When it debuted in 1996, the original Gretzky Hockey was a pure, unadulterated blast. Not only was it the first team sports game for the N64, it was also the first game to allow four players to compete at once. Not surprisingly, all hope of productive work around Nintendo Power Source went on ice as the resident Web wizards piled in for plenty of two-on-two arcade matches.
Like its esteemed predecessor, Gretzky '98 delivers plenty of puck fun for hockey purists and action freaks alike. Wisely, Midway has made no major changes in a winning formula. Instead, it has fine-tuned the game with lots of subtle enhancements, mostly in season mode.
Rosters in five-player simulations have 17 players, up from 11, including two goalies for each team. You can also choose three- or four-player lines (misleadingly called 'Team Size' on the menu). A line is the total number of players on the ice at once time, excluding the goalie. If you turn on the all-new fatigue option, you'll want to swap lines regularly. There's a new injury option, too.
In season mode, the Pak tracks league leaders and team leaders in goals, assists and points. Stats are maintained for both the current game and the entire season. When a goal is scored, Gretzky '98 posts the scorer and the player who assisted. This new feature helps you keep tabs on your best offensive producers.
Gretzky '98 grades players on four qualities: speed, shooting, strength and defense. Aspiring general managers can wheel-and-deal players, but there are no create-a-player or salary-cap options. Pictures are provided for most players. Conspiracy theorists wondering about that unpictured Buffalo Sabre left-winger named Satan should know that he's actually a Slovakian national with the first name of Miroslav. His last name is pronounced Say-TAHN.
Stats are based on the '96-'97 season, but rosters reflect changes since then. For example, you'll find Mark Messier captaining the Vancouver Canucks. Logos have also been updated and the Hartford Whalers now do business as the Carolina Hurricanes.
The energetic announcer remains, but Midway mercifully banished some of his more annoying comments. You can discretely adjust the volume of Gretzky '98's four audio tracks: music, sound effects, announcer and crowd. Midway retained the fun animations, including a blaring ambulance when a player gets power-checked and a goal that bursts into flames from a scorching shot. New goalie animations have been added.
Game play is virtually identical to that of Gretzky '97, although Midway says that artificial intelligence has been enhanced for both arcade and sim modes and across all difficulty levels. CPU-controlled players respond more intelligently to the puck and rush to good positions, while goalies permit fewer cheap goals. You can shoot, pass, steal and check. Hook and trip are particularly nasty defensive tactics when you're playing with penalties off. A tap of the Bottom C button gives your player a speedy Turbo boost, but you'll have to wait a few seconds before engaging it again. Pressing A and B simultaneously while on offense initiates a quick pass and shoot, or "one-timer."
Gretzky '98 sports a valuable practice option, including offense (three to five players vs. one goalie), defense (one goalie and one defensive player vs. three to five rivals) and shooting (one player vs. a goalie). However, the puck-centricity of Gretzky '98's seven camera angles means that, even in practice mode, the player you control will often slip off-screen.
Gretzky '98's comprehensive menu gives you fighting and penalty options. You can manually rotate lines and switch the player you're controlling or let the CPU do either or both jobs for you. Sim mode offers two game speeds and five difficultly levels. Periods range from 5 to 20 minutes.
Even if you're not a particularly rabid hockey fan, the sport's speed makes it ideal for arcade action. And sure enough, Gretzky '98's arcade mode sizzles. You have almost all the same options you have for sim mode, although lines are limited to three players and teams are limited to 11 players. Periods range from 90 seconds to 3 minutes. Penalties are not enforced, so be ready to stick or else you'll be a stickee!