Review by Ryan Harrison
Fight! Fight! Fight!
When it comes to the sport of ice hockey, I dont mind watching the odd game here and there though am not a knowledgeable or hardcore fan of the sport; it is one I tend to enjoy more when it comes to video game adaptations of this fast-paced, and often physical game. It also just so happens that the NES, one of my favourite retro video game systems, has a couple of great ice hockey games, and one of them is the Konami-developed Blades of Steel, released in 1990.
A while back I downloaded a very big selection of NES games onto my Wii through the Virtual Console service and happened to pick up a couple of ice hockey games that I would later spend a lot of spare time enjoying. One of them was Nintendos own game, simply titled Ice Hockey, while the other was this game, Blades of Steel. Both games are pretty simple to pick up and get used to playing, though the one that edges it for me would be BoS by virtue of the better graphics and audio, added Tournament mode and smoother playing style.
It was only a few years ago that I had actually first played Blades of Steel on the Virtual Console as this particular game I did not have on the actual NES console, despite hearing and reading about what a great game it was. Ice Hockey had came out a whole four years prior to BoS and proved that despite only one main exhibition mode and a small selection of teams, it was still a great and fun game to play because it kept things simple and had a playing style that anyone would be able to learn and become good at in a relatively short amount of time. Youll be surprised to find that BoS takes a very similar approach, and while it can soon become quite easy to dispossess your opponents and find the best ways to score, this can still make for a good few hours of single or multiplayer fun. It also has a few other gameplay elements that include a brief fist-fight mode, and being able to play a sample of a couple other games that appear on the big screen during the intermission!
This is not a particularly story-driven game as you may come to expect from most sports-sims; as youd probably expect, you pick a team and aim to outscore your opponent to win an exhibition game, or win a row of matches in a playoff tournament to win the coveted championship trophy.
Graphically, Blades of Steel contains some of the best-looking visuals youll see in a sports game on the NES. You get a side-on view of the rink, with the goals located at the far left and right sides. The rink is well-sized and you can see a good deal of what is going on around it at all times, even during a fast-paced, back-and-forth game, the camera does well to keep up with the puck at all times and there is nary a bit of slowdown whatsoever. Everything is drawn and detailed superbly, with perhaps the only trouble possibly coming in making out colours on teams who wear similar uniforms. The animations of players skating, shooting, scrapping and falling over looks great, and another superb thing about the visuals is the little things that make it look just that much more like a real hockey game; players celebrating and goaltenders throwing hissy fits when a goal is scored, the referee skating over to the net to retrieve the puck before he takes it back to the centre circle for the next face-off, and the victorious team doing a lap of honour before posing for a victory photo. These little effects look really cool and go to show that plenty of effort was put into the presentation of this game.
As I have mentioned before, there is the occasional moment in the game when a couple of opposing players will engage in a fist-fight when the action boils over (because what hockey game would be complete without a bit of fighting?). The camera cuts to a close-up shot of the two players while they have at it, all while you can see fans cheering on and jumping about in the background. Both characters even get a little power meter, and you aim to deplete the other guys before he does yours, in order to win possession of the puck and gain a man advantage over the opposition.
The game has some well done music that fits it really well, despite not being the biggest or most varied soundtrack. The music you hear when the players come out before beginning the game does a good job of getting you pumped, and the classic charge fanfare plays every time a goal is scored. Altogether the music in the game is good to listen to, though on a long playthrough youll just have to put up with hearing the same background themes over a fair few times.
Sound effects are very good and fitting, too. The game comes with some voice-sampling, which is expected in most of the games of today, but back when was not found often in video games. Upon booting the game up, a voice-over coolly announces the game title when it appears on the title screen. Youll hear the referee call Face off! whenever hes about to place the puck down, nearby team-mates call pass the puck! when they find space or a good shooting position, and Fight! when you bump into an opponent several times and cause a brawl to break out. The quality of the voice-over isnt the clearest, given the technology of the NES system, but it would still have been something quite impressive for its time.
Other sound effects are the usual ice hockey fare and are good and clear. As a player moves with the puck, their skates make a soft swish sound, and shooting makes a more resounding clonk noise. The pheep of a referees whistle, and the low buzzing sound when the crowd roars in excitement are done very well and do a great job of adding to the overall atmosphere of the game.
