NHL Rock The Rink

PlayStation 1
Released in 2000 by Electronic Arts
Grade: C

Amped up 3-on-3 hockey made by the company that perfected video game hockey? Sounds like a winner, but unfortunately this game is an ugly mess.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the one and only Rock The Rink. EA didn’t make another arcade hockey game until 3 on 3 NHL Arcade in 2009.

Praises and gripes

The engine seems lifted from NHL 99, but with easier, arcade-friendly skating. Passing and shooting are simple; you can do lightspeed one-timers with ease. There’s a shot clock, and your guy will fall down if you let it run out, which I like.

The problem: This game gets repetitive real fast. There’s a couple surefire ways of scoring, and a few straightforward ways of moving the puck up ice, and what happens in between isn’t very interesting.

You play games up to five. There are some superpowered shots and a stupid “Bonus” system that springs up a few times a game. The music and commentating are bad, like knifes-in-your-ears bad. The fights are awful too.

You have to start with cheesy made-up teams and acquire NHL teams after beating them. The teams are supposed to add humor but it’s hard to tell what they are with the choppy graphics.

I almost never judge a game based on these types of stylistic elements, but just trust me: you can’t look past something so obnoxiously bad.

The bland gameplay doesn’t make it all worth it, and it won’t be long before this game finds its place in the back of the closet.

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Madden NFL 99

PlayStation 1
Released in 1998 by EA Sports
Grade: C+

It may have been impressive in its time, but Madden 99 isn’t much fun to play today.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the third on PS1. The first two use sprites with a pseudo-3D look and have football logic similar to the 16-bit Madden games. Madden 99 looks and plays totally different, using 3D polygons and more realistic physics. It’s pretty funny to read old reviews and see how these junky graphics blew people away back then.

Praises and gripes

The football logic has its strengths and weaknesses. On the bright side, plays look natural as they unfold, with lineman clashing, receivers gaining momentum as they run up the field, and defenders realistically following their assignments.

Passing is troubled, however. Receivers are often standing still by the time the ball reaches them, and even the best QBs misfire often, like a team that’s always a bit out of sync. Certain routes that are designed for an easy 5-yard gain seem impossible, and you have a better chance of completing a 25-yard bomb.

Running the ball is a good challenge in finding open spaces, but the control is stiff and sticky on the PS1 D-pad. When you’re on defense, it’s even more frustrating, with sticky control and inconsistent collision detection. I started to feel surprised when I actually made a solid tackle.

The playbooks are balanced, but small by modern standards. Strategy adjustments before the snap are also limited.

The game packs too much frustration than it’s worth. To get good at it, you’ll start to exploit its quirks, instead of using a well-rounded football approach. It’s a step in the right direction, but a lackluster final product.

World Cup 98

PlayStation 1
Released in 1998 by EA Sports
Grade: C-

Despite EA’s knack for free-flowing gameplay and simple controls, this game is a chore to play.

Where it falls in the series

EA released FIFA 98: Road to the World Cup in November 1997, and then this, only four months later, which seems unnecessary. I read that this is only a minor improvement from FIFA 98, but luckily FIFA 99 is a huge step up for the series. The PS1 installments of FIFA go from 96 to 2005.

Praises and gripes

The controls feel sluggish. Players take an extra moment to kick or receive the ball, but not in a way that seems realistic. With graphics and physics this primitive, you may as well make the controls as responsive as possible so the game is easy to play. You can raise the game speed in the options, which improves the overall feel of the game but doesn’t fix the clumsy control.

The AI and soccer logic is fine, combining basic arcade gameplay with some sense of realism. A little yellow cursor shows you which teammate you’re pointing to before you pass, which helps you string together smart, safe passes. Goals come far more often than in real soccer, but they still feel well-earned through good passing and timely shooting.

This game seems like a step in the right direction for the FIFA series, but as a final product, it just feels off.

NBA Live 2001

PlayStation 1
Released in 2000 by EA Sports
Grade: C+

It’s another one of EA’s free-flowing basketball games offering lots of dunking at the cost of shallow strategy, slippery control, and spazzy AI.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the sixth of eight editions on PS1, and it coincides with the first editions on the next generation.

Praises and gripes

The logic favors offense. Speedy guards can get to the basket often, and big men can sink little jump-hooks consistently. The game does a nice job placing players in a different set-up on each possession, and there’s always some open space out there, so you can safely ignore playcalling duties.

On the flipside, defense is maddening. The control feels too loose to keep up, plus your idiot teammates guard the wrong guy much too often. (I thought they fixed that in NBA Live 2000, what the hell, EA?)

