Slap happy

When Nintendo first unveiled the Wii back in 2005, there were two things above nearly all else that fans wanted to see the Wii controller emulate: a lightsaber and a hockey stick.

We all soon found out, however, technology has to scramble in order to keep up with our imaginations. Nintendo seemed to have a firm grasp of their own system but it took developers significant time to produce much more than simple tennis games.

For these reasons it took Electronic Arts (EA) nearly five years of skepticism before finally attempting to create a Wii game based around Canada’s national pastime.

Developed by EA Sports, NHL Slapshot is a hockey game for the Nintendo Wii that is actually controlled by a miniature sized hockey stick, a sleek Frankenstein-like concoction that combines real life equipment with video game controllers. Actually, EA was so eager to get these Slapshot hockey sticks in the hands of the public they embarked in a cross Canada media blitz that saw Slapshot senior producer Joe Nickolls visit the office of the Manitoban to provide an in depth demonstration of the game.

Before even jumping in and testing the stick, it’s obvious that Slapshot is the kind of game that requires a good amount of activity.

“You know we didn’t design the game to be a workout but it is,” Nickolls said. “When we first made the game our quality assurance guys started complaining about sore shoulders and stuff because you’re really [acting out the motions]. You can work up a sweat. You can’t play it sitting down.”

Of course, the stick itself is something to behold. A hard plastic casing with a rubber blade that holds both the Wii remote and nunchuk and, unlike some other plastic peripherals that may be cluttering up your living room, can be folded up for stowaway purposes. The final product is something that works quite well in convincing you that it is more than just a container for the actual controls.

“We knew it was going to work,” said Nickolls. “The challenge was getting a plastic hockey stick made in China and making it for Nintendo because Nintendo is super stringent on everything. They’ve never licensed anything like this that they haven’t made themselves first.
All these different iterations, calling China all the time, dealing with our plastics guy, getting it tested. That was the most challenging thing. You’ve seen those IKEA commercials where they show the couch getting pounded 1,000 times. We had to do the same stuff to this thing.”

The stick was tested for durability for good reason too. Shooting, deking, checking, taking face-offs, these are all actions controlled by the proper swing of the hockey stick. Over time you could imagine just how much abuse these sticks might endure.

For the Wii, the game looks fairly good. It’s certainly not the kind of graphics that will make your eyes pop out but it is overall one of the better looking games on Nintendo’s system.

One of the first images you see when the game starts — actually, even before that — is Wayne Gretzky donned in his classic 1980s Oilers jersey. Gretzky is not only the cover boy for NHL Slapshot but also serves as a playable character and coach within the game. You can either play as the “Great One” or, if you choose to create yourself as a custom player, have Gretzky coach you from the juniors up to the NHL.

Making it all the way to the NHL is one of the more robust challenges of NHL Slapshot as players can start their hockey career as early as the peewee level, working your way through the CHL before actually taking part in the entry draft and getting selected to play in the NHL.
While there is some arcade-influenced style behind NHL Slapshot, there is also a fairly deep pool of different game modes and leagues, certainly enough to keep players busy for a long time.

Overall, the experience with both the game and the hockey stick controller was undeniably fun. I really didn’t know much of what I was doing, myself, but I still managed to have a good time, especially when playing against someone else who is also swinging away with their Slapshot stick. It should be noted that NHL Slapshot does not support Wii MotionPlus, so while the ability to maneuver your stick is impressive, it is still not the 1-to-1 response hockey fans have been day dreaming about for years.

When asked if this first foray into motion controlled hockey gaming could serve as a building block for future motion based hockey games on different systems, Nickolls was at once both optimistic and pragmatic regarding the topic.

“Whenever Sony or Microsoft or anybody comes out with new technology, we always take a whack at it,” said Nickolls. “We always say, ‘Let’s try this out and see how it works.’ You’ve got Sony Move, which is the motion controller for the Playstation 3, and you’ve got Microsoft Kinect, which is their camera system. We’ve had these pieces of hardware at EA for like a year so we do mess around with them and we will do it if it feels right. [Having said that], we won’t do it just for the sake of doing it.”

Both NHL Slapshot and additional stand-alone hockey stick controllers went on sale on Sept. 7, exclusively for the Nintendo Wii.