The control of the game proves good and easy to work with, and while not one hundred percent accurate, did not really present any major problems for me while playing. The use of the D-Pad will get the controlled player (their outline flashes to denote this) to move around the rink in the corresponding direction easily enough. Once you understand the buttons for defending and attacking accordingly, youll thereafter find the game very easy to control. I just found that when trying to dispossess an opponent, youre supposed to charge at them and repeatedly tap the NES A button, though sometimes the move was either ineffective, or my player would just fall over! When defending, the B button is meant to switch control to the next nearest player, but sometimes Id also find the player I wanted to control would not highlight and another player would flash instead. Youre also never entirely certain of where a player will pass the puck, when Ive wanted to make a forward pass, Ive found my player to occasionally pass to the side or back to a defender or the goaltender.
For gameplay, Blades of Steel comes with a total of 8 teams to choose from based in the United States and Canada. These are Chicago, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Montreal, New York, Toronto and Vancouver. Youll find that theres no real apparent difference in the quality of the players or overall team from one to the next, just different strip colours as far as Im aware (though of course this was quite common in old-school sports games of the day). In the games Exhibition mode, its a simple one-on-one, three-period game between one player against the CPU (the player choosing both teams), or two players, controlling the team of their choice, against each other. The games only other mode is the Tournament mode that makes use of all 8 teams in the game by placing them into a knockout competition, with winners advancing from the quarter-finals in the semi-finals, then again into the final, the winner of that match winning the championship trophy and beating the game. I liked this mode and it proved good to spend a bit of time on, yet perhaps a league or ranking system would have also helped this.
Each game plays out over three periods, a period lasting 20 game minutes (about 5 real-life minutes) each. They move at a quick and smooth speed and there are few fouls or time-outs to be found, making for some frantic, end-to-end action. While the game timer ticks away at a fairly quick speed, Ive still found that a game can sometimes last quite a long while and Ive scored that many goals that Im out of reach well before the game has ended. It would have been welcome if there was a way to adjust the time limit for each period of the game to make it shorter, or longer, depending on the player. Scoring isnt too difficult to do; when within distance, a small arrow can be seen sliding along the goalline, and hitting the A button makes you shoot at that exact spot, so as long as its not too close to the goal frame or the goaltender on the line, you should soon be able to pull it off without much trouble.
The fighting part of the game is also quite entertaining; it sort of resembles one of those classic arcade-style fighters in which both guys have a health bar, and by pressing the buttons and holding a direction on the D-Pad, you can attack or defend a certain body part. It does, however, differ to real-life hockey in that whoever wins the brawl is unpunished and gets to take control of the puck when it switches back to the main gameplay mode, while the loser of the fight is taken out on a stretcher and has to wait for a couple of minutes before they can rejoin the game.
The games simple and very enjoyable gameplay style makes it a very good NES title for sports fans to pick up and play if they still enjoy these old-school games, therefore giving it a good deal of replay value. You also get three separate difficulty settings for the exhibitions and tournaments, so theres more replay value to be gained in trying to win the championship in each of the games difficulty settings (Junior, College and Pro).
The games challenge is done just about right, too. While there are three different settings, the overall difficulty is not too drastically different between each one, yet youll still get a good test of your playing skills the more you play and move onto the next setting. It really just comes down to having a good understanding of the control and the way the game plays. Other than sometimes having trouble selecting the player you want or passing the puck to a certain player, the basic stuff like passing, moving with the puck, scoring and defending, is easily learned. You may still concede a few goals in each game, but once youve got a degree of skill at Blades of Steel, you should be able to outscore your opponents quite comfortably.
Overall, Blades of Steel is an impressive game in both its playing style and presentation, and shows that Konami can make some of the best sport-sims on this classic 8-bit console that still holds up. Both this game, and Nintendos own 1986 NES title Ice Hockey, make essential parts of your NES library whether youre a fan of hockey or sports games in general. Id still consider BoS to be one of my favourite hockey games by virtue of its simple-yet-enjoyable gameplay style and the very nicely done presentation. Its still fun to revisit today, and I will recommend anyone who casually enjoys sports games to pick up a copy, or download it via the Virtual Console.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Blades of Steel (EU, 12/21/07)
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