Inside the decision to revive NHL ’94


Retro gaming fans, rejoice: It’s 2020, and NHL ’94 is back.

Electronic Arts announced in early October that the beloved game that often finds itself in the “Mount Rushmore of sports video games” conversation is officially getting the remaster treatment. Entitled NHL ’94 Rewind, the game will feature updated teams and rosters to reflect the current season, with the same gameplay and graphics you remember and love from the original NHL ’94. The standalone game was available for free to people who preordered NHL ’21, and will release on Oct. 30 (NHL ’21 had its full release on Friday).

NHL ’94 Rewind is not just an homage to the original game — it is the original game. EA enlisted the services of a third-party studio to literally port NHL ’94 over to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. There are a couple minor changes; for example, players can exit out of a game in progress, which wasn’t an option in the original. But otherwise, it’s the same experience, completely intact; if you were great at NHL ’94, you will be steamrolling opponents in NHL ’94 Rewind. Though EA has paid homage to NHL ’94 in the past (such as the “anniversary edition” as part of NHL ’14), this is the first time we have seen a completely true-to-form rerelease offered by the company.

But why now? Why is 2020, 26 years after the game’s initial release, the right year to make a recreation of NHL ’94?

“NHL ’94 is always the one that starts off the conversation of which were the best years,” said Andy Agostini, senior producer at EA and the lead on the NHL ’94 Rewind project. “We wanted to bring it back and bring a different experience to people who maybe never have had that. I work with a bunch of guys on the team that are much younger than me, and when you mentioned something like NHL ’94, they never played with the Genesis or Super Nintendo.”

Since NHL ’94 Rewind is exactly as you found it from the 1990s, that also means that there is no online multiplayer function. EA said it discussed the notion at length, but it was decided to make the game a “true couch experience,” just like the original. But the door isn’t closed if fans truly clamor for it. “If people want to play for longer durations of time and start to ask for more features to be added, such as online multiplayer, then I think we can have those conversations as well,” said Sean Ramjagsingh, EA NHL producer.

That true couch experience also means no live roster updates. For example, Joe Thornton, who joined the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday, will appear in a San Jose Sharks uniform (his team in 2019-20) in NHL ’94 Rewind.

But while online play and roster updates would be nice things to have when looking at it from a 2020 perspective — when the latest game is constantly updating — it doesn’t take away from the magnitude of the release. And to truly understand why this is such a big deal, we have to explain why the original game is so significant in hockey and video game history.

NHL ’94 is far from the first hockey video game to have been created, but it is certainly the most influential in terms of what went into it; it was the first to feature the one-timer, still the best way to score in any NHL video game. It was the first time the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association came together for a video game, meaning that both the players and teams were actually in the release. NHLPA ’93, the previous year’s version, in which the NHL wasn’t involved, had teams such as “Toronto” and “Long Island.” The smooth gameplay and graphics (for the time), along with realistic organ music — played by Dieter Ruehle, current organist for the Los Angeles Kings — resulted in the game standing the test of time.

NHL ’94 was ranked the second-greatest sports video game of all time in 2013 by ESPN, and in 2017, the Hockey Hall of Fame officially inducted NHL ’94 … well, not officially inducted, per se, but there is a cartridge on display indefinitely, recognizing the game’s significant contribution in hockey and video games.

It was also referenced in a famous scene in the movie “Swingers” (though the actors are actually playing NHLPA ’93 in the movie).

A sizable chunk of the NHL’s current players weren’t alive when NHL ’94 was released in September 1993. Players in the original game have long since retired (except Jaromir Jagr, who will seemingly never hang ’em up after heading to Europe to continue his career). Some current NHL coaches — Blues coach Craig Berube, Coyotes bench boss Rick Tocchet and Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour — as well as broadcasters (such as Ken Daneyko, a Devils analyst for MSG Network) are in the original NHL ’94. Daneyko is a good example of the wide discrepancy that used to exist in player ratings in the game, as “Mr. Devil” once found out while playing NHL ’94 against world champion Raphael Frydman on the big screen at Prudential Center for an MSG Network feature in 2017. When looking through his attributes (he’s a 46 overall in the game) Daneyko turned, smiled to the camera and said, “The only number that matters is three, as in how many Stanley Cups I’ve won.”

