Since the turn of the millennium, there’s been a highly visible and, depending on how your pecking order of horror critters shakes out, tiresome glut of zombie-related media. I know this personally, for I too once partook in such a creative effort — I played a young man slowly degenerating into a flesh-craving zombie in an ill-fated film project some six years ago, the footage of which still lies dormant and largely unedited.
It’s hard to pin down when a craze is about to crest, and when the saturation point has been hit. Obviously, we’re now in the death throes of a particularly odious vampire phase in popular media (vampires wouldn’t rate high on my list anyways, let alone what you young people seem to think they’re like). At the time I was in that project, I was pretty sure that the zombie era was already firmly in decline. Boy, was I wrong.
Far harder, though, is being able to stay ahead of that curve and lead the charge. In the case of the most recent zombie era, which still persists in the form of The Walking Dead, things seemed to start brewing around 2001-2002, the latter year being when Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was released. A couple years later the business was clearly in a boom, with Zack Snyder’s deeply inferior Dawn Of The Dead remake hitting the scene, along with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s superior Shaun Of The Dead. Thus began a rolling tide of undead thrills — even some grindingly lackluster, cringe-worthy late-career entries by the storied George Romero himself.
What can be said even by the relatively uninformed media consumer, however, is that the zombie fever was not exactly in full swing back in 1993. We as Americans (sorry to ostracize any international readers) in 1993 were busy guzzling Squeeze-Its, acclimating to a fresh-faced young Bill Clinton, and paying our hard-earned bills to watch the heart-eating adrenaline ride of Friday the 13th Part IX: Jason Goes To Hell.
Amid that milieu sprung a game, released both for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, which laid its first impression with consumers all on the back of the humble zombie. Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a pretty distinct title, after all, and the box art didn’t downplay the theme.
Developed by LucasArts, it follows admirably in the certain offbeat sensibility their games were thick with at the time (i’ll be revisiting this spate again soon). In basic function it’s a top-down run and gun game, in which you must tear through a cast of monster, both undead and very much alive, while finding and saving imperiled civilians. When you nab the final one (or when there simply aren’t any left, as an inept player may leave the helpless to be killed by the hoarde), a door abruptly appears hovering in midair next to you. Jump in, and you’re safely on to the next level.
Part of the reason the title choice surprises me so is that once you’ve forged even a bit into the game, it becomes clear zombies are the least of your troubles. While the basic zombie foe is ubiquitous throughout the game, later levels introduce much more memorable and challenging threats. To name a few: giant babies, werewolves, fish-men, axe-wielding children’s dolls, vampires, pod-people, Snakeoids, mummies. Yet, those tasked with such a choice, which intersects so vitally between both creative and financial impulses, decided to roll the dice with zombies. A bold choice, greatly before it’s time.
The game’s heroes are Julie and Zeke, and they’re just a pair of pretty radical looking teens, guys! Zeke is either so effortlessly chilled out and awesome that he wears red/blue lens 3-D glasses wherever he goes. The two can be used for co-op play, or you can just pick one. Always the left-wing feminist, I typically chose Julie (actually probably more a hostility towards the aforementioned 3-D glasses), but I leave the choices of gender politics to you, since there’s no meaningful difference between them. Armed with squirt guns (looks like squirt uzis, really), the duo are cast into a world of marauding monsters, shambling zombies, and all their fucked up friends.
The nefarious Dr. Tongue awaits, in the final stage (though you get a little warmup act tussling with him in an attic earlier), as the last line of defense between yourself and and unadulterated victory over the foul, beastly legions. Like all of the boss encounters in this game, it’s a pretty damn stiff challenge, unless you’ve had the good sense and good fortune to have saved a couple transformation potions for the purpose. First the scourge Tongue turns himself into a giant spider, skittering about erratically and constantly, then turns himself into a larger version of his own head. Weird, huh? If there’s any game of this time that keenly wants to elicit that reaction, it’s… well, really, it’s Toe Jam & Earl (preferably their sojourn on Funkotron), but Zombies does its level best.
The music behind the gameplay could have been an easy place to cut some corners, as inherently frantic as much of it becomes, but no such let-down is found here. Deriving influence from familiar, classic horror motifs and tropes, each and every piece of sound seems meticulously crafted and placed to evoke a B-horror pastiche. There isn’t unique music for every level, by any stretch — Zombies boasts an impressive 48 levels — but, to make a naked appeal to your weakness for anecdotal evidence, it never got the least bit old for me.
The creativity of the design staff really stands out in the array of weapons you find scattered throughout each level, which stay with you even as you move on to the next. In a pinch, you may not find yourself above hurling popsicles at an approaching chainsaw murderer, or slinging plates at an oncoming alien assailant. There are also potions with varying effects on the user. The red brew will temporarily turn you into a muscular, purple beast, invincible to all harm and ready for war, while drinking a mystery potion may have deleterious effects — temporarily turning yourself into a zombie, for instance, or simply killing you dead.
The truly most impressive achievement here, however, is just how much gameplay is provided, at an exponentially steep learning curve that keeps the player making repeat attempts to forge deeper and deeper. As I mentioned earlier, there’s 48 levels in all, not counting a couple bonus ones (there’s a secret level which references LucasArts’ exemplary point-and-click adventure game Day Of The Tentacle, the sequel to Maniac Mansion). As long as it took me to actually get good enough to beat this game, and as tedious as that process could be in a game crafted by a less joyous or inventive staff, it feels fresh and exciting to this day. I should also mention that this game is currently available on the Wii Virtual Console, and has been for a few years now.
So, if you’re the kind of person who gets excited over the latest monster trend (is a zombie even a monster?), look alive. Here you have a delightful, aesthetically crisp, tongue-in-cheek B-movie style powerhouse of a game, and infectuously enjoyable for anybody to pick up and play, if not with immediate mastery. Zombies was born from a LucasArts development era which produced quite a few games of outstanding quality — more worthwhile uses of time, frankly, than any of the three Star Wars prequels. Sometimes with computers as in life, less is more.