A game whose inspiration far transcends the relatively limited scope within which it inhabits
To those on the outside looking into the house of horrors that is Zombies Ate My Neighbors, the game might look like yet another run and gun from the early 90s that was somehow transplanted from an arcade machine to a home console. After all, by either controlling Zeke, a blend between a geek and a punk; or Julie, a tomboyish girl whose ragged adventure-ready gear could make her right at home beside any action movie hero, players must blast their way through enemies while rescuing the titular neighbors who are about to be viciously murdered by the constantly respawning mob of monsters.
However, no game could possibly be remembered so fondly long after its release by being a generic work that blends into the mold of its era. As it turns out, Zombies Ate My Neighbors does not merge into the crowd; it stands out brilliantly, for while its very general gameplay lines evoke the idea of a run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up, the colors it uses to fill in the blanks are clever and unique.
Given its development by LucasArts, a group of folks that were once masters of parody, humor, and stylish goofiness, it is only natural that the game’s major and more noticeable strength is its quirkiness. Zeke and Julie are extravagantly designed, and the neighbors that must be rescued are ridiculously insane, because only the craziest – and best – kind of people would be barbecuing, relaxing on the pool, cheer-leading or leisurely taking in the sights while the gates of hell are blown apart and monsters from all kinds are invading once-peaceful territory.
Speaking of the beasts our juvenile heroes will have to deal with, the moniker Zombies Ate My Neighbors, though somehow precise and witty, fails to capture the lengths to which the game goes in order to bring cartoonish death upon the world. Zombies are, in fact, the weakest and less threatening members of the bunch, working more as fodder for hungry guns than real menaces; they are joined by every single stereotypical creature to ever appear on a horror movie, be it a low-budget flick or a first-rank production.
Vampires, werewolves, murderous toys, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, devilish babies, human-sized bugs of various sorts, Martians, carnivorous plants, mummies, UFOs, amphibian beings of humane features, clone-spawning flowers, and blobs all gladly join the party to bring doom upon the neighborhood. The game takes advantage of that fantastic cast of baddies and the dramatically presented, with cliché horrifying font included, name of its 55 levels to spoof and nod to several cinema products that fall under the horror genre.
It is not all about deliberately mocking others, though, Zombies Ate My Neighbors also dresses itself with some pretty intriguing gameplay mechanics that load it with personality. Firstly, there is the characters’ wide range of equipment. Working with two slots, one reserved for weapons and another for assist items like first-aid kits and potions with various – and sometimes mysterious – effects, players can quickly navigate through each arsenal with the pressing of a specific button (B and A respectively, in the case of the Super Nintendo) and use the selected items with a second pair (Y for guns and X for support objects).
The game includes a traditional light gun alongside bazookas, fire extinguishers, silverware, weed whackers, explosive soda cans, and much more. Weapons are varied not only in presentation and use, but also on how effective they are against each type of enemy, forcing players to experiment to see what works best against who and to make sure their inventory is always ready for whatever might come next.
Such depth crafts a big strategic undertow not to mention a great need for equipment management, because, aside from the light gun, the other weapons are relatively scarce, and failing to have one of them when a specific type of enemy shows up with abundance in a level will transform the game from a shoot ’em up into a light-hearted, yet terrifying, survival horror.
The originality does not stop there. Zombies Ate My Neighbors has a very unique progression structure that is simultaneously challenging and flexible. All levels possess up to ten neighbors waiting to be rescued. That number, however, is never fixed; it depends on how many people were saved on the previous stage. Therefore, if on the very first stage players slip up and allow a couple of folks to be devoured, from that point on only eight neighbors will show up on each subsequent level, and if any others are lost, that number will keep diminishing all the way down to 0. As a relief, though, for every 40,000 points accumulated, an extra victim is added to your current total.
Players get a gruesome “Game Over” screen whenever they either lose all three of their lives or fail to rescue a single person on a level, hence the importance of keeping the neighbor count as high as possible. Although such a fate, true to the game’s arcade inspirations, will send players all the way back to the start of the 55-level gauntlet, the pain is alleviated by the fact that despite the absence of a saving system, with every four levels that are cleared players gain a password that, when entered, will propel them, with a nullified accumulated score and standard limited gear, right back to where they stopped while maintaining the number of victims they were able to rescue up to that stage.
That strange yet fascinating system is what creates the contradictory qualities of brutality and accessibility that Zombies Ate My Neighbors carries. Make no mistake, this is an extremely hard game that needs to be played with extreme care from the get go. As it happens on a marathon, it is vital that early levels be cleared with room to spare – without any neighbors being lost, so that players can afford bigger losses later in the game when the hard going gets even tougher.
Yet, given that a new password is given with every four levels that are finished, the game awards players with infinite chances to tackle the long stairwell step-by-step or, more accurately, four steps by four steps. It is plausible and advisable to those who want to reach the top of the hill of terror to strive for perfection four levels at a time so that, slowly but surely, they acquire the passwords that will send them back to progressively advanced stages of the game with a healthy amount of neighbors. To those who are brave enough, though, it is always possible to aim for an unstopped 55-level run to accumulate huge amounts of points and build a glorious score.
In spite of its impossible-to-overlook qualities, however, Zombies Ate My Neighbors has its flaws. The biggest one is its repetitive nature. The amount of stages packed into the game is commendable, but they are not varied enough to keep the experience fully engaging the whole way through. The number of scenarios is somewhat limited, and the visual themes (neighborhood, mall, pyramid, castle, etc.) begin repeating themselves way too much by the time level 20 is reached.
The game does try to rearrange the locations in distinct ways, and it succeeds to the point that while there are stages with a heavier focus on exploration, others are centered around combat. Yet, regardless of those efforts and its surprisingly deep weaponry mechanics, the fact players will be doing the same thing over and over again on scenarios that are way too familiar despite restructuring and rearrangements will come to the surface sooner or later, meaning that the game’s legs are not resistant enough to survive the marathon it is set to run. Shorter gameplay sessions, though, might diminish that impression.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors ends up being a game whose inspiration far transcends the relatively limited scope within which it inhabits. It is an arcade shoot ’em up that is taken to the genre’s ultimate creative heights, but whose cleverness, despite the title’s undeniable fun, ends up not materializing in its fullest state due to the restricted format it was placed in. That brilliancy, though, is far from wasted. Even if it is not entertaining the whole way through, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a game with good production values (especially on the sound department) and that has humor and style to spare. It might not be for everyone, but it has the potential to charm any gamers that may have escaped its grasp during the game’s original run.