Gone are the days when NHL players have any ratings that would be failing grades in EA video games. That is due to the fact that EA now employs a pyramid system to weight ratings across the multiple leagues available in the newest games. Because NHL ’94 Rewind features players and teams from only the NHL, the ratings will feature a wider gap, even though that doesn’t mean they are worse in ’94 Rewind than they are in NHL ’21. Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen, for example, is an 85 overall in NHL ’21, but is a 72 overall in NHL ’94 Rewind because of the sliding scale. Vancouver Canucks forward Elias Pettersson is an 89 overall in NHL ’21 and an 84 overall in NHL ’94 Rewind.

“This is just the way things are scaled. they are still relatively in the same place in the pyramid of NHL hockey players just different overall formulas based on having many less ratings in NHL ’94 versus NHL ’21,” Agostini said. As for players rated in the 30s, don’t expect to see much of that in Rewind. “As the years have gone by, the talent level in the NHL is higher, so you’re not going to see the type of players that were in ’94 that were the 30s anymore in the league, because they just don’t exist,” Agostini said. “I hate to point him out, but guys like Stu Grimson, who was an enforcer, a fighter, those guys don’t exist in the NHL nowadays. So the bottom end has gone up a few overall because of that.”

One former NHL player whose rating might not have been flattering had he been in the league in 1994 is Colton Orr, who played 477 games with the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. But Orr can easily be classified as the best NHL player past or present at playing NHL ’94; he has competed in local tournaments in New York and gave the world champion a run for his money in an exhibition match.

“My brother James and I played every day after school,” Orr said. “That was the first game where battles erupted in the house. You know the forehand-backhand move where you score every time? Or the wraparound trick? We’d have to agree to ban using them in the game because if not it would be an all-out brawl calling each other cheaters. It was brotherly love, super competitive. I loved playing as the Jets. It was one of those games perfect for hockey.”

The NHL ’94 online community has been building for years, and holds regular world championship tournaments. In June, the community partnered with the Mario Lemieux Foundation to put on a fully online charity NHL ’94 tournament that raised thousands.

“You can say that the ‘NHL ’94’ community officially started when Evan Eldredge started in March 2005,” Frydman said. “The forums created a platform for fans to share their passion for the game, to discuss and document all things related to NHL ’94. Over the years the forums have become an encyclopedia of information related to NHL ’94, and the EA hockey series of the ’90s in general. And there are new things being discovered all the time. Just last week there was a post that described how to fix the ‘severed leg’ in the stands in the menu screen.”

Wait, what?

Turns out, there was a random leg in the stands all along and nobody caught it until now, courtesy of the game’s most passionate fan base. I cannot confirm if it also made it into NHL ’94 Rewind, but chances are it did.

These are the kind of incredibly detailed tidbits you would expect from a passionate group of people who love the game so much that they keep discovering things about it decades later, and worked to build a world championship tournament into existence.

“[The world championship] is still a community-driven event,” Frydman said. “It’s driven on the backs of organizers who dedicate their free time and energy to make these happen. There is no money being made. In fact, it usually costs money to run these events. Traveling to a city, renting/sharing a hotel, food and transportation will also cost everyone money that they won’t recoup … even for the champions. I know, I won the last one in 2019 and came in second twice. It’s about the community.”

Though they are fiercely passionate, members of the NHL ’94 community represent but a small fraction of fans who loved the game. Some of them might have moved on from video games, hockey or both. Will NHL ’94 Rewind cater more to those lapsed nostalgic video-game hockey fans who want to relive their youth — and perhaps check out the new EA NHL series, too? — or is it more for current fans to have a fun look into the best game of yesterday they never got to experience?

“I think it’s both,” Ramjagsingh said. “I’ve got to play it through development, which has been fantastic. For the older generation I think it’s a little bit of reminiscing, getting to pick it up and play it, but with today’s NHL represented, which is a pretty cool little twist to the experience. I think there’s also intrigue for the younger generation that didn’t play it back in ’94, to go in there and try it and get a little blast from the past.”

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