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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Blades of Steel (Konami, 1987)

Originally developed and released by Konami for the arcades in 1987. Sound editor: Kazuki Muraoka. Cabinet graphic design: Don Marshall. Further credits are unknown.

Conversion for the Nintendo Entertainment System by Konami: Directed by Shigeharu Umezaki.
Programming by Shigeharu Umezaki and Satoshi Kishiwada. Character design by Setsu Muraki and T. Nishikawa. Music by Shinya Sakamoto, Kazuki Muraoka, Atsushi Fujio and Kiyohiro Sada. Released in 1988. Also released for the Famicom Disk System as "Konamic Ice Hockey".

Conversion for the Commodore Amiga and IBM-PC compatibles by Novotrade: Programming by Peter Agocs, Judit Buczolich and József Szentesi. Graphics by Zoltan Hoth. Released by Konami in 1990.


Converted for the Commodore 64 by Antal Zolnai for Novotrade, and released by Konami in 1990.

Converted for the Nintendo Game Boy by Konami: Directed by Y. Nakanishi. Programming by Y. Nakanishi and S. Tamate. Character design by Nobuaki Matsumoto. Music by Hidehiro Funauchi and Akiko Itoh. Released as "Konamic Ice Hockey" by Konami in 1991 in Japan. Released as "Blades of Steel" by Ultra in 1991 outside of Japan.

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INTRODUCTION & GAME STATUS


Happy New Year, everybody! Let's start 2017 with something cheerful and fitting for the season: ice hockey! Since the blog has already featured my all-time favourite hockey game - Hat Trick, there is only one other game of this particular sport that can be considered good comparison material. Curiously enough, my initial research into Blades of Steel faced a peculiar obstacle: no source seems to have any knowledge on the team behind the original arcade game. Even the "thank-you" sections in the NES and Game Boy credits list the original arcade team as exactly such. Mysterious, isn't it?

Anyhow, Blades of Steel was for a long time everyone's favourite hockey game, all the way into the early 90's, until the Wayne Gretzky Hockey series got launched and eventually the EA Sports' annual NHL series took off and practically ruined everything. That transition marks, at least for me, the exact frame in time, when sports games started becoming a nuisance attracting more casual gamers, rather than proper fun that most good sports games were up to that point. So, almost 30 years ago since its release for the arcades, I think it's a good time to take a look at one of the best old-school hockey games, and for this particular comparison, I have once again invited my friend SJ to join the research.

I guess it says a lot about the classic status of the NES version in particular, when you can't find much of ratings for the original arcade version, and there isn't even an entry for the C64 version at Lemon64. At Questicle, the rating for the NES version is B+, but I couldn't help but add the score given at MobyGames, which is 3.7 out of 5 from 38 voters. Also, the Game Boy version has a score of 3.3 from 15 votes at MobyGames. Ratings for the DOS version come from Abandonia, where the editor rating is 4.0, and 182 people have voted it for a score of 3.2. Finally, the Amiga version has a score of 6.19 from 21 votes at LemonAmiga.

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DESCRIPTION & REVIEW


Blades of Steel is an arcade ice hockey game from a time when proper arcade sports games still existed. This means, most of all, that some of real ice hockey rules are either not implemented into the game or are altered - not necessarily for making the game less realistic by design, but for making the game more fun to play as a quick session. Unlike most hockey games since 1992, Blades of Steel still uses a sliding camera going above the hockey rink, tilted in a certain manner to make it look kind of isometric 3D, but it's basically a 2D side-viewed multi-directional scroller, if you need to put a tag on it. Kind of like old team sport games like Match Day, Slapshot and International Basketball, but with a more zoomed-in view.

Up to that point, most hockey games only featured single exhibition matches, and just enough options to play against a computer on a few different difficulty settings or against another human player. Sometimes, I grant you, that is plenty enough. Some games, such as the aforementioned Slapshot from 1984, managed to feature teams to choose from, but that was a rare occasion up until the release of Blades of Steel, which featured not only eight teams to choose from, but a tournament mode as well, for you to be finally able to play for a championship. Fighting and penalty shots are both features that were introduced in Slapshot, but Blades of Steel took both features to a new level, particularly the fighting part, which here feels more like a cheap boxing simulator.

Overall, I think it's safe to say Blades of Steel was the first hockey game to cross the line of having enough content to be taken seriously, but being fun enough not to become too much of a faux-simulator, as most hockey games since 1992 have been. Of course, there is a time and a place for some proper hockey gaming, and I admit to have had a few good hours playing some game from 2K Sports' NHL series with friends many years ago, but there's more to playing old and fun sports games than just nostalgia. Blades of Steel is one of those rare old sports games that you regularly come back to, and needs to be experienced properly - against a friend, of course - to fully understand the sheer power this game has.

