Suffering Saturdays are making me jaded. The more I take on games that people my age insist are underrated classics, the more I’m convinced that no one actually played those games all the way through. Someone, somewhere (I’ve heard it attributed to Yahtzee, but I can’t find the quote), once said roughly that a bad game won’t suddenly get good, but a good game can turn bad at anytime.
Released in 1993 by LucasArts and Konami, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is one such alleged gem. The premise is simple: Don’t let the zombies–or the werewolves, vampires, blobs, aliens, and other classic horror film baddies–eat your neighbors. The long version is that the nefarious Dr. Tongue has unleashed these villains into the neighborhood of Zeke (A 90s name for a 90s kid–check the red-and-blue 3-D glasses and ridiculous hair) and Julie (Wearing a tasteful purple jacket and red baseball cap). It’s up to these two teenagers to save the neighborhood, which also consists of swamps, haunted castles, and pyramids, and defeat Dr. Tongue.
To do this, you’ll go through roughly 50 levels, depending on how many of the game’s seven bonus levels you happen to track down. The game begins with ten neighbors to be rescued in level one. A level ends when all neighbors have been accounted for via either rescue or becoming monster chow. If you lose a neighbor, they’re gone for the rest of the game, although every 40000 points will give you either another neighbor, or, if you already have ten, an extra life. So if you lose two neighbors on level one, you’ll start with eight to rescue on level two. Losing all your neighbors is an instant game over, no matter how many lives you have left.
To aid in their quest, Zeke and Julie will acquire a quirky arsenal of specialized weaponry. You start the game with a squirt gun, which is okay against pretty much everything, though not great against anything stronger than a garden-variety zombie. As you progress, you’ll grab such specialized ordinance as footballs, tomatoes, and fire extinguishers. Through experimentation, you’ll find that each weapon tends to be ultra effective against a specific foe, and figuring out which weapon beats which monster can take some lateral thinking. For instance, werewolves are weak to the fork/knife projectile. Get it? It’s silverware! Dohohoho! In addition, there are powerups that have a variety of effects, such as recovering your health, briefly increasing your speed, and temporarily turning you into a hulking brute.
You’ll need all of these powerups, because Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a long game. The main game has nearly fifty levels. The game gives you a password every four levels, though there are no continues as such. Lose, and you have to re-input the last password you got. The good news is that the passwords are a very reasonable four characters in length. The bad news? The game accomplishes a feat I had previously thought impossible: By including passwords, it actually makes the game worse.
How can this be? This awesome Hardcore Gaming 101 article has some words from some of the developers. Read the whole thing, but I’ll paraphrase the important bits as relates to the above: LucasArts cheaped out on putting a battery save into it, and opted not to save your inventory with the passwords, fearing they’d be too long. The end result is that the game tricks you into thinking beating it with the passwords is feasible. In reality, while it might be barely possible to do so, the game really expects you to carry an arsenal acquired throughout the game into its boss battles.
On a related note, the article I mentioned above notes that the game wasn’t focus-tested beyond level 20. While it’s possible for something to be focus-tested to death, it’s probably not a coincidence that past level 20, the game begins to feel overly long, and that comes to a head with the bosses past that. The bosses in the game either have a ton of health, move too quickly for you to reliably hit them, or both. As ridiculous as it sounds, given the reputation of focus testing, some more of it would have done this game a lot of good. Alternately, had the passwords saved your inventory, the later half of it would be a lot more bearable–as it is, despite the passwords, you almost have to clear all fifty-ish levels in one credit to have a good shot at victory.
The other annoying thing about Zombies Ate My Neighbors is the weapon cycling. You have buttons for using weapons and items, and another button for cycling through each. That’s all fine, but you can’t cycle through items while paused, nor is there a way to cycle backwards through them. Later in the game, when you have a large variety of weapons, it gets irritating to accidentally cycle past the weapon you wanted while being accosted by enemies. So you then frantically hit the cycle button another 12 times, probably taking damage in the meanwhile.
I played this quite a bit when I was younger, but never got beyond level 20 (Incidentally, a level that has boss monsters, although those are some of the easier ones to hit). Discounting that time, it took me about 15 hours to beat the game for the first time. Really, though, I had to go through it three separate times. The first time, I stupidly tried to use the provided passwords, and clawed my way to the last boss before concluding it was impossible. The second time, I found out the final boss had even more health than I thought. It wasn’t until my first attempt from the beginning that I finally eked out a victory. If you want to only count the victorious attempt, getting all the way through the game was still a three-hour affair. As with many games, you can eventually get it down well under that with enough dedication. One particularly skilled playthrough does it in about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and saves every possible neighbor to boot–for reference, I ended the game with a solitary neighbor alive.
One of the strong points of the game is the soundtrack. There’s a variety of tempos and genres that nonetheless fit the campy horror game mood. In particular, the theme that first plays in level 6 is amazing, and the next theme, after its intro, an best be described as “Horror surf-rock”. It’s an eclectic, high-quality mix.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors was released for both the SNES and Sega Genesis. While the first half of the game is a lot of fun, frankly, it’s too expensive for me to recommend it on the SNES. The good news is that it was released on the Wii Virtual Console for 800 Wii Points ($8). At that price point, it’s worth it, although my main criticisms–the second half of the game isn’t as good as the first, and the passwords are all but useless–still hold.