A look at NHL ’94‘s long-lost cousin
Hockey video games were far and few between in the 1980s, but that changed in the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1992, hockey games released for home video game consoles included Wayne Gretzky Hockey, Mario Lemieux Hockey, TV Sports Hockey, Hit the Ice, NHL Hockey and NHLPA Hockey ’93. By the fall of 1993, four more hockey video games came out: Pro Sport Hockey, Brett Hull Hockey, NHL Stanley Cup, and most notably, NHL ’94.
A fifth hockey video game was supposed to be released in fall of 1993, but it didn’t make the cut. Entitled Road to the Cup Hockey ’94, the game was going to feature an elaborate artificial intelligence system, full season mode and playoff brackets — and it might have even challenged NHL ’94 as history’s best hockey video game from the classic gaming era.
Up until this point, very little was known about Road to the Cup Hockey ’94. But not anymore. I spoke with video game programmers Noah Stein and Tom Schenck, who worked for Park Place Productions back in 1993, and have shed some light on this ill-fated hockey video game.
The Road Not Taken
One of the only published mentions of Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 was from Schenck’s resume, which he posted on Usenet back in May of 1994, listing out the video games that he had worked on up to that point:
Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 (Park Place Prod.), Electrobrain (Super NES)
Unreleased. Sole programmer. Developed tokenized-AI routines
and improved SNES sprite engine/support library.
Other than that, not much has been said about the game, although it was discussed on the NHL94.com forums in 2015. No pictures or artwork for the game are known to exist, but a prototype of Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 was shown at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Chicago in June 1993.
“The demo showed only the rink and two teams,” said Schenck, who was the programmer for the Super Nintendo version of the game. “No other options were really ready at the time. It was not near release, really.”
“We attempted to get something fairly playable for CES,” said Stein, the programmer for the Sega Genesis version of Road to the Cup Hockey ’94. “I did a lot of work, maybe three months, tops, by the time CES rolled around. I had some stuff working, where you could skate around and pass back and forth. I had a slap shot in. The puck could actually go in the the goal, but it wasn’t detecting scoring. And there was a bunch of AI running, but it was very rough at that point.”
According to both Stein and Schenck, the game’s producer had created around 900 pages of flowcharts to dictate what the players would do in every situation possible.
“The producer was a real hockey fan, and had a huge plan for the AI,” said Schenck. “The AI system was designed to pick and adjust from a playbook for the teams as the situation changed. The players coordinated between themselves a bit.”
“As you know, each team has six guys on the ice,” said Stein. “There are four situations you could be in. You could be on offense with the puck, on offense without the puck, on defense guarding the man with the puck, or on defense guarding someone else. Right there, you have 24 combinations. And then the ice was broken up into 36 different regions on the ice. Depending on which position you were on the ice, it would choose one of these 800 different combinations. And then there were some additional situations, like five-on-four, or if you pulled the goalie, which added a whole extra 100 or 200 decision trees. I spent a big chunk of time transcribing those AI decisions trees.”
Unfortunately, none of this elaborate AI made it into the demo.
“What we ended up doing was chopping it back to where you could skate around and pass to somebody else,” said Stein. “There was no AI, and we had the other guys just kind of skating in a circle. That’s all that ended up in the demo.”
Insane in the Electro-Brain
Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 was going to be a collaboration between Electro-Brain and Park Place Productions. If the latter company sounds familiar, it is because Park Place made a huge splash in the early 1990s by developing John Madden Football for Electronic Arts — before the company was more commonly called by its famous initials, EA.
Park Place also went on to develop NHL Hockey for Sega Genesis, and NHLPA Hockey ’93 for the Genesis and Super Nintendo systems. Madden and the early NHL/NHLPA games were programmed by Jim Simmons, and all of those games were so successful that EA decided to hire Simmons away from Park Place. EA also developed NHL ’94 in-house, meaning that Park Place would no longer be involved with EA.
However, by then Park Place had gained a reputation for making great sports video games. From 1990 to 1995, the company developed 16 different sports video game titles, including Muhammed Ali Heavyweight Boxing (Genesis), NFL Football (SNES) and ESPN Baseball Tonight (Genesis).
