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The God is a Geek Retro Corner: Zombies Ate My Neighbors

by on January 8, 2011

Game: Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Developer: LucasArts

Publisher: Konami

Originally Released on: Super NES, SEGA Megadrive/Genesis

Currently Available on: Wii Virtual Console

Horror games are big business. Videogames based on horror movies have been commonplace since home consoles first burst onto the scene. Survival horror has even become a genre in it’s own right, with major franchises accounting for a huge number of yearly titles. Titles have become more shocking and pushed the boundaries of taste further and further. Recent developments in graphics and sound have enabled these games to become truly immersive, atmospheric and actually produce real scares.

But back in the days of the 16-bit console wars. Did any games actually scare us? Sure, the occasional game might produce a shock or a jolt, but creating real scares and being truly spooky was a rare thing in gaming. Perhaps that is why, when looking back at that time, the horror game which stands out as the most memorable – and the biggest cult hit – to many is in fact a horror-comedy. The game in question was created as a tribute, a tongue-in-cheek nod to classic Universal monster films and B-movies. A love story to a golden age of schlock-horror films ranging in influence from the 1950’s to 80’s. That game, is Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

What little story there is in the game follows the protagonists, siblings Zeke and Julie, as they battle monsters who have suddenly appeared all over the earth, with an assortment of peculiar weapons. Well-loved monsters such as Count Dracula, The Blob, Mummies and Demonic Babies all make appearances as the development team show off their affection for classic Horror. Players will travel through over fifty-five top-down levels, ranging from the local neighbourhood and Shopping Mall to the Pyramids of Egypt and Castles of Transylvania. Every cliche horror location is included and each level title is usually a play on words of a proper movie title or tagline! Along the way our young heroes must rescue hapless civilians in each stage. By saving a set number of people from the monsters, the player can advance to the next level. The player can progress if some are killed by monsters, but if too many die – it’ll be game over.

The game plays as a top-down run and gun title. Players have a set number of lives, which can be added to by rescuing more civilians on each stage. The game supports 2-player co-op and this is arguably the best way to go through the experience. A password system is implemented to reduce the frustration of continues and constant game over screens, and are doled out every five levels or so. There are also power-ups such as health items, speed-increasing shoes and devastating potions that can induce invisibility or turn you into a hulking monster (for a limited time). One of the most iconic gameplay features though, is the huge host of weaponry which can be collected and used. Everything from dining plates and cutlery, lollipops and lawnmowers are included – and each will often have a particular purpose and enemy whom it is most effective against. Having trouble with infectious body-snatching weeds? Pull out your weed-whacker. Flaming baby chasing you? Makes sense to give him a blast with that fire extinguisher. These rules often follow traditional horror film conventions, which makes them all the more entertaining. For example, throw your mum’s best silverware at a werewolf and it will die immediately. The tactics in saving your limited ammo for each weapon for when you really need it will certainly come into play on later levels, where you can easily find yourself stuck if you waste your weapons unnecessarily, so it pays to take some time to figure out what weapons does what before you start spraying wildly. This is seen by some as a pre-cursor to the weapons system in Dead Rising, another comedy-tinged Zombie game which features ridiculous weapons and arsenal management.

Due to its content, the game did suffer some censorship issues. It is a shame, as the game is intended largely in parody, but the gaming scene was very different in the early 1990’s and Nintendo, in particular, were very child-orientated. The game was re-named as simply Zombies in many countries due to the violent overtones of the original moniker and possible links to x-rated films at the time (Zombie Flesh Eaters for example). Nintendo also ordered the removal of all blood in the game, which was replaced by purple ooze. This was a common theme for Nintendo as the first Mortal Kombat also had blood re-coloured and finishers toned down around the same time. Even chainsaw-wielding maniacs were censored  and given axes instead! Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still banned at the time, so it is obvious Nintendo wanted to disassociate itself from that, but axe-wielding lunatics aren’t exactly family-friendly!

The graphics were nothing revolutionary for the time, but the bright sprites and colourful situations stand out clearly and create an obviously affectionate homage to horror greats. Characters such as Friday the 13th‘s Jason Vorhees or classic Universal monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon are instantly recognisable. Lighting and shading techniques help add a spookiness to situations, whilst still letting the cartoon visuals shine through. Presented as a technicolour B-movie, the game certainly reproduces the feeling well. Music and sound effects are similarly authentic and further pay homage to masters of the genre. Some themes will even stand out as variations upon popular horror music and the screams of civillians sound like they have been sampled directly from Attack of the 50 foot Woman or Plan Nine from Outer Space. It is obvious the game was made by people who love horror and wanted them to be remembered fondly.

When stood next to similar arcade shooters released recently, the charm of the title still lets it rise above many of the competitors. Beneath its sense of humour and attention to detail lies a fairly basic game mechanic, but one that is still very playable today. Concessions included such as the password system mean that modern players will not be stumped by the unforgiving nature of retro games. The system allows you to dip in and out of the title for just a few levels play if you so desire, to resume later with password entry. Played through with a buddy you will find that exercising teamwork and solving the basic puzzles (such as finding keys and secret doors) become a lot of fun in the situations included. The music will also stay with you for hours after playing, as the catchy horror riffs and spooky themes stick in your mind. Even working out what the best weapon to defeat the giant baby before it tramples you to death will leave you returning to this title, even if it’s just to try out a different form of attack. There may only be one game mode and no real variety in gameplay from level to level, but the experience is amusing and engrossing and the presentation appealing. Play it through and try to spot all of the classic film references – how well do you know your horror movie? With its cult status now cemented on Wii, the game can find a whole new audience who missed it first time around. It is well worth it, the game is spook-tacular.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors is currently available to download on Wii Virtual Console. This article is part of the horror month GodisaGeek will be running in the lead-up to the release of Dead Space 2. Check this space for more horror-related articles coming soon. The God is a Geek Retro Corner will return the first Friday of every month.