Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mutant League Hockey

Year: 1994
Developer: EA
Publisher: EA
Platform: Sega Genesis
Metacritic score: None available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

The 90's was a golden age of extreme "sports" games, with Midway's 1993 release of NBA Jam (an update of their lesser known title Arch Rivals) standing as a pinnacle of the genre.  The formula was simple: take the engine for a "serious" sports title and repackage it with over the top action and visual style, then crank it up to ludicrous speed.  In this noble spirit, EA released their own edgier takes on sports, with Mutant League Hockey being the second and final entry in the series.  

In about 10 seconds less than half these guys will still be standing

Built upon the mechanics of EA's own excellently crafted NLH '94, MLH lets players take to the ice as skeletons, trolls and robots in order to brutally maim and murder each other in hilarious ways.  Oh, and also win league championship by occasionally taking a break from fighting the various teams in order to score goals on them.  There are two conferences, Toxic and Maniac, each with 10 teams of various quality based loosely on actual NHL franchises (such as Chicago Black Hearts or Detroit Dead Things) and an additional 3 all-star teams.  While most of the rules from Hockey carry over, there are some notably fun exceptions.  

Fighting is still technically a penalty, but it's also a major aspect of the game.  On a controller that had just 3 main buttons, one of them was dedicated entirely to attacking the opposing players.  Crowds tossed weapons for you to pick up, letting you "check" a player by clubbing him with a hammer or running him through with a chainsaw.  Pick on a player too much, and you'll go into a fight mini-game that doesn't end until one player is out cold.  Both players still get sent to the box, but the loser gets added time on his penalty (a rule I wish would make it into the NHL).  Trick plays can be pulled off with hilarious results, such as rigging the puck to explode, planting land mines, bribing the ref (or just killing him), and replacing your goalie with a giant demon head to free up a 6th attacker.  

Scoring on the Demon Head causes it to explode Michael Bay-style
Because it shared an engine with NHL '94, it was entirely possible to rely on astute defending, tight passing and smart line changes to win.  The right way to play, however, was to crank the damage level to maximum and set about killing each and every player on the opposing team until they were forced to forfeit.  Each slain opponent would remain where they fell as an obstacle and any holes blasted in the ice could be used for a one-hit kill by checking opponents into the watery abyss below. The ice was restored during each period break when some sort of large slug would smooth out the ice and devour all the litter (read: corpses) cluttering the place up.  

Players who fell through thin ice were immediately eaten by a shark, because logic is not as awesome as sharks

Low visibility in the marketplace.  You'll notice EA stuck to football and hockey, and there's good reason for that.  Midway's NBA Jam was a runaway success and came to define the genre.  EA knew directly competing with that would be unwise, but they could still cash in on it's popularity by tapping into that same formula and applying it to their own sports properties.  They opted to emphasize violence and gore rather then mimic NBA Jam's mix of real licenses with over the top (but family friendly) wackiness.  This helped them to stand out, but also meant they couldn't rely on the name recognition and built-in fan bases of real world leagues and players.  The marketing campaign was was subsequently smaller, amounting mainly to a few ads in gaming magazines.

They did have some pretty sweet spreads though
Contemporary reviews were somewhat mixed with Game Informer scoring it an 8.75 while EGM gave it an average of 6.25 primarily for failing to innovate on it's predecessor while actually decreasing the number of mutant varieties from 5 to 3.  But more of the same must have been enough for most, as many comparisons rank MLH as be the superior title thanks to the slick mechanics of it's NHL '94 engine.  The gameplay was undeniably fun and made for a hockey game even non-sports fans could enjoy.  The possibility of instant death, unpredictable goals and non-stop fighting also made this a particularly good multiplayer game.  Balance issues across some of the teams could lead to that fighting spilling over onto the couch, but hey, this is hockey after all.

Though hard sales data is difficult to come by for this and prior console generations, it's safe to say sales were modest.  A short-lived cartoon series based on the property was spawned, but oddly it didn't premier until a few months after MLH hit stores.  The show failed to generate any interest in the game, but did manage to survive into a second season.  While Mutant League Football evidently sold well enough to justify the sequel, MLH represents the swan song of the short lived series.  Either that or EA decided it had milked this cow dry and didn't think it was worth the effort bringing it to the next console generation.  


I'm not sure Mutant League Hockey would do any better in today's market.  The popularity of wacky sports titles has significantly declined since the NBA Jam and NFL Blitz heydays.  Sure, both those titles are still around in various forms and EA themselves even have their "Street" series of titles.  But players today expect authentic licenses, full featured league and career modes, photorealistic graphics and deep control mechanics.  Even sports that are extreme by nature have trended towards realism with former mainstays like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater being supplanted by the down to Earth Skate series.

Still, a lot of gamers hold this game in high esteem.  The community review aggregator at IGN gives it an 8.6 and it can be found on a number of "best of" lists for both Genesis games and hockey games.  The gameplay does hold up surprisingly well today, the hockey mechanics are simplistic but still fluid and blowing up a goalie with a well placed trick puck never gets old.  But I think it takes a certain amount of nostalgia for the original to appreciate the style and emphasis on pure fun over any sense of athletic competition.  This isn't the type of game in which you create a player and guide him from rookie to MVP, hell any created player could end up dead five minutes into his first game.  

The fighting mini-game was certainly pretty to look at, a good thing since most of the game was spent fighting.

When you think about it, this game really lends itself to the kind of casual pick-up and play that's best suited to mobile gaming.  If EA ever were to revive this brand, that would be the most sensible way to do it.  That being said, I've yet to play a mobile sports game that had even halfway decent controls.  I can imagine breaking your phone in half after the third time you commit suicide by accidentally skating into a hole in the ice.   But with little name recognition and only niche appeal, Mutant League Hockey stands to remain a relic of the 16-bit era.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it? Sound off below in the comments!

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