Old Time Hockey Review: Clear the Benches
As someone who has been playing sports games since the NES, I can tell you first-hand that sports games have gotten ridiculously complex over the last 25 years. From two buttons in Blades of Steel to using every button, bumper, trigger and thumbstick on modern EA Sports NHL games, hockey games have changed a lot over the decades.
What appealed to me about Old Time Hockey is that it billed itself as an arcade hockey game. As someone who has been gaming for as long as I have, I was hoping that would mean hard-hitting, high scoring hockey with simple controls. That was correct to an extent but the execution hides the intention.
Old Time Hockey wants to play like the simpler hockey games of the early 90s while trying to mimic the style of the iconic hockey movie Slap Shot. The visual style certainly comes closer to Slap Shot with colourful jerseys, small arenas and old-style TV graphics but there is a callback to NHL 94 with the blue-tinted ice. The players look a little closer to a cell-shaded style than the 16-bit graphics or realistic which differentiates it from the modern EA games.
The Slap Shot inspiration carries through to the play style and presentation. The game puts an emphasis on the hard-hitting and brawling action of Slap Shot (and the Hanson Brothers) with comic book style “boom” graphics on big hits and a lot of fights and hits all over the ice. In fact, I had one brawl that I counted having five separate fights occur so it was a good old-fashioned line brawl.
And the game even has a Slap Shot-inspired story mode in which you play as the worst team in the Bush Hockey League and try to drag them to the championship. Along the way, the team’s story is told through newspaper headlines and loading screen comic book panels. The misadventures of your Schuylkill Hinto Brews are worth a laugh as you beat your way through the league, winning games and completing game objectives, en route to a title.
When you actually hit the ice, things start to fall apart, though. Old Time Hockey has four different control schemes which range from classically inspired to modernly complex. I’ve been using the Retro scheme which uses two buttons on offense and three on defense. You can also choose from two-button controls, beer league controls (which is your late 90s / early 2000s style hockey game controls which uses all the face buttons and uses the shoulder buttons sparingly) and the full modern EA Sports-style advanced controls.
While going with the retro or two-button controls limit what you can do, the AI seems to have all of the abilities available under the advanced controls no matter which controls you use. You might not be able to deke or block shots but the AI sure can. Frustratingly, the How To Play guide doesn’t help you learn the controls unless you’re using the advanced controls. The how to play slides are for the advanced controls only and don’t change based on what you use. The only good thing to note from that guide is that fighting controls are the same controls across all control schemes so at least it’s useful for that.
And to top it all off, the controls aren’t very responsive. Apparently, they’ve been improved in patches since release but they still aren’t very good. One-timers, a staple of hockey game offense, don’t work. That also means that you aren’t going to be able to bang home any rebounds. Timing your hits isn’t as intuitive as pushing the hit button and leveling someone (assuming you actually land a good hit since most non-hip checks are gentle taps). You have to anticipate a hit like real life which I consider to be the opposite of an arcade-style game. And fighting controls are so slow to respond that you look like Conor McGregor in round ten.
This is where the game really falls apart. A developer can throw all the bells and whistles it wants to at a sports game from photorealistic graphics to realistic AI to new game modes to fancy controls but if the game isn’t fun to play, is it actually any good? With unresponsive controls, the game is, at best, difficult to play and, at worst, not fun to the point of extreme frustration. Blades of Steel came out 30 years ago and had more responsive controls. There’s no excuse for the state of these controls now.
The controls aren’t the only issues. While the game claims to be an old-style arcade hockey game, it has player fatigue that causes players to slow down and make mistakes when tired. That would be great in an EA Sports game but a bit out of place here, especially when your players don’t recover stamina between periods. There are penalties for things like interference, hooking and running over referees which are sort of the antithesis of hard-hitting hockey games. And your defensive AI are allergic to the front of the net. They’ll let the opposition walk into the slot and bang away at rebounds all day while hanging out in the loosest zone defense you’ve ever seen.
To help encourage you to keep playing, Old Time Hockey has a bunch of unlocks with various collectibles in the game, third jerseys that unlock when you complete the story mode and a Story Mode+ that allows you to play a story season as any of the game’s ten teams.
Old Time Hockey is every bit as good off the ice as it is bad on the ice. They get the romanticized homage to Slap Shot and the pre-helmet rough-and-tumble hockey of the 1970s perfect. The romanticized homage to 90s arcade hockey games doesn’t just miss the net. It’s over the glass and out of play.
Old Time Hockey was reviewed on PC but is also available on PlayStation 4. An Xbox One version is planned for release at a later date. A review copy of the game was provided by V7 Entertainment. Your impressions of the game may change depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether an homage to Slap Shot should have responsive hitting and fighting controls.