Back before Wayne Gretzky exploded on the scene in 1979 to deke defenders into submission and spin-o-rama his way to a career highlighted by the most points in NHL history, hockey was brutal. Teams like Philadelphia’s Broad St. Bullies epitomized the rough and tumble style that fans came to love, and every team that had success in that era had at least a “goon” or two on the bench. It’s a mentality that has since all but left the NHL, but is still immortalized in old footage—and, now, a little arcade-style video game by the name of Old Time Hockey.
More than anything, Old Time Hockey is really a love-letter to the all-time classic comedy Slap Shot (which also focused on the brawling era of hockey). You control the Schuylkill Hinto Brews, one of ten teams in the Bush Hockey League. The Brews were primed for a great season—right up until the first regular season game when the Widowmakers went gunning for and subsequently injured the Brews’ three star forwards for the entire season. Wallowing in last place now, you take over the Brews just before Christmas when you get the news you have to make the playoffs. Otherwise, there’s a good chance the team will go under, alongside the nearby Hinto brewery from which they get their name.
The style of Old Time Hockey is as much a throwback as its premise. The game looks like it would fall more in line with the Wayne Gretzky arcade games on the N64 from 20 years ago than anything on the modern generation of consoles. The simple cel-shaded character models might be off-putting to some, but it served as a reminder to me of how things used to be, and worked well for a game that clearly wanted to go for a vintage look as much as possible. Simple blood effects splattering on the ice from every jaw-breaking fight and bone-crunching hip check only continues to emphasize the cartoony nature of the game.
The audio is great as well. I was almost tempted to just let the soundtrack play on repeat, with organ renditions of “The Addams Family Theme” and “Hava Nagila” really driving home the point of rundown local hockey arenas, along with Stompin’ Tom Collins’ “The Hockey Song” and The Donnybrooks’ “Old Time Hockey” setting the theme for when the puck finally drops. My only gripe came with the commentary, which becomes very repetitive very quickly, and lacks the charm or excitement a game like this would warrant from hockey fans.
Unfortunately, while Old Time Hockey has style in spades, it truly lacks any real substance, caused by a bevy of questionable decisions and poor design. In a rarity for any sports game—arcade or simulation—the bulk of the game is centered on the story mode, which ends up being both the greatest boon and biggest detriment for Old Time Hockey. Continuing the love affair it has with Slap Shot, as you progress through the story mode, you’ll get little peeks at the character of your team—with newspaper clippings talking about beating up a mall Santa, drinking on the team bus, and trading a washing machine for a new enforcer—which flesh out the narrative of what you hope will still be a Cinderella season. This was a ton of fun to see, and even collectible trading cards talking about the personalities of the stars in the league can be earned to further flesh out these fictional skaters.
Once you actually get onto the ice, however, everything quickly falls apart. The controls are alarmingly stiff, and even with an early patch quickening the time that you get the puck off your stick, it’s still extremely slow by the standards of anyone who has played recent hockey games. There’s always the excuse that it was more accurate for hockey back in the day, but it’s a lot less fun when one-timers are nigh impossible, you lose possession because it takes so long to pass that an opponent knocks the puck away, or you whiff on a slap shot attempt because the follow-through takes forever. And, the lack of responsiveness with the controls permeates the defensive side of the puck as well. Hits can be extremely difficult to line up, and even with being able to hook and trip opponents with the ref sparingly blowing a whistle, it still feels like you can’t skate quickly enough to ever effectively corral that ever-elusive loose puck.
Part of this might stem from the simple animation most players have. Every player shares the same set of animations, and once you start picking up the patterns, it’s easy to spam certain maneuvers in order to try to at least give yourself an advantage. A perfect example is the goaltenders, who can never be controlled by a human. They only have two passing animations, making it easy to predict where they’ll send the puck after making a save—which allows you to gather it before your opponent and get an unintended second-chance opportunity. It’s one of those moments where you appreciate how far games have come over the years, because even though “glitch goals” have never been completely eradicated even in modern hockey games, blatant gameplay tells like this are something I haven’t seen in decades, and would rather stay in the past.
Another aspect that had me scratching my head was the control scheme options. It’s great that Old Time Hockey offers an arcade-y two-button system, a more sim-heavy NHL game style scheme, and even a one-handed “beer mode” where everything is assigned to one side of the controller so you can drink with the other. The problem comes with the fact that you have to play story mode with the NHL-style system, and until you beat story mode, you can only play exhibition with the arcade or beer controls. It just seems pointless to have this content be separated by the mode you’re playing.
And, that leads me to the worst aspect of Old Time Hockey and its story mode: each game in that mode has objectives for you to overcome. A few are optional, but most are mandatory, and unless you beat every mandatory objective in a game, no matter whether you win or lose, you have to replay the game over and over again. Some of the objectives are easy, like get two hits with one of your players, or take eight slap shots over the course of game. Others can be infuriating, however, and you’ll often have to replay games repeatedly, forcibly increasing the length of playtime with little to no progress being made. The worst for me was trying to provoke the opposing goalie into a fight, particularly because—again, pointing back to the shoddy controls—it’s not as easy to score in Old Time Hockey as you would think.
Part of this also stems from the fact that basic hockey abilities like slap shots, hip checks, and even fighting at one point are all locked behind objectives and tutorials that you don’t get until later in the story. I thought the game was honestly broken when I started playing, when all I could do was pass and take wrist shots. It’s damned near impossible to win—and definitely not fun to play—when you have to grind for the most basic of abilities that any hockey player should be able to do.
The only thing more maddening than all this, though, is when it seems you’re finally going to overcome an objective—and then, the game crashes. Old Time Hockey crashes a lot; the day-one patch allayed this a little bit, because they frequently would happen off faceoffs, but as of writing this review they still happen in the middle of the action, like when taking a slap shot from the point or making an epic hip check in neutral ice. It’s absolutely soul crushing when you’ve finally achieved every objective, are winning the game, and are basically waiting for the clock to hit all zeroes when you get booted back to the PlayStation UI with an error number. Hopefully another patch can help the stability of the game, but right now it’s a nightmare waiting to happen.
Besides story mode, there is also a local versus option for Old Time Hockey, but it lacks and sort of online play. This could, again, be part of the throwback style, forcing you to experience the game with a friend on a couch, but I’m not sure I want to force my friends to experience this. Otherwise, they might not be my friends anymore.
Old Time Hockey was a great idea, but it has way too many shortcomings once you actually start playing the game to be enjoyed. It handles poorly, the story mode objectives are ridiculous, and the game crashes make the headaches far outweigh the little fun to be had here. If you really want to experience hockey from a bygone era, your time and money would be better spent watching Slap Shot again.
Old Time Hockey is more style than substance. Its heart was in the right place, but shoddy controls, glitches, and poor gameplay design make this an arcade-style game hockey fans just don’t need in their lives.
M - Mature
|Old Time Hockey is available on PS4, PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by V7 Entertainment for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Ray has extensive roots in geek culture, as he’s written about videogames, comics, and movies for such outlets as Newsday.com, ESPNNewYork.com, Classic Game Room on YouTube, Collider.com, Comicvine.com, and of course EGM. His main goal in life? To become king of all geek media, of course!