A frequent visitor to arcades in 1984, I wasn’t big into sports video games yet… save for Konami‘s Track & Field, a game that I only did well in because I had the weird ability to tap buttons at ridiculously rapid rates. I played some Bowling on my grandparents’ Atari 2600, and some of the Activision Decathlon, but my arcade time was spent between Track & Field, Dragon’s Lair, and Star Wars. There was, however, one sports arcade game that caught my attention…
Nestled next to the Trivial Pursuit arcade game was a one-on-one hockey game called Hat Trick. Unlike traditional hockey’s five-on-five setup and its set of rules that even fans sometimes don’t understand, Hat Trick was a much simpler one-on-one hockey game. There wasn’t any “icing”, or fighting, or penalties. Instead, Hat Trick pitted you against either a computer-controlled opponent or a human one, with the only objective being to score the most goals before the timer expired. After my first game, which I won in overtime, I was hooked… and I went on to save a token to play it again during each visit for the next few months.
Hat Trick‘s simplicity is simultaneously its strongest and weakest point.
It’s strong because anyone can play it, regardless of their hockey knowledge. There really isn’t any passing in the game, unless you count shooting the puck off of the boards to get it away from your opponent and then repossessing it, so there’s only one button for shooting the puck. The ice rink is also relatively small, so there’s lots of back and forth action to keep players into the game. Finally, the limited time on the clock for each game adds a real sense of urgency and tension. In a close game, players can elect to try and keep the puck away from their opponents, but one mistake and change of possession late can spell the difference between a win and going to a short and sudden-death overtime period.
The weakness comes from the fact that simplicity also limits the game’s substance. Aside from goal tallies and save counts, there aren’t any statistics kept and there isn’t any kind of high score leaderboard to shoot for. Playing against the computer enough will allow for noticing weaknesses in opposing goaltending; the computer often fails to cover the extreme left and right sides of the net, so shooting from a short distance with some momentum often leads to piling up goals in bunches. As a result, once the challenge is lost and CPU matches basically become automatic wins, the game loses its appeal. Of course, this is a game from 1984. Expecting top-notch AI is asking a bit too much. Playing the game against a friend (or stranger) is infinitely more fun because it’s less predictable.
It’s worth mentioning some of the nice audiovisual touches that the game has. When the two skaters bump each other on the ice, the crowd boos. When players score, a quick whistle in blown. The end of each game blasts a horn sound. The ice deteriorates during play, showing skate marks from end to end. The skaters animate pretty well, too. When a player scores, goal lights whirl and shine to verify each marker. Finally, after the game is over, a Zamboni takes to the ice to clean it up for the next matchup.
Clearly, Hat Trick is not the best arcade hockey game ever made. Blades of Steel, NHL Open Ice, and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey would come along to battle for that title. Still… it’s a game that has some charm, and it will always be a game that reminds me of seventh grade and my time in arcades during the weekends and the summertime.
Those are some great memories to have and hold onto.