SummaryIf you dismissed this game for judging it by its cover, you missed out (Plus a retrospective on the series)
The GoodAnd so we come to the last review of my Backyard Sports lookback, Backyard Hockey. The reason I chose to end it here is because it was the last game in the series I personally remember playing and the last one before Humongous was tossed from Infogrames to Atari (who, hilariously enough, would wind up merging not long after). I haven't played any game in the series after this except for Baseball 2005 as of this writing, so if I make any reviews in the future, they're entirely seperate from this line of lookbacks.
With that said, I ended my previous review, Soccer 2004, by stating it was the end of an era for the series. That, of course, means Hockey is the beginning of a new one. The funny thing is, most fans of the series I have talked to have derided this one for being "different" and trying too hard to appeal to the hipster audience, and that all resides one single thing: the characters were redesigned. They have much thicker lines and more solid colors. I'll admit they could have been way better as I find them far too generic looking, but if you're going to decry a game just because the characters look different, you probably should stop judging books by their cover, because this game has a lot to offer that so many people missed out on.
The format is all here. Pick a rink, pick your team name, and draft your players. The menu interface is completely different this time around, getting its biggest overhaul since Baseball 2001. The iconic clubhouse has been axed replaced with some more video game-like list menus. I will at least admit that was sort of a jerk move because it kills a perfectly good tradition, but to those who harped on it for making the game look generic, I'd like to point you to a very similar overhaul that happened several games back in Baseball 2001. Where's the hate for that? Oh, right, it still uses the original character designs so it gets a free pass. Way to let nostalgia determine the quality of a game.
The voice acting has been, thank all that is good, been reverted back to the way it was originally. Sunny Day is not voiced by Jen Taylor this time around (and thankfully NOT Lani Minella), but her replacement, Samantha Kelly, does a good job. I think Buddy Cheque is a bit annoying of a color commentator, but he does say some genuinely funny things and his voice isn't that grating. The rest of the voice acting is mostly okay. I think Pablo sounds a bit too feminine, but that's just my opinion.
All of the NHL teams are included, and there are some new custom team options this time around, which makes me glad to know they hadn't forgotten they still existed at this point. There are ten professional players in all, and the Backyard Kids are still here.
The game has the same easy-to-use mouse controls that every other Backyard game was notable for. This time, you do not have to click to get your character to move; it just follows wherever you point. If it seems like it would be a problem to keep your character from slamming into walls all the time, it isn't -- the cursor retracts gradually so this is not an issue. Also, this game is played on a top-down view instead of an isometric view, which adds more smoothness to the control. You just click to wherever you want to pass the puck and click to shoot a goal. You can also use two-button mouse controls where you right click to shoot a goal, as well as use the keyboard. I find that the keyboard controls have come a very long way since their finnicky days in the older games, being just as smooth as the mouse controls this time around. This is very commendable and I am glad to know they finally got this right.
The past game mechanics such as power-ups and fouling return in this game. Speaking of fouling, the penalty box actually is a thing in this game, and when a conflict happens, you will determine who goes to the box by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. The power-ups are no longer awarded based on how you perform, they now randomly spawn in the middle of the rink and must be picked up.
While it has been a long time since I played a season in this game, I remember it being a very acceptable length. You play several games in the regular season and try to come out on top once you make the playoffs. One touch I found very amusing was the fact that some of the generic players that fill spots on other teams are named after developers of this game, such as Tom Verre, Geoff Kirk, and Steven Magladry. They rarely did developer in-jokes like this (can't say I blame them -- a six year old is unlikely at best to know who was behind the game they're playing!), and I'm glad they did. The best part about the seasons is that you get actual rewards as you progress. You unlock more rinks and special modes, and once you win you are told several ways to play as secret characters (which I won't spoil).
The BadNow, as much as I find this game highly underrated, it does have some legitimate problems, not that any of this game's haters would know this. My biggest complaint about the actual gameplay is that there really doesn't seem to be any clear cut way to score a goal. When you shoot the puck, it either gets blocked or it doesn't. There are ways to get around the goalie, but they're very hard to pull off. It sadly turns it into a game of chance more than anything.
