NHL 99

A reminder that N64 just isn’t the console for simulation sports.

Nintendo 64
Released in 1998 by EA Sports
Grade: C

I already reviewed the PS1 version of NHL 99, which is ugly as hell and really doesn’t stand the test of time. The N64 version looks more polished but suffers from the same gameplay flaws.

Where it falls in the series

It’s EA’s only NHL game on N64, which is odd since they released 97 through 2001 on PS1, and since other EA Sports titles have multiple N64 installments.

Praises and gripes

The general hockey ingredients aren’t bad. Skating, passing, and shooting feel about right, although slightly jumpy. Hitting guys to steal the puck isn’t as intuitive as it should be though.

The game logic is okay, with a big exception being that you can often skate up to the goalie but rarely score on your 1-on-1 opportunity. You’ll rely on one-timers to score.

I don’t know how video games are actually made, so I never know why games differ on different consoles, but there’s a tangible difference in gameplay between this and the PS1 version. The puck is more floaty, which is bad, but the camera is more steady, which is good. And of course the graphics look nicer, with more color and less graininess.

All in all, the gameplay just doesn’t have the raw excitement to make up for its lack of realism. Hockey nerds will find it unfulfilling. Casual gamers will find it boring.

Back in the day, if you you wanted a 5-on-5 hockey game for N64, this was your only decent option. Acclaim’s two Breakaway titles and Konami’s Blades of Steel title are all terrible. Midway’s arcade style 3-on-3 Wayne Gretzky series is probably the most fun you’ll have playing hockey on N64.

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NBA Hang Time

Nintendo 64
Released in 1997 by Midway
Grade: B+

If you can just accept that this game is the same as NBA Jam while also different from NBA Jam, it’s a fun time and one of the better sports games on N64.

Where it falls in the series

It’s a fun take on the original NBA Jam, which debuted in arcades in 1993 and was beloved on the 16-bit consoles in 1994. Hang Time was also on SNES, Genesis, and PS1, and those versions aren’t quite up to snuff with this N64 version.

A slew of arcade B-ball games followed with names like “Street” and “Hoopz” but changed the format significantly. There’s even a 5-on-5 game called NBA Jam for N64 and it’s nothing like the original and it stinks. The big comeback for genuine NBA Jam action was EA’s fantastic 2010 version, also titled simply NBA Jam.

Praises and gripes

To most people, this game is a lesser version of the original, and the control feels clunky by comparison. But after a few games, you’ll get theĀ hang of it pretty easily. It’s still ultra hyper 2-on-2 basketball action. The controls are still basic. The strategies are still straightforward.

To spice things up, there’s not just “He’s on fire!” but there’s also “team fire,” which you activate with “double dunks,” where you lob the ball mid-flight to your teammate who slams it. The double dunks are an interesting strategic wrinkle. A savvy gamer would use them to avoid a block more than any other reason.

Defense is a bigger part of the game. The court feels small, and the four players can pile up easier than you’d think. Defenders can rack up a lot of steals by tracking down their man and shoving relentlessly.

The graphics are what they are. The color balance is off and it’s dark, but it’s actually easier on 2017 eyes than most N64 games. The animations have a nice simplicity to them, and most of the dunks are awesome.

For solo gamer dorks like me, it’s a big drawback that the CPU is pretty easy to beat. That’s not the case with the original or the 2010 remake.

Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey ’98

Nintendo 64
Released in 1997 by Midway
Grade: C+

It’s fun and flowy arcade hockey, but it lacks depth and has some annoying quirks.

Where it falls in the series

The first Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey was a big part of N64’s early days, and this game is the sequel, followed by Olympic Hockey Nagano ’98. The three games are basically identical, so reviews of the original were mostly “It’s really fun!” and reviews of the next two were mostly “It’s trash!” Of the three, only Gretzky ’98 was ported to Playstation 1.

Praises

The speed and basic controls work well for the 3-on-3 arcade gameplay. Skating is fun and easy to do. Passing and shooting feel about right. Turbo gives you a quick superhuman speed burst, and in a wise design move, it takes a few moments for you to regain turbo once you use it.

The action is “flowy.” There’s room to skate around, but you usually need to pass a few times for a good scoring opportunity. AI defenders ignore fundamentals but are very active, which is good. The hits are devastating, but tracking down skaters isn’t a sure thing.

The graphics show their age, but at least it’s easy to tell what’s going on, and the camera moves smoothly. The sounds add a lot of fun and excitement to the mix.

You can switch to “simulation” mode, which only makes the goalies tougher, and you can play 4-on-4 or 5-on-5, but the bread and butter is certainly 3-on-3.

Gripes

Like many arcade style games, the gameplay will get repetitive and one-dimensional after a while.

Setting up the controls is a nightmare, because you can’t use the same button for offensive and defensive actions. For example, you can’t use the pass button for changing players on defense. You can’t use the shoot button to check. It’s like Midway ignored how the controls worked for years in sports games, even their own hockey game NHL Open Ice: 2-on-2 Challenge.

Even more vexing, the change player commands during gameplay are troublesome, because get this: You can choose “automatic” for changing players, which is annoying as hell, or you can choose “manual,” which is fine, except that you must manually change players on offense as well as defense! What were they thinking? And they didn’t fix this in the three games in the series? Come on, Midway!

The graphics are good enough, but the game has a darkened look to it that I never liked. The ice looks unusually gray, and the crowd is in darkness.