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PLAYABILITY


First and foremost, Blades of Steel was designed for the arcades, so the controls are not necessarily the most adaptable for home gaming. If you have at least two fire buttons to make use of, there should be no problems at all, but having only one button might make for a conversion with some heavy compromises. But the most glaring difference in the arcade original compared to the home conversions is not the controls, although the controllability has its own little quirks, but the fact that you have to insert coins to get some more playtime is a bit of an inconvenience. Mind you, you get 30 seconds extra time for scoring a goal; and then again, your opponent scoring a goal decreases 10 seconds from your playtime. One coin equals one full minute, and a period lasts for four minutes, so if you're planning on finding a real Blades of Steel arcade machine, be prepared with plenty of coins, or play it on MAME a good deal first to practice making lots of goals.

So, back to the controls. The arcade version is played with a trackball controller, and there are three buttons: one for passing the puck, one for shooting, and one large button for fighting. Of course, at home, there isn't too many of you hardcore retrogamers out there, who actually own a proper trackball, so you are more likely to be playing the MAME-driven arcade rom version with either a pad controller or your trusty keyboard. These work well enough up to a point, but the problem is, I have no idea whether or not the goalkeeper is supposed to be twitching around aimlessly as he is (meaning, is the game's original AI so utterly useless), or would a proper trackball controller help to make the goalie act his part? If the attract mode demo is anything to base assumptions on, then I have to assume the former, because in all home conversions of Blades of Steel, you control your goalie simultaneously as you control your other selected player. Also worth mentioning here is that unlike in all the home conversions, the team sides don't change between periods due to how the controls are built.

As for the other versions' controls: the NES/FDS and Game Boy versions use two fire buttons, and the C64 and AMIGA versions have one. The DOS version is an odd one, since it can be played with a one-button joystick, in which case it works like the C64 and AMIGA versions, but it can also be played on your keyboard, in which case there are two fire buttons for each player. Don't ask me how this is logical in any way, but there you go. With two buttons, the other one shoots and punches during fights, and the other one is used for selecting players and passing the puck. With one button, you need to do everything with a certain timing: a short tap to pass the puck, and a long push to shoot. You'll figure the fighting bit out by yourselves, I'm sure.

Comparing a game is rarely as simple as talking about controls, but in this case, we have only barely scratched the surface. Even the arcade original has different versions, which differ by having different period times: one of them has 4-minute periods, while the others have 20 minutes. And these are real minutes, too. The 20-minute periods in the NES and FDS versions are approximately 2 minutes 40 seconds in real time, while the Game Boy version goes for a less unrealistic approximate of about 8-10 minutes - it's difficult to tell with a lack of good videos on YouTube. The C64 and AMIGA versions' 20 minutes takes about 3 and a half minutes without breaks, but then the game is considerably slower to play in both versions compared to the Nintendo versions, so they're in the same ballpark, really. From the home conversions, only the Game Boy version runs the slowest at about 4 minutes for 20 game minutes. Contrarily, the DOS version's clock runs the quickest, although that might have something to do with your emulated or properly built IBM-PC compatible machine's hardware. I'm usually using a Pentium 100 MHz with 32 MB or RAM kind of a setting in DOSbox, although I did test the game on a more natively CGA-style setup, and the speed result was the same: a 20-minute period lasts for about 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The gameplay is just about as fast as on the NES/FDS, so the clock speed is justified in that sense. The way we have come to know the Blades of Steel periods, it's 20 minutes gone in almost 10th of that time, but if you want a hardcore Blades of Steel session in real time, only the two arcades versions (E and L) will provide you with such opportunity.

Those of you familiar with the NES version will likely remember an interactive intermission between the second and third periods. In this segment, you are given an opportunity to play a mini-version of Gradius (a.k.a. Nemesis) on the score display, after which you can see some other Konami games advertised. The Famicom Disk System's version doesn't feature the bonus game between periods 2 and 3, likely due to disk space, but we're not entirely sure about that. In most other versions, the segment only features Konami game advertisements (or a completely different kind of an animated intermission sequence in the case of the GAME BOY version), which are skippable. The only other version, in which you get any sort of interaction is the original ARCADE version, in which you either shoot penalties or block penalty shots for winning extra playtime. In true arcade fashion, these segments are more reminiscent of Space Invaders and Kaboom! rather than a proper hockey penalty segment, which is actually a very welcome diversion and a well-thought opportunity to earn some playtime.

What Blades of Steel became the most famous for back in the day, was the one-on-one boxing matches during play, which could be ignited by bumping repeatedly into an opponent. Even though none of the versions have this feature made into something particularly playable, it always got the laughs out of you and your friends, getting to fight one another properly in the game. The random manner in which the fights occur makes it an even more sought after event. Basically, you are zoomed into a small rectangular camera view, in which you and your opponent throw your hockey gloves on the ice and start punching each other until one of you falls down. Each player is given five hit points, and the only thing you really can do is hit in a couple of ways and block. Timing should be of the essence here, but the controls are a bit iffy at best due to the needlessly heavy emphasis on animation, which is nice but cumbersome. From all the versions, we came to the unanimous conclusion that the ARCADE and NINTENDO versions did it best, the latter perhaps even better. The best part of this all is, that according to the Blades of Steel rules, it doesn't matter who ignites the fistfight, but if you lose the fight, you are taken to the penalty booth instead of the one who knocked you down - the winner of the fistfight is let to continue his game from where he was standing before the interruption.

