Football games need to die. I’m not a fan of any sports games really, but watching someone play an NFL video game is the equivalent of watching paint dry for me. I never really got the appeal and I just constantly see them as a product from a bygone era. If ‘Battle Royale’ is the next stage of evolution in gaming, then football video games should be the fossils in the ground. They used to be the ones you could be comfortable playing in front of people because it was something more socially accepted and more importantly, they weren’t nerdy or weird. Gamers now are more obviously welcoming to weird, but back in the day it seemed like football was all anyone ever played. Everyone has that one friend that had five different versions of the same title from the past few years laying under their TV, dusty and untouched. Its seems like there is no sense of urgency to make something different. But here we are, almost thirty years deep and still seeing annual releases in sports titles. Since 1990, there has been a game in the Madden series every year on almost every console imaginable. But there is only so much you can do with that genre before the formula becomes stale. I understand that football games require the same basic structure, but do they always have to make it so damn lifeless? Thankfully there was a time that game designers were thinking the same thing. Popular games like NFL Blitz and NFL Street changed up the intensity of the game while continuing to be companions to the sport. But it was years before those games debuted that we saw a company dip their toes into something more dangerous and weirder than you’ve ever seen. In the early Nineties, Electronic Arts created a perfectly grotesque parallel to the archetypal NFL sponsored game. If the Madden series was Dr. Jekyll, then Mutant League Football would most certainly be its Mr. Hyde.
Mutant League Football took everything about the sport, turned it on its head and then ripped it right off. Developed and published by Electronic Arts, the game was unleashed on the Sega Genesis in North America, Europe and Japan in 1993. Designers Michael Mendheim and Alan Martin were able to use the game engine for Madden ’93 as a blueprint for the overhead game-play and create a hybrid of strong mechanics and mutated sports entertainment. There are 16 teams spread across two conferences (Toxic & Maniac) consisting of 5 species – aliens, skeletons, robots, trolls, and superhumans. The team names themselves range from illicit alliteration (Terminator Trollz, Slaycity Slayers, Killer Konvicts) to bad puns (Sixty Whiners). Athlete names received similar fates with sometimes less than clever results (Jerry Rice = “Scary Ice”). These otherworldly creatures played on toxic waste, rubber, and rock fields while trying to actively avoid fire-pits and landmines. Plays would include exploding footballs, electric shocked players and “nasty” audibles like bribing and killing the referee. When chaos is the name of the game, you find any way to win and if that includes a dismemberment or two then so be it. The 16-bit game was a violent, in-your-face aggressive parody that weirdly worked. Because of all this the game became more popular than it had any right to be and that propelled its unexpected success.
Riding the momentum, EA released a spin-off game called Mutant League Hockey in 1994 for the Sega Genesis, again sporting monsters, mayhem and mutilation. Although a few mechanics were changed, the sport of hockey received just as much vile and venom from the monster mashup. As with very much anything else from 90’s pop culture, an animated series was greenlit right away. Simply titled “Mutant League”, the series ran for forty episodes spanning two seasons between 1994 and 1996. During a football game, an earthquake exposed hidden toxic waste and mutated everyone including athletes and fans. The star player/protagonist “Bones Justice”, a skeletal mutant who played for The Midway Monsters, was almost always at odds with the commissioner of the Mutant League, Zalgor Prigg, a former businessman who was mutated into an ogre with a suit.. Unlike the games, the teams competed in almost every sport imaginable – soccer, baseball, sumo wrestling and Monster Truck racing. The show’s violence level also matched the games in almost every way and the number of beheadings in this series would make the Queen of Hearts proud. There were even action figures to accompany the show so you could now play with all your favorites like Grim McSlam (QB for the Derangers), Liquid Lazer (Team Captain of the Ooze) or Bob Babble (announcer for the Mutant League Sports Network). The repulsive brand seemed to be unstoppable. Unfortunately, there was only so many directions the series could go, and it eventually became formulaic. As Tran Shooter, robot coach of the Turbo Techies puts it “unless the trend is reversed, there is some serious disassembly in your futures”. And the future of Mutant League was already on its way to being disassembled.
By the year 2000, mutant fever had run its course. The animated show (and the toy line) quickly disappeared from the public conscience and a basketball spin-off that was planned and in development was cancelled as well. With more options for extreme versions of sports readily available elsewhere, the series went right back in the dirt with the rest of its undead roster. While the Madden series was continuing to churn out game after game to sometimes diminishing returns, Mutant League Football was hopefully biding its time to reemerge and wreak havoc on a new generation of gamers. Like the toxic waste that changed Bones Justice into an ugly badass athlete, a sudden change happened to the series that took it from a dead franchise to reanimated cult classic. As time went by, the original game became a favorite amongst retro collectors. Fans seem to be drawn to its batshit approach in a time where stale sports conquered retail shelves. The next saving grace came in the form of original designer Michael Mendheim when in 2013, his company Digital Dreams Entertainment ran a Kickstarter to help fund a spiritual successor, aptly titled “Mutant Football League”. The game’s promise was to be “the wildest, goriest most outrageous football game ever” and bring back everything people loved about the series with added capability of online play. Mutant League’s fate was now in the hands of the fans and they would decide whether it stays dead for good this time. Digital Dreams Entertainment finally was able to secure $138K in backers from a $60k goal and starting in 2017 the game was gradually released on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC. Mutant League Football rammed right through video game obscurity to recapture the hearts of every troll, alien and skeleton around.
Football games are dead. You can’t convince me any of the Madden games are different just because they updated the roster, or they changed the tackle button. If you want to play something that you can easily watch on TV that won’t cost $60+ a year then that’s your prerogative. They are a boring replication of a culture that practically used to look down on gamers. Video games, at least for me, should be gateways to worlds I’ll never see and sometimes with good reason. I remember playing this game when I was a kid and there was nothing more satisfying than hearing that theme music play over the main menu. It was a hodgepodge of guitar riffs, screechy monster howls and lighting bolts. It was straight up nonsense, but I knew I was about to be warped to some fucked up post-apocalyptic spectacle. It was evil, exciting and entertaining. The only evil and exciting thing to come out of Madden is the famous curse that haunted the cover players. I bet you money that if they put a skeletal ghoul from MLF on the cover, they wouldn’t be injured or hurt. Then again, they still might lose a few limbs but I’m sure they’ll survive.