SPORT simulations have a habit of falling short of expectations. They generally fit into two categories: Raving joystick wagglers and the million-parameter strategy marathons with no game to play. With respect to TV football fans we have yet to see a sport simulation which gets that critical mix of strategy and arcade action right.
Wayne Gretzky Hockey was voted Best Sports Simulation of '88 in the USA, where pounding the puck is as much an institution as the hot dog. They were bound to like it. But bring it over here where no one knows who Wayne Gretzky is, and the odds are it is not going to sell. Which would be a shame.
After a surprising animation sequence followed by a good title tune and digitised HAM loading screen, you begin to feel you have something special in your drive. Something tells you that this piece of software was written for the Amiga by people who know what they were doing.
The no frills Game Setup Menu is packed with options to click on. There are home team and visiting team columns. You can play either of the two, neither of the two, or both, where it helps if a friend joins you.
There are four modes of play. Control Player puts you in charge on the ice; all coaching decisions are handled automatically. You move a mouse-controlled cursor around the rink and the player you are controlling, easily recognised by his white helmet, follows the cursor.
Combinations of cursor movement and button-presses control his actions, right down to grabbing an opponent and holding him against the boards. In two-player mode, your friend would control his man on the opposition in port two.
For people who hate or are no good at arcade action, there is a Coach Only mode. Here you are responsible for setting up the 18 team formations and deciding when to make changes during a game.
The best part of Coach Only is that you do not have to stop the game to make changes. Function key presses cause the team to start a different play or to come off the ice while the next formation piles on. In this simulation you do not just choose parameters before the game then sit back and watch - you have to continue taking coaching decisions throughout the game. Once you have mastered both the above modes you can choose to play and coach together. Difficult, but it gives you an incredible feeling of power over the game's outcome. Ice hockey is fast - one bad decision or play and you could find yourself a couple of goals down.
The fourth mode of play is my favourite - Wayne Coaches. Here the computer handles the coaching and the play on the ice. See both teams to this mode and you can sit back and feast your eyes and ears.
The sound effects are sampled from real rink. The puck being slapped, the carsh of bodies and puck against walls, the murmur and roar of the crowd, the referee's whistle - they are all there to add even more realism.
If you missed the action when a goal is scored, and instant replay option lets you view the last eight seconds of play in normal, slow or fast motion, forwards or backwards. Nice touch.
When play is stopped because of a foul the viewpoint changes to 3D with an action replay screen hanging from the roof. Here you see an animation of the referee's sign language for the fuel he has blow for. When fights occur - I have yet to instigate one - the action is shown on this screen.
Teams can be set to play at any of four difficulty levels ranging from High School to Pro. You can set the periods to be 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes. Play can be either Slow or Normal. For Normal read Fast.
Games and teams can be saved or loaded at any time, even during a period. Four teams are supplied, while an editor allows you to make up your own teams, giving each player strength ratings in 11 categories. Give every player a raging of nine in every category and you will have an invincible, if not very realistic, team.
You can display game stats and team rosters or send them to a printer. When coaching, printouts are indispensable.
The short manual explains all the options and how to use them clearly. There is even (thank heavens) a brief description of the rules of ice hockey, plus hints on coaching and controlling players. What it does not explain is that the game will not run properly on a machine with extra memory, which is weird because the box claims additional graphics with 1 meg. Sorry chaps, got to knock some marks off that.
In the end it did not matter, it was worth unplugging everything and upending my machine. Without a doubt. Wayne Gretzky Hockey is the most accurate and enjoyable simulation of a sport I have ever had the pleasure to play.