It’s long been established by this point that when it comes to the world of hockey video games, EA’s NHL series towers over the competition and dominates the marketplace thanks to its official rosters and how its annual releases for decades now have become part of the collective consciousness. That doesn’t mean though that aren’t other options available for those who have grown frustrated with the incremental progress that the series makes each year and would love to see how an alternative to that series might play. On top of that, the Nintendo Switch does not have the EA NHL series, so with this Bush Hockey League review, let’s discuss one of the other hockey options out there.
Bush Hockey League Review
Bush Hockey League, which was first available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One back in 2017, has now been released for the Nintendo Switch. After playing it now in 2022, it proves the old adage about how the grass always looks greener on the other side. The game does a commendable job of making its lack of NHL licensing into more of a feature than a bug with a unique flavor to the art and its league play mode that takes its inspiration from the classic ’70s hockey flick Slap Shot. But it ultimately disappoints by being an inferior replica of the NHL series on the ice, despite its attempts at separating itself by leaning heavily into the violence and fighting aspects of the sport.
With that said, let’s strap on the skates and grab our sticks so we may wield them as weapons while we get into the nitty-gritty of what works and doesn’t work here.
What I Like
Art Style & Music
Right from the opening credits, the game’s sense of style immediately grabs your attention with its smeared and stained snapshots of players from the 10 teams in the BHL. These evocative drawings succeed in immersing you in a bygone era of hockey where rough-and-tumble leagues existed on the fringe and was played in working-class towns where the game itself was merely a sideshow for the violence that was bound to erupt eventually.
By setting the game in the ’70s, it’s more easily able to set itself apart from the NHL series by recalling the fashion of the era, complete with throwback pads and masks donned by goalies — and even the porn star mustaches that some players proudly display. There’s a great deal of charm in the details that the game utilizes in transporting you back to a fun chapter in the history of hockey. The old school aesthetic extends to the soundtrack as well, where instead of trying to fill it with hip modern artists, Bush Hockey League chooses to go another route with some arena staples like the Addams Family theme (just try to not snap your fingers, I dare you) and the classic “The Hockey Song” by Canadian legend Stompin’ Tom Connors.
Considering story mode is the only option the game offers aside from playing a meaningless exhibition game, it’s almost imperative that this aspect of the game delivers and, for the most part, it absolutely does. Offering a fresh take on playing within the framework of a league, the mode drops you into the midst of a season where your team, the Schuylkill Hinto Brews, is floundering near the bottom of the standings and tasks you with turning your ragtag group of players around.
While you play games, there are many of the helpful staples that you’ve come to expect from similar modes, including player stats, standings and a calendar so you can keep track of all of your upcoming matchups. A nice touch is how each game will have objectives that you’ll be expected to complete and, rather than only consisting of winning games, it will have you doing things like hitting a specific player on the opposing team or completing a set number of passes. If you’re successful with certain goals, you’ll be able to unlock some nifty hockey cards that you can add to your collection and peruse at any time by flipping them over just like a real card.
What I Don’t Like
Perhaps the best way of conveying how long it takes to load into every game of Bush Hockey League is that each and every time, there’s the eventual suspicion that the game may have actually frozen before it finally gets to the drop of the puck. It’s possible that it’s partly due to growing accustomed to the speedy load times on next gen, but there’s no doubt that load times can be a deterrent when you’re considering playing a game that you know will take an inordinate length of time to start.
Have you ever found yourself longing for the controls from NHL 16? Well, that’s roughly what the they feel like in Bush Hockey League, since all of the buttons are pretty much the same as the NHL series except they don’t feel quite as refined as the most up-to-date version. On offense, you’re able to perform quick wrists shots or wind up for booming slap shots, perform rudimentary dekes from side to side, and even hold down a button to switch to skating backwards, which can be just as overpowered in keeping the puck away from defenders as it has been in NHL for years now.
Unfortunately, a key weapon is missing from your arsenal because there’s no way in the game to unleash a one-timer. Defending also provides plenty of tools to use, but they aren’t quite as effective, and you can often find yourself trying to throw a body check or utilize a well-timed poke check only to have these become the very picture of futility when the opposing player skates right by you. It doesn’t help either that the physics and collision detection are lacking, so getting in the way of an opponent’s pass will result in it going through your man just as often as it leads to an interception. Most of the buttons are mapped on the Switch exactly as they are in the NHL games too, which is both helpful in picking the game up quickly and also leaves you feeling as if it’s doing too little to differentiate itself from the competition.
Aside from those deficiencies to the controls, there are a few other key ways that the game is being held back from delivering an enjoyable experience on the ice. One significant hindrance is that nearly everything about the goalies (aside from their cool retro attire) is atrocious, from an inconsistency that will see them stop several point blank shots in a row but concede lob shots from the blue line to being so limited in their animations that most of their saves are made on their feet with little to no movement at all. This is indicative of the problems the game has with AI in general, something that probably shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider that the NHL series still hasn’t completely cracked this case either. This leads to teammates frequently being out of position (particularly on defense) and opponents becoming unstoppable machines on the highest difficulty level.
It’s especially disappointing that the game’s attempts to deviate from the NHL playbook and lean into the mayhem and bloodshed ultimately fall flat. This is largely because when you do decide to drop the gloves and settles things with an opposing player using fists, fighting in the game just isn’t really all that fun. All you can do is throw and dodge punches, meaning that the mechanics are even more limited than those in the NHL series, which simply shouldn’t be the case when this is a key angle in how you’re trying to make a name for yourself in the video game hockey market. There’s also some strategy involved in taking out fatigued players and temporarily disposing of the referee so you can freely hit anything that moves, but this is neither clear nor prominent enough to have it become a worthwhile addition to the game of hockey that’s being played.
Lack Of Modes And Features
As mentioned previously, the only modes the game has for you are exhibition games and story mode, leaving you wanting for something like the ability to at least play against friends online. Even when you’re playing games though, the absence of a standard feature like instant replay sends the clear message that the game is still many years behind the competition.
Though the execution of Bush Hockey League doesn’t ultimately live up to the novelty of its concept, the artwork throughout and its story mode deserve credit for evoking the rough-and-tumble life of minor league hockey in the ’70s just as it was depicted in Slap Shot. Ultimately, it sails wide of its target though by sticking too closely to and yet still trailing behind the NHL series when it comes to the controls and not being innovative enough in the gameplay department. It does make an attempt to implement some mechanics that lean into the more violent tendencies of the sport, but they aren’t nearly as rewarding or enjoyable as you would hope.