Well would you look at that, it's Hallowe'en already. Happy Hallowe'en, everybody! It sure came around quick this year - I feel like I've only just recovered from getting my backside repeatedly kicked by Ghosts'n Goblins, and that was three weeks ago. So, the bats have left the belltower and the victims have been bled, but there's still time for me to cap off the VGJunk Hallowe'en Spooktacular with one last article, a long and loving look at a cult classic filled with more monsterosity that a were-vampire with a Jack O' Lantern for a head. That game is Lucasarts and Konami’s 1993 B-Movie-em-up Zombies Ate My Neighbors.
I've talked before about those rare games that seem to burst out of their consoles and embed themselves firmly into the squishier areas of your brain, the games that feel like they were made specifically for you, and Zombies Ate My Neighbors definitely slots into that category for me, alongside titles like God Hand, Silent Hill 2 and Night Slashers. I loved it when I first played it as a kid and I still love it now, so this article is going to mostly consist of me gushing about how great it is. Hell, it's my site and sometimes it just feels good to love (and kill my clones with gardening tools, but we'll get to that.)
First things first, let's meet the heroes of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. They're a swell couple of kids!
The young man on the left, the one with the winsome smile and the hair that implies he just shoved some part of his body into an electrical socket, his name is Zeke. Zeke could literally not be happier that the world is being destroyed by monsters. He hasn't felt joy like this since he strangled his twin sister while they were still in the womb.
The girl's name is Julie, and the slight hesitance in her smile suggests she feels more of a nervous apprehension about the situation than Zeke's outright glee, but she'll do her best to save the world and look fabulous while doing it. Go ahead and pick one of these kids, it doesn't matter which because they play identically, and once you've made your choice then Zombies Ate My Neighbors can begin. But what kind of game is it?
At the time (and still to this day) Lucasarts were known for their point-and-click graphic adventures, with big, bold, and above all funny games like Monkey Island, Sam and Max and Day of the Tentacle being what they did best. With ZAMN, however, they opted for a completely different gameplay style and produced a top-down shooter that was directly inspired by the classic arcade titles Robotron and Smash TV. You move your chosen kid around, point them at enemies and press fire, hopefully killing the bad guys before they kill you.
There's a bit more to it than that, though. The title is slightly misleading, because not all of your neighbours had their flesh devoured by the living dead and it's your job to save those that remain.
When the first level begins, you have ten neighbours to save. They're dotted around the level, standing on the spot and trying their damnedest to ignore the monster apocalypse that rages all around them by doing things like grilling burgers or bouncing on trampolines. They seem pretty resigned to their grisly fates, but Zeke and Julie have no respect for these peoples' decision to calmly face their death and must rescue them all whether they want you to or not. Once you've rescued all ten neighbours, (by walking into them,) the exit appears and you can head to the next stage. You're not the only one out to get the neighbours, of course, and if you let a monster reach a neighbour then that neighbour is killed and the next stage will only have nine neighbours to rescue. Each time a neighbour dies, the amount of neighbours you need to save to progress is reduced by one, and if that counter reaches zero then it's game over.
In a grim twist, Lucasarts have passed judgement on the worth of each of these human lives by assigning them a points value. The teachers give you a mere 10 points (and an F-) when rescued, while babies' souls are apparently only worth slightly more than those of dogs, coming in at 700 and 500 points respectively. At the very top of the pile are cheerleaders, Earth's most important commodity and worth a whopping 1,000 points. That's right, according to these points values Lucasarts would rather see one hundred teachers die than lose one cheerleader.
Tough fuckin' luck, Mars - our cheerleader are far too valuable to be given over to your slimy alien desires.
I think the soldiers are my favourites, because not only are they usually standing near weapons but they're also the only neighbours to show any kind of reaction to the shambling horrors that now walk the earth. It's a pretty good reaction, too - those googly eyes are great, and in their terror they have dropped their bazookas so that Zeke, a teenage boy, can pick them and use them. I think the human race is going to be juuust fine, folks.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a simple game, but one that's executed with a degree of quality, of finesse, of sheer good-ness to rival any action game on the SNES (there's also a Genesis / Megadrive version and it is excellent, but I prefer the SNES version, which is where all the screenshots in this article are taken from.) The gameplay is spot on, with fast and responsive controls, a plethora of different weapons and items and even sections that will require some strategy and planning. Like I said, it's a simple concept executed with skill, but the thing that lifts this game above others of its genre and makes it a minor classic is the presentation. From the enemies to the music to the weapon concepts, everything in ZAMN is a charmingly goofy parody of B-Movie horror that strikes the perfect spooky-cutesy Hallowe'en chord, so if late October is your favourite time of year then this may well be the game for you.
