After Further Review: NHL Hitz Pro (PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube, 2003)

After Further Review: NHL Hitz Pro (PlayStation 2/Xbox/Gamecube, 2003)

After the releases of NFL Blitz 2003 and NHL Hitz 2003, Midway decided to change things up with their flagship arcade sports game series for the sixth console generation. While the earlier games had been fairly well-received, the decision was made to push Blitz and Hitz a bit closer to being simulations– but not so close that the pick-up-and-play arcade feel would be lost. Since Hitz developers Black Box Games had moved over to developing games for Electronic Arts, Midway tabbed Next Level Games to work on Hitz Pro… and the results were better than many fans could have hoped for.

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Next Level Games managed to carry over what was so loved about the earlier Hitz games while moving to a traditional 5-on-5 team structure and implementing a light version of hockey’s rule set. The action on the ice is as fast and action-packed here as it ever was in the first two games in the series; players can still be checked through the glass, one-timers are still extremely effective, and scoring opportunities are plentiful. Adding icing and some penalty calls don’t interfere with the action too much, but checking players without the puck too many times will attract attention from the referee and lead to penalties.

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Offense is improved in NHL Hitz Pro, with the additions of wraparound goals and deflections. These improvements reward players who stay close to the net, and are great ways to break through on a goaltender who has been stopping a lot of shots from distance. It’s tempting to load up slapshots and fire pucks at goaltenders, but goalie AI is a bit smarter here and more varied approaches to offense– especially in the harder difficulty settings– are important to execute.

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One notable difference from past Hitz games is the fighting engine. In NHL Hitz Pro, a random face button is selected for both combatants, and each must rapidly tap the respective button until a meter fills. The player that fills the meter scores a flurry of hits on the opponent, and the process begins again in another round. When a player wins three rounds, the fight ends. Both players go to the penalty box, but the team whose player won the fight is awarded a period of “on fire” time.

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These “on fire” states, as has always been the case in Midway’s arcade sports games, can make a team deadly. These states allow for unlimited use of Turbo, increase shot power and accuracy, and make hits on opposing players more punishing. They can lead to comebacks for teams that are losing by several goals, or they can lead to further separation for teams that are already out in front. Aside from winning a fight, drawing a penalty is another way to jump into an “on fire” state– which is enhanced by a short period of power play time. Having an extra player on the ice in NHL Hitz Pro is a serious advantage, especially for teams that know how to pass the puck well. Just like in real hockey, capitalizing on power plays is key to winning games here.

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Franchise Mode is the big attraction for solo NHL Hitz Pro players. It allows for a good deal of customization, from player names and faces to stats and equipment. Hero Equipment, which boosts player stats, can be earned in Franchise games by completing assigned tasks before the final horn sounds. There’s a nice variety in these tasks, and they often require players on secondary lines to achieve them. For example, one task challenges players to score three points with a left winger on the checking line; these players usually aren’t scorers, so strategy and skill are needed to pull off this goal and earn the piece of Hero Equipment at stake. There’s also skill by the player needed to carefully juggle lines for each faceoff. This isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does often encourage players to play all of their lines instead of the same two every game. Winning enough games with a team in Franchise Mode boosts that team into the NHL as an expansion, and that’s when the real competition begins as contests become harder to win against stronger opposition.

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Franchise Mode may be the highlight for solo players, but NHL Hitz Pro offers several other modes of play to maintain interest. For example, there’s a Season Mode, which allows players to step into the skates of their favorite NHL teams and play through a full season in Hitz fashion. This mode has fewer bells and whistles than the Franchise Mode, but is still fun to play through–especially for fans of particular teams. Full stats are kept for all teams, and there are enough features within the mode to make it moderately comparable to other NHL hockey games. For players looking for quick Hitz, without the depth of Season or Franchise play, there are also single games that can be played for knocking players around and netting a few goals.

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Next Level Games delivers a pretty solid visual package with NHL Hitz Pro. On the ice, action is fast and remarkably smooth, thanks to consistent framerate. Some of the player faces are a bit muddy, but this is passable given the technology and time period. There’s some decent animation, including wraparound shot routines, big hits, and goaltenders sprawling to make big saves. The PlayStation 2 version of the game has a few occasional stutters and bouts with slowdown, though this happens more during replays and not during in-game action.

