NHL HOCKEY '95 / Electronic Arts / Sega Genesis
NHL '95 finally brings the much-wanted season mode, as well as a battery backup to save progress along with it. The game engine itself is more or less identical to that of NHL '94, the only difference being somewhat softer goalies here - the bad ones are a little too easy, but the good ones are at more of a good balance now, where they were insane in '94. Manual goaltending is also much improved in this version, giving you the ability to stop different types of shots with different button combinations.
You can still skip straight to a playoff series if you want to, and the game also allows you to end a season at any point and proceed straight to the playoffs based on whatever the records happen to be at that time. This is something that more hockey, baseball and basketball games should have, as grinding through a 90-game season can get tiresome after a while if you have a chokehold on first place. Players also can win awards like the Hart Trophy at the end of the season as team and player stats are tracked throughout the duration, and in a nice touch you can look through all the final scores of the season to date with highlights such as hat tricks and remarkable goalie performances noted alongside of each one.
Along with the season mode, this version introduces the ability to create players, sign and release players to and from free agency, and trade directly between other teams. There's little in the way of checks and balances, which I think is a good thing overall, as it gives you the freedom to do whatever you want (if you want to run a more "realistic" season there is still the option to have the league give their opinion on trades, which prevents very imbalanced ones from occurring, and CPU-controlled teams don't ever do any trading on their own without you initiating it one way or another.)
Stadiums are still pretty bland, but they have their own unique pipe organ themes. I particularly like the one in Chicago, which I wish they would use now IRL instead of that godawfully annoying DUR DA DUR DUR DA DUR DUR 'tard singalong that they got from a beer commercial or whatever.
You can argue that NHL '94 is a bit more solid due to stiffer goalies and less glitching, and it might be better for multi-player, but I feel that '95 is the best overall well-rounded entry in the early part of the NHL series. I'd prefer to have goalies that are a little on the easy side than goalies that are insanely impossible in nearly every game. Also, fighting is still gone in this one, but I can't say I miss it at all. A fun fighting mode would be nice, but none of the fighting to date in the NHL series was any good at all, it was like one of those clunky arcade sequences that used to get tacked into PC adventure games. Seriously, you can just play some Street Fighter 2 if you want good fighting.
* Gameplay Video