My other real complaint about the game is that fatigue is very lazily programmed in this game. In the other games, the players would fatigue based on what they were doing in the field. If they ran around a lot, they'd fatigue quicker. In this game, no matter how active or inactive a player is, they fatigue at the same rate. At the end of every quarter, every single player is going to have the same amount of stamina left. It does not matter if you stand perfectly still, they fatigue exactly the same way as if they were darting around the rink. How hard would it have been to do it the proper way?
The pros in this game reach an all-time high of over-poweredness (is that even a word?). The last few games steadily improved it, but this game goes back to square one. Mike Modano is, without a doubt, the best player in this game, even more so than Pablo, with the others Joe Sakic and Joe Thornton also being ridiculously over-powered. It frustrates me that we had come such a long way from the days of the pros being way too strong, and now it's like none of that progress was ever made.
The Bottom LineDespite its shortcomings, this game is easily one of the most underrated in the series. "Oh, but the character designs..." SHUT THE FLYING FRICK UP ABOUT THE CHARACTER DESIGNS AND GET OUT OF YOUR NOSTALGIA BUBBLE FOR TWO SECONDS YOU STUPID-
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...sorry. I just get a little worked up when people hate on this game because the character designs are different, but having ear-splitting voice acting or terrible AI is perfectly okay. Yeah, I'm not calling this game a masterpiece, and I can't say it's the best in the series, but I'd definitely rank it above something like Backyard Soccer or Backyard Basketball. The Yaga engine, despite its clunkiness in the two Junior Adventures made with it, actually works really well here, providing much better fast-paced action. All in all, this is a very good game, and it honestly makes me very upset that people looked past it all because it was different. Just because it doesn't use the SCUMM engine doesn't mean it's a bad game, and I can think of many reasons this is far superior than some of the games in the so-called "Golden Age".
Well guys, that officially brings my Backyard Sports series of reviews to a close, and it is now time to bring in the retrospective I promised. So, what did I learn from all of this? Well, as I implied above, the "golden age" of the series was really not as golden as a lot of people like to think. Of the nine games in that age I reviewed, I only really found five that I found, at the least, decent, and only two of them were sequels. The series was not very good at taking risks, and I feel that really hurt it in the long run. Despite the fact that many people refer to the post-SCUMM games as the "dark age" of the series, it took a lot more risks and I find it very commendable in that regard. Believe me, I was once one of the haters of the Dark Age. Once I stopped and gave them another chance though, I realized I was completely delusional. While I haven't played the other two Yaga games (Football 2004 and Basketball 2004), I mostly hear they were at least decent.
As for how the rest of the series would play out, things would go up and down. The transition to 3D brought many mixed responses, as well as probably the greatest guilty pleasure of them all, Backyard Skateboarding. Baseball 2005 and Hockey 2005 would prove to be successes as Amazon reviewers pointed out, but things started getting iffy at Football 2006, which committed the cardinal sin of not using the mouse at all. Not even in the menus. Around this era, the professional sports licenses were milked more than in any of the other games. Want proof? Look no further than the cover of Backyard Skateboarding. There is absolutely no mention or any pictures of any character except for Andy Mac, and that includes the back of the box! The Backyard Kids got completely out of focus, almost to the point where the developers forgot they were even in the games in the first place.
The final nail in the coffin did not come until 2007, though, after Humongous's initial bankruptcy. This would be the third major overhaul, with all of the characters turned into teenagers and several being removed with others added. All hint of effort went completely out the window, the only reason the series even went as long as it did was because it was a way for Atari to milk the major sports licenses dry. 2008-2010 made this statement even more clear. The fourth and last major overhaul came when the major sports licenses were finally lost. Seeing how they no longer had a brand name to leech on, they had to make the games genuinely good again especially with Atari's financial position in deep trouble. Enter Sandlot Sluggers and Rookie Rush, which despite having actual effort on display, the games ultimately failed to win back the crowd since they followed the lowest points of the series a little too much. Atari's bankruptcy would land the franchise in the hands of Epic Gear, who have not done anything with it at the time of this writing. Only time will tell if the series is going to see the light of day again.
Whew, this turned out way longer than I thought it would. I hope you didn't mind my retrospective there. Thanks to everyone who followed me on this series of reviews, and if I ever come across any other games in the series, I will review them as well, though I will not make it part of this lookback. I had a lot of fun going down memory lane and seeing just how successful the series was. Stay tuned, this may not be the last review series I do!