I’m not going to lie to you, or wait until the end of the page to get the point across to you: ZOMBIES ATE MY NEIGHBORS is awesome. It is so awesome that I can’t think of a better way to open up my review, because nothing else is appropriate. It is easily the best game I’ve ever played that wasn’t an RPG. I’m telling you this early because I must admit I’m pretty biased in favor of LucasArts’ crowning achievement. I have so many memories attached to running around Vincent Price labyrinths and Ed Wood backyards, memories that grasp from Halloween, spring, winter, Christmas, Easter, summer, school and even baptism, that giving a fair, technical review would be a daunting challenge.
But as the local coroner will tell you, I love a challenge. So let’s start.
ZOMBIES ATE MY NEIGHBORS! Has anyone ever said that before? Even in pre-Vietnam horror movies, has anyone ever just said, in one sentence, “ZOMBIES ATE MY NEIGHBORS!”? Does it even count as a sentence? What does it mean? Is it a mantra? A prayer? A self-contained phonetic enigma in which the question IS the answer and the answer is a question?
What IS Zombies Ate My Neighbors? Well, we’ve known for 14 years that it’s an arcade-style, overhead…shooter? It’s more of a dungeon crawler, really. For no less than 55 levels (some are bonuses), you crawl around mazes avoiding a large and mashing number of obstacles so you can save a variety of neighbors who think that barbecuing in a haunted house surrounded by werewolves or taking pictures of a charging Frankenstein is a great idea. You pick one of two characters who only have one distinctive feature between them (separate graphics) and have to stop the simultaneous conspiracies of a mad doctor VS. the Martian conquistadors and save as many dumbass life forms as you can on the way.
It doesn’t sound like much, but from those modest facts springs forth a fountain of deep questions. Philosophical minds look into this game and ponder, “What am I doing here?” “Why am I doing this?” “Why am I an emo kid firing a squirt gun at a vampire and a rocket launcher at a tiny mushroom?” “Why am I throwing soda at a giant UFO?” “No really, what the FUCK is going on here?” It is natural for us to ask these questions—there is no story whatsoever. No dialogue. There isn’t a real thought to find in this game whatsoever; everything acts according to instinct. They’re just doing it because that’s what they’re going to do. Without anything really backing it, this game becomes purely arcade. It’s all about getting to the next level with as many people and armaments as you can get without dying. Resident Evil is a poser; THIS is fucking survival horror, people!
And what makes such a simple game work is how it builds on such a simple premise with incredible design and balance. There are many different level types you rush through, from backyards to castles, from lagoons to pyramids, from haunted offices to mountains crawling with ancient cadavers. Each level is a maze and each monster is a different obstacle, from straightforward killing machines to beasts that require strategy to kill. Some monsters destroy obstacles before you do and others CREATE obstacles. There are so many different monsters that do so many different things, you find yourself in dire straights fighting a fucking ARMY with household stuff like freezer pops, tomatoes, weedwackers…umm…rocket launchers…and spinning ancient artifacts…. Well, if you lived in MY house, those would be common day-to-day necessities.
All of the weapons are balanced to work well against certain enemies, and the main conflict, the source of the videogame, comes from being able to survive against an infinite supply of enemies with a finite supply of “weapons” in the most efficient way possible. Weapons and items are spread throughout the levels, occasionally hidden by a locked door or hidden treasure cove. A major factor in the armaments that prevents you from mastering this game quickly is that most of your offensive and supportive items are generated RANDOMLY. In houses and pyramids, there are a lot of cupboards and urns that randomly (and only possibly) generate the items you need to get by. A lot, not too much but a lot, of your game’s length depends on your luck at raiding other people’s houses and tombs.
It’s not just about killing monsters to save everyone’s collective ass;1 you also have the levels themselves to deal with. The level design is the other major positive aspect here. Every level has some sort of creative way to challenge you, with large hedge mazes filled with chainsaw maniacs that can cut through the walls, football fields with demonic football players that bounce you back and forth away from neighbors and into harm’s way, large castle courtyardian mazes with chronic poison grass that makes it impossible to travel back and forth on feet alone…. One level is nothing but a giant spike field with werewolves bouncing around. Until you play this, you won’t understand how crazy it can get. The only thing that comes close to this kind of level design and challenge is Resident Evil 4. Fortunately, you have a lot of items to help you out, like invincibility potions, health kits, enemy decoys, smart-bomb Pandora’s Boxes and the MONSTER POTION (you’ll love that one), so you’re not walking into this nightmare totally naked—at least you have some socks.
It’s quite obvious that this game, despite the chaos theory-inspired layout and design, was built with gameplay as the first objective, with the candy coating coming2 later. The graphics are nothing to scream about, that much is true, and it looks like there wasn’t much in the budget for testing the barriers and stuff, as there’s a lot of walls you can walk into without accomplishing anything. The soundtrack is a mixed bag—it’s done by none other than THE FAT MAN himself, but it’s mostly just melodic MIDI-sampling and piecing together. It’s a really unique soundtrack that shows off the talent of a unique composer, but I doubt you’ll be Googling for ocremixes of it anytime soon.
But in the end, it’s really hard to judge the quality of the aesthetics, since the whole basic point of the game is to parody movies that weren’t good enough to be featured on Mystery Science Theatre, and it’s even harder for them to get in the way of a true classic—not a fucking cult classic, but a REAL classic. This game, soul or not,3 is the purest form of videogaming and by far the best example. Everything is balanced, it’s ALWAYS challenging, the replay value shoots up the wazoo and out the mouth,4 and it’s fucking loaded with secrets. There’s a secret weapon in this game that went undiscovered for YEARS! Do you believe that? I don’t!
Anyway, this game is the best ever made, and I will have sex with the children of anyone who tells me otherwise.