From 1994 to 1999, the St. Louis Blues employed a man named Anthony Twist for the purpose, at least in theory, of playing hockey as a winger. Tony Twist, as he was known to friends, fans, and foes, was not a particularly skilled hockey player. He was better than me, and probably better than most people, but compared to other people who were similarly employed for the purpose of playing hockey, he was pretty terrible. That was because his job wasn’t really to play hockey. Hockey was a front, like a New Jersey waste management company or the NBA, for more nefarious business.
Tony Twist was an enforcer. His job wasn’t puck control, or scoring goals, or blocking the net. His job was to beat the living shit out of someone on the other team. Everyone knew it. During games, the crowd would go wild when Twist took the ice because they knew he was out there to throw down his gloves and throw up his fists. And he wasn’t alone. Almost every team had an enforcer like Twist, and they usually ended up fighting each other
To people that know hockey, this is all perfectly normal. To those that don’t, I probably sound like I’m making all of this up. I’m not. Fighting in hockey is accepted as a part of the sport in North America. It is like the seventh inning stretch in baseball, except that it’s actually appropriate to sing “God Bless America” during a hockey fight.
This brings me to the topic of this week’s games, Blades of Steel for the NES and its erstwhile descendant, Blades of Steel ’99 for the N64.
The very name Blades of Steel invokes violence. Back in the dark days of the late 80s and early 90s, I can picture a kid going to the local video rental store and leafing through the NES games. The box art is missing from most, and an original manual is even harder to find. She leafs through the generic clear plastic cases until she sees a title that intrigues her: Blades of Steel. Now, this kid loved the original Ninja Gaiden for the NES just like any sane person, so she gets excited. Surely this is another ninja game, or maybe a samurai brawler. At least she can be sure it contains swords and action, right? She rents the game, runs home, and finds out that she was wrong. It’s a fucking hockey game. The weekend is either ruined, or another poor soul is halfway on her way to becoming a hockey fan.
This title isn’t accidental. It is meant to invoke the violence of hockey, which ran rampant when it was released. It was intended to telegraph the fact that Blades of Steel was the first hockey game to include fighting as a game play mechanic. And this wasn’t just a gimmick. Ask anyone what they remember about Blades of Steel. Most people will give you a strange look, and perhaps try to figure out if you are lost or somehow mentally disabled, because you are asking them about a goddamn NES game, you weirdo. But pester them long enough to convince them to pity you and they will tell you that the most memorable part of the game was the fighting.
Despite its name, Blades of Steel is not Base Wars or Mutant League or even Blitz. It isn’t licensed, but otherwise it holds itself out as an accurate representation of North American ice hockey. Yet straight-up getting into a fight–which is against the rules–is a game play mechanic that can help you win. Only in hockey.
Unlike the massive annualized franchises of the day, Blades of Steel never received a proper sequel, but its impact on the landscape of hockey games was felt harder than the impact of Colton Orr’s fists on Todd Fedrouk’s already fractured skull. NHL Hockey, the predecessor to EA Sports’ legendary NHL series, released for the Mega Drive two and a half years later and featured a fighting system. It was removed for NHL 94 and 95, but returned in 96. From then on out, it was a focal point of upgrades to the game, and now uses a modified version of EA’s Fight Night engine. The NHL 2k series always had fighting, and the short lived Wayne Gretzky 3d was rumored to have Mortal Kombat-style fatalities (it didn’t).
Konami didn’t revisit the Blades of Steel name until a decade later, releasing the following for the Nintendo 64:
Blades of Steel 99 was a bad game. There’s no getting around this. It played terribly, the graphics were muddy, and just… Everything that was wrong with gaming in the late 90s was distilled down into a toxic sludge, then poured into this game. Clumsy models, awkward colored lighting, terrible rock “music”. Just look at that video above. My god. It’s like Trent from MTV’s Daria moved to Canada and suffered a grand mal seizure.
Unlike the first Blades of Steel, which was released in the early days of sports games when licenses were hard to come by, Blades of Steel 99 features full NHL and NHLPA licenses. This means that you can play as awful, blocky representations of all your favorite players from your favorite team, with correctly colored uniforms and logos that looked accurate if you squint and tilt your head.
Being as this game was released in 1999, and featured the rosters of the 98-99 season, This means that my favorite enforcer is right there on the St. Louis Blues roster, ready to smash faces into boards, then smash fists into faces, then probably smash old beer cans into his fists to toughen them up, because he’s crazy and crazy people do shit like that.
Even though Sir Anthony of Twist’s renowned pugilistic skills are poorly represented in Blades of Steel 99, fighting is still part of the game. As seen above, it’s even one of the six skills players are graded on. This is no surprise, as hockey games–and especially the original Blades of Steel–were known for their brawling as much as their hockey.
But why? In almost any other sport, the fight is forbidden. There are occasional scraps in baseball, but they are few and far between. Football, which might as well be a heaping serving of violence placed into a spoon and heated into liquid for the American public to shoot into their veins, strictly forbids fighting. More to the point, the NFL has been incredibly strict as to how football is portrayed in video games. Midway had to repeatedly tone down the late hits and even celebrations in NFL Blitz to keep its license, and only went full crazy with Blitz: The League after losing it. Why is hockey so different, to the point where the NHL is perfectly fine with playable brawls, “fight” ratings, and even the incorporation of a boxing game engine later EA NHL titles?
