Review by Retro
Reviewed: 04/20/01 | Updated: 04/10/03
The best sports title on the Atari 2600, hands down
Without a doubt, Ice Hockey is the best sports game for the Atari 2600, in my opinion. I own Football, Bowling, Basketball, Home Run, and Ice Hockey, and I can say that in every way, it is on the top of the pack looking down at the others and laughing.
In the real life game of hockey, you have a team of athletes who skate around on ice skates, and they have hockey sticks as their main weapons. Just like you use a basketball to score in basketball, you have to use a puck to score goals in hockey. On each side of the playing arena is a goal. If you knock the puck into your opponent's goal, you score a point.
Unlike modern hockey games, in Ice Hockey for the Atari 2600, you only have two players on your team. One of them is a forward; they will be your main offensive weapon. The other player on your team is the goalie, who will mainly be guarding your goal; they can also hit the puck and possibly score once in a blue moon.
Ice Hockey is a very straight forward game, making it easy for anybody of any age to pick up the joystick and play as if they're a natural. You can play either one-player against the computer or two-player against one of your friends. One team is blue and purple while the other is yellow and green. Both teams will play a game of good old ice hockey on a basic white sheet of ice. Two long and slender black lines that jut out a bit onto the ice serve as the goals.
Before you start to play the game, there are two variations of Ice Hockey that you can choose from. In the first mode, the puck moves at a normal speed and a lot like a real puck would. The second variation seems more like air hockey than ice hockey. The puck moves very quickly on its own, and it bounces off the walls at wider angles. You can play either the computer player or a real person in either one of these games, for a total of four available variations.
To put the gameplay itself in simple terms, it's great. You can control only one of your players at a time. Whichever player is closer to the puck will become movable, while the other will simultaneously become a motionless bystander. The game automatically toggles which player is controllable and which one is doing an impersonation of a statue.
Let's say you're controlling the team at the top of the screen. If you are, then every time either one of your players hits the puck, it will travel downward. Each time one of the players from the team at the bottom of the screen hits the puck, the puck will glide up the screen. Therefore, you won't ever have to worry about knocking the puck into your own goal, because it always goes in the direction of your opponents' goal.
The most impressive feature of Ice Hockey other than how downright fun it is, is its subtle, yet very fitting shooting mechanics. When you gain control of the puck, it immediately begins moving left and right at the end of your stick. When you press the joystick's button to shoot, wherever the puck is currently at on your stick, it will be projected in that direction. For instance, if you shoot it while it's on the right side of your stick, the puck will fare to the right; shoot while it's in the middle of the stick, and it will slide straight up or down (depending on which team you're on), and so on. That makes it a cinch to shoot like Wayne Gretzky with pinpoint accuracy and easily make the puck fly by your defenders as fast as a breeze from an approaching storm.
What would a game of hockey be without defense? It wouldn't be a game, that's for sure. Let your opponent get within range while you have possession of the puck, and he can use his sneaky little hockey stick to seize control of the round, black puck from you with ease. An opposing player can also get close to you and shoot the puck right off of your stick and toward your vulnerable goal, as if you were politely bringing them the puck so they could take a free shot. Of course, you're not at a disadvantage because you can be the same sort of menace to your opponents while they're in possession of the puck.
I've never watched many hockey games at all, but I watch a lot of ESPNEWS and Sportscenter. I've noticed that hockey players seem to think that they're not only hockey players, but boxers as well. This ancient cartridge of Ice Hockey stays true to the sport. As one last kind of defensive strategy, you can place yourself right beside either one of your opponents at any time and start swinging away at them as if you were practicing hitting a baseball (oh wait, that's another sport).
Hit an opponent enough times, or in the right way, and he will fall on his ass faster than Humpty Dumpty ever did. When a player gets knocked down, he won't be able to get up for a few seconds. I've always thought that being able to knock down my opponents was awesome and at times, hilarious. It's especially humorous when my enemy and I both slip at the same time, leaving us to just watch where the puck decides to go, since both of us seem frozen to the ice. When I was a kid, I found it particularly amusing to knock my older brothers on their ass (in the game, not in real life) while playing against them. Maybe it was because for the first time in my life, I knocked them out instead of them knocking me out and winning all the wrestling matches (in real life). The great game of Ice Hockey sort of extinguished my fire for revenge against my older siblings' shows of strength.
One way in which Ice Hockey doesn't emulate a real game of hockey is that there are just three minutes in which to play until the buzzer sounds to conclude the battle altogether. Whoever has the most points when time runs dry wins the game and contains the right to boast that is tagged onto the victory. The screen will freeze in place at the end of the ever so short three minutes, waiting for you to start a new game. And you'll want to do that, several times in a row.
For the time that Ice Hockey first saw the light of day and the dust mites on the store shelves (1981), its graphics aren't bad at all. The players just have a small square for a head, but they are colorful and more detailed than the characters in most other Atari 2600 games. They have great animation, with somewhat lifelike movements without a bit of flicker. You couldn't ask for much more from a game for this system.
I've always enjoyed the sounds of Ice Hockey a good bit, especially the sound it makes (there's a separate sound for each of the two goals) when a goal is scored and when somebody gets knocked down flat on their ass. Those two sounds are classic Atari 2600 audio. The others, such as the puck bouncing off the sides of the hard-edged rink, and the sturdy sound of swinging a hockey stick, are clear and well done. For once, the fact that there's not any music at all doesn't really seem like a big downfall. Ice Hockey seems to thrive well enough without any accompanying tune.
The control is responsive and real easy to master like you're the Wayne Gretzky or Brett Hull of the Atari 2600's Ice Hockey. This game knows not the feeling of having sluggish or touchy controls, but it does know the meaning of perfect control. Oh yeah, did I mention that the challenge is right on cue and that it's a lot of fun in both a one or two-player game?
If you're an Atari 2600 enthusiast, whether you like hockey or not, it's essential that you have Ice Hockey in your collection. Myself, I haven't ever been all that crazy about many sports games at all. But there are a few that I like tremendously, and Ice Hockey is one of those chosen few. I know it looks absurd by today's graphical standards and it's simple in its content and gameplay, but it is ice rinks of fun; it's addicting, and it's a true classic in my book.
While the majority of Atari 2600 sports titles took the road to mediocrity, Ice Hockey was well made in all departments. It has the proven ability to provide hours of entertainment for a lifetime to come.
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