Normally I'd go through the game stage-by-stage, but ZAMN has over fifty levels so I'd probably still be here next Hallowe'en if I did that. Instead, here's a breakdown of the various elements which, when added together, make Zombies Ate My Neighbors such a pleasure to play.
Firstly, locations. The first few stages follow a suburban theme, but it's not long before the scope of Zeke and Julie's "neighbourhood" expands to include shopping malls, factories, lagoons and, um, ancient Egyptian pyramids.
Look, there have to be mummies in this game and where else are these mummies going to come from, huh? The mall? I think not. So, the "neighbours" of the title refers not to the people who live on the same street as you but to the global neighbourhood, where all the peoples of the world are neighbours in spirit, man (although the cheerleaders will reign over us all, naturally.)
The pyramids are nice and everything, but they're not one of my favourite backdrops. Personally I think the suburban stages are great, where mysterious meteors have crashed in back yards, solitary lampposts shine in the twilight and our heroes are free to loot the abandoned houses for power-ups - it's amazing how many people keep bazookas under their kitchen sink. The rarely-seen office setting is another highlight, although I think I might be able to detect some hostility from the Lucasarts staff toward their working conditions.
My favourites are the "castle" stages, usually appearing in connection with ZAMN's sort-of antagonist Dr. Tongue. The castle backdrops are Lucasarts' attempt to capture the raw essence of every mad scientist's lair, from the Universal monster movies of the Thirties up to the Hammer horrors of the seventies, and recreate them in sixteen bits. Sinister suits of armour line the halls, red velvet drapes hang from the walls and roaring fireplaces can be extinguished to reveal secret passageways.
There are also plenty of dungeons, and just look at the detail on that brickwork and the scattered bones. Probably best not to wonder why there's a baby locked away in the crypt, especially as this castle is owned by someone called "Doctor Tongue." Whatever the baby is for, I'm sure it has to do with mad science because when you've got a laboratory as well-appointed as this then by god, you just gotta start tampering with dark forces beyond man's ken!
Bubbling vats of unidentified liquid? Check. Big, clunky levers? Check. Strange coils that pointlessly launch electricity into the air? Check and check. This place makes the Large Hadron Collider look like a Fisher-Price kitchen set. It's not real science unless you've got coloured liquids flowing through curly tubes and the local villagers are stocking up on pitchfork handles and torch oil.
Of course, these stages would be pretty barren if they weren't packed with every kind of hideous fiend ever to grace the silver screen, and Zombies Ate My Neighbors is not lacking in the monster department - in fact, the game's working title was simply "Monsters" until it received it's now-familiar name. Here in Europe the name was changed to the rather more banal Zombies!, although this was apparently because the game's European distributors thought that a simpler name would sell better and not because the idea of zombies eating neighbours was considered too violent.
Monsters, then. The key ingredient in the ZAMN stew. Let's meet some of them now!
Obviously, there are zombies. The title promised zombies, and zombies you shall have - they're the most common enemy in the game, crawling from the ground in almost every level and offering little in the way of a challenge. They're slow, they're feeble and it doesn’t take much to kill them; think of them as an elderly relative, except they want to strip the flesh from your bones instead of giving you embarrassing public kisses.
The devil dolls are introduced early, and boy are they a step up from the zombies. These tiny axe-wielding terrors are mostly found in the mall stages, bursting from their environmentally-unfriendly packaging with a laugh so creepy Ed Gein would have used it as a ringtone and heading straight for you (or more accurately, your ankles) with nothing but murder on their tiny plastic minds. Even killing them isn't always enough, because sometimes they burst into flames and stumble around on fire until you put them out for good. The very worst thing about them? If you try to hit them with the bazooka, they simply duck underneath the shell. What little bastards.