To understand the meaning of hockey fights, we have to understand desire. In Violence and the Sacred, philosopher René Girard explains that desire is mimetic. Now, if you’re like me, when you see the word “mimetic” you assume that it has something to do with treasure chests that sprout teeth and attack when you get near them. Fortunately, that’s a useful framework to discuss Girard’s ideas. When we desire something–whether it is a physical object like the copy of Saints Row IV sitting in a warehouse until Tuesday or an abstract concept like love or acceptance–our desire is not innate. Rather, it is learned. That is to say that when you approach the treasure chest, it is because you have learned that a treasure chest symbolizes something to be sought and desired, rather than feared. This is why it is so surprising when it suddenly attacks you.
Girard posits that we don’t learn to desire the treasure chest from experience (at least not at first) but through imitation. We see that other people seek out treasure chests, and we learn that treasure chests are good and that we will be happy and that, most importantly, those treasure chests will not suddenly attack us. Unfortunately, this leads us to desire things that other people already want, because we are imitating those people, and puts us in conflict with them. Girard loved the Oedipus complex because it could be read as an allegory of this process. Also René Girard, like most French philosophers, is really kinky.
Hockey is all about the puck. If your team has the puck, you are on top of the world. You’re in position to get a goal. If the other team has the puck, well, you better do everything short of killing your father and sleeping with your mother to get a hold of it. In Hockey, the puck is the object of desire. But that puts players in conflict with players on the other team and conflict leads to violence. This is the novelistic truth of hockey.
Now, of course, you’re asking how this differs from any other sport. Plenty of sports have something like the hockey puck–a Desired Object–over which the teams struggle to maintain control. Soccer is damn near hockey with a large, kickable ball and you don’t have boxing matches break out in every other game of FIFA. We’re still stuck with the same damn question: why is hockey different?
There are a couple ways in which hockey differs from every other major sport that involves chasing a Desired Object around the field of play. First, hockey is played on ice with skates–blades of steel–attached to the players’ feet. Second, everyone has a giant goddamn stick. Most hockey sticks are about as tall as I am, which means that players are armed with a dangerous weapon should they want to use it.
Returning to Violence and the Sacred, Girard hypothesizes that as the rivalry over a desired object increases, eventually the object actually drops from view. The rivalry becomes more important than the object, leading to violence. Now, instead of imitating desire of the object, people imitate the desire for violence. This can lead to a terrible downward spiral in which everyone dies and no one gets the object, so basically the end of every dark heist film ever.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on who you are in this process, there is a braking mechanism to prevent this. Imitating desire for conflict rather than the desire for an object eventually leads people to coalesce and fight against a single enemy. This enemy, or victim, or scapegoat depending on which work of Girard’s you are reading, is then destroyed and peace returns to humanity. It’s kind of fucked up for the scapegoat, but humanity gets to move on through the cycle. New desires are inflamed. Violence rises again, and a new scapegoat is created.
Girard believed that this cycle was the origin of ritualistic sacrifice. From the Greeks to the Aztecs to the allegory of Christ, religion and culture throughout human history is full of the idea that one person can take the weight of humanity’s horrible tendencies upon their back, and appease the Gods with their sacrifice. Believe it or not, hockey fights can work the same way.
Hockey enforcers will tell you that they protect the team’s star players. By engaging in fights, and taking the hits and the penalties, they prevent violence from being enacted upon their teammates. Normally, if you put a bunch of men in their 20s and 30s in a highly competitive situation, then give them sticks, people are going to get hurt. Enforcers act as a braking mechanism on this violence. Hockey fights between these enforcers are the kind of ritual sacrifices described by Girard. Enforcers put on their own version of a passion play. Their job is to fight. Their job is to get hurt. And then their job is to sit in the penalty booth so that everyone else can play the game.
In adding fights to video game hockey, Blades of Steel recognized the role of fights in North American ice hockey. It is ritual violence, meant to symbolize the open hostilities that the two teams have come to feel for one another. Unfortunately, unlike the surrogate rituals provided by religion, hockey fights are also real violence, and the enforcers who participate an end up hurt or worse. And violence that is meant to prevent greater injury ends up glorifying violence itself. No one gasped in horror every time Tony Twist took the ice, though that would be the proper response to the appearance of a man about to perform a brutal, bloody ritual to maintain the relative peace.
I wonder how many kids in St. Louis grew up wanting to be like Tony Twist, absorbing the mimetic desire for violence without the context. To a young boy, who doesn’t understand that beating up people and getting realistic tiger tattoos isn’t cool, Twist is a dangerous figure to imitate. Maybe this explains the popularity of UFC, which explains a rise in brain damage, which even further explains the existence of Smurfs 2. Or maybe we’re lucky, and they all played enough Blades of Steel to know that fighting doesn’t lead to success, it leads to a terrible future where everyone steals your ideas and you turn into a terrible Nintendo 64 game.