NHL '96 / Electronic Arts / Sega Genesis
NHL '96 looks really sharp compared to its predecessors, it has nice new bassy sound effects and crowd sounds, but it plays slower and more sludgy than any entry yet in the series.
Players actually move faster than anything short of the original NHL/EA Hockey when moving north and south, but their east-west movement and body turning has been nerfed so badly they seem arthritic. Apparently this was an attempt to stop the cheap wrap-around goals that made scoring relatively easy in the previous installment, but between the geriatric player movements and the goalie now whipping from one side of the net to the other at the speed of light, it's virtually impossible to ever score even a legitimate wrap-around.
In the midst of all this the game still seems to use the same programming algorithms it always has, meaning your CPU partners refuse to respond to what you are doing to set up a play or get themselves into a clear passing lane. Cheap solo scoring could be said to be a weakness of the previous games, but it was kinda a necessity because pass scoring (without having two humans playing on the same team) was more a happy accident than anything else. Now the only reliable way to score is to take hard shots at the goalie while skating in and then try to scoop the rebound up and flip it in while he's out of position real quick.
The last time they tried to address cheap goals and low difficulty by pumping the defense and the goalies ridiculously was the 1994 edition, and that one ended up being good for multiplayer but mediocre for solo play. Same story here, but I'd say solo play is downright bad at this point. I'm all for realism in the right places but emulating slow, clutch-and-grab, trap-defense, low-scoring mid-1990s NHL hockey is not the right place. Worst overall entry in the series thus far. Oh, and using that godawful overplayed "Y'all Ready For This" techno song as your main theme was a horrible touch.
* Gameplay Video