The rarely seen, but obligatory penalty shoot-out is viewed from behind your player (the one who is shooting the puck towards the goal), and features both players in control. Your job is to shoot the puck into one of eight possible targets in the net, while the goalkeeper's job is to guess which corner to move to, if at all necessary. If the end score requires it even after a period of overtime, you get a series of similar shoot-outs from the blue line. I'm afraid there is nothing too vastly differing about this sequence between the six or seven versions, so this short mention shall have to do.

I still haven't mentioned the first obvious difference between the arcade and home versions, which is how the game career is set into motion. In the ARCADE original, you just play the game as long as you can, winning a non-descript team after another non-descript team in different colours. Already for the NES port, Konami developed a career setup for the game, which got included in all the other home conversions as well: you first choose a single exhibition game or a tournament mode, in which you play against a set of other teams based on how well each of the teams in the tournament perform in turn. Your second choice is the difficulty level from three possible ones, of which there are four in the ARCADE version's dip switches. Finally, there are eight teams to choose from, all of which have distinctly coloured outfits. Even for a single exhibition game, you can choose both yours and the opponents teams, so you're not stuck with the two default team colours as you are in the ARCADE version. Of course, the GAME BOY version is helplessly greyscale, so the team colours don't have much of differences in them.

Speaking of which, there is only so much one can do with emulation, and for a two-player Game Boy experience, you would need to link two Game Boy devices with a cartridge for each, so we haven't had a chance to explore that possibility here. SJ recalled an old version of the no$gb emulator having an ability to launch two Game Boys side by side as a means to virtually link two virtual machines, but the feature was discontinued as it wasn't working very well. So, the only experience we have of the Game Boy version of Blades of Steel is in single player mode. To make up for the small likelyhood of ever getting to play the two player Blades of Steel on Game Boy, the team included one unique thing in it: a practice mode for practicing fighting and penalty shots specifically. Good call. Having played a couple of full matches, we found out that the players have a slightly larger turning circle than in any other version, and you can't seem to control where the starting pass goes to - it always seems to go to the player above the center one. Also, due to the greyscale graphics, it's difficult to always see the selected team member, because the man isn't flashing - just the arrow above him. But all in all, it's not a bad conversion; it does play better in all other fields than, say, the AMIGA and C64 versions, at least as far as the basic playability goes.

That is why it is so strange that the DOS version is so much more comfortable to play than the AMIGA and C64 versions, although team Novotrade did all three versions. Compared to the other two, the movement is more fluent and gameplay quicker - in fact a bit too quick for comfort, but still playable. Due to the quickness, it's more difficult to focus on handling the players and plan your actions than it is in the other two versions, but at the same time, it's more difficult to get referee act in any particular manner because of the amount of action you're getting yourself into. That said, there are rules like icing and fighting in front of the goal that are counted in the game, which result in their expected procedures.

In a hopeless attempt at fighting piracy, the C64, AMIGA and DOS versions feature a copy protection code system, in which you need to type in a four-digit code prompted by the game after it has loaded in. The code was only supposed to be found in the inconveniently coloured code sheet, which, if attempted to copy with a black-and-white copy machine as most of them were back then, would become a black page. Come a few years forwards, and you suddenly have the possibility to scan and copy these sheets to your heart's delight and post them on protected websites if you choose to. Of course, the easier option is to find a cracked version, which don't necessarily even have the copy protection segment included. To be brutally honest, if I were to pick one version to buy out of all the home conversions, it wouldn't be any of the Novotrade versions.

All in all, the NES/FDS version beats all the others fair and square. It doesn't have the hindrance of having to stuff your coins into the machine once you have bought the game cartridge/disk, the loading times are non-existant (at least on cartridge), there are more options than in the arcade version, and it plays easily the smoothest and at a good speed. The only thing I'm missing from the arcade original are the bonus rounds between periods, which are more thematically correct and a lot more fun than the Konami game advertisements after the second period. The GAME BOY version would be brilliant, if the two-player mode wasn't such a nuisance, but if you're playing solo anyway, it's almost as good as the NES/FDS version to play. Out of all the Novotrade versions, the DOS version is easily the most comfortable, but still not quite as playable as any of the Nintendo versions due to the less-than-optimal controls and the slightly faster game speed than necessary. I would have to place the ARCADE version below all the others, I'm sorry to say, simply because controlling the players behind goals is awkward at best (gets easily stuck) and the goalkeepers cannot seem to be moved.

1. NINTENDO NES/FDS
2. NINTENDO GAME BOY
3. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES
4. COMMODORE AMIGA
5. COMMODORE 64
6. ARCADE

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GRAPHICS


In most cases, Blades of Steel is a very graphically efficient game. The emphasis is on player animations and smoothness of action, but it doesn't mean that you can't find much of liveliness in the background graphics. Due to the original arcade game's characteristic style and animations, it was deemed of the utmost importance to get as much of it right as possible for every home conversion, but some versions did get a few small things of their own to bark about, such as the loading screen for the AMIGA and DOS versions.