On the right, the monster is... you!? No, it's not some "mankind is the true monster" deal but instead a Zeke doppelganger created Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style by some sinister plant life. They only move when you do, which leaves you feeling a strange sense of control over them as you walk the monster - the monster wearing your own face - into the whirling blades of your weed-whacker.
The guy on the left here represents the most modern monster in ZAMN's menagerie - the masked serial killer. He's got a chainsaw and he puts it to good use by carving his way through walls to get close to you. In the European version his chainsaw was replaced with an axe and any reference to him being a "chainsaw maniac" was changed to describe him as a lumberjack. I don't know why the censors of the day decided that death by chainsaw is less acceptable than death by axe. Maybe it's because petrol costs so much more over here and they didn't want to encourage the squandering of unrenewable natural resources.
The other two monster pictured above are products of Fifties sci-fi - the bug-eyed Martian (complete with ray-gun) and the mutated giant ant. The Martians, as an earlier title card may have informed you, have come to Earth for one thing - Mars needs cheerleaders! Is that why the cheerleaders are so valuable, because we're using them as a commodity to barter with the hyper-advanced Martians? That must have been an interesting first meeting. "What have you come for? Water? Minerals? Fossil fuels?" "NO-WE-WANT-THE-BLONDE-WHO-CAN-DO-CARTWHEELS."
Also with a Fifties pedigree are the blobs, one of the most frustrating enemies in the game thanks to their habit of covering your head in slime, leaving you unable to do anything besides run around blindly as you slowly suffocate to death (or lose a few health points, whatever).
We're reaching the upper end of the monster aristocracy with the mummy and the gill-man, with both of them being just outside the elite spots occupied by the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. At least, I think the mummy is down there, maybe they're actually higher up than werewolves? Someone should make a chart.
While the mummies are pretty much just tougher zombies, the gill-men pose a threat not only on the land but also in the water - they're the only enemies that can hurt you while you're submerged, and they can swim faster than you, too. They are sea monsters, after all. I still like to see them around, though, because when you kill one they explode into a light rain of fish that flap around on the ground and it's really very charming.
Possible werewolf/mummy inversion aside, here we have the big three Hallowe'en monsters. They're fairly uncommon enemies to face in the game and more difficult to kill than most for a variety of reasons - the Frankensteins have tons of health, the vampires never stay still long enough for you to do a lot of damage in one go and the werewolves are very quick to leap on your face and start eating it.
Of these three, the werewolves are the most common and also the most infuriating. This is because certain stages start in the daytime and gradually shift to night, and if you don't rescue them before darkness falls any "tourist" neighbours will shed their human forms and turn into werewolves. Zombies ate my neighbours, except some of them turned into werewolves and I think Suzie from down the road was abducted by aliens right after the big football game. Now there's a title for the European market to get their teeth into, vampire pun most definitely intended.
Speaking of the vampire, a nice little nod to Konami's Castlevania franchise appears in the manual, where the vampire's name is listed as "Vlad Belmont." I wonder if he whips himself. Wait, no I don't.
Those are the standard enemies, and they're what you'll be fighting for most of the game (I did miss a couple out). For a shoot-em-up, though, ZAMN is surprisingly light on the boss front.
There are enemies called Snakeoids, giant tunneling worms that owe so much of a debt to the graboids from Tremors that the graboids will be sending someone round to break their thumbs, but they don't really feel like bosses, just big enemies that take a lot of hits to kill. There are a couple of enemies that I would definitely categorise as bosses, however, and it's hard to think of a colossal baby throwing a devastating tantrum as anything other than a "boss."
If you look closely, you can see that Zeke has been crushed flat beneath the titanic toddler's feet. Given the various fluids that babies are forever issuing forth from various parts of their bodies, combined with the increase in size from "cutesy" to "valid target for a nuclear strike," I think getting stepped on was a spot of good fortune.
You fight the giant baby a few times, but apart from that the only other major boss is the final one, Dr. Tongue.
I know, not very threatening, right? Well, that's because you don't know about Dr. Tongue's habit of drinking out of Erlenmeyer flasks. Put any liquid in any vaguely sciencey-looking container and Dr. Tongue will slug it back without hesitation or fear. It's like he's attempting a one-man recreation of the lab scene from Gremlins 2. Most of the time the potion makes him disappear, but in the final stage it has the rather more dramatic effect of turning him into a giant spider.
