In 2002, as the brick-and-mortar arcade business gasped for the sweet kiss of death, a video game changed the trajectory of my life. By that time, shifting interests forced game developer Midway, which dominated with cabinets of Cruis’n USA, Mortal Kombat, and TRON, to take the plunge into home console gaming -- then a nearly $30 billion industry worldwide. And so arrived Midway's NHL Hitz 2003, a PlayStation multiplayer hockey game that gave me the self-confidence to incessantly disparage my peers with cruel epithets, and incontrovertibly shaped me into the man I am today.
Like Midway, I was also founded in 1988, in the suburbs of New York City. As a kid I was a middling athlete, owing to my squatty build and general lack of competitive spirit, and certifiably uncool. I always got good grades, and (embarrassingly) fancied myself a budding intellectual. This is probably why I spent the first two years of high school dressed like a recently laid-off literature professor, writing bad poetry to match.
I was five years old when Midway released the first NBA Jam in 1993, an insanely popular basketball arcade game that kickstarted a franchise and generated a reported $2 billion in revenue over its many iterations. Four years later, the company released NFL Blitz, a line extension that brought Jam’s cartoonish, chaotic gameplay and fast-and-loose rulebook from hardwood to turf. That game, too, was an immense success. The NFL, citing Blitz's cheery doses of wanton player-on-player violence, would eventually revoke Midway's license, but it was still being published (as both an arcade unit and a video game) in 2001, when the company released the inaugural version of NHL Hitz. My coming of age followed one year behind.
I was 14 when my parents bestowed their children with the priceless gift of a $150 PlayStation 2, along with a copy of NHL Hitz 2003. Chris Pronger, playing then for the St. Louis Blues, glared menacingly on the game's cover. Its load screens and menus were built to look like futuristic, blue-tinted computer displays, for some reason. All 30 NHL teams were there, plus a dozen national teams and another half-dozen theme-costumed squads, like "Clowns" and "Cowboys."
The game was perfect, and I discovered that I was nearly perfect at playing it. By some odd calibration of the cosmos -- the provenance of which I never understood to begin with, and has long since vanished anyway -- I was absolutely unstoppable at NHL Hitz 2003, defeating all comers with a freakish combination of precise strategy, button-mashing furor, and deft manipulation of the game's many glitches. Players with better speed ratings could easily own any fight, but my slower-fisted skaters won thanks to my uncanny timing with an underutilized block move. I checked goalies to take intentional penalties, only to score shorthanded thanks to a poorly weighted AI that actually made it easier to net goals man-down. Then, having immediately caught on to the simple roshambo-style matrix that decided face-offs, I swindled possession from my opponent on the next puck-drop. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In a chubby adolescence full of performative knowledge-dropping and not making out with girls, finally there was something I was good at. Consistently, definitively good at. It was a thrill. My confidence soared. Emboldened by the rush of winning at something -- anything -- I did what felt right. I immediately began talking spectacular amounts of shit.
I don't remember the specific insults I hurled at opponents in front of the TV, but I do know that they didn't really have much to do with the actual gameplay, or what the game's own automated "sports casters" said about it. Their outcries were broad, gleeful, and impartial. "Ooooh, what a bone-crushing hit THAT was!" they’d scream repeatedly as players on either side committed ice-borne atrocities.
My invective, by contrast, was personal and cruel, mixing the normal venom of teenage powerlessness with the vindictive delight of teenage empowerment. Bitchtits. Asswipe. Shit-guzzler. I spent a good portion of the ensuing decade playing NHL Hitz 2003 (Midway released only one additional version afterward, NHL Pro, which was largely identical), and all of it accompanied by a steady stream of vicious color commentary on my opponents’ shortcomings.
A friend in my freshman hall at college had a PlayStation 2, and a copy of Hitz. I was 18 at that point, a bundle of over-caffeinated, under-sexed anxiety, and I spent hours in his room, bringing the goddamned thunder on anyone who dared take up a controller against me. We all played Hitz, and with some real ringers in the group, I wasn't the undisputed champ anymore, but it didn't matter. I was still one of the best. Besides, I'd honed myself into a formidable pest in the mold of actual NHL players like Darius Kasparaitis or Ian Laperrière, whose relentless trash talking was so incisive as to be weaponized, forcing errors and drawing penalties from opposing teams.
"I'm going to skull-fuck you into Middle-earth" was not something I said during these marathon sessions of dorm room Hitz, though I wish I had. Still, it's something I might have said. More comfortable in my own skin, my verbal abuse became more florid. I'd strike nerves with long, complex insults that functioned like narrative assaults, then punctuate them by hammering home a shallow-angle, cross-ice one-timer (a classic Hitz glitch, and completely indefensible) for the go-ahead goal. It drove my friends nuts, and made me feel like a goddamned legend. These were formative times.
I graduated college in May 2010. A month later, Midway went out of business, having failed to crack a layered and competitive home-gaming market. Too busy to mourn the geniuses behind NHL Hitz, I was faced with my own challenge now: figuring out who to be now that bills and responsibility replaced my heady campus days of consequence-free consumption. Like a stupid bro trying to figure stuff out, I returned to New York, unknowingly entering a stage of life in which I'd be too busy to breathe, let alone beat the shit out of Pavel Bure in standard definition.
I don't get around to Hitz, or many video games, very often these days. It's probably for the best. Right around the time I hung up the controller, online console gaming hit the mainstream, with platforms like PlayStation Network and Xbox Live taking shit-talking out of the basement. The internet had arrived, and with it, the opportunity to talk anonymous, in-game smack to complete strangers using a (thoroughly stupid-looking) VOIP headset. Predictably, this transformed the institution of gaming trash-talk from a mostly harmless pastime between real-life friends, into a brutal firing line of frightening hate-speech from ever-younger voices on the other end of the line. I'm glad Hitz never made it to that world, or me, either.
But my old PlayStation 2 is back at my parents' house, and over the occasional holiday visit, my brothers and I will fire up the game. The disc drive will whirr, and the familiar snatch of techno-metal will blare loudly from the television's speakers. There'll be Chris Pronger, imploring us to press START so he can body someone -- Lindros, ideally -- through the plate-glass wall of a computer-generated rink. Same as it ever was. Minus the skills -- these days, my [bleeping] brothers beat the [bleep] out of me.
At a real-life 2016 season hockey game, I told a friend that I was revisiting Hitz in this essay. "You were completely insufferable to play with," he groaned. Not because I won, though. "You just never shut up."
Sounds about right.
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