When you sit back and think about it, this really has been a long time coming. With the plethora of dongles and accessories for the Wii that let you turn the Wiimote into a tennis racket, golf club, rifle, sword, or what have you, it's really surprising that its taken this long for someone to go Canadian and turn our favourite waggle stick into a hockey stick.
Leave it to the hockey gurus at EA Sports to not only deliver, but also get it right on the first try.
Included in the box with NHL Slapshot is a plastic hockey stick, although to really have some fun, you should invest in another for a friend. When you first boot up the game, a helpful instructional video shows you how to put the stick together and insert the Wiimote and nunchuk in correctly. It's a bit of a pain to get, but once it's done, it's done. Fair warning, the stick blocks the pointer on the remote, so be sure to insert the remote after selecting the game from the main Wii menu. Also, the game doesn't support motion plus, so be sure to remove the dongle before trying to shoehorn it in. In general, the stick feels great in the hand, although it's much smaller than a real hockey stick. It's built solid, and a well positioned wrist strap keeps things mostly comfortable.
The controls are generally simple, and don't take more than a few minutes to get used to. The nunchuk fits in the top of the stick, and the analog stick controls the motion of your players. By holding down the trigger on the nunchuk, you'll activate a speed burst. The Wiimote itself is housed towards the bottom of the stick. With a press of the A button, you'll pass, and by pressing the B-trigger you'll execute a spin move. If you hold down the B-trigger, you'll have full control of your player's stick for manual dekes. Generally, the manual dekes are a bit finicky, so I found myself using the canned spin move more often. You play the game by keeping the stick pointed down, which does take some getting used to, especially if you're playing the game sitting down. There are very few games that really keep you on the edge of your seat, but NHL Slapshot demands it. To hit players, you take the stick in both hands and make a cross checking motion. This mechanic alone makes the game worth playing, and feels incredibly satisfying. I simply never got tired of flinging my arms forward to check players, and this is coming from someone who lost the novelty of arm waggling a long time ago. Finally and most importantly, you take shots by flicking the stick like you would a real hockey stick. A quick flick gives you a wrist shot, while winding up for the booming slapshot is as satisfying as it sounds. Extra accuracy can be had by aiming with the nunchuk's analog stick. Just be sure to have lots of clearance room around you when you play, as NHL Slapshot demands more space than most Wii games require.
Of course, since not everyone can afford multiple sticks, so a standard nunchuk and Wiimote combo, which is functional, but not nearly as fun.
Once you have the stick in hand, it's time to play some hockey, and Slapshot doesn't skimp on giving you plenty of ways to use it. When you hit the main menu, you're given the option to jump right into a game, play Peewee to Pro mode, as well as the requisite Stanley Cup Finals and Season Mode. There are also several mini-games and training modes to help you get used to the unique control scheme.
If you choose to play now, you'll be transported to a pond, complete with kiddie-sized versions of the players on your favourite team. It's in this mode that the spirit and fun of the game shine through. Slapshot is a breezy, arcade style take on the sport, with multiple speed bursts, heavy checking, and lots of spectacular dekes.
The other modes are essentially exactly as they sound. Most players will likely spend most of their time in the Peewee to Pro mode that has you starting off as a child version of your own created player or favourite NHL star, and working up the ranks from Peewee, to the CHL, to the AHL, and finally the big leagues. Wayne Gretzky himself guides you through these modes, and it's a lot of fun watching your virtual sniper grow into his skates. The game also gives you the option to start at any league you want, so you can skip right to the junior leagues or NHL if you so choose. It's essentially a watered down, yet surprisingly addictive variation of the NHL series' be a Pro Mode. My only complaint with this mode is that you stay on the ice for the full 60 minutes every game, and in general your linemates are major puck hogs with the shooting accuracy of a near sighted gnat that's had too much caffeine. This makes hitting your assist goals a little tough at times, but it's nothing to get too worked up over.
Season mode and Stanley Cup Finals mode are just that. You pick your favourite team, and guide them to the promised land of Lord Stanley's mug. The Season mode doesn't have any sort of GM functions, salary caps, or any other of the in depth options we're used to, but given the carefree spirit of the game, this isn't as big a loss as you'd think. You can still trade players to create your ultimate dream team, but the managerial options essentially end there. To be honest, the lack of options was a welcome throwback to the SNES and Genesis hockey games of my youth.
Finally, the minigames are similar to the ones that were found in NHL 2005. There's a Free 4 All game that has four players competing for one puck in order to score the most goals, a 2 on 2 mini rink game, a shooter vs. goalie mode, and classic shootouts. The minigames are fun to play around with friends, but I frankly was itching to get back to the meatier modes.
There are a few omissions that are a little harder to swallow. There's no online play to speak of at all, and there's no fighting in the game either. Given the more child oriented slant to the game, and the fact that the game is arming real-life players with plastic sticks, perhaps EA's legal department was trying to cover their own ass. Still, isn't it worth a few children's concussions to be able to whack a virtual Phil Kessel in the face with a plastic stick? This reviewer says yes.
Within the limitations of the Wii hardware, Slapshot looks and runs great. The engine maintains a hearty 60 frames per second with nary a chug in sight. The player models are generally very well modelled, and the more famous players will be recognizable by faces alone. The crowds all look like two dimensional cutouts, but are at least animated and not distracting.
The sound design is generally very good, but this is more a matter of taste than anything else. The pond rinks are filled with parental encouragement and honking of car horns when goals are scored, and the bigger arenas feel appropriately large and echo appropriately. The play-by-play by Gary Thorne and Bill Clement is the same we've been hearing for years, with fewer player and team specific comments. Take it or leave it at this point. The game also has an 11-track playlist that I revelled in, but may not be for everyone. I personally loved the inclusion of songs like "Ole", "Twilight Zone" by 2 Unlimited, Europe's "Final Countdown", and "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones. The inclusion of classic sports novelty pop is very welcome, although your mileage may vary.
I'm very pleasantly surprised to announce the EA Sports has done it again, for the first time. NHL Slapshot is easily the premier hockey game for Nintendo's little waggle box, and will provide hours of entertainment for stringent hockey nuts, young peewee gamers, and any level of hockey fan in between. Just make sure to blame the dog when you accidentally destroy that priceless ming vase with a careless swing of your stick.