NHL Breakaway 99 might be the first time I played an entire season, playoffs, and championship in a sports simulation game. Prior to that, I maybe put a total of 10 hours in Madden '94 on my SNES, and that was over the years I had owned the system. To say that I am a novice to sports sims would be an understatement. This is probably why I think NHL Breakaway 99 is a perfectly serviceable hockey game. Perhaps I will sample bigger and better sports experiences through my N64 library playthrough, but I didn't hate a minute that I played of the Sculptured Software and Acclaim Studios Austin title.
Featuring the NHL and NHLPA licences, Breakaway 99 has all the teams and players from the 98-99 season. I chose after some debate to go with the Detroit Red Wings for my quest to the Stanley Cup. This had nothing to do with the box art and more with my maternal Michigan roots, but it didn't hurt to use one of the best teams in the game. The opening menu has the default options one would expect from a sports game, allowing for quick matches, instant playoff brackets, and full season play. Each mode can be played with customized controls, rulesets, and preferences. Up to 4 players can face-off on the ice simultaneously, offering what I can only imagine to be a much more intense experience.
The overall presentation isn't terrible, and actually impresses slightly in a few areas. I particularly enjoyed the game ticker showing the results of other games in your current season, and especially the playoffs bracket and scoreboard style introduction to each post-season game. I would say the graphics in general are passable for the Nintendo 64. The crowds and flat sprite players on the bench are pretty bad, but can be overlooked. The player models are blocky and simple, yet retain a certain charm that I'm sure only becomes noticable after 20 or so hours of play. The effects on the ice add just enough arcade feel to the action, but can be turned off if you desire a purely spartan hockey game.
Control and gameplay are probably the strongest points towards NHL Breakaway 99's favor. The game speed can be tuned in the options to allow for a more arcade or simulation feel. At first, I thought the gameplay was a little simple with easy passing and shooting mechanics. This was quickly followed by the discovery of more nuanced control over the puck. The L or Z button can be used to quickly assign a dedicated passing button for each player on the ice, allowing for extremely fast and effective pass setups or one-timer shots. There are multiple check types to perform on defense, each having an advantage in a given situation or if the referee happens to be looking the other way. The R button can be used to skate backwards, create dekes, feints, or spin-moves that I unfortunately did not utilize enough during my play. The control stick offers good precision for shot and pass direction, and can absolutely mean the difference between an intercepted pass or a blocked shot.
The sound might be the most lacking part of the overall package, with stadium and announcer sounds leaving much to be desired. The player names are at least pronounced well and aren't compressed beyond recognition. Other than player names and numbers, and the occasional penalty description, the announcer actually doesn't say much at all. Play-by-play announcing wasn't exactly a feature that can be taken for granted on a cartridge based game, but the effort to include more voice samples would have been greatly appreciated. Music is also sparse, only existing as menu music and brief pipe organ themes played during games. At least that part is also true to the sport.
My favorite aspect of NHL Breakaway 99 is the coaching and player prospect system available during full season play. Various coaches can be hired to increase the stats of your team, in areas like offense, defense, conditioning, goal tending, and so forth. Points earned by performing well during season matches are spent towards hiring these coaches, as well as increasing the individual stats of your created player prospects. Created players can be assigned to the minors to increase their potential or can be put on your line-up to join the pros. Full control is available over your roster and line changes if you really want to become the team manager of your dreams. This quickly became a highlight of each season match, checking coach and stat costs against my earned points to see if I could squeeze more potential out of my team.
NHL Breakaway 99 might not be the finest representation of 12 players slapping a puck around an ice rink, but it works prefectly well enough for me. I don't know if I would go back to it to experience the Stanley Cup chase all over again considering I have plenty more sports games to conquer, but I enjoyed the time that I spent playing it.