Today’s article was written by Jetta Rae Robertson who’s been a guest on What a Maneuver, hosts her own wrestling podcast and runs a food blog called Fry Havoc. She’s taking on EA’s weird football monsterpiece of the 16-bit era.
Politicians and celebrities are easy to parody; to mock people who are overly concerned with their public image, you tweak or distort the image. It’s harder to parody something that openly and demonstrably does not give a fuck for the damage done.
Is there anything you can say in dissent of American football culture that it doesn’t embrace about itself, or at least accept through inaction? The bullying; the misogyny and homophobia; the prevalence of sustained head trauma; the domestic violence; the reliance on unpaid labor from young, often impoverished men at the collegiate level; throwing a fucking riot because a football coach lost his job. For likely protecting a pedophile.
You can’t lampoon or “throw shade” at football. All you can really do is, like, turn up the violence until it collapses inward, like in the way a blown-out speaker is a byproduct of itself. Speak with such a fluency of violence that other trappings and semiotics are laid out like the ruins of an ivory tower.
This is the stake claimed by Mutant League Football, a 1993 Sega Genesis game where teams of trolls, robots, aliens, and the undead scrimmage on fields laden with landmines and fiery pits. Players die. Referees die. And if you’re able to kill enough of the opposing team’s players before the clock runs out, the contest itself shuffles the mortal coil and you win the game by forfeit.
I have never, in over 20 years of playing this game with other retro games enthusiasts, ever finished a game on points. You can set the game’s violence settings to allow for fewer kills; I think it’s human nature to want to cut a contest short in your favor. It might also be just a trait of all sentient existence, judging by the performance of the Monstars in Space Jam.
The looming specter of digital liquidation adds a sort of intimate anxiety to the plays you call. In normal football, you want to be on offense for as long as possible, because it maximizes your capacity to score points. In Mutant League, you want to be on offense for as little as possible. Whether you want to execute this with lots of short running plays, a few good passes, or purposely losing possession so you can bet on being able to kill the offense before the clock runs out is basically a matter of tactics.
Each play is basically a troop deployment, smashing walls of fodder into each other to protect and/or destroy the vital and vulnerable field commanders, with success measured by ground taken or yielded. In this way, Mutant League Football doesn’t pervert or distort American football, it reflects it nakedly.
To say that American football mirrors war isn’t reinventing the wheel of discourse. There are numerous essays and documentaries that discuss the concept. But there’s just something about the simplicity of a robotic defensive end knocking a wide receiver into the void of space, a savage sort of profundity. When you clothesline a running back so hard he explodes, the debris of severed vertebrae spells out, clearly, what the NFL wants to obfuscate with corporate sponsors, cheerleaders, and locker room interviews. Football is a steady drip of Thanatos or Todestrieb, poetic names for the ugliness nestled within the American psyche, one that finds recreation from the business of waging war abroad by painting their faces, wearing jerseys and watching young men bash into each other for a few hours, for a city’s bragging rights, for the prestige of their team owners, for the sanctity of American identity.
It’s uncertain the degree to which Mutant League Football intends to relay this bare-faced a callout of American football; it’s so committed to its overtness that it’s circumstantially subtle. It’s like bad, generic Facebook advice: the clarity of brutality will find you when you stop looking for it and let it come to you.
It’s not a game where you execute the same clumsy off tackle run over and over before the game makes you look at the dismembered husks of your victims and then says “The ultimate game is playing with life.”
The death and destruction of MLF only intensify the tactical mechanics of it; the game has a fluent understanding of the design mechanics of football, and some of it’s imaginations, like jet pack touchdowns and trying to recover a fumble on a field made entirely of rubber, would have comfortably fit in the gaming economy that would succeed consoles, where small, quirky ala carte games without a budget stand a chance of getting a wider distribution than studio-backed releases.
Can you not imagine like, at least 10 different “It’s [Sport], But Sometimes The Ball Explodes! And You Can Earn Money To Bribe The Ref!” games on Newgrounds or Steam?
In a way, Mutant League Football is a game that’s bored with regular football. It strips out the politesse of heritage and legacy to liberate the sport with not only violence, but bafflement. You can kill practically every player on your opponent’s offense without reproach, but pass interference is an automatic first down. When you win the championships, the losing team explodes and then your MVP is sacrificed to the fire pit. Because why should anything “make sense” after you’ve committed gamified genocide?
I don’t know if MLF is conscious enough of the statements that are derived from it. And there’s not really room enough on a SEGA cartridge for clairvoyance; in 1993, a football game where you can push a running back on a landmine might seem excessive, but in 2016, in a time where football players are caught physically abusing female partners and people react to a black quarterback kneeling during the national anthem by sending death threats and having a white power rally in San Francisco, this sort of revelrous, seemingly apolitical violence comes off as quaint.
It’s possible that MLF, as a creative and commercial venture, was so lost in the swoon of its own audacity that it never considered any statements it was making. I’m showing off a bit; phrasing it like that suggests a sort of joy and compassion to the video game industry that I know from experience is quickly rooted out and publicly executed as an example to the others.
MLF looks at American football and says “I’m the you that you wish you could be, probably. And I’ve got a floating football field in space, whaddup?” But not in so many words; the game’s sound features a lot of indistinct goblin squeals and monster gargling in lieu of legible language, set atop a guitar-driven soundtrack that rivals Rock n’ Roll Racing. The howls and screams of the damned lend a primitive authenticity to the game. Such cries of distress might distract from the fantasy that games like Madden or FIFA offer to its players; participating in a noble pastime.
It’d be offensive to say that we’re just learning now that football players can be racist, homophobic, and sometimes hit their female partners. But the visibility and attention modern social media available allow for a once-unknown intensity of scrutiny. As the NFL and NCAA continue to waver on taking a stand against the systemic violence within their cultures, in favor of leaning on their statues as safeguards of some exalted core of Americana, the reflection in that mirror, though decades old, becomes clearer.
Mutant League Football had two sequels, one realized (Mutant League Hockey) and one abandoned (Mutant League Basketball). It had a spin-off TV show that ran for two seasons. Yet it’s had some difficulty finding footing in a modern market (not for lack of trying).
There’s funding issues, there’s the saturation of over the top sports games (whether violent or just wacky); not to dismiss Michael Meindheim’s drive to revive the franchise, which is clearly genuine, I think a crucial obstacle is the lack of need for it.
And when I say a “lack of need”, I don’t mean in the sense of capitalist demand, but rather: no major console or PC game in the ensuing twenty three years has really approached what Mutant League Football had done on the SEGA Genesis. The NFL even tried to get in its own parody with NFL Blitz; popular it was, it is still fettered by its own assertions of legitimacy.
NFL Blitz doesn’t convey the football fan’s natural animosity for referees (who govern not by strength or even experience, but through authority), or even, to give you a break from my politics, the agony of having your well thought-out defense disintegrate against a last-second audible.
MLF is almost like a true crime story; it walked right up and clubbed the concept to death, and the mystique and gall of that act has inspired numerous homages, but nothing will ever replicate that storied barbarity.
It is visceral, horrifying, intimate, and sincere. These grotesque hordes of gridiron miscreants say things about our own nature we can’t bring ourselves to admit, maybe.
Go Screaming Evils!
- Released: 1993
- System: SEGA Genesis (Mega Drive)
- Developer: Mutant Productions
- Publisher: Electronic Arts