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Never-ending season: Twenty years later, NHL 94 lives on

Xav de Matos, @Xav

In an era where releasing classic games across a multitude of digital platforms is the norm, EA's sports titles have been left behind. One beloved game left to collect dust within EA's retro catalog is NHL 94, this year celebrating its 20th anniversary.

After securing licensing agreements with the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association, NHL 94 became the first game in the series to feature official team names and logos along with authentic team rosters.

Fans today still recall some of the game's more infamous quirks, like the game's devastating one-timer and cheap wraparounds. Mention the Chicago Blackhawks in any conversation about the game and fans immediately remember the overpowered squad, recalling the hatred that boiled in their veins when friends would attempt to pick the team during late-night matches.

"Everybody that played [NHL 94] has memories of sitting on a couch somewhere, playing that game. For me, it was in my dorm room in university playing against my roommates to see who would do the dishes or who would have to clean the bathroom. Everyone has different memories associated with that game and I think that's what has carried it through time," NHL 14 producer Sean Ramjagsingh told Joystiq.

"It was the first time that people felt that hockey was represented properly in a video game."

NHL 94 has faded into a distant, pleasant memory for most, but for one community, the retro classic still lives on and new memories are being formed every day.

The Classic Line-up

Since 2005, the community at have organized and executed seasons of its favorite sports title with a little help from the nefarious world of emulation. Each year is split into two 40-game seasons, where players take control of their favorite teams and compete for bragging rights across multiple skill-based leagues of up to 12 teams.

"It just comes down to the gameplay. It's deceptively simple," NHL 94 Online Genesis league admin Raphael Frydman said, referencing NHL 94's staying power. "It's the pure fun of the game, I think, that keeps people around."

"We have people from 15-years-old to 40-years-old playing this game," he said.

Frydman, a 34-year-old consulting firm employee and lifelong New York Rangers supporter, noted the NHL 94 Online community has grown to its highest number of "coaches" (individual players) over the last few seasons. Last fall, over 90 coaches registered for the 40 game season. Once leagues are filled out, remaining registrants are placed on a waiting list and act as replacements if another player neglects his or her season.

NHL 94 Online site admin and web designer John Glass thinks fans cling to the classic title because something was lost in translation throughout the evolution of EA's NHL series. What once was built as a fun, over-the-top experience has evolved into a simulation-focused franchise. For retro fans, modern iterations have lost the charm.

"Anyone can play [NHL 94] and have fun, whereas now the games are more stat oriented. It's closer to the real feel of things and I think there's somewhat of a disconnect to a newcomer," Glass said.

EA's Ramjagsingh agreed that "maybe a little bit" of the original flavor has been lost as the NHL series has advanced into a more authentic, and still acclaimed, franchise. EA hopes the inclusion of the newly-announced 'NHL 94 Anniversary Mode' will help balance desired gameplay styles of old and new players alike.

"When we started playing NHL 94 Anniversary Mode [internally at EA Canada], I guess just the nature of the mode itself makes you forget about who has the puck and the strategy and the formation. All those things. You just get back to old-fashioned button controls and it's just straight fun-factor."

"You forget about all those details that are extremely important in the more authentic version of the game – NHL 14 for example – those things all matter. With the '94 Anniversary Mode,' it's just about pick-up and play and social competition with your buddies," Ramjagsingh added.

Neverending season Twenty years later, NHL 94 lives on
On Fresh Ice

Players have a number of options when registering for seasons at NHL 94 Online. Leagues are split by skill level and desired console, but the community also offers leagues for the classic, untouched version of the game or updated ROMs. Updated versions [pictured above] include current NHL teams, updated rosters, and bug fixes. Though the game has been in the wild for two decades, players are still learning new things about EA's 1993 release.

Michael Capewell, a 32-year-old software engineer from Ottawa, discovered a bug hidden in the Sega Genesis version that miscalculated player weight. In the SNES version, a larger player would devastate a smaller opponent with a body check; in the Genesis version, smaller players would overpower larger ones as a byproduct of a mathematical error within the code.

