Every Tuesday, PHT will remember a hockey video game (or games). Since we don’t have every console or cartridge, some posts will be recollections, not reviews. This week, we look back at “Mutant League Hockey.”
There probably won’t be another hockey video game quite like “Mutant League Hockey.” In all honesty, it’s kind of hard to believe it ever got released.
Now, in some ways, “Mutant League Hockey” was very much a video game of the times. No, its cartoonish violence didn’t inspire groups to think of the children with the same energy that “Mortal Kombat” did. But it was still a hockey video game where you could eliminate your opponents (with weapons like chainsaws) until you won by forfeit. The crude humor and over-the-top vibe carried shades of “Beavis & Butthead,” “Ren & Stimpy,” and maybe even “Heavy Metal.” It was the unofficial hockey video game of GWAR.
It’s kind of staggering that “Mutant League Hockey” was published by Electronic Arts in 1994. After all, this was at the same time the company that was churning out beloved, licensed sports titles. Gory parodies didn’t really fit with “NHL ’94” and “NHL ’95,” let alone the increasingly popular “Madden” games.
There’s an alternate reality where maybe, just maybe, EA Sports would be churning out sim series on one side and silly ones on the other. After all, “Mutant League Hockey” wasn’t the first title in the series, as the hit “Mutant League Football” first brought us “Bones Jackson” in 1993.
It’s not like the series lacked any legs. There was even a “Mutant League” cartoon, which it ran for two seasons in the form of 40 episodes:
There were even action figures, possibly pushing the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” connection too far:
Ultimately, “Mutant League Hockey” ended up being the last video game in the series, rather than a continuation of a sensation. Even so, it’s worth remembering the game, and its place in the landscape of arcade-style sports titles.
Not everyone has the fondest memories of “Mutant League Hockey”
Even series creator Michael Mendheim understands why EA eventually shelved “Mutant League” titles to focus on more grounded sports games. In a 2007 interview with Gamasutra, Mendheim referred to the series as “the crazy uncle who was told to stay in the basement when the important guests arrived.”
“EA made a smart decision to put all their focus and talent on making the best realistic sports games in the industry, in lieu of splitting resources to make a violent sci-fi themed sports game,” Mendheim said. “From a business standpoint, it was the only practical decision to make.”
In deciding to divest from all things “Mutant League,” it meant that there wouldn’t be a basketball game, and this change in gears forced “Mutant League Hockey” to be rushed. Mendheim explained that what should have been about a 14-month development cycle was instead squashed down to about six months.
” … I know what Mutant League Hockey was supposed to be and could have been, so I was always sad and disappointed with that project,” Mendheim told Brett Weiss.
What “Mutant League Hockey” ended up being
Of course, plenty of us hold fond memories of what “Mutant League Hockey” ended up being, as we had no clue what it could have been.
In retrospect, some of the flaws helped make it so memorable. There was sort of a buffet-style, “kitchen sink” feel to the game, and it probably made things too chaotic at times. Yet maybe that excess also helped it stand out?
If you wanted balance, you went with the NHL titles. “Mutant League Hockey” allowed you to bribe refs, included a net that could turn into a puck-blocking beast, and punished losing teams in fights with longer penalties. A slug-like Zamboni didn’t just clean up pixelated ice, but also the bones/whatever of the fallen beasts following each period. The animated fight sequence felt like an evolution/devolution of the memorable bouts in “Blades of Steel.” It was all a lot, and that was the point.
As with most corny humor and puns, some jokes landed better than others. Your mileage will vary on “Smelios” (stifles a giggle), but “Jamina Dagr” isn’t exactly the greatest take on Jaromir Jagr.
Based on Mendheim’s comments about the game being rushed, one wonders if “Mutant League Hockey” could have been as polished as it was off-the-wall if given more time in the oven. Then again, it’s better that it got rushed out than to not exist at all.
If you glance at Mendheim’s career, you can see that there are traces of “Mutant League” in future work.
It’s unclear how involved he was in the 1996 PC title “HyperBlade,” but … I mean, just look at it. This carries some serious “if only it had more time in the oven” spirit:
EA occasionally returned to arcade-style sports games, just not really with the absurd gore. The “EA Sports BIG” line of games captured much of the spirit with “NBA Street” and “SSX.” Mendheim even served as a producer on “Def Jam: Icon.”
EA eventually dropped “BIG” games, which still stings for me. It makes it that much more tempting to picture how a modern “Mutant League Hockey” might turn out.
Actually, should I picture it as “Mutant Hockey League?”
Back in 2017, Mendheim managed to put out a spiritual pigskin successor in the form of “Mutant Football League.” While it didn’t set the video game sales world on fire, it received reasonably positive reviews. It merely existing is impressive enough.
(The game’s title not prompting litigation is interesting enough in its own right.)
Picturing an unlikely reboot
Considering hockey’s more limited scope, and Mendheim holding sad memories, I’m not holding my breath for anything along the lines of “Mutant Hockey League,” or any similar arrangement of words.
Even so, it’s tempting to picture an unlikely reboot. First, take the adrenaline and sports-adjacent qualities of “Rocket League.” Then, mix in the obstacles and items of, say, “Mario Kart.” Add violence for taste, and you could have a glorious hockey video game.
Honestly, if you need a boredom fix, drum up some dopey replacement NHL player names. Just consider “Mutant Football League” warping Odell Beckham Jr. and apply it to hockey:
Until then, we’ll merely have to dream, and maybe wipe dust off of that Genesis and the nostalgia-tinged cartridges.
PHT remembers other hockey video games:
- NHL Championship 2000, Fox’s rare foray into hockey video games, starring Mike Modano.
- NHL Slapshot, a Wii video game with Wayne Gretzky and a small plastic hockey stick peripheral.
- EA’s NHL ’98, when the company hit its polygonal stride, and also featured a great soundtrack (ironically and unironically?).
- An ode to the NHL 2K series, which challenged and sometimes surpassed EA’s popular entries.
- Who needs Tecmo Super Bowl when you can have Tecmo Super Hockey? (You might want to stick with Tecmo Super Bowl.)
- “Ice Hockey” makes a fat, skinny, normal impact on the Nintendo NES.
- Looking back at hockey video games on the Nintendo 64.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.