Tired of the same old button-mashing technique that's become all too important in sports games over the past 15 years? I was. In fact, I had stopped buying and renting sports games altogether, right around the release of NHL 98. Fortunately for me, 2006 brought with it a few games that rekindled my interest. EA's NHL 07 and Fight Night Round 3 are the beginning of my new love affair with sports games. The invention of the Skill Stick feature has replaced traditional, mindless button-mashing with something sports games have always lacked: player skill.
I know some digital sports fans out there are going to get caught up on my use of the word mindless. After all, EA and other sports franchises have done a good job over the years in adding new features to their games, giving players new tricks to master. The problem I have is more fundamental: In terms of the controls, not much has genuinely changed since the release of NHL Hockey for the Sega Genesis in 1991.
When my roommate bought an Xbox 360 earlier this year, I was excited. But my head hung low when I found out he bought nothing but sports games. I remember thinking the last thing I was going to do was sit down and spend hours on yet another boring game from the NHL franchise, nor was I likely to enjoy a new boxing game. I'm not a huge fan of the sport in general, and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out is probably the last digital version I enjoyed playing.
What I expected to find in NHL 07 and Fight Night was more of the same: D-Pad to move, X to shoot, Y to check or X for uppercut, Y for jab, Z to block. What I got were two dynamic games that actually required me to develop, use and retain skills rather than the button-memorizing I had become so disenchanted with over the years.
Then, the Skill Stick came and changed everything. This new invention has replaced those years-old buttons with a way to simulate the real-life actions you'd take while playing sports. In hockey, to take a wrist shot, you have to wind your stick back and come back for a smooth release. In boxing, a jab, a hook or an uppercut all require different arcs from the boxer's arm. The skill stick allows players to actually simulate those movements, engaging the player in a way simply not possible with button combinations.
Before now, it seemed as though sports games were more about learning tricks than they were about actual knowledge or skill in the sport. In various incarnations of hockey games, it's been everything from shooting from in between the face-off circles to the one-timer.
Gone, too, is the feeling I always had that I could pick up any new sports game and within a few minutes rely on old muscle memory to get me into form. Now, leaving the game behind for even as little as a week has me stumbling to remember how to get my wrist shot to fire in just the right direction at just the right moment, or how to land that left-right combination that leaves my opponent's head spinning.
Jon "Stradden" Wood is the News Manager at MMORPG.com and is a former GM for Wish. Wood is also a certified teacher in Nova Scotia, Canada.