Who’d have thunk it? Playing NHL Slapshot is full of thrills and spills in a way that you don’t expect a Wii game to be. There’s been a fair amount of buzz around EA’s arcade-y reboot, NBA Jam, and rightly so. But NHL Slapshot is just as much fun not only for kids, but for adults, too (especially if you grew up in the Northeast watching the Sabres, as I did). I know what you’re thinking: this is a Wii game. But bear with me.
First, there’s the peripheral with plastic handle and Nerf-like blade, all told about 18” in length. Within, it tightly holds the Wii remote and the Nunchuk. It’s totally a blast to use because it’s well-balanced. You’ll get some stickers to customize the stick as well. But it could be a bit of a pain to put together. Thankfully, there will be an online instruction video for nerds like me. And there’ll be tutorial/training videos regarding game play.
Right from the start, it was love at first puck. I began as a kid in the PeeWee league, playing on an ice rink out of doors, sometimes as the snow fell. I was full of the bright hope of making it to the NHL. Like most sports games, your claw your way up through the ranks in typical career mode fashion. Except it’s hilarious (and painful) to have a big, tough kid like Philadelphia Flyer defenseman Chris Pronger check you and knock you on your little boy butt. As you progress, you move through the Bantam and Junior leagues to the pros. More than 150 teams are included from the NHL, the AHL and CHL. You can create your own future star or play as the pint-sized version of Ilya Kovalchuk, Sidney Crosby or retired legend Wayne Gretzky.
If you don’t want to play as the fleet-footed center known as The Great One, you’ll still get the benefit of his expertise as a coach throughout your career – in real time via a feature called the Coach’s Clipboard. As you play, you’ll unlock power ups and boosts that will help you level up. I certainly wouldn’t play this way, but if you want to jump right in to the Stanley Cup Finals without playing any part of the season, you can. But watch out -- because you could get traded.
On offense and defense, using the stick is intuitive. On offense, you move your arm about a foot or so to do a wrist shot. And really swing hard from about shoulder height for a slapshot from the blue line (hence, the soft plastic blade). As I played, I felt that hitting a slapshot required a little too much effort, but maybe the developers want to make play fairly realistic. To pass the puck, you hit the ‘A’ button. On defense, you move the stick forward – hard -- and parallel to the ice (er, floor) to check. The ‘A’ button switches players so you can get closer to the puck. You can also pull off dekes and pokechecks. You move forward and around the ice with the Nunchuk’s stick. But if you’re lazy, don’t touch that Nunchuk. The game supposedly will deal with the skating for you.
I thought about this aspect for a while. Who would be so much of a couch potato that he wouldn’t have the energy to use the controls to skate? Maybe this aspect is a nod to little kids. Maybe it’s part of the trend in sports games to make them easier to play. Maybe the NHL play is on such a higher level that you have to concentrate more on shooting than on skating. Whatever it is, I’ll be using the Nunchuk stick to skate.
The game overall looks like it’s really immersive. Maybe because it reminded me of being a kid again, but the Peewee league, in which you play 3-on-3, is the most fun to play right off the bat. That’s not to say that the graphics look like, you know, the faces of a Mii in Wii Sports. They’re more real and more defined, closer to, say, a Norman Rockwell painting than the Owly graphic novel for kids. Plus, in this portion of the game, there are far fewer penalties, so the actual play is unfettered – and pretty wild.
You can play as a goalie in Shooter vs. Goalie, a minigame in which you can take on a friend. You can also take on three friends as a net minder, but you better practice hard in Shooter vs. Goalie before you even go there. Unfortunately, there’s no online play, but there are roster and schedule updates.
Overall, this is not just another Wii sports game for kids only. The graphics pop with 60 frames a second; you see reflections in the ice, along with ice spraying as you skate. Moreover, it’s fun to see your character grow and morph from a kid with cage-type helmet to an adult behemoth who puts fear in the eyes of opponents. And with a varied soundtrack that includes The Ramones, The Black Keys and Foxy Shazam, you’ll be tapping your toes as you skate. Too bad about the lack of online play, though.