I have to say, as mutated, oversized bugs go, that thing is adorable. Look at those big round eyes! And he's fluffy, too. If he wasn't constantly firing webbing at me, I'd be trying to give him a hug. Dr. Tongue made a serious miscalculation with this one, but don't worry - he's got a back-up potion.
Okay, now I don't want to hug him. It seems strange that, after going to all the effort of meticulously creating the B-movie atmosphere for the game, the final boss is just a floating head and very frustrating one to fight, at that. I know there were plenty of ropey movies about sentient body parts, but it still feels like a bit of a cop-out and is one of the few things that I dislike about ZAMN.
So those are the monsters, a fiendish bunch if ever there was one, but luckily Zeke and Julie have plenty of weapons at their disposal to help them clean up the neighbourhood, and when I say "at their disposal" I mean "waiting to be picked up off the ground".
There are no powerful military-grade weapons for you to use, (okay, there's one,) no space-age rayguns, (again, there's one,) and the kids must make do with everyday items they find scattered around the various stages. You start with a water pistol, presumably loaded with holy water because as weak as the zombies are surely even they wouldn't explode when spritzed with stuff from the tap, and as you progress you'll collect all kinds of goodies. Mostly they're different projectiles, ranging from popsicles to cutlery to plates, but there are also plenty that differ in function. One of the most useful items is the fire extinguisher, because it can freeze enemies in place while you get the hell out of there and is especially handy against the otherwise extremely durable chainsaw maniacs. The weed-whacker is also a personal favourite - it has a very short range, but because it attacks so quickly you can do a lot of damage with it, and I like the idea of an ancient pharaoh rising from his tomb only to be sliced to ribbons by Flymo's finest.
One of the great things about ZAMN is that the weapons aren't simply a bunch of projectiles ranked in order of increasing power - they often have multiple uses. The weed-whacker, unsurprisingly, can be used to cut down the deadly mushrooms that grow across the ground as well as clearing up spider webs. The American footballs can be thrown to the quarterbacks that roam certain levels for a "Pass Completion" points bonus. The bazooka, perhaps even more so than for killing enemies, is fantastic for blowing down walls and creating shortcuts through hedges.
Not only that, but enemies are also affected differently by some weapons, usually by being weak to a specific attack, and if you know your horror movies you'll probably be able to figure most of them out yourself. I've seen The Blob and I know it can't stand the cold, so throwing popsicles at ZAMN's jelly-blob monsters seemed like a good idea. It was, and they died instantly. Werewolves don't like having knives and forks thrown at them - I mean, no-one does, but in the werewolves' case it's even more understandable because flying cutlery kills werewolves outright. Why? Well, they can traditionally only be killed by a silver bullet, and Zeke didn't have the time to melt down the family silverware. He's got a strong thowin' arm, that kid. It's a fun, very organic-feeling system that lets you discover what weapons work without it ever feeling laboured or forced upon you.
There are other items to collect as well as weapons - keys and health packs will be the most familiar to shoot-em-up fans, but there are some other things that can help you out.
Clowns! Clowns can help you out. No, really, it's not some plot to carve you open and remove your organs as part of their hellish clown rituals - you can collect inflatable clowns that, when dropped, serve as decoys and attract nearby enemies. They're great for letting you slip past large crowds of monsters, and it's always nice to see a clown being torn apart by a masked man with a chainsaw.
The other really useful item is the red potion. The player takes a leaf out of Dr. Tongue's book and chugs down a mysterious red liquid that transforms them into...
...a big, invincible, purple monster that's really good at punching things. I particularly like transforming Julie into the monster, because she still wears her baseball cap perched jauntily atop her newly-enlarged head. These potions can be an absolute godsend, especially when you're fighting something like the snakeoids, and if you're playing in two-player mode then prepare for some Gauntlet-style arguments as both players race to pick them up.
