Mario Lemieux Hockey for the Sega Genesis is the greatest hockey video game ever made. I’m 100% serious here. This is Game Overkill, not Atari Poop. I know that insisting I am serious only makes it seem less likely that I am in fact being serious, so let’s move on.
Since this isn’t a game most people are familiar with, I’ll start with some background information. Mario Lemieux Hockey was released in 1991 exclusively on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in North America and Europe. It was developped by Alpine Studios, a company who likely made a grand total of zero games you’ve played before. Despite that, at least one of their games was a freaking classic.
What really makes this game stand out for me is part of what made so many of the sports games from the early to mid-90s so great: instead of trying to simulate the sport, they tried to make it fun. As a result, there is a lot in Mario Lemieux Hockey that just does not exist in hockey, but it’s these things that make the game better than all the others.
For example, one thing that anyone who has ever played hockey will tell you is that penalty shots are extremely fun to take. It’s just you, one on one, with the goalie. The highlight of every hockey practice, if the players practiced hard enough according to the coaches, isn’t the scrimmage at the end, it’s the penalty shot competition that comes after the scrimmage. Unfortunately for hockey video games, penalty shots are dreaded because of how unfair they are. It is either nearly impossible to score or you’ve figured out some glitch where the goalie is essentially unable to stop your shot when it comes from a specific spot. Either way, it is bullshit. Even modern games have a hard time making this any fun. In real life, a penalty shot is a test of skill and reflexes, but in a game, no matter how quick your reflexes are, there is the lag between player and controller, controller and console/TV, then TV and your friend sitting next to you, that persone and the controller, that controller and the console, and so on for every single move the player and goalie make. Ultimately, it’s a crap shoot on both sides. You hope you guess correctly and your friend guesses incorrectly.
But in Mario Lemieux Hockey, someone decided to do something wonderful. Instead of a shootout, where each team takes penalty shots, they went with something I’d never seen before and have not seen since in a hockey video game. They chose to use a simple drill you sometimes see during a hockey practice: the corner-to-slot shot. Two players stand in the corners of the rink and pass the puck to a player standing in the slot who then takes a shot on the goalie. In the game, you have to take it as a one-timer, adding to the challenge for the shooter. You also choose where to shoot, top left, top center, top right, middle left, center of the net, middle right, bottom left, five hole, or bottom right. Player, or computer, must then choose to move the goalie in one of these directions to make the save. The shot comes slow enough to give the goalie a chance, but fast enough that it is still tough to stop the puck. This is the best “shootout” I’ve ever seen in a hockey video game. Challenging yet fair for the shooter and goalie. It is perfect. You can even choose to just play a shootout if you don’t feel like playing a full game and hope it finishes in a tie.
If you do want to play a game, it immediately shows you it’s better than every other hockey game, literally as the puck drops because the faceoff itself is the best. Two opposing players face each other and the referee drops the puck. You need to move your player forward and try to get his stick where the puck will land. Press B to swing your stick. You need to time it perfectly. If both you and the opposing player miss, the pucks bounces up again, but not straight up then down, it can bounce in any direction, so you need to move your player accordingly: up, down, forward, or backward. It is challenging, but also fun because it requires skill, not luck.
Now, since this is hockey, let’s get to the fights. The fights are awesome. The A, B, and C buttons allow you to jab, roundhouse, and uppercut your opponent. Pressing A+B or B+C will make you attempt a low blow. If you connect, the opponent will make a hilarious face as his eyes bulge out. You can move back and forth to dodge. If you get right up against your opponent, he will be unable to hit you without moving away from you. It’s fun and beats simply mashing buttons and hoping for the best the way it seems most hockey games handle fights. Best of all? Lose a fight, get a 3 minute penalty! I understand that in real hockey, a fight can shift momentum and energize a team, but in a video game, that stuff is fairly meaningless. Playing shorthanded for three minutes though, that has meaning.