Madden 64

Nintendo 64
Released in 1997 by EA Sports
Grade: B-

This game strikes a nice balance: it’s easy to learn like its 16-bit predecessors, but it looks a lot more realistic.

Where it falls in the series

It’s an oddity for Madden because it lacks an NFL team license. You’ve got real players, but you’re stuck with just city names and jerseys that are all slightly different from the real thing. “Green Bay” looks just like the Packers, but with white pants. “Foxboro” looks like the Patriots but with red helmets.

It’s the first Madden on N64, followed by 99, 2000, 2001, and 2002, and it’s the first with 3-D polygon graphics. This came out three months after Madden NFL 98 on Playstation, which uses sprites.

Praises

It’s got the familiar simplicity of previous Madden games. Most of the controls are the same, and the new additions, like using shoulder buttons for stiff-arms, add depth without getting in the way.

Playcalling is the same as well, which is a good thing. The playbooks are robust and well balanced.

The key upgrade is in the offensive line play, which helps the run game significantly. Finding the holes and running through them is intuitive. The O-line also forms a decent pocket on pass plays.

Gripes

The passing logic is a bit clunky. It’s not fluid. Your receivers are often standing still when the pass gets to them.

Playing good defense can be difficult for the wrong reasons. You can feel slightly out of control trying to run down the ballcarrier. The N64’s loose joystick isn’t quite right for football.

The 3-D players are more defined (and were great for the time), but this actually makes certain movements look worse than they would in 16 bits. When your DB stops on a dime, turns, and sticks his hands up, he looks like a machine that you’d pay 25 cents to activate at a trashy carnival. Tackles look dumb sometimes too.

This is a good game, but you need serious N64 nostalgia to want to play it today. It’s not as realistic as later Maddens, and in my opinion, it’s far less charming than earlier Maddens.

NFL Blitz

Nintendo 64
Released in 1998 by Midway
Grade: B-

This is simplified 7-on-7 football at a fast pace with supercharged players on a small field with few rules, and ultimately shallow gameplay.

It’s known for big hits and late hits. Every play is followed by a few seconds of free time for late hits, which are fun the first few times and tiresome after that.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the original in a long series that stretches multiple consoles and lost its NFL license and then got it back, yet little about its gameplay changed along the way.

The N64 and arcade versions came out at the same time, then a PS1 port, and there were some basic “roster update” sequels. The jump to PS2 and Xbox came with similar Blitz gameplay but much better graphics (and one odd Blitz Pro release that couldn’t decide if it was sim or arcade) before EA took the NFL license for themselves. Midway kept their series going with Blitz: The League in 2005 and a sequel in 2008, which are notable for being purposefully distasteful while using fictional players and teams. In 2012, EA then made NFL Blitz 2012 as a download game for PS3 and Xbox 360, which was remarkably faithful to the 15-years-older original, except for the omission of late hits.

Praises

If you need to convince someone to play video football who doesn’t go for any type of learning curve, I guess this may do the trick.

The passing system is creative in its simplicity. Just point the stick in the general direction of the receiver and fire it. The QB moves around swiftly and can make a pass on the move, which makes things easy. Also, you can make a backward pass to a running back, who can then throw downfield just as well as a quarterback can.

In typical Midway fashion, there’s over-the-top sounds and player animations. Defenders can tackle from 10 yards away, receivers spring off the turf to make a high one-handed catch, and well-timed stiff-arms can knock defenders back like a bomb went off in their underpants.

The game moves fast between plays. You pick a play, and you’re instantly lined up ready to snap the ball.

Since the clock stops on every play, you can’t kill time to protect a lead at the end of a game, adding more of a possibility for last-minute comebacks.

The CPU can put up a good fight. This is the one key advantage this game has over the 2002, 2003, and 2012 versions, which are too easy to beat.

Gripes

It feels like winning in this game is more reliant on cheap, repetitive tricks than skill or strategy. Example: the best defensive tactic is to wait in center field with a superhuman DB and nail receivers long before they get the ball. I understand that pass interference penalties aren’t fun, but neither is trying to pass to receivers who have been cheaply knocked out of the play.

At times, the play moves so fast and the players are in such jumbled bunches that it’s hard to make sense of what’s going on. The graphics overall haven’t aged well.

The late hits are repetitive and pointless, and you can’t turn them off. They have no competitive impact on the game, so they’re just there for fun. I think they should have dialed it way back and made late hits fairly rare. EA’s 2012 Blitz came without late hits, and everyone said, “No late hits?! That was the whole purpose of the game!” Really? The purpose of the game was to push a button and watch the same few animations over and over again? Go play Streets of Rage or something.

Rushing plays are almost non-existent. To be fair, this could be considered a good thing too, since passing is generally more fun than rushing, even in a sim.

The beauty of football just isn’t in this game. Crafty scrambles and long bombs don’t give you that “Ahh” feeling like they should. The ball moves more like a bullet in a shoot ’em up than it does like a ball in a sport. One key to NBA Jam’s charm is that it still feels great to release a basketball shot and watch it drop through the net. Same goes for Midway’s NHL Hitz, which is arcadey but has a pleasing hockey feel. NFL Blitz feels like a different sport being played by machines on another planet.

Top teams

Blitz came out following the 1997 season and 1998 playoffs, ending with the Denver Broncos beating the Green Bay Packers for their first Super Bowl in team history.

I’ll defer to this fun article by Divac at The Schmozone on top teams in Blitz: Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Miami, and Kansas City.

After the 1998 season, it was Denver winning the Super Bowl again over the underdog Atlanta Falcons.