I always have trouble picking a game to review for October because the titles I love have been done to death and the more obscure ones can be hard to find information on or are honestly just painful to get through at times. So I make my Patreon subscribers decide for me, but once again they have selected the least scary and horrific title from the list. I thought that, at least, until so many people told me they were aware of this classic but had never actually played it—which is frightening. It’s an interesting little gem that was developed by LucasArts and published by Konami—who apparently got most of the money from its small success—and I’m honestly shocked it is still as fun and frustrating as I remember it.
Released in 1993, this run and gun title asks the question: what if my neighbors weren’t all annoying little shits and I might actually want to save them from an amalgamated army of every classic horror movie baddie with whatever weapons of opportunity I can grab without putting too much effort into any of this? At least, that is my character motivation with Zombies Ate My Neighbors. After a fun intro screen, players pick from Zeke and Julie—one of which is so 90s I simultaneously got a nostalgia-boner and a headache—or go at it in some fun two player action (recommended). The key is to rescue the titular neighbors to progress through fifty plus (if we are counting bonus ones and optional bosses) levels of monsters and mayhem while taking a moment to cherish all of the slight references and fun titles.
This game begins being relatively easy, but manages to ramp up the difficulty with a quickness as the player truly feels surrounded in a cute cartoony nightmare. Letting a neighbor die makes it where they won’t be available later down the line, unless a bonus is achieved, and failing to save at least one annoying peasant means that the stage is a failure. Each neighbor is worth a different amount of points, establishing a social ladder for them to climb, and I’m more partial to the stages with the day and night cycles that turn tourists into werewolves. The title of the game may only feature Zombies, but there is a vast array of other monsters ranging from typical horror movie fodder to demonic babies and aliens. Obviously, our protagonists will need a wide range of weapons to deal with all those creepy crawlies, so there is heavy hitting artillery like flamethrowers and water guns to the more conventional weed-whackers and bananas. There is some logic to this madness though, as crucifixes work better on vampires and mummies, while silverware slays werewolves with a quickness and Martians are vulnerable to tomatoes for…some reason. There are potions that turn the player into a ghost or monster, granting different abilities, or items to help out, like med kits and decoy clowns. Did I mention this game was strange?
The gameplay can get a bit deep and there is certainly some strategy to it. I love the level design, even if it can get a bit too maze-like at times. Several interesting locations around the world to fight through; or is this still my neighborhood? The visual presentation is handled well here and is very memorable for me, accompanied by some cool tunes that get stuck in my head. Controls are standard and only an issue for me when trying to cycle through the inventory weapons, potions, and items. It is easy to make a mistake and combining that with the lack of hit detection sometimes can lead to an occasional unfair death. I also don’t appreciate getting hung up on corners, but I learned how to compensate for that the more I played. The overall aesthetic, matched up with the homage it pays and that quirky sense of humor honestly make it a solid package that is only frustrating by how much of a challenge the game can become to try and beat. Though I have gotten pretty far in the game, I’m not sure I’ll ever beat it. LucasArts wanted to put in a battery save function, but couldn’t, due to the added financial costs at the time. Instead there is a simple password system in place that starts the player out on different levels, but that can be quite a pain for the later stages, as it only starts the hero with basic equipment, which is not the recipe for successes here.
The game was simply known as Zombies in PAL regions and some parts of the final release had to be censored over there, but this was after Nintendo performed their own round of cuts. Chainsaw-wielding enemies were changed to lumberjacks with axes and the game over screen and any other instances of blood had to be changed to a purple color, but that honestly seems to fit the game. There are still some interesting things that got through, and this game came out right before the ESRB rating system was fully in place. The Genesis version of the game kept the red blood, but it loses points for me with the visual presentation of the radar, which is always on at the side, causing the actual game screen to be a bit smaller and compressed, unlike the SNES version that I played where a button will make the radar appear and vanish, creating a slight bit of extra work for a better visual experience. The Sega version seems to have worse colors and textures all together, that version is missing the flamethrower for some reason, and I’d highly recommend having a six button controller, if anyone does decide to play that one.
I think I enjoy the game so much because it feels it only takes a few minutes to really get into it and I keep learning new things about the title every time I play. It is enjoyable, the right kind of hard, and has personality and a catchy title, making it memorable. I hate it wasn’t a commercial success, but critics loved it and the praise was enough to force a game that wasn’t going to be a direct sequel into it. Ghoul Patrol is that sequel, and a game I always wanted to try, but Rewind Mike keeps telling me not to waste my time. A game called Herc’s Adventure is said to be the spiritual successor, which is something I will try eventually. Zombies got a refresh on the Wii Virtual Console (shame it is going away) in 2009, which many fans seemed to love, and there were even rumors that the movie rights were being pursued in 2011, but no news has come out on a film since then.
I love my Resident Evils and Silent Hill series, but ever since this game was selected for review, and especially after replaying it, I’m wondering if maybe we need a good horror-based game for Halloween fun that has more of a lighthearted foundation and a sense of humor. I know there are other good humorous titles like it (Destroy All Humans, Stubbs the Zombie), but they all seem several years back now. Maybe not a direct revival of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, but something like it with a more modern engine and a focus on solid gameplay that this somehow succeeded with. Make it happen and I’ll play it, but until then, more people need to play this title.