Michael Mendheim was the brains behind Mutant League Football, a violent, super fun, over the top football game for the Sega Genesis. It was remade for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Journalist and author Patrick Hickey Jr. interviewed Mendheim for his Minds Behind the Games book series. Here is that interview:
Patrick Hickey Jr.: How was the original Mutant League Football born?
Michael Mendheim: I’ve always loved football and monsters. My favorite team is the Chicago Bears also known as “the Monsters of the Midway” – Football and monsters. That’s a game I wanted to play, only one problem. It didn’t exist, so it had to be created.
Back in 1991, I pitched this idea to one of my friends, Richard Robbins, who was a producer at Electronic Arts (he did the Desert Strike series). He liked the idea and set up a meeting to pitch the game to EA executives who made the product decisions. This included Trip Hawkins who was the founder and CEO of the company at the time. I spent a few weeks preparing a design and presentation, and then flew out to Redwood City. Trip and a majority of the executives liked the idea, and the project was approved with a modest budget.
Hickey Jr.: What was development like?
Mendheim: Developing the original game for the Sega Genesis at Electronic Arts was a great experience with many ups and downs. The original producer Richard Robbins, who championed the project, left the company early in the game’s development. We had no producer. It was just me and about 6 other developers (artists and engineers) who were assigned to the project. We worked without much oversite for about 9-12 months. At some point EA thought it might be a good idea to put a seasoned producer on the project, and that was Sam Nelson. He helped guide us across the finish line. Sam gave me a wealth of knowledge on how to develop and produce games. It wasn’t always easy working with him, but looking back, without him the game doesn’t ship.
Hickey Jr.: Any hurdles or moments where you thought the game wasn’t going to come out?
Mendheim: We were like salmon swimming up-stream the entire time. We had minimal support initially, EA was going through major changes (Trip Hawkins had left the company to start 3DO and there was serious restructuring going on). I worried every day the game was going to get killed, but with everything going on, we were lucky enough to fly under the radar for about 6 months. At some point someone looked at the projects in development and said, what the hell is Mutant League Football and who the hell is Michael Mendheim? I wasn’t an employee at the company, but people who knew about the project also knew I was the guy behind it. Lucky for us, by the time the big wigs reviewed the game it showed enough fun factor and potential to survive. That’s when they brought Sam Nelson on board.
Hickey Jr.: Some argue that the game is more enjoyable than Madden 93 on the Sega, the game it uses the engine of, how does that make you feel?
Mendheim: A popular misconception is that we built the game on the John Madden Football engine, which is incorrect. Our engineers built the Mutant League engine themselves, although we did consult with some of the key people working on the Madden games (Scott Orr and Richard Hilleman). Those early Madden Sega games were fantastic. I don’t think Mutant League Football is in the same league with them, but appreciate people’s love for the game. We did the best we could with the resources we had.
Hickey Jr.: How did you feel once it was released?
Mendheim: Relieved. I had played the game so much that there was no objectivity left in me. The game was fun to me, but it wasn’t clear if it was really fun or not. We had semi-mixed reviews in the focus groups. Some people liked the game, others didn’t. There was nothing like it in the market at the time, so it was one big dice roll.
Hickey Jr.: What was the initial reception like?
Mendheim: Someone handed me a GamePro magazine with the game review. I was afraid to read the review. Seriously, I didn’t want to read it, but at the same time had to know and was relieved to see GamePro liked the game and gave it a strong review. More reviews followed and they were very good too. Then the game made the sales charts and ended up in the #1 slot. People liked it. We had a hit game. All that hard work paid off. It felt like a giant weight was lifted off of the team’s shoulders. EA immediately put other mutant sports games into production. It was a really great time.
Hickey Jr.: The game produced a spin-off in Mutant League Hockey and a cartoon- how do you feel that plays in the legacy of the game?
Mendheim: It plays an important role concerning nostalgia and awareness, and influences some of the design decisions we’ve made on the new game, but EA owns all rights to the original Mutant League Football & Hockey game and the relevision show is owned by Warner. So, all teams, characters, logos and audio/visual components from that game or television series cannot be in our game. The game we are making is very different than the original, it is going to look, sound, and play different. This is a brand-new game after all. However, it’s very important to us (and to our community) to maintain the key elements that made people love the original. People liked the original games’ political incorrectness, humor, sarcasm, and fun of obliterating your friend’s players. These are all things we can and will keep intact from the original.
Hickey Jr.: Many people prefer the hockey game to the football game but it was rushed. What happened there?
Mendheim: Yes, the game was rushed because EA had made the decision to kill the brand at that point. The Mutant League franchise was not in-line with EA’s new focus of developing and marketing sports games. Their goal was to be the “real sports” company and create the finest sport simulations in the industry. MLF did not fit into that strategy (it was the bastard child). Haha! EA made the right choice, that’s for sure. Good for them. Bad for MLF. The Hockey game was still about 12 to 14 months out from being released when the decision was made. They told us if we could finish the game in six months they would ship it, if not it would get killed. So, we rushed a 14-month schedule into 6 months and managed to release it. They didn’t support it; hell, the cover art is a rough comp. Shipping hockey was a very hard and difficult thing to do, especially knowing that the brand was DOA. I know what Mutant League Hockey was supposed to be and could have been, so I was always sad and disappointed with that project.
Hickey Jr.: What did you learn about yourself during the development of the game?
Mendheim: To never give up…no matter how bad it gets.
Hickey Jr.: Why do you think people still love the game so much?
Mendheim: There are two main reasons why I think people have a special place in their hearts for Mutant League Football.
1). The game made them care about their star players. Seriously, we have people after 25 years who still remember player’s names from the game. We made All-Star players very strong and important to winning, so if a star player died it really hurt your chances of winning. Gamer’s took protective care of their star players in a nurturing way. They benched them so they could rest and regain health. They held them out of the game with a lead to insure they would survive, etc. If a game can create an emotional bond between a user and a character, it’s a magical thing. I think MLF did this in a meaningful way. This is not an easy thing to do in a sports game.
2). The game made people laugh. When playing against friends, you’re trying to kill their star players, while they are trying to kill yours. There is laughing and gloating on one side and screaming and yelling on the other side and this is going on, back and forth throughout the entire game (and on almost every play). Killing a key all-star player could turn around the game – so you’re never really out of competition. There’s always the chance that you can create a forfeit and take home a win even though the score may be 65 to 0. Then you add in all the unpredictability of gameplay, the humor, sarcasm and it just creates a fun experience for everyone involved. It reminds them of fun. Good times with friends.
Hickey Jr.: You’ve gone on to play a role in other huge games the likes of Def Jam Icon, Army Men, Battle Tanx and Fester’s Quest and more. Because of that, where does Mutant League Football rest in your heart?
Mendheim: It will always be #1. Which is why we are making Mutant Football League.
We’ve had hundreds of fans of the original game play this new game at shows like PAX West and GenCon, and everyone who has played has given us a big thumbs up. This is their game. So, if anyone reading this wants to be part of this, just sign up to our MFL Fanatics Club on our website. Also, feel free to like and contribute on our Facebook page. And, of course you can follow us on Twitter: @MutantFootball.
Hickey Jr.: How do you want the game to be remembered?
Mendheim: As the videogame industry’s first action sports hybrid game… and that it made people laugh.
Like what you’ve read? Check out Patrick’s book The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews With Cult and Classic Video Game Developers to read the full interview.
Order a personalized copy of the book and the sequel, The Minds Behind Adventure Games at his official site, PatrickHickeyJr.com and follow him on Instagram at @PatrickHickeyJr.