Title/loading screens, left to right: Arcade, Commodore Amiga, DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy


Since the ARCADE title screen is unique for that particular version, I decided to include it in the above picture compilation, particularly as the said picture is more comparable to the loading screens in the AMIGA and DOS versions, which you cannot really call an actual loading screen in the DOS version, since it doesn't have loading times, but to avoid confusion, let's call it that anyway. As in Konami's earlier arcade team sports game Double Dribble, Blades of Steel features a superlative under the title, and as in the home conversions of Double Dribble, the said superlative is removed from their title screens, which, to be honest, is a good thing. The game logo is decidedly steely and shiny in the ARCADE original, while the other versions only try to mimic the font as far as necessary. As you can see from the picture below, the word "of" was only redesigned for the AMIGA and DOS versions. As for the picture accompanying the game logo, the DOS and AMIGA versions feature a sole player shooting the puck straight at the camera (with the puck featuring "Konami" on its side), while in the original ARCADE picture, the puck (featuring the Konami logo this time) is in the midst of a face-off situation, showing two much more distinctly dressed players of opposing teams, and the referee shown behind the two players. There are also two goalie masks siding the game logo at the top, looking at the center of the logo. For such an action-based sport, it's much more suitable to have a more action-centered title screen, don't you think?

Title/menu screens. Top row, left to right: Famicom Disk System, NES, Game Boy (jap), Game Boy (eu/us).
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy.


Another point of notice is the title screens in the two Japanese versions, which are commonly known as Konamic Ice Hockey, but I could almost bet that is not the way to pronounce the proper Japanese title. Although the GAME BOY version only has the title shown as embellished as is proper, the FAMICOM DISK SYSTEM version features a unique background for the title/menu screen, showing the other end of the hockey rink and a part of the audience with a darkened top part to accommodate the title itself.

While the title and text colourings are all notable and worth noticing, the fonts chosen for the Novotrade versions' menus and copyright bits are far more interesting, and make the game look more its part from the start. As you can see, though, the C64 version has the player amount selection featured after the title screen. Also, another funny little detail is that the menu selector highlight is a puck in the NINTENDO versions, while all the others have player in a skating pose. The original ARCADE version has the player selection bit done differently due to it being a coin-operated system, but from the home conversions, the AMIGA, DOS EGA and FDS versions look the most appealing so far.

Game options. Top row, left to right: Arcade, NES/FDS, Game Boy, Commodore 64
Bottom row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy.


After selecting the number of players, you will be taken to the game options, which, depending on the number of human players, will contain either three option menus (in a single player mode) or just one option menu (for two players), which are in order of appearance: game mode (exhibition or tournament), difficulty (junior, college or league) and teams for both sides. In AMIGA and DOS versions, you can see the colour of both selected teams from the player(s) sitting in the penalty box, but in other versions, the only way to tell the team colours is from how the highlighted team name is coloured. Naturally, the GAME BOY version renders this feature impossible due to the machine's structural limitations. Also, none of these options are available in the ARCADE mode, in which you will just have to play with the given team, and progress through the game with either a lot of money or a lot of luck and perseverance, just so you can see all the other team colours. Not a very worthy project on the long run, I'm afraid.

DOS joystick configuration and screen modes, left to right: Hercules, CGA, EGA/Tandy.


I shall take this unique opportunity of the DOS version's joystick setup screen for showing the different screen modes the game can be played in. Obviously, the left example is from the Hercules mode, which doesn't really work well in a DOSbox environment even with properly set Hercules mode, so I can only recommend using it if you have a proper old PC with a Hercules graphics adapter in it. And even then, only for the sake of necessity. The CGA mode only allows one colour scheme for each team due to the limited amount of colours provided by the old CGA, and the EGA mode looks exactly like Tandy mode, but if you happen to play the Tandy mode for whatever reason, it is much more picky about the (emulated) CPU speed compared to the EGA mode.

Face-off. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Arcade, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA, Game Boy, NES/FDS.


This particular view is probably the best one for demonstrating the differences in screen sizes and view areas. There is nothing too different about the setting as such, but you can see that there is definitely some differences in what's shown on the screen and how much there is to see both lengthwise and depthwise. The ARCADE version shows more vertically, the C64, DOS and AMIGA versions show more horizontally, and the NINTENDO versions have a more balanced view from both angles, not really having a need to scroll the screen as much in Y-axis than the three other home versions. Each view has its pros and cons, so it's a tough one to argue about, but the NINTENDO versions offer a good compromise, which makes the gameplay tempo feel exactly right.

In none of the home conversions you will see the scoreboard while playing, but this has been dealt with in a manner more fitting for the home versions, as you have no coin-operated time limit: the scoreboard is only shown in the beginning of a period or when the game is halted by a goal. The only informational thing of any import you will see in any of the home versions when the game is in action is the timer, which is differently situated in different versions. The DOS version, as you can see, doesn't even show the timer until the puck has been dropped by the referee, but the screenshots further below show the timer firmly in place. The C64 version shows the timer placed in various places on the walls of the rink. The GAME BOY version has a very small panel at the bottom of the screen, showing not only the timer, but also the number of the current period. In all the other home versions, the timer floats at the top left corner. In the ARCADE original, you can also see the player names as entered before the game began, the current score and timers for both paid playtime and time left of the current period.