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In the sound department, NHL Hitz Pro returns Tim Kitzrow to the booth to call its games. Kitzrow delivers his usual over-the-top commentary style here, with the only disappointment being that some of his lines are recycled commentary from past Hitz titles. Joining Kitzrow in the booth is Harry Tienowitz, a former goaltender. Tienowitz serves as the color commentator and analyst here; while his banter with Kitzrow in the pre-game is pretty funny, the rest of his work is rather unimpressive. This doesn’t take away from the quality of the game at all, but if Midway’s intention was to skew more toward simulation with Hitz Pro, then this aspect of the game falls a bit short. Aside from the commentary, the sound effects are well done and the music is decent. Midway licensed Kernkraft 400’s Zombie Nation for use in this game, and hearing it as the players hit the ice before games raises the intensity level just a little bit.

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The presentation in NHL Hitz Pro is bolstered by some relevant stat lines during stoppages in play and a replay system that can be user-controlled, if desired. The stat lines show some interesting notes, including how close a goaltender is to pitching a shutout to faceoff stats for both teams. Other hockey games from EA Sports and SEGA Sports don’t use stat lines as relevant as these. The replay system isn’t the smoothest, but being able to control the camera on automatic replays– as opposed to player-initiated replays– is a nice touch. There’s also an automatic replay of the biggest play of the game at the end of each contest. Within Franchise and Season play, stats for individual players, team leaders, and league leaders can be accessed to see who’s hot and who’s not.

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Overall, NHL Hitz Pro successfully straddles the line between arcade sports and simulation sports. 5-on-5 play is executed well, and other introductory aspects of hockey– fatigue monitoring, line changes, and a few penalty calls– make Hitz Pro into the interesting hybrid that it is. Personally, it’s my favorite game in the series, and one of my favorite sports video games for its generation. It’s a logical evolution from the purely arcade-focused experiences that NHL Hitz 20-02 and NHL Hitz 2003 delivered. Most importantly, NHL Hitz Pro is just fun to play for pretty much anyone.

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If you’re interested in picking up NHL Hitz Pro for yourself, pricing ranges anywhere from around $6 for a loose disc for the PlayStation 2 up to nearly $11 for a loose Gamecube disc. Complete-in-box copies usually run between $10 to $15, depending on the console that you’re interested in buying it for.

From The Ref’s Office: October 18th, 2016

Just a quick update as I am teaching in the morning:

I am thrilled to share that I did indeed purchase a Dreamcast while at RetroWorld Expo this past weekend. It was my main goal– I sold off some non-sports games from my collection and most of my NES manuals to get there, but I’m glad I did it. It was important for this project that I have a Dreamcast, because of its significance in the sports video game genre. It’s one thing to watch YouTube videos and go by memory, but it’s another to actually play the games myself and react to them with direct experience.

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A visit to Game Depot in Holyoke, MA landed me this treasure trove of Dreamcast goodies.

Once this month (Icetober) is completed– and, yes, the After Further Review piece on NHL Hitz Pro is still on target for this week– November will be a less of a themed month and more varied. Dreamcast-related content will be part of the plan. I don’t want to get into too much detail just yet, but I have a fair number of options in my head that I’ll be looking to flesh out. I’m still trying to track down a handful of games (most notably NBA Showtime and Virtua Tennis), but I have a couple of weeks to keep looking.

The above video shows what I got at Retroworld Expo over the weekend, as well as some thoughts on the show in general. There’s more than just sports games here, for what it’s worth.

That’s it from The Ref’s Office for now, but check back in here later this week for a look at NHL Hitz Pro— a game that deserves a lot more attention than it got during its heyday.

After Further Review: NHL Rock the Rink (PlayStation, 2000)

After Further Review: NHL Rock the Rink (PlayStation, 2000)

NHL Rock the Rink is an arcade-style hockey game that flew under the radar of many PlayStation owners in the early months of the year 2000. There was already an NHL game– NHL 2000— that EA Sports had released in late September of 1999 that was a really solid entry in the long-running series. There was also the issue of the game’s release timing, as it launched in late February of 2000, which threw a wrench in the game’s potential success. The decision to release a game like this with March Madness just around the corner and with Spring Training in full swing was odd. It was also complicated by the fact that this was EA, and not Midway, that was releasing an arcade sports game.

