There’s no doubt Sega has spent much of the 1980s playing catch-up to Nintendo, but apparently they figured they had a chance to fill a void once they noticed the sport of ice hockey had yet to be represented on the NES. Nintendo’s first two hockey offerings, Ice Hockey and Konami’s excellent Baldes of Steel, were a year away so Sega decided they would be the ones to introduce hockey to the 8-bit generation with this offering, which was also the first Master System title to be released excusively in the U.S. Unfortunately whatever good Sega had was quickly negated by forcing players to use one of the most ill-conceived controllers ever, and as a result it turns out to be another black eye for the SMS in America.
Once you get past the title screen, one or two players can take the ice and pick the difficulty level and length of each period. There are 8 international teams to choose from in the two-player mode but in the single-player mode you’re forced to be the U.S. squad without the ability to choose a different team. Granted, undying patriotism is nice at times but that’s still no excuse not letting the player choose who he/she wants. At least you get to choose your opposing team, and they’re supposedly listed in increasing difficulty. Once you do hit the ice the game is hockey as you might expect with standard 5-on-5 action through three periods, taking place on a rink that’s three screens wide with you passing and shooting the puck to the opponent’s goal. Not too surprisngly the graphis and audio are nothing special to go along with the basic gameplay. You have the white rink, a bunch of multicolored blobs that resemble players and officals and the static crowd, and there’s your visuals. The background music that plays during the action actually isn’t too bad, it just doesn’t sound like it belongs in a hockey title, and the sound effects are just there.
However the gameplay is the main thing that sticks out because Sega made a rather curious decision not to let players use the normal gamepad to control the action. Instead Sega decided to use this title to showcase their ill-fated Sega Sports Pad, which is pretty much a trakball with some of the regualr gamepad features. While the idea of using a trakball isn’t a bad one and it might have been a unique experience (after all, look at the analog controls for the PlayStation NHL games), it just seemed like the developers rushed the controller out without really testing it to see if it worked. As a result the Sports Pad renders this game just about unplayable since it’s very unresponsive; you have to roll the trakball like mad to get your player moving any considerable distance and more often than not the CPU player is able to snatch the puck from your stick and zoom toward your goal. Also forget about trying to pass the puck to your teammates or even attempt a shot on the goal, it’s just plain impossible. And sadly you’re forced to use the Sports Pad as there’s no option to use the controller; if you try to use the gamepad anyway, you can only move diagonally up-left or down-right and that’s not going to do you any favors. Even if you do somehow endure an entire game from start to finish there’s no tournament mode or season option to give you any reason to go through it again; you play one game and after the congradulation screen (if you somehow manage to win, that is) it’s back to the title screen.
So ultimately Great ice Hockey is another epic fail for the Master System in the U.S. It might have at least been a halfway-decent title had it included an option for the regular controller and not been totally dependent on the shoddy trakball, as is the control issues and lack of replay vaule sink this cart to the bottom of the barrel. The fact is better 8-bit hockey titles are available, such as the aforementioned ones found on the NES, and in fact three years later Sega would release a much-improved hockey title for the Master System, Slap Shot, which is everything this game isn’t and gives you no reason to use this cart as anything but a hockey puck. All in all the worst of the ‘Great’ sports titles and the absolute dreggs of video hockey.