I could write an entire feature on the history of LucasArts, from their standard-setting creative and technical innovations, to their pitiful degradation into the Star Wars Game Assembly Line. I mean they’re not even developing those things in-house any more. But that’s probably better suited for a Grim Fandango review. Suffice it to say that the little game company with a rich dad used to be home to some of the most intelligent, twisted, and damn funny minds of the industry. If you need proof, look no further than Zombies Ate My Neighbors.
ZAMN (which, Wikipedia informs me is considered a perfect alphabetical average due to its inclusion of the first, last, and middle letters of the alphabet) was something of an oddity for LucasArts. To date, the company has released very few console games that didn’t have lightsabers on their covers. Zombies came out in 1993, the same year as the company’s critically acclaimed adventure “Day of the Tentacle,” and it feels like an attempt to interject the same camp and humor into a top-down shooter.
You take control of either Zeke or Julie (or in the case of two player co-op, both). Don’t like the names? The manual has this to say: “If you don’t like the names Zeke and Julie, you can call them by other names: Nick and Beth, Spike and Sarah, Pat and Pat, whatever. We won’t tell you what to do, but we know their names are really Zeke and Julie.” Remember when LucasArts used to be funny?
The evil Dr. Tongue has filled your quiet suburban town with every type of monster imaginable. Each stage is a different area of the town and your job is to reach and rescue every victim before they become zombie food. When all the townsfolk are safe, an exit door will appear allowing you to proceed to the next stage. Blasting holes in any deadites you meet along the way will net you bonus points but theoretically you could complete most levels without firing a shot (if you were incredibly good, that is).
The first level has ten victims and as long as you collect them all, each subsequent level will have the same amount. However, for every victim you let expire, you will be docked a victim on the next round. So if you save only nine victims, there will only be nine on the next level to save. Not only does this take a bite out of your maximum possible score, but it gives you a smaller buffer zone because if you ever end up with only one victim and that victim dies, it’s game over.
Luckily, you earn a victim back at every multiple of 40,000 points. Additionally, thanks to the processing power of the SNES, monsters can only effect victims currently or very recently on screen. This lends itself well to the game because when one of your neighbors bites the dust, you know full well it’s your fault, since they would have remained safe if you hadn’t blundered onto the scene. This becomes especially tricky when certain areas force you to walk by victims that you can see on the other side of a wall, but have no way of reaching, making them easy targets for your bloodthirsty foes.
To make sure that doesn’t happen, you are provided with three lives and a hell of a lot of inventive weapons. You start with a standard issue squirt gun but soon move up to bazookas, soda can grenades, popsicles, plates, footballs, and basically any household object that can be thrown. You can one-shot weak enemies like zombies with just about any weapon, but tougher enemies may only respond to very specific attacks. Blobs must be frozen, vampires hate crosses, and of course werewolves can be defeated with silverware. Defeating all of a certain enemy type frequently earns you a bonus.
Often, though, evasion is the name of the game. Sneakers can be collected that will allow you to zip along at double speed. Inflatable clowns can be deployed as decoys to distract enemies both from you and from the victims. And potions can be ingested for a variety of entertaining results including turning you into a giant invincible monster for a limited time or causing you to become an evil green version of yourself that will walk right into danger or attack the second player.
Perhaps the best feature of the gameplay is that weapons and items carry over to the next level, so you can stockpile good weapons for the entire game if you so choose. This works for keys too which you will need to open the doors of your neighbors’ abandoned houses. If you have to access an area to save a victim, there will always be a key somewhere in the level, but having one already may allow you to proceed quicker or avoid a dangerous section. Of course this can work against you as well. Health carries over too so don’t expect a refill each stage. Also if you end up saving all the myriad projectiles you pick up, you’ll bog down your weapons list and make quickly scrolling to the one you need unnecessarily difficult.
That would be enough to garner a respectable score from me, but Zombies pushes it over the top in two ways. First, it takes you back to the glory days of the arcade by feeling as though it will never end. There are 40 odd levels of gameplay here, each with its own gimmick and genius level title. My personal favorite is “Mars Needs Cheerleaders!” wherein you must navigate a football field, avoiding quarterbacks and Martians, in order to rescue the pep squad. Like those older arcade games, each level of Zombies feels noticeably and measurably more difficult than the last. You get a save password at every fourth level, which strikes the perfect balance between encouraging marathon play sessions and allowing you to take a break and play in chunks. However, be aware that the passwords save your level and victim number only, meaning that loading up a game in the 30s with none of your previous items or weapons may not be ideal.
Secondly, each level is crammed with bonuses and secrets. Applying the bazooka to key walls will lead you to power-ups, extra victims, and exclusive weapons, as well as entire bonus stages which bring the total number of levels up to a whopping 55. As I mentioned, killing every monster of a certain type will often be rewarded, as will saving every victim. But there are even more interesting challenges to discover like weedwacking a certain amount of plantlife or surviving the harder levels without firing the bazooka. These goals add replay value to an already packed game. I would be very interested to know the maximum possible score.
Despite the fact that there’s little to no dialogue or story present in-game, the same LucasArts style of humor comes across nicely. References abound to both classic horror as well as Roger Corman sci-fi cheese. One of the bonus levels is a nod to a certain LucasArts adventure game and the end credits is its own level where you are greeted by George Lucas before making your way through the LucasArts offices to meet the folks who made the game.
The graphics are bright and fun, except when they’re dark and mysterious. In either case they succeed in conveying the upbeat, adventurous nature of the game. Part of the reason you’ll want to explore each stage rather than snagging the victims and leaving is to see the artists’ interpretations of various classic monster locales. The two leads look great (Zeke with his 3D glasses and spiky eighties hair, and Julie in her baseball cap and daisy dukes), and the animations for dying victims, attacking creatures, and miscellaneous mutations are all perfectly executed. Sound is no disappointment either. The tunes aren’t exactly catchy, but that’s mostly because they are low key and compliment the levels so well you’ll forget they’re even there.
Control is pretty straightforward. You move with the d-pad, shoot with X and use items with Y. The A button swaps weapons and B scrolls through your inventory. Either of the shoulder buttons brings up a victim radar that will help locate your fellow citizens. Like many pseudo-3D games, aiming can occasionally be a bitch. You’ve got to be on the exact same “plane” as your target to land a shot. But they have the same limitation and will usually align themselves to you automatically. In any case, weapons and ammo are plentiful enough that misses won’t cost you too much. If you’ve got a newer gamepad equipped with an analog stick, moving and shooting diagonally will be easier than it was when the game came out.
If you’re the kind of person who loves B movies, especially monster flicks, you’ll eat ZAMN up with a spoon. It’s a solid shooter with a healthy dose of genuine as well as ironic appreciation for all things creepy. And with 55 levels, each with its own enjoyable twist, there’s plenty of this game to love. If you balk at schlock and wish the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would shut up so you can watch the movie, this title may still offer a great deal of appeal on its search and rescue merits alone. In either case, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a perfect example of a well executed SNES title that fully deserves the cult following it’s developed.
A brilliantly penned love letter to monster fans.
Aiming can be challenging, game gets harder as level number increases. Shock of shocks!
“Follow these directions to play Zombies…:
1. With the Power switch off, place the game pak into your Super NES.
2. Make sure your television is turned on.
3. Press the Start button. Did anything happen?
4. Turn on the Power switch on the Super NES and repeat step 3. See, it’s a challenge and we haven’t even begun playing the game yet!”