NHL '97 / Electronic Arts / Sega Genesis
At the point of NHL '97s release, I think EA had pretty much taken the series as far as they could in 2D. There were still a lot of little tweaks and improvements that could be made, to be sure; some are made here and some aren't. On the whole, however, I think the game is both the best of the NHL series released to this point and also the best 2D hockey game of its time that I've gotten around to playing.
The game has the nice, sharp visuals of NHL '96 ... actually, it pretty much recycles most of the infrastructure and graphics of that game. There's little things here that I never noticed before, however, like how the players angrily slap the door to the penalty box open with their sticks, or how the plexiglass at the back of the ring wobbles when someone gets body-checked into it. Unfortunately, the rampant recycling also means that annoying "Yall Ready For Dis" song gets used during the pause screens in between periods here as it did in '96 ... outside of that the sound and music are passable, if not inspiring (I think this game has the weakest goal siren sound yet.) The player animation is by far the most pleasant and fluid to watch of the Genesis games to date ... it's so good it even stacks up favorably to more modern hockey games with this sort of view.
Season mode has unfortunately been limited a bit from the previous installments - for some reason you can only pick one team to control and can't play the other games, unless I'm missing something. You can save up to four seasons at a time, though, so it may have been an attempt to make space for households with multiple siblings playing to each have their own seasons going, I dunno. Otherwise, no complaints here - you get evaluated trades (the game is pretty loose but it won't allow ridiculous stuff like one player of a 60 rank to trade for like a 90), create-a-player, free agency and complete control of your lines with in-game substituting. There's little in the way of frills here, with no highlights and such like in previous NHL games, but all the fundamentals are present and work well.
The one major weakness of the gameplay is that your CPU allies really don't respond to your moves on offense very well, which is a weakness present in all the games up to this point. Whereas solo scoring was the way of choice in previous installments, the goalies remain at the tightened-up levels of '96, but shooting accuracy and speed seems to have been raised a lot on average. So the new hotness in this one is dump-and-chase, and putting hard shots on goal and then either trying to scoop your own rebound or hope a CPU ally actually gets in front of the net at the right time. It'd be nice to be able to call basic general strategies like "park near the net when we're in the offensive zone because I'm gonna throw pucks there all night", but I guess we just weren't at that programming point yet in 1997. Anyway, I actually dig the new style here, it adds a level of challenge to what had traditionally been an easy game without making it too frustrating to score.
Exhibition mode gets a few fun perks here - aside from being able to trade freely and totally mess with rosters, there's now a USA, Canada and Europe team to play around with. There's also skills mini-games such as those seen at the NHL All-Star break, such as target shooting, skating and shootout competitions.
Fighting is also back, for the first time since 1993 I believe. It seems a lot tougher to instigate a fight here, though, and you rarely see it happen. When it does it's still janky rock-em-sock-em robots style like it was before.
Each team also apparently gets one player with a special skill of some sort, but I've never found a comprehensive list of what they are, and I don't know how to actually execute any of them. Maybe it's in the game manual? Be nice if I had one of those.
Hot and cold streaks for players have also been removed, probably a wise move as they were really random before.
The game doesn't have absolutely everything you want, but all the fundamentals are done right, and there isn't some quality that renders it a pain in the ass to play as with some previous versions. So it gets the big smiley from me.
* Gameplay Video