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Mutant Football League kicks off the New Year with a console launch

Undead players don’t need a concussion protocol

Digital Dreams
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Twenty-five years later, mutant football is coming back to consoles.

Mutant Football League, by the Chicago-based indie studio Digital Dreams, and the creator of the 1993 Sega Genesis classic Mutant League Football, will launch Jan. 19 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game launched on Windows PC last Halloween (appropriately enough), but the console release fulfills Michael Mendheim’s promise to restore the zany, blood-and-guts, body-parts-flying brand of football he pioneered a quarter century ago, to the living room couch, where it always belonged.

Nighthawk Interactive is Mutant Football League’s console publisher, and a retail edition of the game will come in the summer. Mendheim has more plans for free content coming after the Jan. 19 launch, too.

Sometime in February or March, Digital Dreams will publish a free update to Mutant Football League adding a multi-season dynasty mode to the game, in which a player takes control of one of the 18 teams — but at the lowest possible rating — and builds them into a powerhouse over several seasons. That update will also pack in a customizable playbook, and a feature where defeating a CPU team in the season gives the user its “dirty tricks,” somewhat like a boss battle reward.

Dirty Tricks, as Mutant League fans know, are the extracurricular boosts, like bribing or even murdering the officiating. They can swing a game to the player’s favor at a critical juncture. Mutant Football League can be unabashedly unfair; a losing team can still win by killing so many of the opposing players that they have to forfeit. It’s is at its best when the score is almost irrelevant: the quarterback dies, a linebacker picks up the fumble and steps on a landmine, and someone else takes the ball and dodges a sawblade slicing across a field that now looks like a Buffalo Bills tailgate party.

“From the community’s reaction, they’re ecstatic with it so far,” Mendheim said. While the PC launch scored an overall positive but middling response from critics, fan reviews on Steam are very positive.

It’s worth pointing this out because Mutant Football League went out as a Kickstarter project in 2013 and landed with a thud, coming nowhere close to its fundraising target. Mendheim paid attention to what fans expected, however, and worked the next three years on building that kind of a game with a shoestring budget. Digital Dreams went back to Kickstarter for a shot of cash in early 2017 and more than doubled its goal. Mendheim clearly feels a sense of redemption at the end.

“I feel really good about our game,” Mendheim said, “and I feel like we fulfilled our promises. We fulfilled every Kickstarter promise — well, with the exception that we have to add demons and werewolves; We’re building our models now and should have them in game soon.” Those will also be a free update.

“After the Kickstarter disaster (in 2013) we listened to the community,” Mendheim said. “They said we want a console game, and want it to be next-gen console game, and they said ‘Go build that, because we don’t want it to be a crappy mobile game.’ The most venomous critics yelled at me and almost castrated me.”

But Mendheim and Digital Dreams stuck with it, even bringing Tim Kitzrow — the Boom-Shaka-Laka voice of NBA Jam — to the project as the play-by-play commentator.

“I think his voice and his humor have added so much to the product,” Mendheim said. “I think Tim was the olive in the martini. I was debating back and forth, ‘Can I do this, can it work?’ but it worked beautifully and I’m super happy about it.”

In Dynasty mode, Mendheim said, players may assign experience points to their players with a one-button suggestion from the CPU, or they may go into their roster and dole out upgrades for individual attributes among any of the players on the team. That kind of flexibility was something the game’s PC community asked for, too, and Mendheim came up with a way to deliver that.

“Dynasty mode wasn’t something we would have tackled before our ship [date],” Mendheim said. “Four weeks before that, the feedback was pretty resounding that people wanted more depth. We have really good engineers [Digital Dreams’ coding partners are in Ukraine] but only seven core people built this game. We’re hoping we can get it out in February, or March, and everyone will get it as a free upgrade. People will have a more robust Mutant Football League experience.”

Murdering the ref in Mutant Football League
Digital Dreams

The console launch will fulfill a development journey now spanning five years. I asked Mendheim if, after all this time, he’s gotten tired of looking at Mutant Football League and pondering all the things everyone might want to make it better.

“Our goal for Mutant Football League was to put out the best game we could with a reasonable amount of features that would allow us to ship the product,” Mendheim said. “We kept the scope in check, to avoid the pitfall of so many indie developers, to add a feature here and there, and they don’t end up shipping.

“But am I sick of the project? Hell no, I love this game,” Mendheim said. “I’m in love with sports played by mutants. I hope to make more of these games, and improve on the game we have.”

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