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Interview: Michael Mendheim (Creator of Mutant League Games)

Most Americans love football. Slowly but surely, it has supplanted baseball as the nation’s pastime, and millions of people around the country tune in every week to root for their team. In 1993, Genesis owners got to experience a new take on the sport, with Electronic Arts’ Mutant League Football, and things were never the same again. As one of four species, players could put the hurt on their opponents in all sorts of ways. The sheer brutality of it all was something new (and strangely enough, wasn’t part of the Night Trap controversy) that soon became a fan favorite. It was followed by Mutant League Hockey and even had its own cartoon show and toy line, but suddenly disappeared.

The man responsible for bringing the series to life was Michael Mendheim, who has been a force in the industry for over fifteen years. At both 3DO and Electronic Arts, he’s been involved with more than thirteen titles, six of which were top ten sellers. Mendheim is currently a producer at EA, and recently sat to discuss the classic Mutant League series with Sega-16.

Sega-16: Where did you come up with the inspiration for the Mutant League series? It’s quite unique and offers a great twist on the sports genre that the industry is only now beginning to rediscover.

Michael Mendheim: I was a huge football fan, totally into Madden Football and thought it would be cool to design a game based loosely on the Madden gameplay but set in surreal and violent fantasy world. The game was originally titled, Blood and Guts Football but the name was later changed to Mutant League Football. In addition, we were inspired by lots of different movies like Rollerball, Star Wars, and Aliens. Everything that we thought was cool we tried to get in the game in some way, shape or form.

Sega-16: Why the decision to make the series a Genesis exclusive (not that I’m complaining)?

Michael Mendheim: When the game idea was bought by EA they decided what platforms they wanted the game to go on. I had no sway there whatsoever.

Sega-16: Did all your ideas make it into the game, or was there anything you had to leave out due to controller/memory issues?

Michael Mendheim: Every idea never makes it into a game because if they did – the game would never get finished. We had hundreds of ideas that were left out of the game simply because of time and hardware constraints. The original game was pitched to have seven unique species, when the game shipped it only had four species since the memory could not maintain that many unique characters on the screen at once. We also wanted a regular season mode but we ended up cutting that at Alpha.

Sega-16: Why wasn’t the series ever brought to the Sega CD or 32X?

Michael Mendheim: Neither platform had enough of a sales base for serious consideration.

Sega-16: There are rumors that a basketball game was in the works. Is this true? Were there ever any plans for more games in the series? If so, what happened? Did its disappearance have anything to do with the controversy surrounding violence in video games at the time?

Michael Mendheim: There was a basketball game in the works, as well as a sequel to Mutant League Football and also a brutal racing game. A year after MLF shipped, Mutant League Hockey was rushed to market. The game was okay but not what it could have been with a bit more time. The entire brand was killed after that. There were several factors which were responsible, but I believe Trip Hawkins leaving EA to start 3DO was a factor. Also EA didn’t want any cannibalization of Madden Football, which made total sense, and I’m sure that Mutant League Football being claimed the most violent video game by the press didn’t help our cause.

Sega-16: We all hear about what a fan favorite the Mutant League series is, but how well did it do commercially? It would appear that it had to have done pretty good, considering it got its own animated series (which simply has to come out on DVD) and toy line.

Michael Mendheim: Mutant League was a #1 selling game. It received outstanding reviews and was nominated by several publications as “Best Sports Game of the Year.” The sales were strong but certainly didn’t rival what Madden was generating. Mutant League Hockey had poor sales across the board.

Sega-16: After the success of the first game, how much freedom did EA give you for the next installment?

Michael Mendheim: EA gave us a lot of freedom to do something really cool. Our budgets increased plus we had a wealth of art from the television show to work with. Mutant League was one of the first games to manufacture a licensing deal with a television studio and it gave us a chance to work with Hollywood writers, which at that time was a rare event in the industry. I thought the brand had the potential to be huge.

Sega-16: Any chance we’ll ever see a new entry in the franchise or a remake of the two titles already released? Who owns the rights today?

Michael Mendheim: EA owns the rights for the games. I am now working at EA as a producer, and hopefully someday I will be able to resurrect it. I believe in my heart that there will be another Mutant League Football game someday.

Sega-16: What do you see as the legacy of the Mutant League series in gaming?

Michael Mendheim: MLF did a lot of innovative things that had never been done before, but first and foremost it made people laugh. Back in the day, there were NOT a lot of video games that touched an emotional nerve in people – MLF was one of them and we did it through humor and strong character personality.

Sega-16: Did you know there’s an online petition to bring the series back?

Michael Mendheim: Yes, I am aware of it and think it’s very cool.

 

Many thanks to Mr. Mendheim for sharing his experiences with us. Sega-16 joins him in hoping that we’ll someday see a new Mutant League Football, but until then, we’ll just play the heck out of the original.

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