With highly conditioned athletes, strong defensive structures, and insanely talented forwards who can deflect 90 mph slap shots out of midair, the modern NHL is a high-speed, thrill-a-minute affair. But back in the ‘70s, hockey had a much different personality. During those glory years of the sport, enforcers settled team disputes with their fists on a nightly basis, players chain-smoked cigarettes between periods, and goaltenders wore fearsome masks eventually co-opted by iconic horror character Jason Voorhees. V7 Entertainment’s Old Time Hockey celebrates this bloody-knuckled era of the sport, tapping the sensibilities of cult classic film Slap Shot for an arcade experience that delivers laughs and hits in equal measure. But like the goons it glorifies, this game ultimately ends up in the sin bin thanks to questionable decision-making and rule-breaking.
If Old Time Hockey gets one thing right, it’s capturing the spirit of the era. Coaches walk the benches in polyester leisure suits while players with mullets and porn ‘staches race up the ice delivering slap shots, slashes, and body checks. The great menu music features classics like Stompin’ Tom Connors “The Hockey Song,” and the teams play in half-empty airplane hangar hockey rinks. Bench-clearing brawls are the rule, not the exception, and if you get a player angry enough he may try to tomahawk your agitator with his wooden stick.
Old Time Hockey offers two basic modes: exhibition versus that allows up to four players to face off in one-off competitions, and a story mode. The latter focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Schuykill Hinto Brews, a struggling minor league team that recently had three of its best players paralyzed in a wicked brawl with a rival team. You assume control of the team midseason, with the goal of lifting them out of the cellar and into the playoffs. Newspaper updates and text overlays during loading screens chronicle the mishaps of this gang of misfits, who drink and smoke during games, fistfight a mall Santa, and even trade the team’s beer cooler for a new goon.
I love the set-up of the story mode, but one of the most bone-headed decisions I’ve seen in modern sports games kills any hope of having a good time. For some stupid reason, basic skills are locked until the player completes force-fed tutorials, which are distributed intermittently throughout the season with no rhyme or reason. This means you can’t take a slap shot, check a player, slash/hook/poke-check on defense, or even deke until you complete these lessons. This leaves you at a severe disadvantage through most of the year, and the losses pile up.
Even once you tilt the ice in your favor by advancing through enough tutorials, winning isn’t enough. You must also complete primary objectives during each game that force you to play in certain ways. For instance, in one game you may have to score enough goals to get a goalie agitated, and then initiate a fight with him. Trying to complete secondary tasks like this while also trying to win can be a maddening affair; expect to replay several games to meet these goals regardless of difficulty level. It also doesn’t help that your leaky goaltender posts save percentages that routinely hover around the .500 mark. You might be better off using a garbage can as a netminder with stats like that.
As an arcade game, Old Time Hockey is all about laying out opponents with bone-jarring hits, slashing opponents to regain puck possession, and unleashing slap shots from dangerously close distances to beat the pad-stacking goalies. In a nod to arcade classics like NBA Jam, if you plaster enough opponents in a row your team becomes “on fire.” While this mode is activated, your shots become harder to stop and checks turn into clotheslines worthy of the Hanson Brothers. As heart-pumping as the action can be when you’re flying up and down the ice during these flurries, expect to smack your stick against the glass in frustration as well when a teammate decides to make a poorly timed line change during an odd-man rush, or a button press fails to register, costing you a great scoring opportunity. Goalies are also problematic beyond just being sieves. They handle pucks like they are using a broom, with their only passing option being dumping the puck on either side of the net. This becomes easy to exploit once you know where the puck is going.
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Given the myriad problems with the story mode, the best way to play Old Time Hockey is on the couch with your friends. The game offers retro and “beer mode” controls that let you simplify the inputs for a true arcade experience. Despite the aforementioned gameplay flaws, I had a lot of laughs racking up goals and dropping the gloves.
Regardless of which mode you play, expect to suffer through several crashes. I experienced more blue screens on the PS4 than any other game I’ve played this generation.
As a fan of retro sports and arcade games, I was rooting for Old Time Hockey to succeed. I love the ‘70s sensibilities, and the sports gaming scene needs more varied offerings. But the slew-footed story mode and ridiculous amount of crashes make this game a healthy scratch. If V7 Entertainment can stabilize the performance, the modest $12 price tag makes this a decent option for those looking for couch co-op options, but don’t expect much beyond pick-up games.