head bleeding anywhere in the game,” Agostini laughed. And that’s important, as it underlines the origins of NHL ’94 Rewind. It’s the original game’s code, updated with current players, who are rated according to the system of attributes players had in that 27-year-old game.

NHL ’94 Rewind, announced earlier this month, is being offered as a pre-order incentive for NHL 21, which launches Oct. 16 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. To answer the other first question on your mind, there are no plans yet to offer Rewind as a stand-alone game. But “we’ll see where that goes in the future,” Agostini said.

NHL ’94, which launched in the autumn of 1993 on Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, is a landmark work in sports video gaming, not just because it was the first ice hockey game with all the teams and every player in its year of release.

Nostalgia for NHL ’94 is driven by its mainstream, crossover appeal, seen in other sports titles of the day like NBA Jam and Tecmo Super Bowl. It was a basement-couch staple for years after its release, and roommates determining chore assignments via trial-by-NHL-’94 is an experience common to most players now in their 40s.

That experience is exactly what they’re getting, though; there’s no online multiplayer in NHL ’94 Rewind, just local multiplayer, Agostini said. Aside from the updated players and additional teams, there are no extra features. This may be why it’s being offered as a pre-order incentive as opposed to a stand-alone product. There’s a robust ROM-modding community for NHL ’94 that’s done sort of the same thing for a while now.

“At its core, it’s ’94,” Agostini said. “It is the ’94 game with updated teams and rosters. It’ll be NHL ’94, it’ll feel like NHL ’94. And then we’ve updated it with the 31 NHL teams, and the players from this era, going back to that time to play. You will feel like it’s ’94 because it is ’94.”

That said, Agostini still put plenty of effort into making sure that more than 600 players relate to one another, in terms of ratings, reasonably well. He couldn’t just pull over ratings from the main game, or even use them as a reference point, because of how different the two attribute systems are, 27 years apart. “We have, like, 28 ratings or something for an NHL player, in 21,” Agostini said. “There were only, like, 12 [in NHL ’94]. So I didn’t really think of it as one to one; I really thought of it as, like, ‘OK, so I’m helping tune this thing for NHL ’94.’”

That means that there shouldn’t be the kind of overpowered players in the game that were endemic to 16-bit sports games — think Jeremy Roenick in NHL ’94 — who necessitated house rules putting their teams off-limits when you were playing a pal for stakes. Agostini gave Ryan Reaves, of the Vegas Golden Knights, as an example of a player whose checking ability and physicality would be more apparent than Connor McDavid, Edmonton’s all-everything center, who will have recognizable strengths as well as weak areas.

“The NHL [development] team has always thought hockey is the best sport in regard to a twitch-gaming experience,” Agostini said, and the EA Sports NHL series’ widest appeal has come from the parts of the game that understand that. “Because of the fact it’s faster than all of the other sports, and it has action going back and forth. So even if you’re not a great player, you’re still going to have the puck on your stick and, a bunch of times during the games, do something. You’re always playing; you’re always competitive.”

NHL ’94 Rewind will be available beginning Oct. 30 for those who pre-order NHL 21 on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, before its Oct. 16 launch.

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