And those classic Live problems are here again: bad rebounding controls, a too-reliable headfake, and random fouls (and turning fouls off results in wonky gameplay). And despite a smoother framerate than its predecessors, certain movements are jumbled and indistinguishable.

I’ve reviewed the previous five Live games for PS1, and it seems like EA never improved certain gameplay aspects without messing up others. Instead of getting better and better, each version has a different combination of flaws.

MLB Pennant Race

PlayStation 1
Released in 1996 by Sony Computer Entertainment
Grade: C+

This game has a nice look and strikes a balance between simplicity and realism. If only it didn’t take forever to play nine innings.

Where it falls in the series

It’s Sony’s first baseball game in the MLB/MLB The Show series, and the first of eight on PS1.

Praises and gripes

It’s easy on the eyes. They didn’t go overboard with 3D models this early in the PS1 cycle, so you’ve got simple sprites in a 3D environment. The players move fluidly and the extra large baseball is easy to track.

To pitch, you select a pitch type, select a speed, move the cursor, and fire away. No meters or timing tricks.

Hitting is easy on the easy setting (imagine that) where you simply press X to swing. One setting up, you’ve got to move a circle over the ball, and there’s a little marker to help you see where it’s going, but it’s more distracting then helpful. What do you try to watch, the ball or the stupid marker? Moving the circle isn’t much fun on the old D-pad either.

The rest of the action is quick and crisp and simple to control. The default settings have fielders go after the ball and you just throw. It feels like there’s a realistic mix of liners, groundouts, pop-ups, fouls and home runs.

But the game really loses me with the wait times between batters. You stare at the hitter’s stats and wait for the boring announcer to say his name. Even between pitches, it takes an extra annoying millisecond for the interface to pop up. Nine innings is a time investment.

There’s a wacky arcade setting with physics-defying pitches and much faster wait times, but unfortunately you can’t speed up the game when playing simulation.

NHL Powerplay ’96

No wonder I’ve never heard of this one.

PlayStation 1
Released in 1996 by Virgin Interactive
Grade: F

In my psychotic quest for old sports video games, I end up discovering a lot of games I didn’t know existed (or maybe forgot). This one took me by surprise, because I was pretty hockey-obsessed in 1996. How’d I miss it? Well, it didn’t take long to find out.

Where it falls in the series

It’s by itself, on PS1 and Sega Saturn. In one of those “sad but true” video game anecdotes, it was made available in Japan in 1997 with 96 in the title. Smh.

Gripes

The puck drops and immediately the camera is moving every which way. The camera has a mind of its own. It doesn’t just shake, it doesn’t just sway, it does it all. It’s doing interpretive dance, trembling and dipping and bumping and spinning. It’s like “The Blair Witch Project,” another nonsensical thing from the 90s, except it’s not artsy or suspenseful.

The game offers a standard set of options, but sadly, an alternate camera view is not one of them.

On top of that, skating feels sluggish. Players don’t pick up the puck easily; you can skate right over it. At least there’s plenty happening out there, and passing and shooting feel somewhat responsive. But the hockey logic is poor. The first goal I scored was actually knocked in by the other team.

I’m almost glad the action has obvious flaws, because I didn’t want to end up playing this so long that the crazy camera gave me a seizure.

I don’t know what they were thinking. I’ve seen some shoddy camerawork in video games. This takes the cake.

NHL Breakaway ’98

PlayStation 1
Released in 1997 by Acclaim Sports
Grade: F

It doesn’t get much worse than this.

Where it falls in the series

It’s the first and only for PS1, but the poor N64 had a 99 followup as well.

Gripes

Hockey seems like the easiest sport to make into a video game. The NES had Blades of Steel and Ice Hockey, which are both beloved, and EA whipped up a simple formula for frozen fun in 16 bits on their first try. How does a hockey game be this bad in 1997?

Skating is totally out of control with no basis in reality. Your player can slip across the width of the rink just by accident, as if he’s wearing vaseline-coated socks, not ice skates. Passes go to nobody, and shots feel weak. My strategy became drifting into the offensive zone and trying not to press the D-pad in any direction lest I go zooming into the boards, waiting for a teammate to skate across from me, then pass for a one-timer shot.

The graphics are ugly, with a dark rink and alien players with squarish heads. Penalties are random. The buttons are mapped oddly: pass is X and switch player is R1 with no way of changing one but not the other. Even the fights are terrible.

Skip it.