Alright, so fights, faceoffs, and shootouts are great, but that alone isn’t a hockey game. The actual hockey is perfect as well. When you have the puck, A shoots and B passes, none of this up-down analog stick bullshit that makes it impossible to play a game of two-player couch versus because one person will mess up every shot because they’re attacking top-down this period. When you don’t have the puck, C allows you to change which player you control and A allows you to perform on of the most beautiful manoeuvres: when pressing A without the puck, the player you control will raise both arms, extend them in front of his face while holding his stick in both hands, and strike any nearby opposing player in the face with it. This is called a cross-check. Sure, the game may give you the occasional tripping penalty, but deep down, you know you cross-checked that guy in the face and it feels sooooooooo good.
As for penalties, other than losing a fight, they seem to be attributed randomly. Sometimes you’ll get one for cross-checking or slashing or tripping, despite the fact that you hit the same button and the the player in the same way, but most of the time, hitting A while without the puck is just like hitting the “make that guy fall and give me the puck” with impunity button. This is how hockey games should work. In modern hockey games, you’ll try to poke check, stick lift, slash, hook, and check a player with the puck as he skates by you as though he had the puck on a string. Not in this game! This is hockey in its purest, most brutal form, and that’s the way a hockey game should be.
Something else I should note: if you have two penalties at the same time, you can no longer trip, check, etc. You basically cannot stop your opponent from doing whatever they want. If you’re really good at fighting, your friend might start thinking twice about hitting too much, because as soon as you win two fights, they can’t do anything to you until one of those three minute penalties is up or until you score and negate one of them.
If you think I’m done, then you’re completely ignorant on how great this game is. Most hockey games allow you to play as your favourite player on your favourite team. Nothing beats skating as Steve Yzerman in the Red Wings’ “Winged Wheel” or lacing up as some other much worse player for an equally unimpressive team if you are someone with bad tastes in sports, right? WRONG! There is something better than that and it is playing as Mario Lemieux on a team full of Mario Lemieuxs and playing against another team full of Mario Lemieuxs. If you’re wondering if what I’m trying to say is that every single player looks like Mario Lemieux, then yes, that is exactly what I’m trying to say. The players all have different names, but they all look like Mario Lemieux. Not just any Mario Lemieux though, but CLASSIC Mario Lemieux. Just look at him up there. Mmmmmm. Yeah. Oui.
Now, some of you weirdos might be thinking “Yeah, but those old games were so basic. They didn’t even have fancy stats.” Once again, you are severely underestimating how amazing this game is. At the end of each period or whenever you pause the game, you will be greeted by 14 pages of stats. FOURTEEN PAGES! CHECK THIS MADNESS OUT!
Now, there is just one final thing to make this game go from great to perfect and it is something every perfect game needs: glitches. I couldn’t be more serious about this. I don’t mean constant, game-breaking glitches. I just really enjoying breaking a game, making it do, by accident or on purpose, what it isn’t supposed to do. This game has one “well-known” glitch that you can do yourself where the ice will be “black.” As a kid playing with friends, all kinds of messed up stuff would randomly happen, but the best was the time only one team took to the ice. My team lined up at centre ice for the faceoff while my friend’s team just wasn’t there. The game never started because the referee just waited for the other team. Even while taking screencaps and recording a video for this review, shit like this happened:
Back to the game itself, the controls are simple. I hate these modern hockey games that turn the game into some ridiculous fighting game combo memorization exercise. The players also skate around well. You can’t control the goalie unless he has the puck, which is fine. Show me a person who chooses to control the goalie when they play hockey games and I’ll show you a psychopath.
Finally, as with most hockey games, it can be a little tricky to score…unless you figure out two tricks. Once you do, it becomes a high scoring battle royale between you and the computer or a friend. The night before my wedding day, this is what my two brothers, two of my best friends, and I did for hours. I’m not even kidding. The game is that great. If you still don’t believe me, here’s a video of a shootout, fight, and game where I destroy Minnesota to prove it.
Alright, so the game is super flawed, but those flaws only make it better. Only one other person listed the game, and that person happens to be one of my friends I was playing it with the night before my wedding day. He’s been playing it with me for two decades now. It is decidedly not the greatest game ever made and not even truly the greatest hockey game ever made. That being said, it is great, a tonne of fun, and worth giving a shot, especially if you’re into hockey games. It might not have made the cut to be on the official Game Overkill list, but it’s on my list.