As sure as football season has returned for another five months, so too has the latest chapter in Midway's NFL Blitz series, NFL Blitz 2001. Thanks to refined graphics, smarter AI, four-player support, and the return of return of a custom play editor, last year's Nintendo 64 version of NFL Blitz 2000 represented a major leap over both its predecessor and the competing PlayStation release. In contrast, NFL Blitz 2001 takes a low-key approach, delivering the same features as last year's release while offering a number of minor refinements.
Fans and newcomers alike will be glad to note that NFL Blitz 2001 is overflowing with features. As a licensed NFL product, the game contains all 31 NFL teams and more than 200 real-life players. The game's arcade, season, and tournament modes offer gaming for any skill level. Arcade mode incorporates CPU assistance and cheat codes, ensuring that games are never too one-sided, while season and tournament modes eschew assistance and power-ups for a more pure football experience. At least, as pure as football can get with zero penalties, 30-yard downs, and players who catch fire. Thanks to the game's four-player support, you can also challenge human opponents in one-on-one, two-on-two, or one-on-two matchups. Further, the game now tracks season progress for multiple players, meaning there's no longer any reason to shut friends out on the road to Super Bowl glory. NFL Blitz 2001 records 11 game stats and nine season stats as you progress, from first downs, fumbles, and fourth down conversions to season passing yards, return yards, and sacks. Obligatory recording of win/loss statistics and percentages is present as well, but there are no individual player statistics whatsoever.
The comprehensive playbook editor returns again this year, allowing you to mix and match your own set of 27 offensive and nine defensive plays from a stock of 50 predesigned battle plans. Some plays will seem familiar, as many of the more popular ones from prior years - such as the zip - lay in wait for you to use. Should these default strategies not suit your taste, you're afforded nine extra slots in each for any offensive or defensive plays you've created. The editor doesn't allow pixel-perfect player manipulation, but the number of man to man, zone, and rush choices - combined with player positioning and coverage designations - leaves a lot to enjoy.
Although the game contains all of last year's features, NFL Blitz 2001 also adds three new minigames. The first minigame, first-and-goal frenzy, places you on the ten-yard line in an attempt to score a touchdown in four downs or less. Should you succeed, you'll then try from the 20, then the 30, and so on. The second minigame, goal-line stand, is the exact opposite, as you must prevent your opponent from scoring touchdowns. The final minigame, QB challenge, is where true multiplayer riots are sure to ensue. You're hiked three balls and ordered to pass to three receivers, each of which is following his own route down the field. The order in which you must pass to them and the routes they run are chosen by the computer milliseconds before you throw. You get almost no time to think, and since there are multiple attempts, the result is a "Simon says" game as frustrating and addictive as Konami's Beatmania. As a bonus for Nintendo 64 owners, the system's crisp visuals make this minigame more enjoyable to play than the version in the PlayStation release, mostly because the active receiver flickers sooner and more obviously.
Despite the addition of minigames, NFL Blitz 2001 doesn't feel that much different from last year's release in terms of gameplay. The computer-controlled AI is just as intelligent and aggravating as in last year's release, putting up the kind of fight you'd expect from a Madden or Gameday title. In season and tournament mode, CPU players predict your moves and react to passes so quickly that you'll wonder if they're not seasoned professionals out for a Monday-night killing. In arcade mode, this factor is boosted by the game's computer assistance, which ensures an even game by adjusting the frequency of fumbles and interceptions in the losing team's favor. The Nintendo 64 version's use of the C buttons to pass to left, center, and right receivers has always been a nice touch, but Midway appears to have hammered the feature home this year by making it less prone to subtle mix-ups, especially in crossover situations.
If anything, NFL Blitz 2001's most noticeable gameplay adjustments center on the areas of play calling and rushing. Even more so than in last year's Blitz, correct play choice is crucial. If the opposing team has a strong defense, taking risks with long passes or conversion-type plays isn't recommended. If their offense is strong, a decent blitz or zone play is a good idea, but you'll be handed your shorts if you try a suicide move. In a similar fashion, while spin moves and hurdles are a good way to avoid opposing tackles, they also increase the odds that you'll fumble the ball. Should you fumble, you'll find that NFL Blitz 2001 gives the CPU a suspicious number of turnovers and offers much less room for error than NFL Blitz 2000. At least the game still contains the same lack of penalties, abbreviated game time, and post-play beatings that have made the Blitz series popular.
Just as with NFL Blitz 2001's gameplay, little has changed in terms of graphics and sound. Midway tweaked the player models and animations to make them flow smoother, and weather effects seem crisper this year, but that's about it. The Nintendo 64 versions of Blitz have always had excellent graphics, and with ample use of transparency effects, ambient lighting, and 60fps movement, NFL Blitz 2001 is no different. Frankly, while the N64 hardware can't equal Sega's Dreamcast, the Nintendo 64 version of NFL Blitz 2001 looks close enough graphically to be dangerous competition. As for audio, NFL Blitz 2001 is NFL Blitz 2000 all over again. The same sayings and sound effects that gave last year's game personality are back this year, right down to the dreaded "Score, score, score!!!" and the lecherous cheerleader comments. As far as the Nintendo 64 goes, Midway has packed quite a bit of sound into such a tiny cartridge.
Once again, Midway delivers a rock-solid version of NFL Blitz for the Nintendo 64, equaling the PlayStation release in every respect while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dreamcast in a number of key areas. The game may not break much new ground, but with near-perfect visuals and addictive gameplay, NFL Blitz 2001 is major football fun. You may wish to buy a brand-new Controller Pak, though, as the game requires a full 123 pages for season features.