At the time of this writing, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are getting underway. Truly one of the best times of the sporting year (especially if you have a team in the field and your team wasn’t hijacked and spirited away to North Carolina over 20 years ago), playoff hockey delivers an intensity unlike any other, and since we here at the J’ are all about some synergy or something, we figured this would be the perfect time to cover a title about the greatest game on ice, and the one we’re pulling off the bench today is 1996’s Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey for Nintendo 64. Why this version instead of the next year’s offering, Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98? The answer is very simple, this version allows you to play a full season as the Hartford Whalers, and ’98 does not, clearly making ’98 the far inferior version.
Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey is a port of an arcade game, and as such, the gameplay here is built more for those wanting some fast, hard-hitting, casual hockey action, although those wanting a more realistic approach to their hockey can also tweak things more to their liking. There are two game styles here: Arcade, which features a much shorter rink, three players per side (not counting goalies), and extreme extremeness like Power Shots that sizzle and literally catch the net on fire if they score, bone-crunching checks that leave the recipients on their backs a good distance away, and goalies that can transform into an actual brick wall if they’re on a hot streak. In fact, the goalies here are somewhat nerfed, as games here tend to be extremely high-scoring; the only way you’re getting a turgid 1-0 affair in this game is if you’re actively trying to make one happen.
On the flip side of the coin is Simulation Mode, which features a more regulation-size rink, the standard five players per side, and allows you to activate penalties such as tripping, hooking, cross-checking, and violations like offsides, icing, and the two-line pass. That said, even though Simulation Mode will resemble a normal hockey game a lot closer, there’s still a metric ton of scoring, and not a lot in the way of strategy; nobody’s going to be neutral zone trapping their way to a lot of wins here.
When you finally take to the ice, the action here is quite smooth and fluid. Players cover ground quite quickly, and on the arcade rink, they can zip around from one end of the ice to the other in just a few strides. Both A and Z shoot the puck on offense, tapping them fires off a zippy wrist shot, holding them down longer provides for a powerful slap shot. B passes, Left C checks when you’re on defense, and Down C activates a turbo boost that recharges after a short period of time.
One of the quirks of the controls here is that a lot of the more important moves you can pull off require button combos; pressing shoot and pass together activates a one-timer, where you pass the puck to a teammate who instantly snaps off a shot. Combining shoot and turbo fires a Power Shot, and in Arcade Mode, if you manage to launch one while between the faceoff circles, you have a chance of blasting a shot so hard it will knock the goalie into the net and on his ass in one of the most satisfying moments of victory I’ve seen in a sports game. You might notice that as you switch players, you might notice a bar at the top-left of the screen. That is the Aggression Meter, which basically shows you how frustrated a player is getting with rough checks and being hooked and obstructed, and when it fills up, it’s time to throw down.
Unfortunately, there is quite a large elephant in the room here, and it’s the graphics. This is not the most pleasant of games to look at, especially the player models. There aren’t any real difference in body types; everyone looks bulky and chunky, and the faces look like melting candle wax. That wouldn’t even be quite so bad, but the jerseys are another casualty of bad design, as they look almost nothing like actual jerseys, there’s no names on the back, all of them have the same font, and the logos on the front are especially grainy in some cases, especially for those teams with more elaborate logos (unlike the minimalistic joys of the Whalers’ insignia). Also, and while this isn’t the game’s fault, this being from the mid-to-late ’90s, it was a very dark time for NHL jersey design in general; that’s right, Islanders fans, this game comes from the era of the Gorton’s Fisherman logo! As for the camera, the default low side camera is perfectly acceptable, although if you choose, you can fiddle about with a number of different options, including one that seems to look directly down from the ceiling.
The sound, on the other hand, is way more refined than the visuals. Skates cut briskly through the ice, slap shots sound appropriately thwacky, and the sound of a flaming puck igniting the back of the net is fantastic. Familiar arena sounds like the organist playing little snippets and the emphatic goal horn are a delight, and the boisterous commentary in the background adds to the already frantic pace of the action. Hell, even the menu music here is enjoyable, so whoever was on the audio end of this operation deserves a medal and a cookie.
Now, if this, and Arcade Mode especially, sounds like the hockey equivalent of NBA Jam or NFL Blitz, well, it basically is, after all, this is a Midway product. The fast-paced action, the high scoring, the one-liners recited by the commentator, and whole presentation in general definitely has the Midway fingerprint all over it, and the best part is, that means the play-by-play is provided by Tim Kitzrow, the Voice of God. True to form, there are a boatload of codes and features to uncover, like a handful of secret teams to the always crowd-pleasing Big Head mode. The other upside to this formula is that the relatively simple controls and lack of detailed strategy mean that it’s perfect for intense multiplayer action, and while WG3D is certainly enjoyable as a single-player game, it really ratchets up to the next level with actual human competition.
Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey might not be the deepest hockey sim out there, and would even be outpaced by the superb NHL Breakaway series that was released not too long after this on N64, but it definitely cornered the market on arcade hockey action, and the pick-up-and-playability makes it a great candidate for wild multiplayer times. That’s not to say that the Simulation Mode isn’t a perfectly acceptable version of the great sport of hockey, but you can undoubtedly tell that this was built to be a sports game in the same vein of Jam and Blitz that just happened to have a more realistic element grafted onto it. I do recommend it if you’re looking for a looser, less restricted hockey title splashed with the Midway sauce, or if you’re like me and just want a game where you can play as the Hartford Whalers. Which you should. It might not be the most pleasing to the eye, but it’s still a lot of fun, just remember, HERE WE GO WHALERS HERE WE GO!
/waves Pucky the Whale towel
Fun, fast-paced, high scoring hockey excitement with the option to play a more serious form of the game. Has the Whalers.
Graphically clunky, especially with the player models, not very detailed for someone wanting a deep hockey sim.