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‘NFL Blitz’ is back, depicting a gentler, less violent NFL

(Washington Post illustration; Arcade1Up)

Twenty-five years after the popular series launched, and 10 years after its last edition came out, “NFL Blitz” is returning in the arcade format that made it famous. Arcade1Up, a retro arcade company, announced that remastered versions of the series’ first three games will be released this fall, featuring retired star players including Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders, Dan Marino, Brett Favre and Jerome Bettis.

NFL Blitz Legends, the new arcade cabinet, will include “NFL Blitz,” “NFL Blitz ‘99” and “NFL Blitz 2000: Gold Edition.” The rerelease of these games, which were famous for playing up the sport’s physicality and violence, comes after years in which the NFL has made changes to its rules to increase player safety and improve perceptions surrounding the dangers of playing football. In a nod to these initiatives, Arcade1Up removed certain tackles and kept out animations that had been banned by the NFL dating back to the 90s, including after-the-whistle hits and other stunts that would earn a real life NFL player a disciplinary meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Discussing how the (real) game has changed since he retired after the 2004 season, Hall of Famer and three-time NFL Champion Jerry Rice said in an interview with The Washington Post that while he thinks recent rule changes have helped protect players, he liked playing in his era.

“I think the game is all about protecting players now. But back when I played it was a little bit different,” he said with a smirk. “You had to establish yourself on a football field, you knew that it was going to be a physical football game, and that you were going to get hit. … Back in the day it was brutal. You had to go out and you had to protect yourself. But I think it was something that the fans want to see.”

Acknowledging that players who target opponents should be kicked out of the game, Rice lamented the interruptions to gameplay due to the increased use of instant replay and what he sees as the greater amount of control given to officials in terms of deciding game outcomes.

“I understand it’s all about protecting players, but I played when you didn’t have all of those [officiating] decisions, where you just let the players go out and play the game,” he said.

Still, Rice lit up with excitement talking about the fluidity and pace of “NFL Blitz.” He highlighted the retro elements, including team logos and rosters, which hark back to a previous era of gridiron glory.

“It’s really the game of the ’90s,” Rice said.

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Taking these games, some of which were developed over 20 years ago, and making them run on modern hardware and graphics engines, was not an easy task, according to Davin Sufer, chief technology and product officer for Arcade1Up.

“You can do the ROM file, the original builds, [and] get your hardware to run it or you can dig up the source code and build the game from scratch,” Sufer said. “We did the latter.” It took two years for him and his team to complete the game.

The Arcade1Up version, in addition to increasing frame rate and responsiveness, also added an online multiplayer function and can be updated remotely by the developer. A 49-way joystick, present on the original arcade versions, has also been preserved. The “NFL Blitz” arcade cabinet features a 17-inch screen, stands about 5 feet high, and weighs 92 pounds. It has a 1280 x 1024 screen resolution and light up marquee.

“This is by far the most sophisticated game we’ve ever done,” said Scott Bachrach, CEO of Arcade1Up.

In addition to the technical challenges, Arcade1Up also had to deal with a complex legal landscape, which included negotiating new licenses with the NFL and the Football Greats Alliance, a group of retired NFL players. Working with the NFL, the Arcade1Up team agreed to remove and edit animations that showed players targeting one another by leading with the helmets during tackles. They were also able to get a license for 409 of the 448 players in the original games.

“To come out with this really is a small miracle in my mind,” said Mark Turmell, creator of the original “NFL Blitz.”

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Turmell, who was involved with the remastering process, said he thinks the new editions stay true to his original versions.

“In terms of the hard hitting nature of NFL Blitz, that’s all still here,” Turmell said. “In terms of an arcade game, things move fast, things change on a dime, you can dive through the air, all of those arcade elements persist. That’s the code that’s running in this game. It really holds up.”

Asked about his own abilities, Turmell spoke like a true gamer, albeit one with a pretty big edge.

“I am pretty tough to beat,” he said. “I wrote the playbooks. So when I see a formation, this wide receiver goes out and makes a cut, I know the defender will go the wrong direction. In my head, I know all those movements.”

Rice, who also seems to know the movements of opponents ahead of time, said that even though he has been retired for years, this time of year — the start of the NFL season — is still special for him.

“It’s football season man! Even though it’s preseason, I get excited because preseason got me ready for the regular season,” he said.

For Rice, “NFL Blitz” and other sports games offer a taste of the reality he experienced on the field. That, he says, is why those kinds of titles are so popular.

“I think people get a chance to live that dream through these legends,” Rice said.