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Video game players who chose to skip out on NHL Rock the Rink missed out on a pretty neat game. It’s not a game that wins any awards for graphics, but it’s got fast end-to-end gameplay that keeps players on their toes until the game-winning goal is scored. It’s also got a sense of humor and the character designs are something of a callback to an earlier arcade sports game from EA: Mutant League Hockey.

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NHL Rock the Rink is unique in that each game lasts until a team scores a predetermined number of goals. The default number is seven, which makes for pretty snappy games, but setting the number higher can pad stats, help players to set new records for unlocking certain rewards, and make games a bit longer for players who think that the games are too short. There isn’t a clock in Rock the Rink, although there is a shot clock that forces teams to shoot more  instead of playing keep away with the puck. (PROTIP: The shot clock can be turned off in Settings, but this is not recommended.)

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Each team in Rock the Rink consists of two lines of three players apiece, as well as a goaltender. Drawing some influence from Nintendo’s Ice Hockey, these lines are populated by two different classes of players. Small and thin players are faster on the ice and often excel at setting up one-time shots or getting to loose pucks quickly. Large players are powerhouses with hard shots and harder checks, but are slower to move and not as nimble in terms of getting around or past defenders. Unlike Ice Hockey, however, players do not get to edit the player classes on each team; instead, players need to pick the teams that have the lines and player classes that they wish to use. These different classes and lines do add some strategy to the game; however, it’s possible to win games with most teams, regardless of players and lines. Skill often prevails over team and player selection.

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Once on the ice, the action is fast. Players careen up and down the ice, and there are plenty of opportunities for offense. One-timers are often deadly if they can be set up right, and special shots (triggered by the triangle button) are even more devastating. Tornado shots, flip shots, and more shots– similar to NHL Open Ice— can be pulled off. These special shots, however, require some time to execute. As a result, if a defensive player checks the shooter during the shot sequence, it can be an easy steal. On the defensive side, the triangle button serves as a big hit button. If a big check lands, it often lays out the other player via a punishing wrestling-type move. It’s a bit clumsy in its execution, but the result often is a steal or turnover that send defense into offense.

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Passing, shooting, scoring goals, and winning fights build up a team’s BONUS meter. When it fills, the team goes into a kind of “on fire” mode; players skate faster, hit and shoot harder, and shooting accuracy increases. The meter rapidly empties once BONUS mode starts, so it’s essential for teams to take advantage of the benefits quickly. Much like “on fire” states in NBA JAM and NHL Open Ice, if the opposing team scores, the BONUS ends and regular play resumes. Unlike Midway’s games, however, BONUS states often happen several times in the course of a game… for both teams.

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Rock the Rink‘s replay value is fueled by a couple of key areas. The first is the NHL Challenge, which pits the team of fictional characters that the player chooses against all of the NHL teams. As games are won, extra equipment– including skates, sticks, and gear– is unlocked to power up the team and make it more competitive against the big boys. The NHL Challenge has three tiers (Easy, Medium, and Hard) and the increased difficulty between each tier is definitely noticeable. From personal experience, I went from shutting out my opponents in the Easy tier to getting shut out myself after the first Medium game. That said, each difficulty is beatable with some practice, despite the increases.

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The second key to increased replay value is the significant amount of unlockables in the game. Electronic Arts has hidden lots of rewards in Rock the Rink, which can be unlocked after hitting certain milestones. Think of this as Achievements… before Achievements were a thing. It’s certainly a challenge to run all the way through the NHL Challenge, and it’s another to satisfy the requisites to unlock all of the game’s secrets. Completionists will sink plenty of extra time into this game to see everything it has to offer.

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Visually, Rock the Rink isn’t going to impress many players. The skater models are blocky, the character designs seem to be taken from Mutant League Hockey, but they didn’t quite make the trip as intended. There’s also the usual gripes about PlayStation graphics (inconsistent frame rate, pixelization, sharp edges) that make the cover of this book rather unappealing. On the plus side, more often than not, the sense of speed in the game is impressive. Rock the Rink hasn’t aged well in this department, but it still plays extremely well… and that’s what counts.

