[Every Thursday is Retro Day at Gamer Limit, so kick back and enjoy the classics. Feel free to check out our full schedule right here!]
Comedy in video games, as with all forms of media, is such a finely balanced thing. One man’s comedic gold is another’s tasteless trash. Being consistently funny is something very few can do; those that do manage it are revered forever.
The LucasArts team of the 90s is one such revered developer, churning out one humorous adventure after another. Their hilarious take on the B-movie horror genre is one of the most loved games of the 16-bit genre. With a name like Zombies Ate My Neighbors, how could they possibly fail?
The 1990s was a golden period for LucasArts, it seemed that virtually everything they touched turned into gaming gold. Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango being some of my particular favourites. While a lot of their output was geared towards the PC market, consoles were never neglected too much.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors (ZAMN) took the irreverent humour that had become a LucasArts staple, and placed it into a top down shooter for the SNES and Sega Genesis. The goal was pretty straightforward: control either Zeke or Julie, and rescue all of your neighbours while killing any unholy abomination that decided to get in your way.
Killing these creatures was all sorts of fun, as the weapons used weren’t exactly conventional. Your default weapon was a water pistol filled with holy water, grenades were replaced with soda cans, and instead of a chainsaw there was a weed-whacker. Find yourself outnumbered? Just drop a blow up clown, complete with giant red nose; those zombies find it instantly more attractive than your retreating character. Another nice little touch is the varying effectiveness of each weapon against a certain enemy. Vampire problem? Best grab that crucifix. Werewolves? Silver cutlery will do the trick nicely.
Each level required at least one neighbour to be rescued before the exit door for the level appeared; the incentive for saving more than one was much-needed extra lives. These neighbours were strewn across the levels and, as with pretty much everything in this game, raised a chuckle. Babies on trampolines and a fat Elvis impersonator are two of the funniest. Rescuing these survivors wasn’t always easy though, some were in difficult areas or behind locked doors that required a key.
Although the key word in ZAMN is zombies, there were plenty other monsters thrown in too. Knife-throwing demon babies, chainsaw wielding giants with hockey masks, werewolves and vampires, even alien pod people turn up.
It wasn’t the funny weapons, great characterisation, or wonderful atmosphere that cemented ZAMN’s place amongst the cult classics of the era; it was the game’s co-op mode that did that. Playing through the maze-like levels while sharing a screen with another player just intensified the feeling of fun. Many weekends were spent arguing with my friend over which path to take through the shopping mall, whether to fight or flee, and whose fault it was that we died before the end again.
Given the time period and all of the horror influences, plus the fact it appeared on the SNES, it was inevitable that the game would end up being censored somehow. Some cuts were trivial, such as Australia requesting the chainsaw wielders be replaced; in their place were lumberjacks with axes. Nintendo’s deep fear of anything resembling red blood meant that the game over screen, which was originally red blood running over the screen, was replaced with far less violent purple slime. Even the game’s name was edited in Europe to simply Zombies.
ZAMN was almost universally praised upon release, earning respectable review scores. Total magazine gave it 91% and hailed it as “so funny you’ll probably die laughing”. Not everybody was impressed, however; Edge magazine was particularly critical: “If there was more to it, Zombies Ate My Neighbours could have been great. As it is, the different styled backgrounds and the addition of some end of level guardians does little to inject life into what is basically a pretty dead game.” Even the mighty LucasArts team of the 90s couldn’t please everyone all of the time, I guess.
A true sequel was never truly realised, although the underwhelming Ghoul Patrol was re-worked in development to be a continuation of the story. Sadly, it never managed to recapture the magic that its predecessor had in spades.
As with many classics of the 16-bit era, ZAMN has been ported onto Nintendo’s Virtual Console . Playing with a capable partner puts this game up there with the best co-op experiences available on the VC; definitely one to add to the purchase list. Perhaps one day Konami will see fit to treat us to a proper update, with lovingly redrawn sprites and backgrounds. Until then, though, I’ll quite happily stick with the original.