Egad! Is it the 31st already? Seems like only yesterday I was lighting up my jack-‘o-lantern at precisely 12:00 AM on October 1st. You know, like normal people. Well, if I have to let another spooky season pass, it’s going to be with a monster mash of truly epic proportions. LucasArts’ Zombies Ate My Neighbors should do nicely. Published by Konami for the Super Nintendo and Genesis in 1993, Zombies crams nearly sixty years of cinematic horror iconography into one intense run-and-gun escapade.
I mean it, too. The game’s suburban teen heroes, Zeke and Julie, have to contend with the usual vampires, mummies, and Frankenstein monsters of 1930s Universal fame. Unlike in Castlevania, however, that’s merely the beginning. Keen-eyed horror junkies will spot the giant ants from 1954’s Them!, the slimy star of 1958’s The Blob, invading aliens traced from Topps’ 1962 Mars Attacks trading cards, and even then contemporary terrors such as humongous burrowing worms modeled on the ones in 1990’s Tremors. There are killer dolls, pod people, chainsaw slashers, and, of course, an endless supply of good old Romero style cannibal zombies. What a concept! A couple of these selections are real deep cuts, too. Seeing the mushroom men from Matango pop up sure warmed my morbid little heart.
Despite a throwaway blurb in the manual about how all these baddies are supposed to be working for the final boss, one Dr. Tongue, Zombies isn’t exactly what you’d call a plot-driven experience. The emphasis is firmly on the gameplay as you struggle to survive 48 stages of this madness (plus hidden bonus areas) while simultaneously preventing too many of your witless neighbors from becoming monster chow. Yup, that title isn’t just for show. You begin the game with the goal of saving ten neighbors scattered around the opening level before the monsters slaughter them. If all the neighbors bite the dust, it’s an instant game over. In practice, you’re almost certain to lose a few along the way. They are stationary and completely helpless, after all. In this instance, they’ll stay dead until you can meet the sizable score threshold required to earn a “bonus victim.” Trying to tackle any of the already brutal later stages with only one or two squishy neighbors left between you and the end of your run can get quite tense.
Apart from this neighbor rescue dynamic, the action here broadly resembles an evolution of Atari’s Gauntlet. You have the overhead perspective, the multiplayer component (you and a friend can play at once), the labyrinthine layouts that often have you seeking out keys, potions, and such on your way to an exit door, the constant stream of tenacious foes, etc. Controls are dead simple, with eight-way movement/shooting and not much else. Most of the complexity comes from managing your massive inventory. You can wield over a dozen weapons, for example, which range from effectively useless (footballs) to absolutely vital (the bazooka). Ignoring the dross would be easy if you weren’t limited to cycling through your inventory one-way in real time. Trying to whip out your bazooka while a pack of giant ants is chasing you down? Hope you don’t accidentally tap that button an extra time in your haste and scroll right past it. That would be…unfortunate. On the plus side, many of the weirder weapons do have nifty situational uses against specific enemies. Hurling silverware at werewolves can dispatch them in one hit and cold-based attacks can kill the otherwise invincible blobs. You’ve gotta love those movie-accurate details.
It should be clear by now that there’s much to recommend Zombies Ate My Neighbors. It’s a work by horror fans, for horror fans and its lengthy quest packs in hours of pick-up-and-play thrills for one or two players. On top of that, it comes to us by way of LucasArts, a legendary studio that was in peak form back in the early ’90s. The Secret of Monkey Island. Day of the Tentacle. Sam & Max Hit the Road. Need I say more? Zombies has all the audiovisual flair you’d expect out of these folks, from its ghoulishly expressive pixel art to its theremin-infused score, which sounds like a dozen campy monster flicks at once. This is some good stuff.
Damn, did it piss me off, though. Yes, this is one of those rare occasions where I fell head-over-heels for a game early on, only to have my outlook shift dramatically over its second half. By the time I finally finished, I was as shocked as anyone to find myself glad I’d never have to bother with it again. I’m sure this sounds harsh, but I attribute my change of heart to two factors: Obnoxious boss design and a broken password system.
I don’t feel I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Zombies Ate My Neighbors has some of the worst boss encounters I’ve personally slogged through. The giant spider takes the cake. Its erratic high-speed movement, absurd durability, and tendency to blanket the entire arena in webs that hinder your movement as its mini-spider minions whittle away at your health bar make beating it is a largely a matter of having stocked up on specific powerful weapons and items beforehand. Skill alone is insufficient. Then there’s the colossal baby that spends most of its time off-screen. Except to randomly accelerate into view quicker than your character can react and deal free touch damage before leaving again, that is. That’s not challenging, it’s unsporting. The Tremors worms are probably the best of the lot, since their basic “pop out of the ground and lunge at you” behavior is at least something you can predict and react to. A low bar indeed.
I’d actually be able to forgive this garbage boss design if the passwords worked in a sensible manner. You’re given a four-letter password after every fourth level in lieu of standard continues. Fair enough, right? Wrong. For a game where success is so dependent on building up a huge stock of gear, you’d hope that a password would allow you to retain at least some of it. Joke’s on you, then, because all passwords, regardless of how far along they start you, equip you with the default water gun and a single health pack. In other words, the exact same loadout you started stage one with. Good luck! In light of the sheer chaos that is the majority of the late game, I struggle to see this “feature” as anything other than a cruel joke on the player. If the designers intended for you to spend hours grinding through all 48+ levels in one perfect go, why even dangle the false promise of functional password saves in front of you? Naturally, I felt obligated to shoot a middle finger back their way by finishing the game from my stage 45 password come hell or high water. No way was I starting this crazy long game over from scratch! I eventually did succeed by the skin of my teeth after hours spent learning those last four maps like the back of my hand. Hooray for superhuman stubbornness, I guess. It still left a bad taste in my mouth.
So where does that leave us? I haven’t covered a game with this pronounced a Jekyll & Hyde personality since, well, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde two Halloweens back. Zombie Ate My Neighbors is the ultimate 16-bit horror movie mashup and so very charming in this respect. It’s also a blast in the early going, before the busted bosses and infuriating continue scheme become factors. It’s only once you’ve put sustained effort into completing it that its woefully cruel and shoddy elements come to the fore. It certainly has its admirers and I do think it’s worth a try. Just don’t be surprised if you find it a lot more pleasing in short bursts than it is over the long haul.
Speaking of the long haul, you can rest assured I’ll be back next October, eager for another deep dive into digital diabolism. Until then, classic gaming fans, the happiest of Halloweens to you and all your as yet uneaten neighbors.