Another interesting point of interest here is the middle section of the rink. In the original, there is an alternating red and white middle stripe going all the way through from side to side, with a large Konami logo printed within the blue circle. The AMIGA and DOS versions follow this idea somewhat by having the Konami logo featured in the middle, albeit much smaller, but the Konami name is also featured in some way or another. Probably due to the lesser graphical capabilities, the C64 version sort of follows the NES version by only having a large red dot in the middle, but the middle ring is also red instead of blue. Of course, all the graphics are greyscale in the GAME BOY version.

Examples of the scoreboards. Top left: Commodore Amiga. Top middle: Arcade. Top right: Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA, NES/FDS, Game Boy.


Getting back to the scoreboards, the only occasions when you can see one shown on the screen in the ARCADE version - aside from the one constantly at the top of the screen, that is - is between periods, when the game informs you of a bonus game about to start. Either that, or the eventual Game Over screen. Funnily enough, there is no Game Over screen in any of the home conversions, because it really serves no purpose. Anyway, what the scoreboards show aside from the scores at any designated point in the game, are the exhibition match information at the very beginning of the game, the current score at the start of each period without showing the scores of all the other periods, and the advertisements where available, which we shall get into a bit later on.

As a minor point of interest, let's take a look at the design of the scoreboard. From the looks of it, the AMIGA and DOS versions are the only ones that have a more modern look to the scoreboard, having it stick up from the floor behind the audience, connected to two huge metal legs with some sort of round connectors. In all the other versions, they have been hanged from the ceiling structure on some sort of metal trusses or other metal structures, and they look to have a very outside presence to the whole arena, since they're pictured to be so far above and away from the audience, that it could be either tiny or enormous, depending on how you want to look at it. Also, the DOS and AMIGA versions have the most pleasantly believable font and text colour for the scoreboard, with some nice shading around the characters, whereas in all the other home conversions have gone for a boring black-and-white style. At least the GAME BOY version has some unexpected grey gridding behind the text.

Screenshots of the two ends of the hockey arena. Top left: Commodore 64. Top right: Arcade.
Middle left: NES/FDS. Middle right: Nintendo Game Boy. Bottom left: Commodore Amiga. Bottom right: DOS EGA.


If you care to look close enough, you will see that the background graphics have been mirrored from the middle for the C64, AMIGA, NES and DOS versions, but you really have to look closely, because the audience is just a mess of various colours, as it should be. Aside from the original ARCADE version, the GAME BOY version is the only one to have a more hand-drawn feel to it throughout, although there are naturally much less details in the graphics. In the ARCADE version, all the audience members look individual and have not only different clothing, but also different faces, hair and actions as they cheer their favourite teams, albeit in a curiously continuous manner.

Speaking of cheering, the DOS version has the least animated audience - in fact, it's not animated at all. The GAME BOY version fares little better: until either team scores a goal, the audience is not animated, and when a goal is scored, you get a separate fully animated sequence. The audiences in the C64, AMIGA and NES versions give some very small movement of two or three frames at any given moment, and only when you score a goal, the movement goes a bit faster. As you would expect, the animation in the ARCADE version is a bit more lively, mostly due to the surprisingly authentic looking audience.

Fighting sequence. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Arcade, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, Nintendo Game Boy, NES/FDS.


The ARCADE version also excels in the fighting scene already due to the fact that it's the only version in addition to the GAME BOY one, that has laid out the scene in full screen instead of a smaller window. Also, the fighting scenes in all home conversions look very similar, as there is only one kind of a look to them - only the player colours change in context, but the backgrounds always look the same. In the original, you get an approximated location from either the centerfield or one of the ends of the rink, and in all three screens, the audience looks very different and is superbly animated compared to any of the home conversions. Not only that, but you also get a more elaborative animated sequence of taunting and throwing your hockey gloves off before resuming the actual fighting, which is something that was never really all that possible to do for the home conversions due to memory restrictions.

Shooting penalties. Top row, left to right: Commodore 64, Commodore Amiga, DOS EGA/Tandy.
Bottom row, left to right: Nintendo Game Boy, Arcade, NES/FDS.


For some reason, I wasn't able to get the penalty shoot-outs launched in the AMIGA version, and I couldn't find any screenshots of the occasion from the depths of Internet, so I guess other people have had trouble getting the said event occur. The idea is, that you need to get into a fistfight in front of the opposing goal, but try as we might, none of our efforts were effective. Then again, the penalty shots don't appear in the ARCADE version either as such - you only get them as a bonus game between periods, although you can't really call them penalty shots, since you're just shooting randomly at the goal and try to get some bonus time for your game, not get more goals.