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In terms of sound, commentary is provided mostly by Don Taylor. Taylor went on to team with Jim Hughson in the booth for NHL 2002 and NHL 2003, and is best known for his (attempts at) humor. His lines in Rock The Rink are hit-or-miss. Some will make you chuckle, while others will make you roll your eyes. There’s also an intentionally hilarious PA announcer who chides teams for poor play and makes very random comments throughout the game. The music, for the most part, comes courtesy of the Hanson Brothers (of Slap Shot fame). It’s all about hockey and it all fits the game to a tee. The sound effects are the usual decently-sampled stuff that EA has used in the past, and they sound fine.

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Would I recommend NHL Rock the Rink today? Despite a few warts, I sure do recommend it. Since we live in a time where arcade sports titles are an afterthought and since Rock the Rink is pretty easy to pick up and play for just about anyone… it’s easy for me to recommend this. There’s plenty to do for solo players and fans of multiplayer alike, and it’s a perfect game to fire up between periods while you’re taking in a hockey game on TV. Don’t let the aged graphics turn you away; there’s a really good– and really fun– game underneath it all, and that is what’s important.

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Also… I don’t know of too many other games where you can do a leg drop on a goaltender after scoring on him. Surely that counts for something!

Buyer’s note: As of this writing, PriceCharting has a value of about $2.50USD for a loose disc and about $5 for a complete copy of NHL Rock the Rink.

From the Ref’s Office: October 14th, 2016

The weekend is finally here– and this is no ordinary weekend. It’s time for RetroWorld Expo, and I’m looking forward to being there. I’ve been looking forward to seeing my friends from Retroware, as well as getting the chance to meet some of my favorite video creators (including Pat The NES Punk, The Game Chasers, The Gaming Historian, Gamester81, Pixel Dan, and more).

I have my fingers crossed that I’ll be coming home from RetroWorld Expo with a Dreamcast. The console has a lot of great sports games, both arcade and sim, and I’d really like to cover them. I have put together a bunch of games from my collection to sell with the hope of getting enough cash to get a Dreamcast on site. I’ll also have my eyes open for other sports games at the event, as well as a few other things. From what I understand, I may also be doing a special video game challenge with Retroware at the show. Stay tuned to my personal Twitter feed for news on that.

“So, what’s up with the site?” Well…

Later on this morning, at about 11am EDT, a new After Further Review piece (on NHL Rock the Rink) will be going up before I do last-minute prep for my trip. I have one more After Further Review that I have on the schedule for next week (for NHL Hitz Pro), and I have one more In The Booth piece on NHL ’98 that I’d like to get done before the month is out. Hockey games will likely be on the agenda for the rest of October, followed by a focus on basketball for November… but this is subject to change and tinkering as I go, as always.

I had planned to write the Rock the Rink piece last week, but I started substitute teaching and free time was limited. It’s a bit of an adjustment going from playing games by day and writing by night to teaching by day and going to bed at a decent hour at night. I’m in the process of changing up my routine, and hope to be acclimated in another week or two.

Retro Referee content has begun expanding outside of this website. My first review for Sega Does went up a few weeks ago, and I’ll be submitting reviews of Genesis sports games there every so often when they come up on the chronological list. I think my next review there will be, and I’m looking forward to that. I have one other site that I’m looking to post retro sports game-related content to, but that’s still in the works.

As for Film Room videos, reaction was pretty positive to the NHL Open Ice video I filmed earlier this month. I’m still trying to decide whether I want to talk about the game a bit and then play a bit on camera, or just talk about the game and leave gameplay out. I definitely want to do more videos, so they’ll be coming… especially after I hammer out my daily and weekly routines a bit better. I’m strongly considering doing one for NBA HangTime next month.

That’s it from The Ref’s Office for now. I’m off to get some sleep before a day of packing and last-minute prep for this weekend’s big show. I hope you enjoy the NHL Rock the Rink review, and look for the NHL Hitz Pro review sometime next week. Icetober is in full effect!

 

In The Booth: FOX NHL Championship 2000 (PlayStation, 1999)

In The Booth: FOX NHL Championship 2000 (PlayStation, 1999)

The PlayStation– thanks to the CD-ROM format– really helped to push presentation in sports video games forward. More storage space on compact discs allowed for full-motion video, CD-quality music, and significant amounts of commentary. Ideas for TV-style presentations that were birthed during the 16-bit era were refined and expanded upon during the PlayStation generation.