Video game publisher Electro-Brain was also trying to make a name for itself in sports video games, and ultimately released three sports titles: Tony Meola’s Sidekicks Soccer (SNES), Boxing Legends of the Ring (SNES & Genesis) and Tommy Moe’s Winter Extreme: Skiing and Snowboarding (SNES).
Around the time that these other three sports titles were in development, Electro-Brain was also working on Road to the Cup Hockey ’94. It contracted Park Place Productions to develop the game, perhaps because of its work on the original NHL Hockey and NHLPA Hockey ’93.
Since Park Place was no longer involved in EA’s NHL series, it made sense that it would want to work on a new hockey title.
Send in the Clones!
According to Stein, Road to the Cup was going to be very similar to EA’s early hockey video games.
“It was definitely designed to be essentially an NHL clone,” said Stein. “Maybe play a little bit differently, but for the most part, feel somewhat similar to it. It was going to be the same top-down view as NHL Hockey and NHLPA Hockey ’93.”
And it is entirely possible that Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 would have re-used the graphics that Park Place created for NHL Hockey and/or NHLPA Hockey ’93, meaning that it would have looked a lot like its competition.
“Normally, when a developer does a game for a publisher, there’s some sort of exclusivity,” said Stein. “But Park Place, coming up from Madden and NHL fame, basically negotiated the rights to keep the source code and the ability to reuse it.”
Most famously, Park Place took its John Madden Football game for Sega Genesis, altered the graphics and stripped away many of the features to make Joe Montana Football. Thus, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for Park Place to reuse some of its graphics from its earlier games for Road to the Cup Hockey ’94.
But what might have truly set Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 apart was a full-season mode, which was noticeably absent from NHL ’94.
“Road to the Cup was going to have a season system,” said Schenck. “There was a plan for team progression to the Stanley Cup. Of course, that was only prototyped.”
The Road to Nowhere
Road to the Cup Hockey ’94, unlike NHL ’94, would have supported at least two different points of view.
“Park Place ended up working with Sony, who at the time had licensed ESPN National Hockey Night,” said Stein. “The deal with Electro-Brain was still going on when Park Place signed a deal with Sony. And according to the deal, Park Place did have the rights to re-use code. At one point, I was working on a sideways scrolling version, so that Road to the Cup had both horizontal and vertical views.”
According to Stein, the horizontal view was being programmed into Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 not because Electro-Brain asked for that feature, but because the plan was for the code for Road to the Cup to be reused for the ESPN National Hockey Night video game.
But Road to the Cup met a dead end. The game missed deadlines; not from lack of trying by its programmers, but because of unrealistic expectations levied on Park Place’s employees in the first place.
“Park Place underestimated all schedules in order to underbid on contracts,” said Schenck. “This made the worker folks like me work 80-plus hours a week to keep up with the terms of the contract. I had a sleeping bag under my desk. The sleeping bag was standard equipment at the time for coders. Park Place had official bunk beds.”
“At that point, they had been well-past the budget,” said Stein. “And Electro-Brain wasn’t paying anything over the agreed-upon budget. Nonetheless, they were getting behind on the money on that. I don’t know exactly why, but Electro-Brain agreed to cancel Road to the Cup, or Park Place got Electro-Brain to agree to cancel it, because things weren’t moving.”
By the end of 1993, Park Place Productions was on a death spiral. The company missed deadlines, so producers ceased paying them. Park Place could not pay its employees, and many of them went to work for Sony’s new video game studio, Sony Imagesoft.
While it is possible that code from Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 may have been used in Sony’s ESPN National Hockey Night, released in 1994, neither Schenck nor Stein knows for sure, though some of Stein’s former colleagues have told him that was the case. Park Place sued Sony, claiming that former Park Place employees took hardware, software and video game source code from Park Place to Sony when Sony hired them.
Park Place continued to make video games until 1995, but Road to the Cup Hockey ’94 never made it past the initial demo from 1993.
“I do not think that Road to the Cup passed more than two milestones in the contract,” said Schenck. “I think the publisher was not willing to spend the time to make the product to vision. Road to the Cup never got to the ‘This could be a great game’ point.” ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.