As it is, the setting is quite self-evident, as you can see in the screenshots. The player shooting the penalties is the one closest to and directly in front of the camera, and the goalkeeper is further back. The differences are mostly in the screen size and the amount of other information on the screen, but the GAME BOY version clearly shows the two opposing team members at a seemingly much closer distance to each other (which can be credited to some sort of camera trickstery), and offer no view of the audience in the background.

Screenshots of the intermissions. Top row, left to right: NES, Game Boy, DOS EGA.
Bottom left: Commodore 64. Bottom right: Commodore Amiga (disk corrupt)


Some of the home conversions featured easter eggs in the form of Konami game adverts between the second and third period. Mind you, they wouldn't always appear - I haven't really figured out, when they appear, or if they even appear in all versions. Basically, all you should have to do in order to make the intermission appear, is simply to wait a while after the second period is over, and gets to the score display. The NES version is the only one that allows you to play a brief segment of Gradius (or Nemesis, depending on your location) at the beginning of the advert sequence, but most of the versions in which these adverts are featured, a good number of Konami games are shown with bold claims at the end about fantastic graphics and exciting game play, and about how all your friends will want to play these games. The C64 version only has Double Dribble featured, but even having that one shown as an intermission is a bit of a surprise. Also, in addition to the FAMICOM DISK SYSTEM version differing from its cartridge counterpart by having no intermission segment, it is also missing the animation of the referee picking up the puck from the goal. Again, the GAME BOY version differs from the rest by throwing out the game adverts, and instead features a completely new animated sequence, in which a hockey mascot shoots the puck out of the arena and near the sun, and then the puck falls back the exact same route it flew up and knocks the mascot down.

Ending picture of the winning team. Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Arcade, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: Game Boy, DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, NES/FDS.


When the match is over, both teams are called to the middle of the arena to form a line on each side of the middle red line. The losing team skates out of the arena and the winning team stays in. In the original ARCADE version, one of the team members is given a trophy, and he then leads the team all around the rink, holding up the trophy, and then they finally settle into the middle section of the arena to cheer their victory in the manner you see above. In all the other home conversions but the GAME BOY and DOS CGA versions, the game ends with a greyscale snapshot. In DOS version's CGA mode, since there is no grey colours in use, you get a CGA-coloured picture frame, while in the GAME BOY version, you get a completely different kind of a picture showing the winning team in the scoreboard.

Exclusive bits from the Nintendo Game Boy version (top row) and the Arcade version (bottom row).


The rest of the graphics are pretty much specific for certain versions. For one, the ARCADE version features another kind of a bonus game, in which you block the stupidly quickly shot penalties, and there's also the high score tables and the Game Over screen. The GAME BOY version has its own kind of an animated sequence for scoring a goal, as I mentioned earlier - you can see it in the top row of the above picture. Also, there's another Game Over screen in the GB version. The joystick calibration screen from the DOS version I've already shown earlier. Finally, regarding some of the copy protection screens: the C64 version has a completely separate copy protection code screen made in pure Basic characters shown before the title screen - just purple text on an otherwise empty black background; and the AMIGA version's copy protection screen is shown similarly to the DOS version, only the protection check is placed in the middle of the screen, so I didn't feel like it needed to be included in the above picture.

Highlighted players. Note: the DOS and GB versions are edited so that both teams' players are lit simultaneously.
Top row, left to right: Commodore Amiga, Arcade, Commodore 64.
Bottom row, left to right: DOS CGA, DOS EGA/Tandy, NES/FDS, Game Boy.


In the end, while the details, colours and animations are important enough when it's graphics we're trying to compare here, there's one other thing here you need to worry about: whether some aspects of the graphics are detrimental to gameplay. That's not something you usually need to worry about, but in this case, the highlighted player can become tiresome to look at, and even difficult to see clearly enough, if the game already suffers from either bad scrolling or screen update. SJ and I decided, that the AMIGA version was clearly the most tiresome to look at, even causing SJ some severe headache while playing it. The second-to-worst is a tie between the GAME BOY and DOS versions, but for different reasons. The GB version doesn't look bad as such, and the highlighted player isn't necessarily badly highlighted - there's an arrow above the highlighted player pointing down, and it quickly alternates between the selected members of the opposing teams and also alternates between black and white arrow with no relation to the background colours. It's just that due to the greyscale graphics and the relatively small screen, it's difficult to keep track of your players and the puck at all times. The DOS version feels like a half-way point between the AMIGA and GAME BOY versions, but compared to the AMIGA version, the screen update speed isn't as awkward, and the flashing highlight alternates between the two opposing teams' players, so they would be easier to follow, if it weren't for the notably higher overall game speed. The C64 version is easily the ugliest of the lot, but at least the players are easy to follow, and in this particular sense, it's almost as good as the NES/FDS version. Only the ARCADE version uses a simple highlight of a non-flickering or flashing aura of a notably different colour around the highlighted player, which really is the best possible manner to do this sort of a thing.

