NFL Blitz was a sign of the coming end of arcades, sure, but it was also a lot of fun. Even if it stole my lunch money.

When I was in middle school, my mom gave me money for lunch every day. I am not 100% clear on why this was; I am almost positive I qualified for free school lunches (I had in elementary school and later would in high school). I think it might have been the status thing, the ability to buy the vending machine garbage instead of whatever slop was being served up by the cafeteria. I may not recall the why, but I know the what, and the what was that sometimes I would save that money to spend on other pursuits.

When NFL Blitz came out in 1997, it became the thing that started sucking up most of my money. I was in eighth grade, and at that point I was getting $3 per day for food. When Blitz came out, I started doing whatever I could to save the two dollars it would take me to play a full game of Blitz at the mall arcade after school let out. Every day, I would walk to Eastland Mall with my brother and our friend Ryan and drop two bucks into that machine.

In some ways, it is easy to see that game as a messenger that it was the beginning of the end for arcades. There had been a pretty fair amount of mild grumbling when the basic price of an arcade game had gone from a quarter to 50 cents. Now, though, I was being asked to pay 50 cents for each quarter of the football game. Honestly, I should have revolted right there and refused, but I didn’t, and suddenly there it was.

I still recall with crystal clarity how ridiculous spending those $2 was. I knew it at the time, too; I knew that I was often falling victim to what my brother and I had long ago termed “computer cheat” as I made my way up the ranks of the NFL, beating teams one at a time to climb that ladder. I started with the lowliest teams, who I was able to beat fairly easily. Somewhere around the middle of the pack, though, after the game already had its claws sunk into me, I started losing games in less and less probable ways. A blowout where the opposition owned me from the get-go I could have dealt with. It was the seemingly endless barrage of sports movie clichéd last second scores to send me packing that got to me. There was no subtlety to the way the game required me to spend more and more money on it; its motivation was pure and clear, and it was then that I started to see how arcade games worked. The last game I played was one where I scored what was surely the game-winning touchdown with less than five seconds left on the clock. I knew better than to be outwardly cocky, but I felt sure that I was not going to give up a kickoff return for a touchdown. And I didn’t, but only by one yard. After that, I realized I needed to stop wasting my lunch money, because I was never going to beat the best teams in the game, no matter how good I got. I just wasn’t better than a cheating computer.

This may have been the first time that I saw how arcade games had worked to that point, but I was not prescient as to how they would work going forward. Around the time that Blitz came out, and ever-increasingly afterward, stand-up arcade cabinets with games you could play for as long as a shiny quarter (or two) could take you became decreasingly common. I have talked before, in fact quite recently, about the fall of arcades, and this was one sign. Arcade games had become ever-flashier spectacles, where you would climb onto a snowboard or jet ski or dance floor and pay a premium for just a few minutes of fun. These games had always existed, of course, particularly in motor racing games and After Burner, but those games could still hypothetically have existed in a traditional cabinet, and often did in a smaller, cheaper variation. Dance Dance Revolution required the dance pad to play, to the degree that when it finally did come home, it brought the pad in a variety of permutations with it.

There were other traditional arcade games that would come after; even as the fighting game craze died down, both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat would push forward with new entries in their series. But the fact of it was that the arcade as it had been was basically over. The arcade where I spent all that time playing Blitz was not long for the world. The Dreamcast was on its way and showed that home consoles were going to be able to truly compete with the arcade machines in power, alongside the numerous other advantages they already offered. (While the Dreamcast would shortly die an ignominious and not entirely deserved death, its abilities would be carried forward into the PS2/Xbox/GameCube generation.) Even Blitz would get a good home version, even if it didn’t happen until I was past wanting to play the game.

I probably spent at least a hundred bucks on NFL Blitz in that arcade, which doesn’t really seem like much now but was a huge expenditure in the days of $10 a week allowance and scrounging my lunch money. It was silly, but it was fun. Reflecting on it now makes me even more nostalgic for the arcade than thinking about Castlevania and Pac-Man. It was exploitive and a bald cash-grab, sure, but you could say that about a lot of video games, if not about most entertainments in general. Just because I can recognize that I am being taken advantage of does not mean that I cannot enjoy it in the meantime.

That probably explains a lot about my life, now that I think about it.

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