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publicity shot of Dan Marino playing NFL Blitz Legends, an arcade cabinet re-release of three NFL Blitz from 1997 to 2000
Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino (he’s 6-foot-4) plays NFL Blitz Legends (it’s 5 feet tall). Laces out, Dan!
Photo: Arcade1Up

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NFL Blitz comes back, without the late hits, in arcade form

Arcade1Up tries to thread a needle: Restore 3 sports classics without the parts that aged poorly

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

NFL Blitz, the faster, more aggressive, and concussive version of NFL rules football that took arcades by storm in the late ’90s, will return this year — and in throwback arcade cabinet form. But cabinet-maker Arcade1Up’s surprise revival of Blitz will also reflect the modern NFL’s sensitivities.

“The NFL was warm to the idea, because [NFL Blitz] was loved by fans,” Davin Sufer, Arcade1Up’s chief technology officer, told Polygon. But if they were going to re-release three of sports video gaming’s most memorable arcade adaptations in a new package, they had to be cleaned up for modern sensibilities.

“They said, ‘Guys, if you want to do this, you’ve got to address these issues,’” Sufer said.

“These issues” are the violent collisions, some of them gratuitous, after the play, and, of course, unpenalized, that both defined Midway’s NFL Blitz and have aged very poorly in the 25 years since. A quarter-century ago, the league and its media partners were actively selling the violenceeven the comedy — of senses-shattering collisions served up on Sunday.

But over the past decade, scientific studies, several highly publicized deaths of retired players, and a $765 million settlement of claims reached in 2013, have made issues like concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) Monday morning watercooler topics, and no laughing matter for the league or its players. It’s not an exaggeration to say that crisis has been the biggest barrier preventing 1997’s NFL Blitz, NFL Blitz ’99, or NFL Blitz 2000: Gold Edition from reappearing or being remastered.

“To clean this up, you have to change the game code to some degree, even if it’s a small degree, you still have to change game code,” Sufer said. “After the whistle, there’s a certain amount of time where [players were] still able to perform moves. It was a long time period, like, several seconds, if I’m not mistaken. We had to really shorten that timeframe. Once the whistle blows, that’s it. […] You can’t perform another tackle. And that’s something that you can’t change by playing with the ROM.”

NFL Blitz Legends launched in retail stores (Best Buy and Walmart) on Nov. 2 following its September launch on Arcade1Up’s online storefront. It’s the third throwback sports cabinet that Arcade1Up has made this year. The company added NBA Jam: Shaq Edition and Golden Tee 3D Edition to its collector’s item catalog back in May (and announced the fighting game Marvel vs. Capcom 2 on Aug. 5). NFL Blitz Legends houses the original game, Blitz ’99, and Blitz 2000 in one unit and supports online multiplayer among those who have the cabinet.

Deion Sanders sits at an NFL Blitz Legends cabinet, where he is displayed on the side of the box along with Denver’s Terrell Davis.
Deion Sanders was one of the fastest guys in NFL history when he played from 1989 to 2005. A 49-way joystick will help Prime Time recreate his speed in NFL Blitz Legends.
Photo: Arcade1Up

Those features, Sufer says, help keep the games fun and worthwhile even if some of their more memorable traits have been edited out. “We’ve kept it a lot of fun; it’s still a really addictive, fun game,” Sufer promised. “I won’t say that you won’t notice [the changes], but I will say that you’re still having a lot of fun, and it’s almost not affecting the gameplay. All the original plays are in there.”

Moreover, the 49-way joystick used by the original arcade games has also been recreated for NFL Blitz Legends. Broadly speaking, that kind of joystick recognizes positions a short, medium, or long distance from its center, allowing for movement at variable speed and acceleration. A four- or eight-way joystick has, well, only four or eight directions and moves the player to them at the same speed.

“With any of the plays, you can always kind of diverge from the play,” Sufer said — meaning roll the quarterback out and just turn the play into an improvised run. “With this joystick, you can really have amazing control of the players. You’re pretty much always able to divert from passing and just go run it.”

This is an important distinction, as arcade-style NFL football has typically been very passing focused, with very few running plays (if they even exist in the playbook) and all of them easy to defend. It was one of the issues making EA Sports’ NFL Blitz revival of 2012 bland and forgettable, and therefore called attention to what it didn’t have — namely the late hits, elbow-drop gang tackles, and other cartoon violence.

NFL Blitz in 2012 was also played with a roster of players from that year; for NFL Blitz Legends, Arcade1Up needed to rebuild the original roster’s players with a group license from the Football Greats Alliance, representing numerous NFL alumni. A news release assured fans that hall-of-fame stars like Jerry Rice, Dan Marino, and Deion Sanders will return to the game. For the remainder of the roster, Sufer estimated that they’re at “maybe 85 to 90% of the original roster,” with others still being added. “We did have some unnamed players that you have to address,” he said.

Sufer said Arcade1up consulted with NFL Blitz co-creators Mark Turmell (“I had him on speed dial”) and Sal DiVita, as well as other Midway alumni, and Electronic Arts, which now owns the Blitz intellectual property. “For better or worse,” Sufer chuckled, “our reputations preceded us. But Scott [Bachrach, Arcade1Up’s chief executive] really surrounded himself with real experts in this space. […] We went back to the original developers and got their nod and their blessing. A lot of them offered to help us.”

NFL Blitz Legends is available as a five-foot-tall cabinet with a 17-inch display and a lighted marquee. It costs $599.99 and it’s available from Best Buy, Walmart, and Arcade1Up’s website. Superfans can order a team-branded stool to go with it at $79.99.

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