Few people love any game the way the members of NHL '94 Online love NHL '94. Players with usernames like AtomicRaven, IAmFleury'sHipCheck, and HABS share a fraternal bond over playing a 24-year-old video game online. They might all be approaching different stages of middle-age, but before the jobs and mortgages and all the other underwhelming milestones of adult life, there was NHL '94.
To hear them tell it, this isn't fanaticism. It's a rational response in the face of perfection. Adam Giles (forum name Bob Kudelski), a competitor and long-time contributor to the site, explains it simply: "We've basically identified it as the best game we've ever played, and why would you spend your time playing anything else?"
The average member of the website is between 30 and 40 years old. Their collective memories of the title are tied to late nights playing on clunky CRT TVs. One of the site's key contributors, John Glass, has his fair share of childhood stories about NHL '94.
"My friend and I would come home from school and we'd play, like, 20 to 30 games in a row, at his house. His house caught on fire one day. They roped it off and put the police lines up, but we broke-in, 'cause the Super Nintendo was still in his room. We broke into his house and took the Super Nintendo." Glass chuckles to himself. "We wanted to make sure it still worked. It only played in black and white after that, but we still played '94 on it. That was what we were concerned about: Can we still play NHL '94?"
All screenshots courtesy of the author
NHL '94 was a gaming revelation in the mid-1990s, partly because it married the warring factions of the NHL and the NHLPA (the players' union). Shattering the glass between the two organizations, NHL '94 allowed real-world hockey players to appear in a game that also included their real-world teams. Just as importantly, it added one-timers—where a player on the receiving end of a pass does not take possession but takes a shot, denying the goalie and defenders time to react—which made it as complete a hockey experience as you could get, sans the fighting and Canadian accents.
"It almost feels more like playing hockey than when I'm actually playing hockey," Giles explains. "It's just, like they've capture the essence of what hockey should be. [There's] a perfect flow to the game. You can feel the momentum of the little sprites on the screen and you can feel the weight of them."
NHL '94 doesn't play like a conventional hockey title. In fact, it often doesn't play like a hockey game at all, especially compared to its fussier, sim-like successors. The game's programmer, Mark Lesser, couldn't tell a New Jersey Devil from an Anaheim Duck. Instead of going for accuracy, he ended up focusing on the sport's flow and feel: Hockey is slippery and imprecise, and NHL '94 captured that feeling. Passing is a crapshoot, goals often brought about by divine intervention, and digital momentum is constantly at work inside the cartridge's plastic shell. It's this "authenticity", though, that has guys like Giles to devoting their entire gaming lives to the title, and taking on other, like-minded players too.
"NHL '94 is like the most perfect, purest form of video game hockey you can play," he says. "So a little bit of effort to play that against other top players around the world is well worth it."
Calling the jury-rigged contrivances required to play this old game online "a little bit of effort" is underselling the process, somewhat. Getting it up and running is practically an act of devotion in itself, and NHL '94 Online has become a virtual church for those who continue to worship the EA Sports masterpiece.
Playing '94 online has more in common with the LAN party days of yore than hopping on Xbox Live. Internet competition is accomplished by daisy-chaining an emulator named Gens with the online enabling program Kaillera and a VPN (virtual private network) service called Hamachi. Meanwhile, communication and coordination are done over American Online Instant Messenger, or AIM as it was called during the long-ago youth of the average NHL '94 Online member. The cherry on the cake is the group's insistence on using an ethernet cable over a WiFi connection for increased match stability. This isn't a skate in the park.
Those who survive the setup get to enter NHL '94 nirvana. The site features a dizzying number of leagues. The basic option is the "classic league," which uses the original ROM and settings. More interesting, however, are the specialty leagues.
"We also have the GDL, which is the Genesis Draft League," Glass tells me. "That's been long running as well. It's [the league] using the default ROM, but including a player draft at the beginning of each season."
