Classic Sports Video Game Review: NHL Breakaway 98 for N64

NHL Breakaway 98

Last night my girlfriend wanted me to help her wrap presents for my niece’s birthday and Mother’s Day this weekend. And by help she just wanted me to sit there and keep her company in the spare room where she keeps all the wrapping paper and other things needed to wrap presents.

Well in that spare room we also have a Nintendo 64 and a whole bunch of games I played growing up, so while she was wrapping I decided to fire up NHL Breakaway 98 and get a game in.

For those who don’t remember, NHL Breakaway was probably the third most popular NHL series on the N64, after the EA Sports NHL series and the Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey series. There was also a Blades of Steel game that came out the next year but it was mostly forgettable.

As you can see on the box art above, the game featured Coyotes legend Keith Tkachuk and featured quite a list of features for game made in 1997, including:

  • All 26 NHL teams! That’s right, there were only 26 teams back in 1997
  • Create-a-player!

And really that’s it. It had the standard game modes like Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, Shootout, etc., but that’s boring. And of course there are trades and stat-tracking things that were probably cool in 1997, but now just seem hilarious that it was once a big feature.

Anyways, so I fired this game up and in the spirit of the NHL Playoffs decided to play as the New York Rangers against the Ottawa Senators.

The first thing you notice is that the game, even by 1997 standards, is ugly as all heck. The players just look like unrecognizable blocks, and the only way to tell them apart is the number on the back of their jersey. Oddly, Acclaim, the maker of the NHL Breakaway series, had been lauded for how good its graphics were in its NFL Quarterback Club, and WWF games on N64. Apparently the NHL got the short shaft in the graphics department.

But as any big time gamer knows, graphics do not make the game, it’s all about the gameplay and how this baby plays once the action on the ice starts up for real.

Well, it’s a big mixed bag.

The first thing you’ll notice once you start to take control of players is that they actually skate and move pretty well and somewhat realistically for a game that’s approaching its 20th anniversary. Players start slow from a stop or turn and pick up more speed and momentum as they move ahead in a straight line.

It gets a bit unrealistic though, as the games best players, like Wayne Gretzky on the Rangers, feel like they are twice as fast as everyone else and can skate rings around the normal players.

Passing is meh, with A-Button controlling that, it seems to work well, but now and again there is a pass to nowhere or for some reason they think you were trying to send a pass through four guys up the middle of the ice and it ends up getting intercepted.

Shooting is a damn mess. You use the B-Button for all shots, and by all shots I mean slap shots, because there is no other shot type. Seriously, there is only slap shots. A tap of the B-Button for what you think will a wrist shot ends up being a little flip that usually gets knocked out of the air on the way to the net.

And then it feels like you have no aim and the puck just randomly goes in just so there’s scoring. My goalie gave one up from just inside the center-ice line and you could see it coming from a mile away.

You also have to hold the B-Button to wind up and build power, which let’s defenders come by and nail you with a check, or just take the puck and the play goes back the other way.

And all passes and shots move at a glacial pace. It’s really odd to control Gretzky and to fly up the ice, then to hit the pass button expecting a quick give-off…only for the game to slow way down so it feels like you lost your advantage on the rush.

And there are also penalties galore in this game. I played 5-minute periods just to get the game over quickly, and off the top of my head remember getting 13 minutes in penalties, including a fighting major.

Now if the blocky players and slow shot and pass physics didn’t make you feel like you weren’t part of the game, the arena noise, or lack of, will really take you out of the game.

Seriously, the game is so quiet that it distracts you from the game. The crowd makes almost no noise unless there’s a goal or fight, and even then it’s one second of roar, then back to nothing. The players make almost no noise except for the occasional grunt when they are checked, and if a shot hits the post it makes the most pathetic “clink” noise you’ve ever heard.

If you want to see all this in “action” here is a clip of the gameplay.

Now, this may not be completely fair to NHL Breakaway of 20 years ago, especially with how well done NHL games are now, but 20 years later this game has not aged well at all. IGN at the time gave it a 7.4 out of 10, which seems more than generous, in my opinion, but again, by 1997 technology this was probably pretty good.

If you’re feeling nostalgic and want to play an old NHL game with friends or just want a game to pick up and play for a half hour without worry about playing a full season, there are better options out there for that, like Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey.

NHL Breakaway isn’t bad, but it definitely isn’t good.

FINAL SCORE: 5 out of 10.

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