I guess it's obvious that the ARCADE original wins this round with flying colours, as there is nothing wrong with its graphics as such. The other versions I'm not so sure about, particularly as the amount of graphical content seems to differ between different versions, and we have not enough data to determine the exact amount of graphics. I do know, however, that there are some aspects of the game we haven't touched upon here due to the amount of time we have already wasted on this so far - of course, I'm speaking about the tournament mode and the results of winning or losing it. But I believe enough of the basics have been covered here, so it's time to put these versions into some sort of an order.

On a purely aesthetic basis, the AMIGA version is alright; only the player highlighting can be a bit painful for the eyes. The DOS version's EGA and Tandy modes obviously look the best, with the most colours and all, and the highlighted player isn't as tiresome as on the AMIGA. The CGA mode with only four colours is bearable, which is more than you can say about the black-and-white Hercules mode only fitting for certain types of screens. While the GAME BOY version suffers from an expected lack of colour, it redeems itself by having more graphical content than any of the other versions, and the player highlight is certainly more endurable than that of the AMIGA version, but the lack of colour and screen resolution makes it undeniably uncomfortable in comparison. The C64 version is an oddball - some of its graphics are better than in certain other versions (such as the penalty shots), but then the basic gameplay looks ugly and cumbersome, so I'm forced to give it a very low spot based on a majority bias.

1. ARCADE
2. NINTENDO ENTERTAIMENT SYSTEM / FAMICOM DISK SYSTEM
3. COMMODORE AMIGA / IBM-PC COMPATIBLES (EGA/Tandy)
4. NINTENDO GAME BOY
5. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES (CGA)
6. COMMODORE 64
7. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES (Hercules)

---

SOUNDS


Correct me if I'm wrong, but from what I recall, there were no ice hockey games before Blades of Steel, which would have featured music similar to the heroic sport tunes played as theme jingles for ESPN broadcasts and whatnot. To my knowledge, it was Double Dribble, developed by the same team, which started this tradition in team sports games. And not only that: along with Double Dribble, this is the point when sport games started getting verbose. Sure, there had been speech samples in Slapshot and its later incarnations, but the original arcade version of Blades of Steel had proper commentary, almost to the point of annoyance. Not because there was too much of it, but rather because there wasn't enough recorded material to keep things interesting for more than two minutes. Then again, the arcade game was only designed to be played a few minutes. Of course, you also get the obligatory crowd cheers and boos and bells and whistles, but my absolute favourite thing about the arcade set of sounds is the angry taunting and namecalling as you get into a fistfight scene - that's something none of the home conversions have.

However, the ARCADE version is a bit lacklustre compared to the NINTENDO versions, when it comes to music. Sure, there are a few fitting enough tunes that play in the background of some unimportant parts of the original version, but they all sound a bit plastic and generic. The proper "hockey rock" tunes (if you can call it an actual genre) were only introduced in the NES version, and it has two very effective tunes for selecting options and at the beginning of each period, a couple of more sedate tunes for the game's ending, and a separate dedicated tune for the Konami advertisement sequence, which is more characteristically Konami-like with Japanese arcade-style melodies and all that. Also, the NES/FDS versions feature, from what I was able to count, at least three different variations of the "Charge!" fanfare, the variables being in the arpeggios leading to the fanfare itself. The NES/FDS versions don't feature nearly as much speech samples as the ARCADE original, but there's still plenty enough - I counted five in-game samples in addition to the obligatory "Blades of Steel!" shout at the beginning. Otherwise, the sound effects are the basic stuff: puck ricocheting from walls, your players' skating noises and shooting the puck, crowd cheering and whistles.

One would suspect the AMIGA version would have a sound quality closest to the original, and in a way, it does. All the speech samples, of which there are a surprisingly low number, are of a higher quality than in the NES/FDS versions. The crowd cheering, skating, bumping and puck ricoheting noises are also much more realistic than on the NES/FDS, so the sound effects department has been definitely well taken care of. It's the music that's really underwhelming, as there's less impact and the stylistically required percussiveness and clarity in the Amiga soundtrack's instrumentation. Also, replacing the "Charge!" organ melodies, team Novotrade have fitted in a siren that plays at every goal, on top of the crowd cheering noise, naturally.

The C64 version has only one speech sample, and that is the obligatory "Blades of Steel!" announcement in the title screen. Otherwise, the sound effects are appropriate, if not of particularly high quality - just what you would expect from a Konami game on the C64, really. Again, team Novotrade has taken the least bothersome road regarding music, and the only really appropriately made tune is the single type of "Charge!" ditty used for scoring. The options tune is made with three similar violin-like instruments playing the two main melody lines and the bass part, so there's little in terms of punchiness there; however, it's still better than the pre-period tune, which is a completely different one from the other versions, and only features a single horn thing playing a brief melody with little sense to it. It really is one of the underachievements of the year, as far as C64 productions go.

When you really think about it, it's only about as good as the DOS version's beeper soundtrack, which has no higher quality option even in Tandy mode. While this also means, there are no speech samples, the beeper music and sound effects are plentiful, and fill the blank spaces more effectively than the sounds in the C64 version, although I think that might also have something to do with the much faster game speed in the DOS version.

