NHL Hall of Fame goaltender and current member of the Canadian Parliament Ken Dryden once said that the golden age of any sport is when you are twelve years old. And so it was for me, in 1992 on my SEGA Genesis with EA's NHL Hockey. In that golden age, I learned the lessons that would help me defy my parents' constant insistence that "staying inside and playing games will get you nowhere." Eventually making a career out of it, this was my education. I played games of all genres and all types, but nothing excited me like a new EA Sports release.
Over the years, others have attempted to assail EA Sports' mountain perch. Recently, one company - Take Two Interactive - gained a foothold with their 2K line of sports titles. EA Sports responded with its nuclear deterrent: exclusivity. Suddenly, EA ceased to be a chosen favorite, and instead became a monopoly. For the NFL, NCAA Football and NASCAR, EA's lawyers ensured what their game designers no longer could: market supremacy. Take-Two responded by securing the MLBPA license, effectively spelling an end to EA's Major League Baseball series. This back and forth has inspired harsh feelings from fans of each sport, and created a kind of hysteria in the communities for non-exclusive sports, most notably the NBA and NHL. Conventional wisdom says that competition breeds success and innovation. Thus, a market without competition leads to stagnation and complacency. Within the 2006 line of games, the world got its first taste of several exclusive franchises.
Despite the cries of those who feared monopoly, EA remains good at what they do. At no point was this more apparent than E3 2005. A group of die-hard gamers and I met in one of the many Los Angeles pizza haunts to discuss our best games of the show. When the topic of sports titles came up, EA remained king. In one particularly memorable moment, while simultaneously cursing EA for its tactics, Madden NFL '06 was nominated for - and eventually co-won - best sports title, venom notwithstanding.
Similarly, EA's NHL offering, in my opinion, regained a position of prominence - a crown they had lost for a few years to Take-Two - with NHL '06. The latest title breaks out of a long slump arguably stretching back to last century and produces a fun, challenging and less exploitable representation of NHL hockey. At some points in history, the hockey titles were more popular than the league upon which they were based, but over the last several installments, this iconic status eroded. Making matters worse, earlier this year a temporary art gaffe on EA's official NHL website led media and fans to believe EA was about to ink another exclusivity deal. Hot on the heels of a mediocre 2005 version, one that was soundly beaten by Take-Two's hockey offering, the community was furious. Luckily for fans of the rival franchise, this was a mistake on EA's part, and no such deal exists.
The recent struggles and glimmers of resurgence with NHL '06 have been close to my heart. As a fan of the series, I have owned and played every single incarnation of this series. I began in 1992 on the SEGA Genesis and ultimately switched to the PC for the 1997 release. Over that period, I've seen the series evolve from a 2-D, top-down game played on blue ice, to a fully 3-D game with eerily life-like players and full franchise modes built in. Yet for me, it goes back to the words of Ken Dryden. Has the series truly been stuck in mediocrity, or did I simply enjoy the game that I discovered more than those that followed?
EA put Dryden's theory to the test this year. NHL '06 for the PlayStation 2 comes with NHL 1994 - to many, the crown jewel of the franchise - built in. This trip down memory lane excited many, but ultimately reminded me what I long suspected to be true. The games from your youth may be your favorites, but they are often best left in your youth. NHL 1994 is still an exciting title, but it also shows just how far technology and gaming have come over the last decade.