The Coolest Game On Dreamcast: The NHL 2K Series

My first encounter with NHL ice hockey came in the form of EA Hockey on the Mega Drive. The purity of the top-down, fast-paced gameplay just worked, and the game provided hours of entertainment. Later, EA Hockey was replaced with NHLPA Hockey '93 in the cartridge slot and my love affair with the exotic, ultra-violent sport of American hockey was born. A succession of annual updates during the 16-bit era allowed my knowledge base of popular players and teams to grow, and while the games on the Mega Drive reached their zenith with the spectacular NHL '96 my affection for the rough-and-ready sport came with me to the 32-bit Saturn and beyond.

NHL All Star Hockey and the successive NHL games from Electronic Arts kept me going on the Sega Saturn; and during my time as a Nintendo 64 owner games such as Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey, NHL '99 and NHL Breakaway '98 allowed me to keep an iron in the fire, so to speak. They were instrumental in teaching me the names of the stars of the day - Jaromir Jagr, Keith Tkachuk and Dominik Hasek; along with the franchises sporting such alien-sounding names as the Red Wings, Bruins, Penguins and Flyers. Naturally, there was a hockey league in the UK at that time (and there still is), but it never got the same coverage and was never really reported on in the news (my local team was Manchester Storm, but as far as I know they folded some time ago now) so games really represented the best way to get to know the rules and the stars of the sport.
This looked like a TV broadcast in 1993
Basically, the hockey games I played in my youth were the only real glimpse I got into the world of professional ice hockey, its best players and its culture, and whenever a new title was released it always caught my attention. They taught me what 'icing' was, that fights were normal, the strange makeup of the NHL with its weird divisions and playoffs and the oddness of the trades system when compared to something like football (soccer) and the Premier League. I've mentioned a few here already, but I played pretty much every major hockey game released on consoles between EA Hockey and NHL Breakaway '99. However, it was when the Dreamcast arrived that ice hockey games really reached a new level in terms of visuals, quality of commentary and gameplay. These advancements all came in the form of NHL 2K from Black Box.

It's actually pronounced "Ull"
What's interesting about the original NHL 2K for Dreamcast is that its developer - the aforementioned Black Box - was eventually acquired by Electronic Arts and renamed EA Black Box. As most Dreamcast fans will no doubt be aware, Electronic Arts famously ignored the Dreamcast and refused to publish any of its sports titles on Sega's platform. The reasons for this are subject to much conjecture but one of the more convincing stories to come out of the whole saga was that EA wanted exclusive rights to publish sports games on the platform. Sega refused EA's request and thus FIFA, NHL, NFL et al were not ported. In some ways this lead to a gaping hole in the Dreamcast's library, but in other ways it opened the door for Sega to introduce its own 2K series and a whole new franchise (and one that arguably trumped EA's own offerings) was born.

NHL 2K, along with its stablemates in the other sporting spheres (NBA 2K, MLB 2K and NFL 2K) garnered glittering reviews across the board. Published under the Sega Sports brand - a brand that Sega deemed strong enough to warrant a special edition black Sega Sports Dreamcast console - all of the 2K games represented what was considered to be the pinnacle of their respective sports in video game form back at the turn of the century. Graphics far above what could be achieved on competitor systems, true TV-style presentation, great play-by-play commentary and some of the best gameplay experiences around all made the 2K series critical and commercial successes.
When NHL 2K first hit the Dreamcast it was lauded for these very things. It looked amazing for a start - far and away the most authentic looking sports game available at the time. What really struck me was just how much everything looked and felt like a real game you could easily be watching on TV. The way the players moved, the crowd reactions, the over-the-top commentary from the two-man team. It was superlative in pretty much every way. Off the ice the sheer number of franchises, arenas and numerous historical uniforms going back to the formation of the NHL itself give a feel for the level of detail and adoration for the sport the development team clearly had.

Black Box and Sega had literally taken everything that EA could do with its NHL series and gone one step further in pretty much every department. Probably a step too far in terms of goalie skill, but if anything the difficulty level only made it more satisfying when you did actually get the puck in the goal. For me, NHL 2K was the very best hockey game I'd ever seen on a console up until that point and while hockey isn't everyone's cup of tea I still think it holds up as one of the Dreamcast's best and over-looked games - especially in those territories where hockey ranks alongside basketball/NASCAR/extreme ironing in terms of popularity.
Unlike the other sports games released under the Sega Sports banner during the Dreamcast era, NHL didn't receive a 2K1 update. The reasons for this aren't really known, but ice hockey did return to the Dreamcast nearly two years later with NHL 2K2. Developed by Treyarch, a studio now more well-known for the Call of Duty and Call of Duty: Black Ops series, NHL 2K2 is famous for being the very last game officially released for the Dreamcast in North America. Yes, on 24th February 2002 NHL 2K2 hit store shelves and heralded the end of new releases for the Dreamcast in American stores.

