Author’s Note: This review first appeared on Mech Taco on December 20, 2011, as part of a series on American football games available to play instead of Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL franchise.
It may come as a shock for some to learn that Electronic Arts, the company often criticized for creating football games lacking creativity, is actually responsible for one of the most original, entertaining football video games ever made. Mutant League Football for the Sega Genesis was created by Michael Mendheim, a box art illustrator turned game designer who also created the 1989 NES game Fester’s Quest. According to an interview with Gamasutra Mendheim developed Mutant League Football as an ultra-violent parody of televised sports. Following its commercial release, the game gained some marketing popularity, including a sequel (Mutant League Hockey), a line of toys and a Saturday morning cartoon in which in an early episode has a character whose skin melts off after being exposed to radioactive gas.
The game is seven-on-seven football and based on the engine used in the early John Madden Football games. Where the two titles differ significantly is in the violence. In John Madden Football if a player gets injured, they may get taken off the field in a stretcher; in Mutant League Football they get carted off in a body bag, or possibly several small bags containing the various dismembered remains. You read that right: Mutant League Football is a football game where the violence is so intense players get killed on the field. Players have a stamina bar that goes down as players receive hits. If it goes down chances are that player will soon explode in a shower of sixteen-bit meat confetti. To make matters all the more perilous, the fields are overrun with hazards from stones that trip players up to bottomless pits to freaking landmines that kill players and leave a flaming hole in their wake. Each team also has an array of deadly plays designed to transform opponents into tiny bits, from stat boots like super strength and speed to plays that mess with the controls or make all your players invisible to wiring a ball to explode in a play actually called “Ball Wired for Death.”
If you turn on the option for Reserves (and I recommend you do), as the game wears on and the body count rises you will begin to lose players on the field. It is possible to play games where the opponent has two players left on defense or a quarterback but no running backs or wide receivers left alive. Eventually if it gets bad enough the game will end in a forfeit because not enough players are among the living.
However, the game is more than pure aggression. There is also a significant amount of strategy. When you play with the violence turned up, when you’re on offense you need to weigh whether building and sustaining a drive is worth the risk of losing your skill players. It’s the only game where I really look forward to giving the ball back to the other team because it means the prospect of turning their skill players into hamburger meat. In tight games I often find myself punting the ball away rather than risking my skill players and rely on my defense to systematically eliminate their offense and get points on turnovers. As a result games can turn into wars of attrition, where you play until either you or your opponent doesn’t have any players left alive.
Participating in the carnage that is the Mutant League are nineteen teams (sixteen regular teams and three all-star teams). The teams have colorful names, from the pathetic Sixty Whiners to the Deathskin Razors, a team coached by the Devil.
Each team has their own star players with their unique strengths and weaknesses. The rosters are filled with humans, trolls, skeletons, aliens, and even a team populated entirely by robots, which is either a metaphor for mechanization sucking the life of humanity or an excuse to have a team full of soulless machines who crave living flesh.
Two modes of play are available for the amateur bloodsport enthusiast: a single-game mode and a sixteen-team playoff where teams vie for the Mutant League Cup. In case you don’t have time to sit down and go through an entire playoff, the game uses a password feature. An added challenge to Playoff mode is deaths carry over from one game to another and a heavy death toll in one game can put you at a disadvantage in the next. While playing a tournament with my personal favorite Deathskin Razors I got through a tough playoff game where I beat the opponent by virtue of the fact that the other team didn’t have enough players left alive. At the beginning of the next game I was surprised to find that my training staff was not able to put my lost players back together again, and I soon found myself with a handful of half-broken players facing an onslaught of healthy, able-bodied War Slammers. Two quarters and 70 points allowed later, you could practically hear the straggling survivors begging for death’s sweet embrace to carry them off from the carnage.
Mutant League Football is a game with a lot of charm. The graphics are bright and colorful. The camera is slightly closer to the ground than in Madden, allowing you to see the characters are well detailed. Each of the stages looks great. Some are pocked with craters while others have brightly colored turfs that make the ones at Boise State and Eastern Washington seem dull; one is even played on a field of ice where players slide around. The sound effects are every bit as visceral as you would hope in a game where skeletons, aliens, and trolls try to make lunchmeat out of each other on the gridiron with lough bangs of explosions and the satisfying groan as a player lets out his last gasp before occupying several yards of field space. In between deaths you’re treated to brief cutaways of players and coaches talking trash and on touchdowns you see a brief cut of mutated fans cheering on the action. There is even a halftime show.
Gameplay is also technically sound. The game has that issue that many football games had at the time where on passing plays the receivers appear on little TV screens at the top of the screen, which may be jarring for players used to more modern football games. However, it is easy to get used to. Rushing is also good and you are rewarded for following your blockers; however players have a tendency to bounce off defenders like pinballs. Defense can get frantic as players scramble for the ball carrier but it never gets old to collide with a ball carrier and have them disintegrate into a hundred little bits upon impact. Kicking is also pretty straightforward (press the C button once to start the power meter and again to set it), and it’s really rewarding to see that skull on the uprights bounce up and spin when you put one through.
The game was also ahead of its time as a football game. In Mutant League Football, after you score a touchdown you can go for a 2-point conversion. While that seems like a given today, the NFL didn’t introduce the option to go for two until 1994.
As I mentioned at the outset for me it doesn’t really get any better than this. It’s simple and fun and no matter how many times I play it it never seems to get old. Graphically it has also aged well and even in light of our space age football games of the present generation it is still fun to watch and just as much fun to play.
If you’re dying (see what I did there? #comedy) to play Mutant League Football it’s a pretty common game and you can find a copy online for a modest price. If you don’t have a Genesis lying around (even though you know you really should) you really have only one option. The game was ported to the PSP as part of the EA Replay collection, which includes a bunch of other great early EA Genesis games, including Jungle Strike, NHL 95 and all three Road Rash games. However, if there ever was a series that I’d love to see a reboot it would definitely be this one.