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FOX NHL Championship 2000, developed by Radical Entertainment and published by FOX Interactive in 1999, is one of two hockey games for the PlayStation that stand out in terms of presentation. While this game generally flew under the radar (thanks to EA Sports and its NHL juggernaut), Radical Entertainment established some key presentation elements that made FOX NHL Championship 2000 feel remarkably close to a legitimate NHL on FOX broadcast.

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The menus are decorated with FOX Sports Net logos and broadcast graphics fonts. Each team is given a FOX ranking, based on skill and past season performance. When playing through a season, past game box scores can be reviewed– complete with stats. The NHL on FOX schedule looks similar to what would be seen during an FSN sports desk segment. While there isn’t any commentary for game recaps, the familiar (to some, anyway) NHL on FOX theme plays in the background. Unlike the NHL games from EA Sports, this broadcast package was purposefully similar to a real-life telecast.

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Once a game begins, the presentation really shines. As the camera pans the arena, Kenny Albert begins his duties as play-by-play man. Shortly thereafter, John Davidson joins him and breaks down the goaltender matchup. Each man delivers his lines to near-perfection, with genuine and appropriate levels of personality and emotion. Kenny Albert outshines Jim Hughson (who delivers play-by-play for the NHL games on the PlayStation from EA Sports), with a solid delivery and making use of some pretty funny lines of commentary at times. John Davidson, who provided some voice work and his likeness for full-motion video segments in NHL 97, has great chemistry with Kenny Albert and offers pretty good analysis at times.

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After the puck is dropped, FOX NHL Championship 2000 looks and sounds like a real broadcast. Relevant stat lines for key players are shown during stoppages in play, often accompanied by insight from the commentary team. Power plays are led off by a quick review of each team’s power play and penalty kill stats, either cumulatively for the season (on the first power play) or for the game being played (all successive power plays). Goals are followed by instant replays from two angles that show how the goal was scored, with analysis from John Davidson.

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While the commentary is delivered well, it’s not without a few flaws. Some lines can feel out of place or slightly after the action. It can also get a bit repetitive after playing through a few games, although this is a common occurrence with sports video games then and now. Unlike having real-time commentary, with people who can react to plays and use an almost infinite amount of words to describe them, scripted commentary is comprised of finite and limited lines of speech. The problem was more common in the early days of commentary– during the 16-bit SportsTalk era and during the PlayStation generation– but gradually improved as storage media expanded to store more data. Now, in 2016, Madden NFL 17 addresses this issue further with regular patches that add lines of commentary to the existing pool every week during the 2016-17 NFL campaign. That said, the commentary in this game was quite impressive for its time– and still impresses at times today.

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FOX NHL Championship 2000 is one of the early strong examples of how to best capitalize on a network partnership to deliver a quality presentation. While games like ESPN NFL 2K5 and NCAA Basketball 10 are considered better overall examples, thanks to key partnerships and licensing deals with ESPN and CBS Sports respectively, FOX NHL Championship 2000 set the bar pretty high 5-10 years before either of these titles arrived.

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It’s unfortunate that the game was generally ignored back in 1999, because few people remember and/or speak of it today. It’s understandable, as the underlying game engine is pretty average. The player models are rather blocky, and the action on the ice feels a bit floaty at times. Scoring seems a bit haphazard. These flaws don’t really make for a bad hockey game, unlike NHL Blades of Steel 2000, but there are reasons why it never won any end-of-year awards.

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There may be better overall hockey games on the PlayStation, but FOX NHL Championship 2000 is still an interesting piece of sports video game history that is worth the cheap asking price if you stumble across it. Otherwise, if you’re interested in seeing the game in action, check out these three videos to get an idea of why the presentation was so impressive 17 years ago.

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So… what’s the other PlayStation hockey game that delivers impressive presentation? Find out in the next installment of In The Booth.

The Film Room: NHL Open Ice (Arcade/PlayStation)

The Film Room: NHL Open Ice (Arcade/PlayStation)

After writing a bit about NHL Open Ice within this month’s 1st And 10 piece, I took some time to jump in front of the camera to talk about the game a bit more… but to also play a period, so that those of you who hadn’t heard of the game or hadn’t seen it in motion could get a feel for the kind of game that it is.

