What makes a video game weird? It’s a simple question, yet the answer is much harder to pin down than you might think. After all, it’s been noted countless times that the broad outlines of some of the most vanilla, near-universal gaming experiences (Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros.) would come across as something akin to fever dreams to someone completely ignorant of the form. Nevertheless, some developers still manage to go that extra mile and stagger those of us who don’t bat an eye at a man in overalls eating magic mushrooms to turn into a giant and soaring through the air by flapping his raccoon tail.
Broach the topic of weird games with any NES aficionado and two titles are bound to be rated at or near the pinnacle: Human Entertainment’s platformer Monster Party (which I already reviewed a few years back) and my subject today, the KAZe-developed horizontal shooter Zombie Nation. For my money, Zombie Nation is the stranger trip by far. Monster Party is offbeat, sure, but I actually get what Human was going for: Parodying various horror movies. Once you get the majority of the references and jokes, it skews much more charming than confusing. Contrast this with Zombie Nation, where every aspect of the final product; the scenario, the artwork, the music, and the even the play control are so far out of left field that I can scarcely imagine the creative process behind it all. What KAZe has unleashed here is so garish, so disorienting, so stridently awkward as to be the NES equivalent of a top-shelf “so bad, it’s good” movie. Think Plan 9 from Outer Space, Troll 2, or The Room. Zombie Nation is to Konami’s Gradius what Birdemic is to Hitchcock’s The Birds. It’s a terrible, stupid game and I’m afraid I’ve fallen in love with it.
Zombie Nation initially does its best to lull you into a false sense of security. The opening text crawl describes how an evil alien named Darc Seed lands in the Nevada desert in the year 1999 and uses his “strange magnetic rays” to turn the nation’s populace into mind-controlled zombie slaves. Darc Seed also uses these rays to bring the Statue of Liberty to life “to do his dirty work.” Whatever that means. I’m not sure I really want to know.
Okay, so it’s an alien invasion plot just like in every other shooter. That Statue of Liberty bit was a little random, but whatever. Just skip to the part where I’m the only pilot that has what it takes to take down Darc Seed in my experimental high tech super ship, right? Wrong. Because in Zombie Nation (or Samurai Zombie Nation, as the title screen alone insists on calling it), your “ship” is the house-sized severed head of a samurai and instead of laser guns and missiles, you fight with a unending supply of projectile vomit and eyeballs.
Behold our hero, Namakubi! His name translates to “severed head” and he single-handedly, er, zero-handedly makes me regret jumping the gun back when I called Data East’s mascot Karnov unappealing. As what appears to be the airborne DayGlo orange mug of Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Namakubi makes Karnov look like GQ cover material. The Japanese Famicom edition of the game, which debuted only one month earlier, starred a tengu mask instead of a human head and was called Abarenbō Tengu (“Hooligan Tengu”). I suppose replacing the mask with a new character for the NES release made sense, given that tengu are mythical spirit creatures little-known outside Japan. I have to wonder, however: Why a samurai head when they could have just as easily swapped the sprite out for literally anything else more relatable to an American audience? Truly a mystery for the ages.
Thankfully, in addition to having one of the most gonzo premises of all time, Zombie Nation is also a remarkably competent shooter…is what I really wish I could tell you right now. No such luck, though. Top to bottom, this gameplay’s the proverbial hot garbage! Namakubi is far too large for his own good and avoiding all the fast-moving enemies and bullets would be a Herculean challenge even if he wasn’t also prone to sliding across the playfield like a hockey puck. That’s right, there’s momentum to correct for here, which is almost unheard of in a genre founded on the player’s ability to execute quick, precise movements. It’s bad enough on the easier of the game’s two difficulty settings, but it’s a “donkey on roller skates” magnitude catastrophe on the hard setting, which actually has the nerve to ratchet up Namakubi’s momentum significantly. Have you ever even heard of a shooter implementing a hard mode by making your already crappy controls worse? That’s so Zombie Nation!
