Friday 29 January 2016

Snes Review - Zombies at my Neighbors (Game 098)

"Make them laugh and you're onto a winner" it was a philosophy that worked for LucasArts on PC but how does that translate to an arcade style top down console shooter? 

Developed by LucasArts (Lucas Film)
Published by Konami
Released in 1993

With beautiful games like 'Journey' and 'Ico' there a strong case for games to be considered art. When the stories told in 'The Last of Us', 'Steins;Gate', 'Silent Hill 2' and 'Brothers : A Tale of Two Sons' can move and captivate an audience, few could argue that games can't tell engaging thought provoking narratives. However, fewer will as easily subscribe to the idea that games are amusing. Not funny in a "laugh at the failings of the game" or "chuckle at a player unable to progress beyond an easy part" way. Videogames can be amusing simply by telling funny stories and by presenting amusing situations or spectacles. Indeed, in my youth, I laughed more at the LucasArts adventure games than I ever did at TV comedies, so much so I still shamelessly recycle jokes from the games today.

It is seemingly impossible to research comedy in video games without stumbling into the names Tim Shafer, Steve Purcell and Ron Gilbert. Their early point-and-click games have taken on almost legendary status within gaming communities. While their most beloved LucasArts games; 'Monkey Island', 'Sam and Max' and 'Day of the Tentacle' were strictly home computer affairs, the developer did make ventures into the console market. The most well known of these are of course based on the 'Star Wars' films but alongside them were a handful of console games that echoed the developers fondness for chuckles. 'Zombies ate my Neighbors' (or simply 'Zombies' in pal regions) while not a point-and-click game, has all the knowing nods and pop culture references that make it an undeniably LucasArts-y game. 

Industry legend and LucasArts linchpin Ron Gilbert makes no effort to disguise his love of old terrible B Movies. "Gary [Winnick] and I both kind of liked really campy horror movies" he once admitted to "While I think a lot of those were trying to be really serious, they just weren’t. And games, especially adventure games, are just very absurd, right? You’re doing completely stupid, ridiculous stuff, and if you treat that seriously, I think players question that a little bit. Well, if you’re in a game that’s a comedy, people are going to be more accepting of that stuff." Of course while he was at LucasArts at the time, Ron Gilbert didn't have much involvement in 'Zombies'. The game was instead developed and conceived by younger team members; artist Michael Ebert and planner Kalani Streicher.
As Ebert remembers, the pair was generally left to their own devices. "We had offices that were very far from management and the heart of LucasArts. We worked and slept in the offices a lot, and people left us alone. I think they were scared of us, because we didn't always shave." With a degree of creative freedom, Ebert and Streicher were able to peruse their own interests. "We found time to work on original new projects in our free time after work" admits Steicher. "We wanted to design and build new games that were more action-oriented and had a graphical user-interface, since the UI of the story games back then only consisted of words." It was a creative climate but one steered by a reliable guiding hand. "Ron Gilbert really drove us to make the best game possible" laments Ebert, "I learned a lot about design from Ron." 

The result was 'Zombies ate my Neighbors' a game which, as the name would suggest, included many references to the B Movie horrors so beloved by Gilbert. He was not alone, it was also a passion shared by Ebert too. "I grew up watching 'creature features' at a local Saturday night show in the San Francisco area that always played the worst monster movies, so I was very familiar with the genre".

"The scenario is a clever pastiche of all the horror movies you've ever seen" reported Super Play magazine. "You've got to rescue innocent people from vampires Martian abductors, giant ants and Mushroom Men. From supernatural Hammer ham efforts to the rubber suited alien invasion shockers of the McCarthyite era. In fact part of the fun of 'Zombies' lies in sporting the genre references." It was familiar ground for the developer and according to "Rouge Leaders: The Story of LucasArts" 'Zombies ate my Neighbors' "continued the hallmark of a [LucasArts] games, bringing an original art style and plenty of humor. Testing fresh properties, characters and game mechanics". Given the developer, comedy is almost a prerequisite. "Jokes and pop-culture references are so fun in games" notes Ebert. "LucasArts had a very good legal team that let us know exactly how far we could push the parody. That legal support really was important to let us go all out and poke fun at everything." 

Always intended to be enjoyed by a 16 bit console audience, 'Zombies' is a game played from an angled top down perspective. As an arcade cabinet collector, Ebert describes 'Smash TV' and 'Robotrob' as his “favorite games of all time”. The influence of the games is clear, though he stopped short of replicating their twin stick control system as he "thought that may be too difficult for some kids. A lot of younger Nintendo players didn't have arcade game reflexes from playing ‘Robotron’."

One or two people can play as either Zeke or Julie and the simple goal of the game is to rescue all the neighbours. There are 10 victims lost in each level and if you rescue them they appear in the next level. However, if a monster touches them they die for good and the number of neighbours for all subsequent levels is reduced by one. A level exit opens when all surviving neighbours are found and should they all die its game over. While it sounds a simple concept there's a surprising amount of depth to the idea. Playing 'Zombies' means evaluating how many people to save, and deciding how many you wish to have to hunt for in the next stage. Finding them all rewards the player with much needed extra lives, but to do so carries risk. Often saving less is the more prudent way to play. Its risk and resource management, something Ebert believes is the greatest strength of 'Zombies'. "The aspect of keeping the neighbors alive, made for interesting twists in strategies,” he believes. “The more neighbors you keep alive, the longer it takes to save them on each level, also the more resources you use to save them. You can keep fewer neighbors alive, have less to save, use less resource, but then you risk losing the game if your total drops to zero.” According to the designer, to finish the game a player must “use as few weapons [as possible] early on so that later you have plenty of weapons to defeat the harder levels."