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It’s worth reiterating that the differences between the coin-op original and the PlayStation port are negligible. The graphics may be slightly degraded, there’s a bit less commentary from Pat Foley, and loading screens can slow the pace between periods a bit… but these are compromises worth making to get a very good version of the arcade game to play at home. Back in 1996, given the 32/64-bit hardware that we had, compromises were still largely unavoidable.

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It’s also a bit unfortunate that NHL Open Ice tends to fly a bit under the radar when considering Midway’s arcade sport game lineup. Some of this has to do with hockey being a less popular sport (in many countries) than basketball and American football… but some of it also may have to do with perhaps too many similarities between NHL Open Ice and NBA JAM. In the video, I argue that the similarities are actually a good thing– and I stand by that argument. The similarity makes Open Ice relatively easy to play for those who played JAM before, especially since the play controls are identical. Open Ice also has many features that people love in NBA JAM, such as having the opportunity to earn “on fire” status, over-the-top action, and lots of offense.

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I’m hoping that, by calling attention to NHL Open Ice, a few more people will seek it out or perhaps pull it out of their collections to play a few games. It probably doesn’t qualify as a hidden gem, but certainly makes a case for being a forgotten gem.

Convention Announcement: RetroWorld Expo 2016

RetroWorld Expo is a convention that revolves primarily around retro video games. It features guests and panels, arcade and console games to play, musical acts, vendors and shops selling video games, and more. This year’s event takes place over two days, October 15th and 16th, at the Toyota Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, CT.

Last year marked the debut of the event, and it was an absolute blast. I got to meet a lot of awesome people, I sold my loose NES instruction manuals, and I managed to buy some games for my collection that I really wanted. Sitting on the Retroware panel was a dream come true, and getting to meet YouTube personalities who inspired me to get in front of the camera myself every so often was unforgettable.

I’m very proud to once again be part of the team representing Retroware at RetroWorld Expo 2016. Our panel is just one of thirteen that have been scheduled across the two days of this year’s convention. Pat The NES Punk, John from Gamester 81, Daniel Pesina (of Mortal Kombat fame), and Josh Tsui (a video game industry veteran and former Midway employee who is putting together a fantastic documentary on Midway Games in the 1990s) will be joining returning guests, including The Game Chasers, The Gaming Historian, Pixel Dan, Eric “Goemon047” Lappe, Banjo Guy Ollie, James “Epic Game Music” Ronald, and a cast of others.

While at the Retroware booth, I’ll be selling some video games from my collection as well as a variety of NES, Super NES, SEGA Genesis, and Nintendo 64 instruction manuals. I’m hoping that the latter will help other collectors fill in missing pieces in their libraries. Since money is tight this year, I’m hoping to sell these items in order to buy some other things at the show. My fingers are crossed, since I’d really like to buy a Dreamcast and perhaps some of its sports games so that I can cover them here.

In addition, I’ll be giving away some loose sports video games to those who may want them. Unfortunately, older sports video games often get trashed or destroyed instead of played– and that’s a shame, since many of the games are still fun to play today (even if the rosters are outdated). One of the things that drove the Retro Referee idea was the desire to stimulate memories of and conversation about these sports games from years gone by. While I can write about them or talk about them on camera, another strong way to get people interested in them again is to put the games in their hands and let them play to remember.

Speaking of sports video games, NHL ’94 and NBA Jam tournaments will be going on during the first afternoon of the event. In addition, a WWF No Mercy tournament will be going on that evening. I’ll be stopping by the NHL ’94 tournament early on to scope out the competition. The Freeplay Arcade will have NFL Blitz 2000 and NBA Showtime available to play for fellow arcade sports game fans, and I’m counting on getting a couple of games of each in over the event’s two days. There’s also going to be a console gaming area to check out, though I’m not sure which games will be available to try.

I hope to see some of you at the show. The schedule is packed, there are more than 75 exhibitors to buy cool stuff from, and a ton of games to play. If you can’t make it, I’ll try to post some photos and maybe some video on my personal Twitter account, @PeteSkerritt.