The designers attempted to compensate for Namakubi’s sloppy handling by giving him a life bar made of multiple smaller versions of his head arranged along the bottom of the screen. The more damage you take, the more of these turn into skulls. Most enemies deal only a small amount of damage, with the exceptions being bosses and the environmental hazards (giant laser beams and such) that show up in the backgrounds of most stages. Run out of heads and you’re forced to use one of your limited continues to restart the current stage. You can earn health refills by scoring enough points and extra continues by finishing stages. Honestly, though, wouldn’t you rather just have a smaller, easier to steer character that didn’t need to soak up dozens of bullets in the first place?
By far the most interesting thing going on here gameplay-wise is the massive amount of destructible scenery filling each stage and way Namakubi powers himself up by laying waste to as much of his surroundings as possible. Demolishing the assorted skyscrapers, airstrips, and rock formations in your path will both score you points and cause what the instruction manual calls “zombie hostages” to be blown clear of the wrecked structures and slowly fall toward the ground, yelling for help all the while. Are they supposed to be hostages of the zombies? Hostages that are zombies? Both? Beats me. I just know that if Namakubi can manage to catch enough of these guys before they fall off the bottom of the screen, they’ll gradually increase the strength of his weapons. Unfortunately, all this really amounts to is a generic screen clearing bomb attack in addition to more of the same old barf and eyeballs. The extra firepower is undoubtedly useful, but it’s no substitute for the wide variety of weapon types available in most other 1990 vintage shooters. While this whole process is ultimately much more interesting than it is fun, I do have to admit that the programmers did a great job optimizing performance in light of the sheer amount of chaos filling the screen during Namakubi’s kaiju-esque rampages. I didn’t encounter nearly as much slowdown as I expected going in.
Zombie Nation isn’t very long, clocking in at around twenty minutes if you know what you’re doing. Its four stages are all thoroughly unrecognizable takes on iconic American locales like New York City and the Grand Canyon. Three of the four are further divided into two visually distinct sections each, so the game as a whole feels more like seven short stages than four long ones. One genuinely nice feature is a stage select similar to the one seen in Silver Surfer that allows you to choose which of the four areas you want to start on. This makes learning the game a lot easier than it would be otherwise, since you can practice a particular portion you’re having problems with exclusively until you get it down.
In the visual and audio departments, the game is all over the place. Some of the backgrounds, like the clouds and lightning in the Grand Canyon, are very well done and Namakubi’s sprite, grotesque as it is, is also quite detailed and expressive. On the downside, the scale of everything really detracts from whole zombie angle. The human characters are all just stick figures a few pixels tall and nothing about them suggests the undead. Zombie Nation promises a lot here with a cover that showcases some pretty gross-looking ghouls. The in-game graphics simply don’t deliver on any of it. Some of the music is excellently composed and technically impressive due to the way it makes extensive use of the system’s often overlooked DPCM sample channel. The theme from the second half of area one (“Exodus”) is a real standout in this regard. Then you have tracks that are shrill and obnoxious, as if the regular composer quit the project midway through and the team brought in a spider monkey humping a theremin to fill in the rest. Fun fact: Zombie Nation’s soundtrack includes the longest single piece of music found in any Famicom or NES game. It plays for just under seven minutes before looping and shows up on the stage select screen of all places. You know, where the player isn’t ever likely to spend more than about ten seconds or so. Genius.
The bad movie lover in me can’t help but treasure a specimen like Zombie Nation. Enough to eventually complete it without dying on both difficulties, even. It’s a total head-on train wreck of a shooter with its slippery controls, oversize hero, boring weapon progression, uneven presentation, and level design that never rises above the serviceable. It’s also a game where a flying samurai head saves the U.S.A. from aliens by reducing half of it to rubble and killing the Statue of Liberty with puke. No one will ever be able to take that away from you, KAZe. You may not have settled the issue of what makes a game weird once and for all, but you’ve given me a ton of new data to sift through. Thank you.