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Hands-on with Ultimate Rivals: The Rink, Apple Arcade's new retro-style mash-up sports game

Lebron versus Rapinoe on ice? Thanks to licensing deals with almost every major sports league, it can happen.

Bit Fry

Sitting in front of a TV with a game controller in my hands, I was transported back to my '90s dorm room, playing NHL '94 (which, yes, was a current game back then). I was actually playing Ultimate Rivals: The Rink, a new addition to Apple Arcade, the $5 per month subscription gaming service, and the game's nondescript title doesn't prepare you for the ambitious experience.

From new developer Bit Fry, Ultimate Rivals aims to be a multisport franchise, starting with an action/sports version of hockey and eventually moving onto basketball, and perhaps football, baseball or soccer in planned future iterations. That part isn't exactly groundbreaking, but the lineup of real-life players is.

Thanks to deals with the NHL, NBA and WNBA, MLB, NFL Players Association (not the NFL itself, yet), and the US Women's National Soccer Team Players Association, athletes from almost every major US sports league are represented. The majority of the roster in The Rink are hockey players, but a handful of stars from other sports are represented as well. When it comes to inking these kind of licensing deals, it probably doesn't hurt that former NBA commissioner David Stern is an investor, as well as baseball player Ryan Howard and former Red Sox Vice Chairman Les Otten.

Bit Fry

My three-man hockey team included quarterback Drew Brees and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, for example, and athletes can be assigned to play goalie, forward or wing. Game-like ratings (such as offense and defense) from their "day job" sports are translated into hockey stats, so it feels like more than just skinning some characters with random sports star faces.

Some stars get special overpowered finishing moves that borrow from their core sports and give the game a bit of a Mortal Kombat vibe, like taking rapid-fire soccer penalty kicks at the goal. Of course, the idea of mixing and matching name-brand athletes from different sports is also right out of the Super Smash Bros. playbook.

I haven't touched a hockey game in many, many years, but the three-on-three arcade-style action of Ultimate Rivals felt instantly familiar. When I pulled out the old NHL '94 trick of going right up the middle and powering past the goalie, I was able to rack up some big numbers (yes, in easy mode). The only thing missing? Classic arcade hockey game fistfights. 

Ultimate Rivals: The Rink is available for Apple Arcade starting Thursday.

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