Very few hockey games were ever released for the NES, but those that were often had quite a following. Blades of Steel is no hockey simulator by any means, but it’s enjoyable for a quick round of arcade-style action.
If you’re looking for heavy realism, move on. Blades focuses on the action, and as a result simplifies everything. There’s no strategic choices of teams’ abilities or balancing of players needed. Different teams are just palette swaps, and every player on the ice is identical in skill and attributes. Management and planning are obsolete, coordination is impossible, complicated control schemes are nonexistent. Basically it’s you, on the ice, slapping a puck around.
If you just want to play some hockey, then this is a blessing. The game definitely tries to do the most it can to simplify the experience. Action is fast and requires no planning or formation or coaching. If you want more control and more strategy, this is a double-edged sword. For example, you cannot switch between players, but the computer always automatically moves you to the one closest to the puck. You have no moves to steal or check, instead you can knock a player down if you bump into him enough, or automatically steal the puck if you’re close to it when your opponent tries to shoot or pass. Intercepting the puck will happen instantly and without fail, if you’re able to move between it and its destination. The goalie will move on his own and hopefully put up a useful defense. It’s totally mindless, and something you’ll either appreciate or despise.
The game lasts for three, 20 minute periods, but the time at which the clock ticks down is greatly accelerated. A whole game of three periods will usually last about 30 minutes. There is the standard five on five setup, with you switching between your teammates depending on their proximity to the puck. Your active player flashes while the computer controls the rest. Don’t rely on them for much beyond moving the puck down the ice. This makes sense however, as any time you would shoot, you would be controlling the player with the puck. The opposing team’s AI is not brilliant, but fairly adequate. They’re not too great at defense however. Even at the highest difficulty, you can skate right up to the goalie and send one flying past him.
Rules of the game are very simplified, almost to the point that the game becomes another “dirty sport” such as Arch Rivals. Things like icing exist, but any personal fouls do not. If you run into a player, you will occasionally trip them but usually do nothing. If you run into a player repeatedly, you’ll start a fight. Fights in the game are absurd, and the view literally shifts to a side view of you and your opponent throwing off your gloves. You then must block and punch until someone falls. The game will then pick up the instant it left off, with the winner of the fight in control of the puck, and the loser left to be literally drug into the penalty box by the referee. Thankfully the game doesn’t get much more lawless than that, but it simply reminds you that this is an arcade game and NO simulation.
The graphics are fantastic, and fairly detailed for its time. The arena is filled with fans and marked with exit signs and stairs, a giant scoreboard is displayed between goals, and all of the regulation markings are on the ice as they should be. Players themselves are small, but sized properly for the arena. They are made up of only two colors, but always distinguishable from the other team.
Sound is a weak point of the game. The same electronic crackle that is used as static on a radio and waves on a beach is used as crowd noise here. Digitized voices are in the game, saying “Blades of Steel” at the title screen, “Face off” as the ref drops the puck, and something incoherent like “break the pass” basically every time you switch players. These voices are muffled, too low in volume to be properly understood, and really shouldn’t have been included in the first place. They add nothing to the game except to proudly show that they were able to do it in an age where voice in games was a rarity. The rest of the effects are standard fare and unmemorable, except for the few renditions of classic sports victory tunes each time a team scores. Those are actually quite good.
Control suffers from extreme oversimplification. Without the ability to switch players on your own, you are pretty much left to skating around the ice, bumping into opponents, and pressing a button to fire off a shot or pass. A small arrow in front of the goal assists you in lining up your shot, and displays exactly where the puck will go. This same arrow appears when you’re defending, so you know exactly where to stand. Purists will hate this feature, but it does fit the arcade theme. Strangely, when the opposing team gets close to your goal, you control both your active player AND the goalie at the same time. This keeps you in control of the safety of your goal without having to confuse who you are switching to, but prevents you from swooping in as another player to help the goalie out. Why the computer couldn’t just guard the goal is beyond me. There are no additional combinations for special moves, dives, or saves, you are just left with the very rudimentary buttons to play the game.
In fact that sums the game as whole up pretty well. It’s the basics of hockey and nothing more. If you’re looking for an arcade hockey game, this is one you might well enjoy. If you require something any deeper than that, then you will need to look elsewhere.
Hockey in pure arcade form.
Not enough content or variables (truly different teams, etc.) to keep prolonged interest.