I've discussed how excellent the graphics are, cartoony and wonderfully detailed, but one part of the presentation that shouldn't be overlooked is the brilliant soundtrack. Composed by Joe McDermott, it's a fantastic blend of B-movie clichés: wavering theremins, dramatic church organs and mysterious voice samples, all woven together into an irresistible and oddly cheerful set of tracks that match the Zombies Ate My Neighbors mood so perfectly that it's hard to imagine the game without them. I had a tough time decided on a favourite, but in the end I went with "Mars Needs Cheerleaders."
Honestly, every track is a classic and if you like this kind of thing then I highly recommend you listen to them all. To this day it remains one of my favourite videogame soundtracks ever, and the only thing stopping it from reaching the same lofty heights as SNES score like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana is the relatively small number of tracks.
It's not just the music, either - the sound design in this game is top-notch, with almost every action being paired with a sound effect so perfect you'd swear the designers recorded the actual sound of a werewolf having cutlery shoved into its face.
What else can I say about Zombies Ate My Neighbors? Well, it'd be remiss of me to not mention some of the secret levels. ZAMN is a game packed full of secrets and hidden bonuses, but none are more exciting than the bonus stages. One of the best isn't technically hidden, because you're taken to it when you defeat Dr. Tongue for the final time, but it's one hell of a way to show you the credits.
This very last stage, "Monsters Among Us," takes place in the Lucasarts office, and you can travel around the building and talk to the development staff. Here is George Lucas, telling me to get back to work. Can I repeat that? Here is George Lucas, telling me to get back to work. It definitely beats a text crawl. That's not my favourite secret in the game, however - that honour goes to this stage.
Hang on, didn't Lucasarts release a sequel to their classic adventure game Maniac Mansion called Day of the Tentacle?
Indeed they did, and this level is a neat little reference to that game, complete with swarms of Purple Tentacles filling the stage and trying to kill these meddling kids before getting back to their plans to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!! This is especially fun for me, because Day of the Tentacle is my favourite of all the classic Lucasarts adventures. Just thinking about entering that mummy in the beauty contest makes me laugh even now.
That's a lot of words about the world of ZAMN but not many about how it actually plays, so here's my take on that: it's fun. Sheer, pure fun, a simple game with smooth controls and solid mechanics that was clearly made by people who loved what they were doing. It's a fast-paced, hectic survive-em-up, especially toward the end when the number of remaining neighbours is getting low and you're dashing about the stage trying to find them all, weighing up whether to simply get through the stage as quickly as possibly or risk injury and dead neighbours in order to explore the stage and collect more items.
Don't let the colourful graphics and jolly soundtrack fool you, though: this is a difficult game, very difficult at times, with plenty of monsters that waste no time in trying to eat you - and, indeed, your neighbours - and they can take a lot of hits to kill unless you're properly prepared. "Hectic" is definitely a good word for it, and if you're looking for a challenge then ZAMN will not disappoint once you start reaching the later stages. Giant baby attacks can be brutal.
Obviously no game is perfect, and while they're fairly minor ones I do have some gripes. The big one is that the password system doesn't save the items you've collected, so if you restart using a code you'll be starting with nothing but a water pistol and your wits. This can make certain sections extremely difficult - going up against the snakeoids soon after a password restart can be damn near impossible, and even the developers themselves have stated that they wish they'd made the game easier.
There are a few other issues - when you have a lot of weapons, scrolling through them one at a time can be a frustrating experience, for example - but in the end they do little to detract from the overall Zombies Ate My Neighbors experience, and what an experience it is. For Hallowe'en fun I can't think of many games I'd rather be playing, and if you're looking for something to play when a spooky mood strikes you then I can't recommend this game enough. Just remember - Martians may love cheerleaders, but they hate tomatoes.
I think the Hallowe'en-O-Meter rating is going to be somewhat predictable...
Ten out of ten, full marks, A+ and a gold star. How could it have been anything else? Even the lack of pumpkins can't take the shine off this one.
And that's the end of this year's VGJunk Hallowe'en Spooktacular! All that remains is to say happy Hallowe'en to you all, and as always I hope you've enjoyed reading this stuff as much as I've enjoyed writing it. I foresee a night of watching Cabin in the Woods again and eating Haribo shaped like bats, but VGJunk will return soon with its usual, non-Hallowe'en flavouring. I'm missing October already.