Thirty years ago, hockey video game Blades of Steel was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The game has stuck around, with several sequels and re-releases, as well as embedding itself into hockey culture, over the next three decades.
Created by video game company Konami, Blades of Steel was originally a coin-operated arcade game released in 1987. It was ported to the NES in 1988, various home computers in 1990 and the Game Boy in 1991. But 30 years later, it is the Nintendo version that is best-remembered. Blades of Steel came out in a simpler time. It was just realistic enough to be cool, but easy enough that anyone could learn to play it in five minutes. Blades of Steel for the NES had fast-paced five-on-five action, some play-by-play narration and even fighting — and fighting had consequences, as the winner of the fight would get a power play, while the loser would literally get dragged to the penalty box.
In celebration of the game’s 30th anniversary, here are 10 things that you should know about Blades of Steel.
1. The Box Art is Based on a Wayne Gretzky Photo
It would be understandable if you thought the two players fighting for the puck were just generic hockey guys, but the two players are modeled after Wayne Gretzky and Tomas Jonsson. The photo was taken during the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals between the Oilers and Islanders. On the Blades of Steel box art, the Oilers uniform colors, the players’ likenesses and uniform numbers were altered.
The same photo was used for reference for the Japanese version of Blades of Steel, called Konamikku Aisu Hokkē, which translates to Konami Ice Hockey. This box cover is closer to the reference photo, as it retains the Oilers’ uniform colors and Billy Smith’s Koho-brand goalie stick, reaching in for the poke check. Again, the players’ likenesses (and Gretzky’s number) was changed on the Japanese box art.
2. It’s “Get the Pass!”
The digitized voice in Blades of Steel was unique at the time, as not many games had speech due to the technical limitations of the Nintendo. The play-by-play, though sparse, still made Blades of Steel feel a bit more like a television broadcast.
But the voice was a bit hard to understand at times. We understood “Face-off,” “Penalty shot,” and, of course, “Blades of Steel!” But there was some debate as to what the voice was saying every time the puck was passed to another player. (As a kid, I thought it was “press the pass,” which really makes no sense now that I think about it.)
If you listen to the arcade version of the game, which has much-clearer audio, the announcer is saying “get the pass.” It is too bad that the other voice samples, specifically “Bruising check!” and “Perfect shot!” were not in the NES version.
3. The Japanese Version Is Not Very Good
Blades of Steel came out in North America in December 1988, right in the middle of the 1988-89 hockey season. In Japan, Konami Ice Hockey came out five months earlier, specifically on July 22, 1988. Apparently, releasing the game five months later in North America gave the developers more time to make a better game, because much of what made Blades of Steel so great is missing from Konami Ice Hockey.
Most noticeably, there’s no voice! When the title screen appears, you hear the familiar “Sching!” sound effect, but no voice saying “Blades of Steel” afterward. OK, that makes sense, as the game isn’t actually called Blades of Steel in Japan. But the voice isn’t anywhere in the game; not even in Japanese. So, no “Face-off!,” “Get the pass!” or “Fight!”
Speaking of which, there is no fighting in Konami Ice Hockey. The game also lacks any of the fun stuff that usually happens during the second intermission; so, no animation of the dog shooting the puck, and no quick bonus game of Gradius, either. The game just goes to the third period. The scoreboard was also improved in the North American version of the game.
And when you win Konami Ice Hockey in Tournament Mode, the celebrating players don’t get a trophy like in Blades of Steel. All that work — and nothing to show for it.
4. The Teams Actually Have Nicknames
The teams in Blades of Steel, at least in the North American and European releases of the games, don’t have nicknames; they were just assigned their city names. Thus, the Chicago team was just “Chicago,” though most of us who grew up in Chicago and played the game liked to think that the team was meant to be the Blackhawks. However, the instruction manual for Konami Ice Hockey reveals that the teams actually have nicknames, which are as follows:
Los Angeles Hawks
New York Devils
Notice how the team names imply built-in rivalries: Chicago Angels vs. New York Devils (theological creatures), Los Angeles Hawks vs. Toronto Eagles (birds of prey), Montreal Fighters vs. Vancouver Bombers (military aircraft) and Edmonton Bears vs. Minnesota Wilds (uh, nature, I guess).