The GDL isn't the sole case of the community retroactively re-creating features that are standard in modern sports titles. Examples include the Dynasty League, where teams run franchises over multiple seasons, and another league with updated rosters to match the 2017 NHL season. The site also tracks enough player stats to make Ron Barr's digitized head spin.
"Time on ice is one of the stats that you can't get from the game, but we're able to keep track of it," Glass says.
Programming skills within the league are representative of the group's average personality. Most users are engineers or computer tech experts who spend their leisure time hacking the '94 ROM. To them, decoding the mysteries of the game is sweeter than any Stanley Cup win. These programmers even uncovered something nobody thought existed: a flaw in the game.
On the forums there are countless threads dating back to 2005 discussing a line of code colloquially known in the community as the "weight bug." When the group first found the bug in the early 2000s, it called into question everything they thought they knew about the game.
User Michael Capewell, called Smozoma on the forums, was one of the first to uncover the flaw. On his site NHL94Strategy.com he explains the bug, writing, "Light players are the big checkers and are resistant to checks, while the heavier guys all fall down easily. This is commonly referred to as the weight bug."
Players eventually discovered a metagame workaround, but that didn't stop others from creating the "Blitz League" where the bug is removed. Blitz League's creation was further fuel for a school-yard philosophical debate that's plagued the community since the bug's discovery: Is removing the bug fixing the game, or ruining what the designers intended?
"Some people are like in different camps," user Matt G tells me. "Like, 'We don't want to play the way that you think it was supposed to be. We want to play it the way it was when it was released.' There's all kinds of different factions."
The debate has settled down a bit in recent years, but it's still a salty subject.
On a 2015 forum thread titled "Overdue Thoughts on the Weight Bug Fix", user Scribe99 writes: "I guess what I'm saying is this: The weight bug fix is the way the game was meant to be played."
A few replies down, TomKabs93 adds his own argument: "WBF [weight bug free] slows the game down, and upsets the balance of perfect 94 lol. WBF classic makes no sense, it's 'classic', meaning original. GDL is perfect, you shouldn't want to ruin it with fake mods."
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The little bug is no more idiosyncratic than the inaccurate passing or errant skating, yet it irked a lot of players. It's a flaw, and how can NHL '94 be perfect if it has one of those? But having delighted players for a quarter century in spite of a bug few people really noticed, maybe NHL '94 is better because of this mistake? We love films and books for their quirks as much as their strengths. Why can't the same be said of a Sega Genesis game?
The hottest topic in the community is the increasing interest in live events. Filmmaker Mikey McBryan started the trend when he hosted a competition in Toronto called "The King of 94" for his documentary "Pixelated Heroes". It filled up quickly as members of the website's congregation made the pilgrimage to "the six."
"I told my wife I'm going to Toronto for the hockey website, and she looked at me like I had eight eyes or something," Glass recalls.
An ad for the King of 94 tournament
It was like the first day of school for some. Guinness record holder (for the most goals scored against the CPU in NHL '94) and online hockey master Raphael Frydman recalls his experience at the event.
"That was by far the most surreal experience. You don't know what to actually call people by, their actual names or their online names. Then we had this day where we took over a hotel suite and put two or three setups in there. We were just playing games live next to each other. Exhibition games and two-on-two games. It reminded you of 20 years ago, sitting around, drinking some beers, just playing."
The online play, which brought the group together, is ironically also keeping them from growing. Getting new players is tough because of the technological requirements needed to play. The die-hards will always show up, but a solid "fourth line" of new members is key for these website to grow. Live tournaments won't replace the online scene, but they're the perfect way to get fresh legs onto the ice.
Change isn't new for the NHL '94 fanbase. The rest of the sports gaming world is always changing, focusing on photo-realism and higher-fidelity simulation. But the temptations of modern graphics still haven't swayed the group's mind. They're stuck in the 1990s and wouldn't have it any other way. NHL '94, played online, is how these players travel back to the time when the ice was blue and the hockey was better.