Remembering… Zombies Ate My Neighbors
Zombies don’t run and their diet isn’t restricted to brains. Ask one and their reply will be ‘ughn, urrrr arrnnn’. Roughly translated as: ‘No, it’s thanks to Dan O’Bannon’s rather enjoyable 1985 romp Return of the Living Dead, later mimicked by The Simpsons in a Halloween special, that everyone thinks we sprint and scream ‘braaaaaiiiins’. It’s untrue and frankly a stereotype we’re fighting against; it’s just another form of racism’. And with those wise words I dusted off the old 16-bit console, blew on the cartridge and got set up for a night of cooperative carnage.
Zombies – aka Zombies Ate My Neighbors – was originally developed by LucasArts and released on the Megadrive and SNES. It was a title that my friends and I adored in our younger years. We were given the chance, as teenagers in-game and in-life, to role play a childhood dream: save the world from hordes of the undead. Most young boys will have at some point fantasised about saving their neighbourhood from impending doom, hell, maybe even that girl next door. What LucasArts did was give us that escapism with rivers of charm, rivers of charm!
As part of Thunderbolt’s Halloween theme week, and tying in with many 80’s horror sequel templates, I’m heading back with my brother to ensure that the beast has stayed dead. Probably by irresponsibly digging up its grave during a lightning storm and then impaling it with a long steel rod. One that’s really efficient at conducting electricity.
Starting things off at around 19:14 with a chilled beer ready (a bottle of Einstok Icelandic IPA to be precise), we each got comfy and grabbed our pads. Being the older brother I took the arcade stick, though this didn’t resolve the issue of the short cable lengths. It was always ironic that game manuals would educate you on eye damage and how you should sit so many metres away when the controller cable length was a quarter of that. Lest, we digress.
Choosing between the two characters, Zeke and Julie, the first residential area loaded and memories came back. The cartoon style is instantly recognisable after all these years. Though I didn’t realise it at the time LucasArts’ fingerprints are all over this. There’s detail and character in the 16-bit sprites, colours are vivid and the sound design intelligent. Unlike those we’re out to save.
Zeke and Julie’s neighbours are so laid back they’re f’ing horizontal. As the undead claw their way from underground to feast on living flesh, the locals are having a BBQ, lounging in the pool or letting their infant go for a stumble in the garden. Therefore it’s left to this tag-team to save the day with an assortment of weaponry; i.e. whatever’s laying around.
Water pistols armed with liquid that make zombies explode, killer lollipops, prototype self-detonating cans of fizzy pop, razor sharp plates, silver cutlery, bizarre potions, medikits, highly acidic tomatoes, blow-up clowns, a portable grass cutter and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink can be used.
Starting in their neighbourhood, it’s Zeke and Julie’s responsibility to rescue at least one neighbour and avoid losing all their lives. Failure to do so results in game over. The monsters continue to spawn until there are no more neighbours left, at which time an exit door will appear allowing them to leave the current area. As this merry band of undead slaying teens prowl the world passwords are granted at set intervals, allowing progress between playthroughs.
By 19:22 the neighbourhood was saved in a blaze of zombies, creepy crawlies, exploding heads, but, unfortunately, no date for the prom. BBQs could continue without the risk of contaminated meat, pom-pom dancers bopped on, babies waddled, and painters dreamed of new landscapes.
Still, the evil menace was out there. The surrounding areas were polluted by capsized barrels containing what appeared to be 2-4-5 Trioxin, dumped and spilling into the fertile ground. Our next stop: the local maze gardens. It’s from here that LucasArts continues to toy with and enjoy the horror themes they’re riffing on. Zombies are swapped for indestructible Jason Voorhees-lookalikes, swinging giant axes instead of chainsaws due to European censorship.
The themes continue to shift through a plethora of B-movie dedications and love songs, including aliens, giant blobs and the Graboids from Tremors making a cameo. Along with the changing environments and short but compact levels this maintains a steady pace without becoming cheap or repetitive.
Zombies has aged quite well. Its limitations are those consistent with the time. The four-way axis results in the inability to fire diagonally and causes awkward situations when up close and personal. The innocents can also be somewhat fidgety to save, requiring you walk exactly through them rather than close by. Overall, it remains a charming and playful tribute to a horror era long gone.