However, why you're tasked with saving your neighbourhood and why the world has been besieged by horror nasties is never really that explicit. Surprisingly, given that this is a LucasArts game, story has very much been sidelined. There's no cut-scenes or dialogue in the game and unless you have read the instruction booklet you'd have no idea that there was an evil nemesis called Dr Tongue who was responsible for the clichéd chaos. Similarly the two playable characters are functionally identical and achingly underdeveloped. So much so the instruction book jokes that you can name them whatever you wish and it wouldn't make much of a difference. When the LucasArts logo at the start of a game typically sign posts hilarious conversations, it's a bit of a tragedy that the humour of Zombies is more visual gags and parody. 

Fortunately the games does look great, especially in the Super Nes version. The vast number of different foes are all detailed, well animated and immediately recognisable from their B movie roots. Critic Zy Nicholson in particular loved the look of ‘Zombies’ noting that while it was similar to other games in play style, “it surpasses them through the stylishness of its oozing graphics. Just watch Julie trampolining, or the Gillmen explode, and you’ll begin to appreciate the attention that LucasArts have lavished on this game”.

With playable characters a similar size and style to Guybrush Threepwood it's hard to not draw comparisons to other LucasArts games. This may be in part due to 'Sam & Max' designer Steve Purcell being credited with character art, since he also worked on character animation for the 'Monkey Island' games. Indeed, alongside the references to horror films, scattered throughout the levels are characters from LucasArts adventures games. In fact as Tim Shafer recalls "we were making
'Day of the Tentacle' over in “A building” while Mike Ebert and Kalani Streicher were making Zombies Ate My Neighbors over in “B Building.” They grabbed the art for Oozo the clown to use in ‘Zombies’." 'Rouge Leaders: The Story of LucasArts' describes the unique and quirky final level of the game. "The credit level is a reproduction of the LucasArts offices with numerous employees portrayed as characters who introduce themselves to the player; even George Lucas can be found front door welcoming players. '['Zombies'] also includes a self referential level called 'Day of the Tentacle'."

The problem is, the excitement of seeing the diabolical Purple Tentacle is somewhat diluted when he doesn't interact with you in any meaningful way. He behaves in similar manner to the other enemies and in so doing you're reminded just how repetitive 'Zombies ate my Neighbors' is. As Edge magazine noted in their review "even with two players the action soon becomes boring and your initial enthusiasm wains fast. If there was more to it 'Zombies ate my neighbors' could have been great. As it is the different styles backgrounds and the addition of some end of level guardians does little to inject any life into what is basically a pretty dead game".

While this is certainly excessively harsh, the magazine's point is valid. You really play on to see what amusing parody enemies will appear next, although it's likely you'll only actually be able to see half of the fifty levels. "I feel in the end, the game was maybe too hard" admits Ebert. "Nothing in the game past level 20 was ever tested with a focus group, they couldn’t get that far." It was something Zy Nicholson noted in his Super Play magazine review. "The game gets really tough usually just before another password is revealed too - you'll be cursing as you try to work out where you're going wrong. You'll be struggling long before the halfway stage."
The game was published by Konami and their budget restraints mean that a save feature wasn't possible. Consequently LucasArts were forced to reluctantly use a password system. Designer Ebert knew that it was going to be a compromise as the only thing a game password would record was the number of neighbours remaining and the level number. Despite resource management being so important, the password system didn't have the flexibility to note which weapons you had reserved. Continuing from password made the difficult game even harder, as a player’s armoury was reset. "If we could have afforded the battery on the cartridge we would have saved it all for you! The password to save all the weapons you had would have been too long, so we decided that about every four levels we'd at least make it somewhat feasible that you could restart from that location." 

They say comedy is different for each person, and while I miss the convoluted plots and witty dialogue of LucasArts' point-and-click games, for many the omission didn't harm 'Zombies are my Neighbors'. "Inspired gameplay, great graphics, challenge and game depth. All this wouldn't rate as highly were it not for the humour and atmosphere. 'Zombies' has both in huge measure" wrote Mean Machines magazine. "'Zombies ate my Neighbors' is a frightfully witty game, which really captures that electric 'Gauntlet' atmosphere of running around a lot doing stupid things" agreed GameZone magazine. Humour it seems enhances the experience. Having funny scenes and amusing parody enemies turns what would be an enjoyable top down "run and gun" style game into something more significant. 

“There are lots of ways to be successful in the Video Game business" wrote Frank O'Connor, former editor of Total! Magazine. "If you want to make something really special you can ask LucasArts to develop it for you. 'Zombies' is the zenith of their video gaming career. There's not an original gameplay feature in sight but its incredible fast and full of action and the graphics are so funny you'll probably die laughing". 

Ultimately 'Day of the Tentacle' designer Tim Shafer surmises the game beautifully. "'Zombies' is a great game and when people talk about the “Golden Age of LucasArts” I think it does not get mentioned as much as it should. If anyone hasn’t played it I say check it out!"

Where did I get this game from?
I’m a big fan of Retro Game shops. There’s a lot of benefit to holding a game in your hand and judging its condition rather than trusting the description of an eBay listing. The problem is many game shops inflate their prices when they offer this privilege. “Level Up Games” in Canterbury aren’t like this and that’s why I make a point of going in to the shop every time I’m nearby. Alex and Gemma really know their retro games, so don’t be surprised if you leave with a handful of games you can’t believe you didn’t know existed.

I bought ‘Zombies’ here for the great price of £40 boxed and complete.  It’s worth noting though that if you’re not platform exclusive, you should consider the Mega Drive version; the two games play nearly identically. Admittedly the Sega version is less colourful, the music is tinny and the sprites are squished, but when it’s half the price of the Nintendo cart maybe they are sacrifices that are justifiable.  

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