For Throwback Thursday this week, I'm going to discuss a video game...a sports video game at that. Sports games for the most part get the short shrift nowadays even though they still sell millions upon millions of copies every year. People complain about the lack of innovation and/or competing products (EA locked up the NFL, FIFA, and NHL licenses long ago, essentially stopping competitors like 2K and Konami from making games with "real" players), but those complaints don't appear to curtail sales in any way.

Now, there were some pretty good hockey games released for the NES. There was Nintendo's own "Ice Hockey" and Konami's "Blades of Steel." Both of those games were fun, acadey experiences. Nothing wrong with that, but I also wanted the simulation and statistical options that a lot of the computer sports titles (more baseball than hockey, really) offered. There were just no games that offered a hybrid of twitchy arcade action and a deep, simulation-styled experience.

That's were EA's first foray into making a hockey game comes into the picture. "NHL Hockey" was released in August of 1991 for the Sega Genesis. The pictures and ads for this game that were continually popping up in the gaming magazines of that era (EGM, GamePro, etc.)tantalized me for months. I was, quite literally, champing at the bit for this title to be released. My buddy Scott mocked me as I wistfully stared at the glossy ads, but he was no better as he would gush over the gaudy screenshots for the latest and greatest Japanese shooters and action games.

"NHL Hockey" was developed by Park Place Productions, which was at that time North America's largest independent video game development company. "NHL Hockey" is the first game to include the "EA Sports" logo, which is now, of course, a massive brand. The game uses a vertical top-down view, which was unique at the time since most previous hockey games used a horizontal or side-on view. The implementation of this top-down view was key because it really gave you a sense of speed (and which players were just flat out better skaters than the others) as your team rushed along the virtual ice. It also featured a National Hockey League license, so all of the league's team names and logos are used. However, lack of a license from the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) resulted in all the players being referred to by their numbers rather than their names...kind of bummer, but you could pretty easily figure out who was who on your favorite teams without too much effort.

I fondly recall that muggy August night when I bought the game at Babbage's (remember those stores?) in the mall then rushed home to play it. My parents were away at the Jersey shore, so I had the house to myself. A small party (about 10 people or so) greeted me upon return from the mall. My cousin, Katie, and her friend Maria (who was my girlfriend at the time) and a few others in our shared circle of friends were awaiting my return with beer and food aplenty. The rest of the night was spent quaffing down canned Budweiser (oh, we knew how to party alright...) while gathered around the TV in my basement trying to master the controls of this game, which were tricky at first because there wasn't really anything like it in terms of the ice perspective and button/layout scheme. I think between all of who took turns playing we scored three or four actual goals over the next few hours. It didn't matter...we were having way too good of a time to notice or care.

When September rolled around and it was time for me to return to college at good old Indiana University of Pennsylvania, my Genesis and games came with me. "NHL Hockey" became a great ice breaker (no pun intended) and a major part of my dorm's social activities as I set up a virtual league where anyone who wanted in paid a $5 fee to pick a team (I picked the Montreal Canadiens because #18 Denis Savard was an ice devouring beast in that game), play in a 25 game schedule of my devising, and the pot went to the overall winner of said league. I must say that "NHL Hockey" really bought the third floor of Gordon Hall together that year. I made friends from that time I still have to this very day. Hell, I even still have the notebook where I kept all the scores and stats from that league. So, if anyone ever tells you that playing video games is an isolated activity that is reserved only for cellar-dwelling miscreants, you can relate my story of how a simple, sports video game brought a whole dormitory floor together for the better part of 1992.

The EA NHL games still exist today, of course. "NHL 15" was released about a month ago to a loud round of new complaints about crippling/non-existent features and assorted bugs. These new games contain graphics, options, customization, and stat tracking that would have blown my mind in 1991, so I'm not sure what the grumbles are all about. Realistically, I was blown away by the simple fact that you could change/customize scoring lines and that all the teams had both home and away jerseys in 1991. Funny how times change, right?

I haven't picked up "NHL 15" yet. I probably will at some point. It's inevitable. I've been faithfully buying these damn games every year since August of 1991. It's become a habit I guess you could say, and I think I know why: because every time I buy a new version of EA's NHL series and take it home to fire it up I am, just for a fleeting moment, transported back to that steamy August night many moons ago, where I was surrounded by friends, laughter, and the overwhelming impression that all of this would never, ever end.

So, if I have to shell out $60 to the EA Corporate Masters every year to feel that way for a few, brief moments...then so be it. You've got me, EA, what can I say?