Let’s face it: these days, sports games suck. Not only are they completely devoid of personality, but they’re also bogged down in annual cycles that leave no room for innovation and guarantee that if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. EA Sports’ Madden franchise is most guilty of this, but 2K Sports’ NBA 2K franchise isn’t much better. Believe it or not, however, there was once a time in which sports games were actually creative, innovative, and incredibly fun to play. Perhaps even more difficult to believe is that Electronic Arts pioneered such games with efforts like their sadly short-lived Mutant League sports franchise on the Sega Genesis.
Starting with Mutant League Football and ending with Mutant League Hockey (a third game, Mutant League Basketball, was canned early in development), the Mutant League games combined dark humor with fast-paced, arcadey gameplay that appealed to a much wider audience than the rigid, hardcore sports sims of today. Although they preserved most of their respective sports’ rules, they were also chock full of zany features like playing fields littered with hazards, referee bribery, and the ability to literally kill opposing teams’ star players in order to take them out of the remainder of games and even the playoffs.
Of the two Mutant League games that were released, Mutant League Football is my favorite. In fact, I consider it to be the best sports game ever made, period, and I’m about to explain–and hopefully prove to you–why.
If you’re lucky enough to own a boxed copy, the first thing you’ll notice about Mutant League Football is its enormous manual, which spans nearly 100 pages and covers everything from the league’s history to detailed descriptions of its teams. On the inside cover there’s even a wonderfully silly photo of the entire team clad in Mutant League Football T-shirts, hoisting props like a severed foot and the league’s signature spiked football. It’s clear just from the manual alone that the folks who designed this game must have had a blast doing so. Also included is a sheet that lists each team’s “Nasty Audibles” (something I’ll discuss later), two collectible trading cards, and a large poster touting the game’s excellent box art on one side and a lineup of Electronic Arts games on the other.
The fun really starts once you fire up the game. After the hard-rocking, lightning storm of an intro, you’re treated to an impressive lineup of fictional teams and players, many of which are based on real-life counterparts. The Midway Monsters are an obvious nod to the Chicago Bears, for example, and Bones Jackson is a clever play on the name of legendary running-back Bo Jackson. There are 19 teams in all, and each one sports a zero-to-five rating (five being the best) that is indicative of the quality of its players. The players all have unique ratings, too, like the aforementioned Bones Jackson, whose speed and strength make him incredibly difficult to take down, and the “Pukes of Bio-Hazard,” a punishing defensive duo (Mo and Spew Puke) whose ability to lay out vicious hits puts the literal lives of opposing quarter and running-backs at stake. In addition, there are five types of players–Trolls, Robots, Aliens, Skeletons, and Super-Humans–and each one has unique advantages, like Aliens’ ability to slip through tackles and Robots’ above-average speed and finesse.
Something else that’s unique to Mutant League Football is its stadiums, which are often just as important to the outcomes of games as the two teams involved. Each team has its very own stadium that often reflects the team’s name and tenacity. The Killer Konvicts’ is The Pen, for example, which features a slippery ice surface that’s littered with mines and gaps that suck players into outer space if they fall into them. The Sixty-Whiners, on the other hand–the worst team in the league, in case you hadn’t already guessed–play at Winkystink Park, a simple grass field whose only obstacle is, according to the manual, dead Sixty-Whiners. (The manual later goes on to retract this claim, stating that in reality, dead Sixty-Whiners are no more dangerous than live ones. Did I mention that the developers must have had a blast making this game?)
The gameplay is quite similar to early Madden titles, but with numerous Mutant League twists. Aside from the fact that players can actually die, the biggest difference comes in the form of Nasty Audibles, which are like special powers that can be activated once per half on both offense and defense. These powers range from giving your players super speed to reversing your opponent’s controls–a particularly cruel move in two-player mode, and one that probably ruined some friendships years ago. The offensive and defensive playbooks are also quite interesting. On offense, for example, there’s a Wild category containing plays like the Hail Scary, Deathbone, and even a Bribe Ref option–also available on defense–that results in the referee calling bogus penalties on the other team (like flicking boogers and unnecessary kindness) until he’s killed and replaced.
Due to the game’s violent nature, the playoffs are often a war of attrition. Unless reserves are turned off, star players who die must be replaced by second, third, and even fourth-stringers who aren’t nearly as good. Since players have health bars, it’s often wise to bench stars who’ve taken a beating rather than risk them dying and crippling your team for the remainder of the postseason. It’s even possible for games to be won by forfeit due to one team not having enough players left alive, which makes Mutant League Football the only football title in existence that allows you to defeat opponents by literally killing off their entire roster.
On top of all the crazy teams, players, and gameplay features, there are also loads of nice little touches that help solidify Mutant League Football as a true classic. Some of my favorites are the over-the-top touchdown dances, glimpses at other games being played around the league during halftime, views of the bench in which players can be seen celebrating after a touchdown or sulking after having been scored on, getting chewed out by coaches after making boneheaded mistakes, and even the halftime mini-game in which you get to throw exploding footballs at marching band members and, if you kill them all, are hilariously told that new band tryouts will be held on Monday. There are also some classic one-liners from players and coaches alike, including “I only get my uniform dirty when the defenders I run over bleed on me,” and the following sage advice from Coach Bricka: “Winning isn’t everything, but losing is nothing.”
All told, Mutant League Football is an incredibly fun, addictive game that still holds up surprisingly well today. Its infectious humor and brilliant writing never get old, and its attitude no doubt helped inspire the NFL Blitz franchise which exploded in popularity in the late-90s and early-00s and even ended up in arcades all across the nation. As good as the NFL Blitz games are, though, I strongly believe that Mutant League Football beats them all. Although they have similar gameplay, they also lack the charm and creativity that Mutant League Football and its hockey successor possess. It’s a damned shame, then, that we haven’t seen a new Mutant League product in over two decades, and that Electronic Arts still owns and has merely sat on the license since 1994. On the bright side, Michael Mendheim, the series’ original creator, has spearheaded a spiritual successor titled Mutant Football League that aims to rekindle much of Mutant League Football’s magic, but in a more modern, 3D format. Only time will tell if Mendheim’s new creation is just as epic as his old one. Nonetheless, be sure to check out its website at www.mutantfootballleague.com and hope for the best, because if there’s one thing we need in our lives, it’s more games like Mutant League Football.