Olympic Hockey Nagano '98 Review

Publisher - Midway
Developer - Atari Games
Platform - N64
Type - Sports
Score - 5/10

Midway had the first hockey game on the N64 with Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey, released late in 1996. While it was a decent game, Midway chose to update it for '98 principally with small cosmetic changes and updated player rosters, but negligible changes in gameplay. Olympic Hockey '98, Midway's third hockey game, is also their third game using the same engine.

The Winter Olympics this year in Nagano, Japan, give an enterprising video game company an opportunity to release a hockey game where the winners earn gold medals. The fact that NHL players were allowed to play for the first time this year adds player recognition to the mix, and it's not surprising that Midway jumped on the opportunity. Rather than the season and playoffs typical of most hockey games, Olympic Hockey allows you to play the qualification round and the Olympic medal round. The smaller tournament gives casual players a more realistic chance of actually playing through the entire game, but the smaller number of teams reduces a player's choices.

When you start the game, there are two obvious differences from the Wayne Gretzky games. First, the Olympic hockey rink is larger than the NHL rink, which makes the game initially slightly disorienting. Just as the NHL players had to adjust to the larger rink, the video game player will take a little while to get comfortable with the rink. Second, the game now lists player names below the players, so it's a little easier to tell who's who. The fact that names always appear on top, and so will obscure a player who is in front of the named player, is distracting, but the attempt to differentiate between players more is an improvement.

Aside from that, if you've played Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey or Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey '98, you've played Olympic Hockey. You have your choice of arcade or simulation modes. Arcade mode is 3 on 3 and has a smaller rink and is generally faster paced, in addition to being more over the top, with totally unrealistic body checks and goalies who literally turn into a wall. Simulation mode comes closer to realistic hockey, with 5 on 5 play on a regulation sized rink, but it continues to miss out on subtleties of the game like delayed calls.

I have to say that I think Midway missed a definite opportunity with Olympic Hockey. For many people, the major event at this year's Olympics was not the presence of NHL players, but rather that for the first time ever, women's hockey was a medal sport. Especially given the lackluster American men's performance and the dramatic victories of the women's team over the Canadian team, including the women's teams would have been a definite selling point. The fact that there are fewer men's teams implies to me that there's probably available space for it, but we aren't that lucky. NCAA basketball games on the Playstation now include the top women's teams, why shouldn't Olympic Hockey?

The graphics continue to be bland, with chunky players and a nondescript rink. I would think that Midway would at least consider spicing up the graphics a little with each new release, so even if it plays the same it doesn't look the same, but evidently Midway has decided that if they make it, it will sell, and they've made no particular effort to disguise the fact that it's the same game three times in a row.

The sound is still the same. The difference between Olympic Hockey and Gretzky '98 is that the "Robin Hood and his merry men" line from the original game has returned. It disappeared from Gretzky '98, but I guess you can't keep a good line down, or something.

The control still has that disconnected feeling, separating the player from the game. I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise. Amid all the games that now support the Rumble Pak, Olympic Hockey is still a holdout. Maybe a little rumble action would make those monster checks even cooler, but Midway seems not to care.

Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey was a decent game with room for improvement. Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey '98 was a little insulting, but Olympic Hockey '98 is offensive. Do they think we won't notice that it's just the same game with different uniforms? Fortunately, now we have a choice. If you're interested in hockey on the Nintendo 64, give up on Midway and give NHL Breakaway a try.