September 15, 2011
With the release of NHL 12, EA Sports continued its tradition of producing hockey video games with incredible detail and immersive entertainment — have you seen how pretty the Winter Classic mode looks?
Who knew the hockey's most realistic video game series owed a debt to a Japanese baseball game with teams like the Ghastly Monsters and the Ninja BlackSox?
Baseball Stars was released in Japan in 1989, eventually arriving on the Nintendo Entertainment System later that year. Its game-play was reminiscent of other baseball titles of the era, like R.B.I. Baseball. What separated it from the rest of the cartridges: It was just as fun being the general manager of the team as being the star player.
Which sounds a little like the experience EA Sports' NHL games have offered fans through their GM and dynasty modes.
NHL 12 producer David Littman said there's a reason for that.
"Our GM mode is based on Baseball Stars," said Littman, in Sweden this week to promote NHL 12. Outside of the NHL series for EA Sports, he said "that's my favorite sports game of all-time."
Baseball Stars was one of the first sports video games to have enough built-in memory so that users could create their own teams and players, while upgrading both during the season. The game also tracked stats during its seasons.
(Keep in mind video game tech was at a point in 1989 where simply being able to save progress on a game wasn't standardized.)
Using now-antiquated input prompts, you could name your team, name your players and then fiddle with your lineup. You picked your team logo and colors, too.
But the GM mode went beyond that. The players would have the usual strengths and weaknesses in batting, running, fielding and prestige. With each victory in season mode, a GM earned prize money. That money could then be applied to powering up each player's attributes, or to purchase new players with greater potential.
"I actually designed one of the original GM [modes], designing the NHL fantasy mode back in 2004, the first one that was in there. Baseball Stars was one of the inspirations," Littman said. "What I always wanted was a sports RPG [role playing game], and Baseball Stars was the first real sports RPG."
This was the secret of success for both Baseball Stars and the modern EA Sports NHL series: It wasn't about just about winning a championship but building a champion. The games satisfied the joystick jock at the same time they captivated the armchair GM. These were the first games in which you could not only play as a superstar, you could create and nurture a player until he became a superstar.
And then unceremoniously cut him.
Or her, actually.
This week, EA Sports announced that it was giving users the option to create female players for the first time in its NHL games — yet another echo of Baseball Stars, which had female players you could unlock by answering a question in create-a-team mode ("What is a wren?" … oh, Japanese designers). They pitched softball-style, and wore skirts instead of pants at the plate. There was also an all-female team the computer would use in games.
"The female team in the game was awesome. The Lucky Ladies," Littman recalled, laughing. ("Lovely" Ladies, actually.)
So the greatest hockey series in the history of gaming was inspired by one of the most beloved, if a little obscure, baseball titles in the history of gaming.
According to Littman, the inspiration will continue."We're going to go even further in the future [with GM mode]," he said.
Hey, as long as we get a chance to create the Ninja BlackSox in NHL 13.
"You could do that right now," said Littman, "and put women all over the team."
Game on …