By contrast, the GAME BOY version offers easily the most music from all the versions, and there are plenty of regular hockey-themed sound effects to go with all the great music. That said, all the speech samples are missing, and the music is not as iconic as the NES soundtrack, but I guess it's better to have some more music in case a proper commentary was not an option. I guess they must have opted for more graphical content instead of speech samples, which really is a good choice on the long run. On the whole, it's still a more entertaining package with the new sounds than any of the Novotrade versions.

For a game that is so well known for its sampled commentary and iconic hockey rock tunes from the NES version, it's difficult not to be biased about it. The ARCADE original does offer a much larger library of commentary samples and other voices, as well as the most realistic set of sound effects in general, so it definitely has that going for it. The NES/FDS and GAME BOY versions by contrast excel in their musical offerings. Every other version is unimpressive one way or another, and unless someone shows me a way to get the DOS version to play with better sounds, this is how I rank them:

1. ARCADE
2. NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM / FAMICOM DISK SYSTEM
3. NINTENDO GAME BOY
4. COMMODORE AMIGA
5. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES / COMMODORE 64

---

OVERALL


The thing about team sports games in general, that I have always hated the most about, is the questionable AI. Blades of Steel, being from the early days of such development, has that kind of questionability in abundance. My problems with the AI are: 1) the logic of selecting your team member, 2) the lack of logic given for the computer-controlled players in your team compared to those in the opposing team, 3) the logic of where the goalkeeper will pass the puck when there's more than one team member in sight, and 4) the logic of where the puck gets passed to. The versions with only one fire button feature a fifth one, as the game doesn't necessarily always recognize your attempt at passing the puck as such, and shoots it at a goal instead, or vice versa. I haven't played any modern hockey games since maybe 2007, so it's possible the AI logic has improved since then, but even 10 years ago, there was a lot to improve. Or maybe, I'm just not a team player, because I find it easier to plough on through with one selected man all through the arena and score a goal as I see fit.  Nevertheless, the AI in Blades of Steel leaves a lot to be desired, and now more than ever.

More than an exercise in AI, though, Blades of Steel is a hardcore one-on-one two-player game, even if you still need to rely on your artificial team members intelligence. This is why the home conversions are better than the arcade original. But just because I'm more comfortable with something, doesn't mean the unrelentingly mathematical overall results will agree with me...

1. NINTENDO NES/FDS: Playability 6, Graphics 6, Sounds 4 = TOTAL 16
2. ARCADE: Playability 1, Graphics 7, Sounds 5 = TOTAL 13
3. NINTENDO GAME BOY: Playability 5, Graphics 4, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 12
4. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES, EGA/TANDY: Playability 4, Graphics 5, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 10
4. COMMODORE AMIGA: Playability 3, Graphics 5, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 10
5. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES, CGA: Playability 4, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 8
6. IBM-PC COMPATIBLES, HERCULES: Playability 4, Graphics 1, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 6
7. COMMODORE 64: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5


Well, to be fair, you actually get used to the inconvenience of the ARCADE version after a few tries, but it's definitely not as nice to play as most of the home conversions. Just don't be fooled by the nice graphics and sound effects of the original - it's really the Nintendo lot you want to go with, be it the handheld system or the proper console. From the Novotrade versions, the DOS version is easily the most enjoyable, even with beeper sounds.

LCD handheld version of Blades of Steel.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot: Konami actually released an LCD handheld Blades of Steel game - you know, one of those big miserable things that you could fit on a shovel? I grabbed a photo of it from a forum called Neogaf, so if the person who finds out I took it to my own use here finds this objectionable, drop me a line and I'll take it off and link a part of this text to the page instead, but if won't be as nice to look at - if you can call it nice. I don't remember having ever played this one, and there doesn't even seem to be a remake of it, at least at Handheld Remakes. Apparently, it's an ungodly piece of garbage, with the controls being there basically for decoration, as the game seems to play randomly and if either side makes any goals, it's a stroke of luck.

And as if that weren't enough, Konami went on to make some sequels for Blades of Steel, but it took them over 10 years to do so. In 1999, they released their first of a planned annual series in the vein of EA Sports' NHL series, and NHL Blades of Steel '99 was released for Game Boy Color and Nintendo 64. A year later, they released NHL Blades of Steel 2000 for the rapidly aging first Sony Playstation, and this one was their last attempt at keeping the franchise alive. No one seems to remember these two games anymore, but the original lives on in many old gamers' hearts and minds, and for a good reason. It really was the first choice hockey game for many young gamers from 1987 to about 1992. That said, Nintendo's own Ice Hockey certainly gave Blades of Steel a run for its money, but it went about it a whole different way. Still, Hat Trick on the C64 remains my first choice hockey game.

Left: NHL Blades of Steel 2000 (Game Boy Color) -- Right: NHL Blades of Steel '99 (Nintendo 64)
That's it for today, hope that was worth the wait! Next time, I shall probably be returning to my series of Finnish Retro Game Reviews, which was put on hold after leaving for summer holiday, since I have no time this month for much else. After that, let's see what happens. Thanks for reading, see you later!

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