Back when Konami Ice Hockey and Blades of Steel came out, the NHL team in Minnesota was the North Stars, not the Wild. Still, it is kind of a quirky coincidence that the Minnesota team in the game is called the Wilds.
5. The Easy Way to Get a Penalty Shot
Anyone who has played Blades of Steel on the NES has no doubt figured this out by now. But for those of you who are playing the game today as DLC on a newer console, here’s a useful tip. Start a fight in front of the opponent’s net, and the referee will stop the play and award you a penalty shot. This works for the other team too, so be careful.
6. The Cheap Way to Win the Game
After getting a lead in Blades of Steel, there’s a cheap way to get a win against a computer opponent. Skate your puck carrier behind your own net. The opposing team’s forechecker will repeatedly run into your goalie and get knocked down trying to get at you. You can just stand there until the clock runs out. I’m surprised some NHL teams haven’t actually tried this strategy, though the Flyers did something similar in 2011.
7. There’s a Secret Piece of Music
You probably remember the music from Blades of Steel, or at the very least the Menu, Game Start, Intermission, Final Score and Game End themes, as those were heard every time the game was played. And you’d probably recognize the three different “Goal” tunes if you heard them.
However, there was one piece of music on the NES Blades of Steel cartridge that wasn’t actually used anywhere in the game, referred to as “Unknown Theme A” (embedded above). This was discovered years later, when hackers figured out how to extract the files from the game cartridges. What it could have been intended for is anyone’s guess.
8. There are Some Awesome Covers of the Game’s Music
Those who love Blades of Steel no doubt love at least one of the tunes from the game. Maybe it’s the serene music played during the game’s menu screen (which, by the way, is my alarm clock tone on my phone), or the frenetic music at the start of the game. Several musicians were inspired enough by Blades of Steel to record their own cover versions of the tunes and share them on YouTube.
First, there’s this “metal” medley of the Menu Theme and Game Start music by “Phantomdive.”
Then there is this rock version of the Menu Theme by “LynxxSavior.”
“Retro Game Remix” performs a rockin’ version of the Intermission Theme — spaceship not included!
But my favorite is this hard rock remix of the Game Start theme by “Living Illusion.”
Go head and give that last one a listen now. I’ll wait.
9. There is a Rare Version of the Game
Blades of Steel for the NES was re-released with altered packaging when Konami decided to reissue its most popular games in 1992. The box and label on the game cartridge have a red frame around the artwork, and the added text “Konami Classic Series” at the top. However, the game itself, as well as the instruction booklet, are unchanged. While it isn’t necessarily super-rare, the “Red Box” or “Red Label” version of Blades of Steel is sells for more than the standard silver-label version.
10. There was a “Blades of Steel” Hockey Card Set
Well, sort of. Trading card company In The Game issued an insert set called “Blades of Steel,” which could be found in packs of 2017-18 Superlative Hockey cards.
These cards embedded a piece of game-used skate blade, from a pair of skates worn by an all-time great, on a trading card. Although these cards had nothing to do with the Blades of Steel game, the design obviously takes cues from the video game box, using a similar logo, as well as white and silver stripes along the sides.
BONUS: My Rec League Hockey Team is Named Blades of Steel
There are probably a hundred rec league hockey teams out there called Blades of Steel, and mine is one of them. OK, maybe this isn’t a Blades of Steel fact you need to know; just something that will no doubt prove how obsessed I am with the game, even 30 years after it came out.
So, which of these Blades of Steel facts did you find most interesting? Or what is your favorite memory of playing that game? Leave a comment and let me know! ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.