This is quite a sobering thought when you consider that just over two years prior, on the 9th September 1999, the Dreamcast was only just launching on those shores. However, rather than dwell on the sadness of that realisation it is worth noting that NHL 2K2 took everything that was great about NHL 2K and improved upon it. The game wasn't released in Europe (possibly due to low sales of the first game) although Cannon Spike was released on or around 3rd May 2002 and was the last official PAL release as far as I can ascertain, so the Dreamcast was still pulling in some sales around that time. Whatever the reason for the lack of a PAL release, NHL 2K2 was certainly a fitting swan song for the Dreamcast in the US and once again wowed critics with its visuals, presentation, sound design and gameplay.
NHL 2K2 actually brought the franchise in line with the other 2K games in terms of menu layout, bringing in the familiar 'analogue cursor' seen in the others. Again, the number of teams and uniforms (both current and historic) was matched by the accurately modelled arenas. However, the presentation was dialled up another notch with the already amazing pre-game theatrics supplemented by some amazingly detailed stat-based commentary and star player profiles as the players came out onto the ice. Anyone who has played a modern EA Sports title of any denomination will know that this type of presentation is standard nowadays, but back in the early 2000s games just didn't have this level of presentation and that's why NHL 2K2 stands out.

Even the transitions between replays and 'broadcast' gameplay features polygonal NHLPA and Sega Sports logos flying across the screen. Nothing new these days...but in 2002? Not a chance. The gameplay in NHL 2K2 is largely the same as that in 2K - all of the dekes, slap shots, wrist shots, body checks and fights are there; along with some fantastically acrobatic goalies and other little incidental details that make you smile when you see them. Ice spray flicking up from players' blades as they turn sharply, camera flashes from the crowd, cutaways where the coaches scream at their players issuing orders...it's all here and it still looks surprisingly convincing.
I'm not for one moment going to suggest that either NHL 2K or 2K2 are the best ice hockey games of all time, but at one point they were about as good as the sport got in digital form. While Sega's output in terms of football/soccer games on the Dreamcast can best be described as passable, ice hockey fans really got a pair of true masterpieces (well, a trio if you count Sports Jam), and they still hold up today in this age of teraflops and 4K visuals.
On current gen I've been wowed by the recent instalments of the NHL series from EA, but for me the true evolution of the sport on consoles lies with the first two entries in the 2K franchise. They had it all - visuals, gameplay, presentation. If the Dreamcast had lived on I'm pretty confident we'd have seen 2K3, 2K4 and maybe even 2K5 on the console. As it is, you can still play those on other systems (in a sense), and they were all pretty decent...but if they'd stayed on the Dreamcast then I'm sure they'd have retained the true magic of the coolest game on Earth. If you have even a passing interest in sports games, then you'd be doing yourself a disservice if you didn't pick up either NHL 2K or NHL 2K2 and give them a go. Black Box and Treyarch truly set the tone for the future of hockey games when they served up this power play of a series on Dreamcast.

6 comments:

hoogafanter said...

Didn't know you guys even knew what hockey was across the pond there... this is one of my most played games honestly...

Mongroovy said...

Even though I have also enjoyed NHL games dating back to EA Hockey on the Mega Drive I never really got into the 2K games for some reason. Probably because I was playing the equally excellent NBA counterpart to death 😛

Johnny Hedlund II said...

Nhl 2K2 was by far the most played title, both against my cousin (epic Anaheim vs Calgary clashes!) and in a friend's house (staying up till six o'clock in the morning for some tournaments). A lot of fond memories come to mind: getting some players back to the teams they left after free agency run amok (Jagr back to Pittsburgh, Hasek to Buffalo, Selanne to Anaheim), The Great One making one last attempt at the Cup, Konstantinov skating again... Saku Koivu and Peter Forsberg activated and ready to start. Mexico is not exactly a hotbed of hockey wisdom but we tried to stay updated!

Maybe the only features missing were Franchise Mode (as in NFL 2K2) and retro jerseys...

Florian Wallin said...

Its always nice to read your articles Tom. You put alot of work in them witch make them great to read ! Thanks. And yes it os a great game

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for all your comments guys. I'm by no means an expert when it comes to the NHL - very much an armchair/gaming fan of the sport. But yeah, the 2K series is definitely one of my favourite. I recently played both NHL 16 and 17 on the PS4 too, such awesome games.

247 said...

recently i played the demo for the lastest nhl from ea and while i must admit is not that bad, the 2k series was really the coolest game on earth...it was a blast to play even in single player and it was gorgeous to score on higher difficulties...the commentary was lot of times made just of the same phrases but don't know why it was a blast too and perfectly blended in to the game...never played 2k but 2k2 really made me love hockey...

"and he lines up for the shot" ;)