"We know where in the ROM the players are stored and we also know their attributes – one of their attributes is their weight," Capewell, who organizes his own NHL 94 league, explained. Using tools to read how the ROM and RAM accesses information in the game, he was able to discover the Genesis version would subtract the larger player's weight attribute from the smaller player's stat to determine collisions. "It should have subtracted it the other way around," Capewell said. This miscalculation led to a bug that turned smaller and faster players into behemoths in the Genesis version of the game, a bug Capewell discovered a few years ago and something embedded deep within the Genesis code since it launched in 1993.

In his time modifying the NHL 94 ROM, Capewell has discovered and corrected the weight bug, incorporated a player's checking rating into his chance of making a successful check, added detailed body check statistics, added a plus-minus statistic, and improved the endgame 'Three Stars' list algorithm.

Frydman revealed that updates go even further. A specialty league was established that conducts a player draft prior to the season, where coaches can handpick their NHL squad from the 1993-1994 roster. Once a draft is completed, one of the community's modders builds a new version of the game that features the newly-determined roster.

"The top players usually come out and play in that particular league. It's a really tough league to win. We had guys from everywhere. Guys from Finland who basically ran the league for a few years and are playing it in, there's people in Canada and of course the United States," Frydman added.

Part of what draws players to the league year-after-year is the deluge of information modders are able to extract from each game to populate detailed stat charts for users to examine. For sports fans, stats are the lifeblood of game analysis and the community's tools are impressive in this regard.

"Over the years people have reverse engineered the ROMs, pretty much, and we've been able to extract stats from the save states," John Glass, a 31-year-old engineer and avid Calgary Flames fan, explained. "You're able to upload [the save state] to the site and you can have player stats, coach stats, team stats and things like that pulled out. Every year, someone is finding new things hidden in the ROM and we're able to use that." Extracting the stats from saves, Glass said, is something the website now does automatically thanks to tools developed by modders.

"When something new is found, it's like playing a new game."

Legal Face-off

Despite their passion, communities that offer online leagues of classic games using ROM image files and emulators find themselves on the wrong side of the law – a legal issue clouded by many myths, attorney Mark Methenitis told Joystiq.

"The common myth that it's legal to download a ROM of a cartridge you own is popular, but it's still a myth. It is infringement to distribute ROMs and download other people's ROMs. You get into a much murkier area if you're making your own ROMs from cartridges you have; there is an express provision to be able to backup software for disaster recovery. It's not clear whether that also means you can use the backups to format-shift the game," the Law of the Game writer said.

"We haven't had any crossings with EA Sports about legal issues," John Glass told Joystiq. "I would assume they wouldn't bother us. The community, I think, is good for them."

NHL 14 producer Sean Ramjagsingh said EA is aware of the NHL 94 Online community, adding, "I get messages from some of the people in that league all the time."

"I love the passion of our fans. I think we have one of the most loyal fan bases out there, but as someone who works in the video game industry it's tough for me to condone something like ROMs."

When initially contacted, the NHL 94 Online community was hesitant to speak with Joystiq, Raphael Frydman revealed. "There's been discussions about it, in particular if we're going to do an interview with Joystiq and get featured, are we going to get too big and EA is going to come breathing down our necks?"

"It's a concern," he said, "but I think at the end of the day we're not making any money on this. As a user base, we're not large enough to gain the interest of EA or even Sega and Nintendo to shut us down. If anything I think it would be bad press for EA to come in and shut down the NHL 94 website. It's not totally out of the realm of possibility, but it's not something we can worry about too much."

While EA does not support the methods used to facilitate the operations of the NHL 94 Online community, Sean Ramjagsingh says EA Canada's goal is to entice those players to purchase the latest iteration of the series each year with updated features and gameplay.

"I let them be," Ramjagsingh said, when asked about his position on the methods used by the NHL 94 Online community. "Our goal is to get those guys – who are doing what they're doing on the side – to also pick up NHL 14, and 15 and 16."

EA's NHL series continues when NHL 14 launches on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on September 10.

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