Since the NHL video game series inception back in 1991 with the original NHL Hockey, gamers and hockey fans alike haven't been able to get enough of the fast-paced, hard-hitting, skill-based sports game that we know today. The hockey games genre has been conquered by EA, with 31 installments in the NHL video game series since 1991.
While hockey video games date back all the way to 1979 with Hockey!/Soccer!, the genre has seen many notable installments such as Slap Shot by Sega and Blades of Steel by Konami. Even 2K produced some notable NHL games, such as NHL 2K11.
With so many iterations of the game, it can be hard to single out the best ones, however, some gamers are still playing some of the classics today. Nonetheless, we are dying to know just as much as you what NHL games make the top five of all time.
5. NHL 2011
NHL 2011 paved a new path for the series with NHL Ultimate Team. With games like FIFA and Madden already having an Ultimate Team mode, it was about time NHL had one. The NHL Ultimate Team or also known in short as HUT allowed players to build their very own team. Players would then face off against one another in online matches and climb the HUT ranks. This opened a whole new aspect to grinding NHL games and is a huge reason for the game's popularity today.
Mechanically, NHL 2011 revolutionized how we played the game today with its revolutionary physics-based game engine. This gave a more realistic and responsive feeling to the game and opened up what players could do on the ice. New features such as the hip-check would send players hurling over one another. Skill plays were more successful and easier pulled off using the right joystick in charge for stickhandling and dekeing. Goals could be scored not just in the offensive zone, but from all areas of the ice, prompting the signature goalie goal.
4. NHL Hitz (2003)
The game of hockey is generally viewed as a wildly fast-paced sport with bone-crushing collisions; NHL Hitz took that concept to the extreme. The arcade-style 3-on-3 hockey game had no rules, no penalties — just chaotic action-packed plays. Big hits would send players flying through the glass and into the stands, and the play wouldn't stop. Power-ups added to the intensity of scoring goals and players would even catch on fire when they were performing well. You could handle the puck and score goals with your goalie, and even the fighting was a mini-game in itself.
It takes an exaggerated approach to back and forth hockey, that never really lost its entertainment value. To this day, it's a staple in the NHL series, and holds some of the fondest NHL game memories for any hockey game fan. If I could, I would round up my ten best buds and have a night of endless fun and pure chaos provided by NHL Hitz.
3. NHL 2004
A big part of NHL 2004's success is credited to the improvements EA made to the “Dynasty” mode. It gave a more realistic feeling to becoming a GM and carrying your team to the Stanley Cup. This was also the first time that an NHL game had added a cutscene after winning the Stanley Cup. It's a replica of real-life Stanley Cup celebrations with players hoisting the cup and getting an iconic team photo. NHL 2004 created an atmosphere unlike any other game, and the music played a big role in this. The NHL 2004 soundtrack is widely viewed as the best soundtrack across all the games in the series.
All these features made NHL 2004 stand out and make a top three podium finish on this list. Another reason it stands out as one of the best is that there's still a community of PC gamers keeping the game alive. Modders have been updating the original game for PC just about every year since it came out. Back in 2016, it was reported that there was still a community of about 10,000 to 15,000 people playing NHL 2004 on PC. I think it's safe to say that, if the game can still be enjoyed 12 years after its release, then it goes down as one of the best hockey games of all time.
2. NHL 2014
NHL 2014 is widely regarded as the last good-running NHL game for a good list of reasons. The game implemented one-touch dekes, which were easier to execute and flashier when successfully done. It was also the first time the game implemented dynamic ratings, which based players' in-game ratings of real-world performance. The Be a GM & GM Connected modes were as advanced as they had ever been, offering players a mass amount of customization. The Live the Life mode also simulated events for your pro player off the ice. Media interviews, fan interactions, and endorsements offered a more dynamic role-playing experience in playing your career out.
A big part of the game's success is due to adding online seasons to HUT and EA SHL modes. This has now trickled to today where there are professional leagues and gamers for online NHL games. Gamers could also play NHL '94 with the NHL '94 Anniversary mode for the game's 20th anniversary. This gave lots of nostalgia to what many players regard as the best NHL game of all time. NHL 2014 really offered the most out of any game before it, and its success led it to win Best Sports Game at E3 in 2013.
1. NHL '94
Fans of the NHL series often debate that NHL 14 and NHL 2004 are the greatest hockey games of all time, surpassing NHL '94 for some. For me, it's an easy choice that NHL'94 takes the top podium spot. This is because NHL '94 isn't just viewed as one of the best hockey games of all time, but one of the best sports games of all time. Even back in 2005, IGN named it #47 in its list of top 100 games of all-time. That is to just mention one award from an impressively long list.
The added game modes and mechanics that made NHL '94 stand out in its time may be a little outdated today. Despite this, players never seem to lose their enjoyment. There is an undying love for this game with tons of communities that still hold events. It appears players just aren't ready for the game to die out yet, even 28 years after its release. I think NHL '94 is a perfect example that you don't need the fanciest graphics or craziest mechanics for players to fall in love with a game.
Do you agree? We want to hear your opinion in the comments below!