Midway’s NFL Blitz piggybacked on the fun, over-the-top atmosphere of NBA Jam and rocked arcades and home consoles in the late ‘90s. Unique in a crowded sports gaming marketplace with its fast-paced arcade 7-on-7 NFL action, NFL Blitz spanned numerous systems during its run and sold millions of copies. Unfortunately, the series would suffer from poor sales, sequel fatigue, and an eventual loss of the NFL license, resulting in the franchise stepping away from the virtual gridiron. When Midway went bankrupt in 2009, Electronic Arts purchased the license for NFL Blitz and in early 2012 released the first NFL Blitz offering since 2002. The NFL Blitz name carries some serious prestige and is revered by both sports gamers and non-sports gamers thanks to its arcade roots. To celebrate its legacy, here is a complete history of the NFL Blitz series.
NFL Blitz is seven players a side football (on offense you have your QB plus three skill players) with a penchant for crazy hits, impossible catches and innovative touchdown celebrations. The game took away normal NFL rules as there are no penalties (pass interference is encouraged and downright necessary) and each first down marker is 30 yards away. The NFL even asked Midway to tone down pieces of the original game as some of the post-play demolition on opposing players was deemed excessive. There really is only one game where you can pull off a Hulk Hogan-like leg drop on a QB or hit an opponent with a splash or flying shoulder-block after a play, and that’s NFL Blitz. The Blitz gameplay featured a basic three-button control scheme (Turbo, Pass/Switch and Jump/Tackle – depending if you are on offense or defense) that is easy to pick up on, and the playbooks were static so each team worked with the same plays. Borrowing from the NBA Jam blueprint (Mark Turmell developed both games), there are also “On Fire” modes for both offense and defense which temporarily boost your player’s ability. While the arcade games challenged you to work your way through every team in the game (that’s a lot of quarters) and home console versions eventually added a season mode, the real lure of NFL Blitz will always be the multi-player madness of playing with friends.
Arcade Releases: NFL Blitz (1997), NFL Blitz ’99 (1998), and NFL Blitz 2000 Gold Edition (1999)
The arcade installments were always first to market over the console games and gave a sneak peek as to what to expect with the next home version. The original NFL Blitz in arcades came out a year before any port. NFL Blitz 2000 on consoles was the arcade NFL Blitz ‘99, just with slightly updated rosters. NFL Blitz 2000 Gold Edition could be found as a standalone and also in a shared machine with Midway’s NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC.
NFL Blitz (1998): PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Game Boy Color
According to VGchartz.com, the PlayStation version of NFL Blitz sold 1.33 million copies and its Nintendo 64 peer cracked a million sales as well. If that wasn’t a testament to the arcade game’s popularity, I don’t know what is. The Nintendo 64 version sported better graphics (higher resolution), a play editor feature, and no load times. The PlayStation game had far better sound (very typical for multi-platform games back then) and while the graphics were decent, the load times were substantial. Still, they didn’t cripple the game and both were worthy ports depending on the system you had. The sales for NFL Blitz sequels would never reach the pinnacle the first game achieved.
NFL Blitz 2000 (1999): Dreamcast, PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Game Boy Color
NFL Blitz 2000 was more than just a new roster. The game featured four-player games now and the title also implemented the “Blitz Passing” option. With “Blitz Passing”, receivers could be assigned a button, rather than have to be highlighted based on your action with the control stick. Tapping left, up, or right to highlight a receiver while trying to avoid a hulking defensive lineman was always one of the charms (and sometimes frustration) of the original game. Much like Tag mode with NBA Jam, this was a nice option to have added. While the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation games were worthy sequels, the Dreamcast entered the arena as an arcade-perfect emulation with exceptional graphics.
NFL Blitz 2001 (2000): Dreamcast, PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color
Another year, another NFL Blitz release and sequel fatigue starts to set in. The Dreamcast version is again arcade-perfect and the Nintendo 64 hung tough because of the expansion RAM pack. The PlayStation version was killed off with a lackluster follow-up where the graphics and engine actually took a step back from previous versions.
NFL Blitz Special Edition (2001): Nintendo 64 Rental Exclusive through Blockbuster Video
I don’t know who thought this was a good idea this late in the Nintendo 64’s life (and a November release date?), but as a retro game collector I’m certainly intrigued with NFL Blitz Special Edition. An exclusive to just Blockbuster Video stores, the game featured updated rosters for the 2001 NFL season and was only available on the Nintendo 64. A complete copy of the game is one of the rarest and most valuable sports titles.
Before we look at the next generation of Blitz games, I want to address all of the handheld titles developed. The three Game Boy Color games were developed by three separate teams and the challenge of porting this arcade classic to 8-bits was never met. I’m not sure why it was even undertaken but the Blitz brand name was a moneymaker so there’s your likely motivation. In addition to the graphics being a mess, the gameplay was pretty horrible as well, making all the Game Boy Color titles a must avoid. With the move to the 16-bit sprites on the Game Boy Advance, you would think there would be promise, but those two ugly games also suffer from broken gameplay and are generally considered some of the worst titles in the entire Game Boy Advance library.
NFL Blitz 20-02 (2002): PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance
NFL Blitz made the jump to the next generation of consoles and was released twice in a span of six months. NFL Blitz 20-02 not only suffered from a terrible naming convention (really, a dash?) but it was released in February, after football season was already over! The graphics were top-notch, but that was to be expected with the ramp-up in hardware. The game also introduced an eighth player to control on each side of the ball which was the first big change to the series’ construction.
NFL Blitz 20-03 (2002): PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance
Here is your regular August release in anticipation of the new NFL season. 20-03 (again with the dash) had improved animations and updated rosters, along with same eighth player introduced in 20-02. The Xbox versions were generally considered the best for this generation given its graphical power, along with much shorter load times.
NFL Blitz Pro (2003): PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube
A final footnote in the series, NFL Blitz Pro sold terribly thanks in no part to changing to a standard 11 players on each side and going to normal NFL rules (although there were old Blitz modes to unlock). The game tried to straddle the arcade and simulation game-styles, thus rendering the entire initial mission and differentiation of the series moot. With the Madden and NFL 2K series hitting their strides, Midway opted to not release a game the following year.
While NFL Blitz Pro was technically the last original title in Blitz canon, Midway did release another series of football games. In December, 2004 Electronic Arts secured exclusive rights to the NFL and its Players Association. EA had already launched the first in their NFL Street series (7-on-7 arcade football – what an idea!) and now their Madden series was the only game in town to have real teams and players. Midway countered with Blitz: The League in October of 2005 and without the NFL overseeing things with their license, the game ramped up the violence in a fictional football universe. The game received generally good reviews and sold well across the PlayStation 2 and Xbox (the PSP and Xbox 360 versions saw their releases a year later). Uncharacteristically, Midway’s follow-up, Blitz: The League II would be released three years later to abysmal sales numbers. The company would fold in 2009, paving the way for Electronic Arts to pick up the licenses to franchises like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz.
EA’s most recent NFL Blitz (2012) is a download-only game on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. In an effort to recapture the game’s roots, there is a heavy focus on multi-player as the game has both local and national leaderboards to climb. The feel overall is familiar but the game seems muted compared to the over-the-top antics of the original games (my full review can be found here). EA did little to support the game, leaving notable gaps in the game’s rosters at release and never updating them (unlike NBA Jam: On Fire Edition). I enjoyed playing others online and even reached the Hall of Fame with my PSN ID before interest in the game waned and it was hard to find anyone online playing. The future of the series is in EA’s hands and anything other than a download-only title would be a huge surprise given the landscape and business of sports gaming today.