Released in 1993 for the SNES, as well as the Genesis, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a top down shooter that follows it’s protagonists Zeke and Julie on a mission to stop a variety of monsters and b-movie antagonists from harming, maiming and, well, killing Zeke and Julie’s neighbors.
Developed by LucasArts and published by Konami, the game received positive marks upon its release, despite not being much of a hit. However, while it didn’t immediately catch on and much like the B-movies that inspired it, it eventually worked its way to cult status and has since become a beloved staple of the 16-bit era. So much so that the game, and it’s sequel Ghoul Patrol, are actually about to get a re-release for modern platforms.
Which is actually part of what brings me here today as I somehow managed to go almost 26 years without properly sitting down and playing it, which is especially weird for me because almost everything about the game is right up my alley.
I’ve actually loved B-movies for as long as I can remember and, on many occasions growing up, loved making parodies of them with my friends. And yes, they were terrible. Really, really, terrible.
Anyway, I’ve always loved B-movies so getting to sit down and play through Zombies Ate my Neighbors has been a long time coming. And overall? I, perhaps unsurprisingly, really enjoyed it! It was loaded with references to classic horror movies, had this amazing 50’s-culture-revived-in-the-80s rockabilly attitude, and it even has co-op!
But does it hold up? Because while the game has it’s classic horror and sci-fi references down, that doesn’t always make for a good game, much less one that has aged well close to 30 years later.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors takes place across 48 levels that are themed after everything from your neighbors backyard, to Dracula’s castle, the inside of a pyramid and the all-american shopping mall. In them, you’re tasked with rescuing people from the stage’s various enemies before they can get massacred or mutilated. To do so, you’ll have to navigate the stages and mow down hordes upon hordes of enemies with the wide variety of weapons that you’ll find along the way. These include things like soda cans, which can be lobbed like grenades, a weed wacker which can be used to kill enemies Lawnmower Man style, or a fire extinguisher that can be used to temporarily freeze your enemies like you’re in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
There are a ton of weapons that you can pick up alongside those ones too and they’re also scattered just about everywhere in the game, which is great due to how unbelievably outnumbered you are. What’s also great about many of the weapons in the game is that certain ones are especially effective against specific enemies. And believe me, any excuse you have to make the game a bit easier is one that you best consider using because Zombies Ate My Neighbors is far from what I’d consider a walk in the park, and it doesn’t feature saving or any alternate difficulty options.
Those aren’t bad things though, as the game is designed and paced in a way that’s mostly in line with these limitations. For example, you can pick up the action from any level of the game as long as you know that stage’s corresponding password. And you can also beat most, if not all of these stages in a fresh playthrough so long as you manage to find some weapons to power up your arsenal.
The only real exception to this that I personally found playing through the game was in level 20, The Invasion of the Snakeoids, which features giant snakes that take forever to kill and renewed my fear of ophidians. There’s nothing wrong with this level in itself, but the giant snakes that populate it take a ridiculously long time to kill unless you know how to aim your bazooka.
Oh yeah, how could I forget that you get a freaking bazooka in this game? Unfortunately for me, I’m not much of a great shot.
Anyway, one of the other things that can aid you in your adventure is the multitude of shortcuts and alternate paths through each of the levels. A well placed rocket, or punch if you’re using one of the games many power ups, can open cracked walls and allow you to either skip rooms with enemies in them, or help you access some additional goodies. On top of that, knowing the layout of the level in general may allow you to beat it while bypassing particularly tough enemies altogether.
When it comes down to it, all of this actually makes Zombies Ate My Neighbors a fairly strategic game that rewards players who take the time to explore every nook and cranny of its world, and who have the dexterity and skill to navigate it without getting a game over.
I personally struggled with Zombies Ate My Neighbors and ended up relying on passwords a few times, as well as a healthy number of save states to get through the game. And while I know that save-stating your way through games is a bit of a hot-topic amongst retro gamers, I have no regrets about doing so, because of how engrossed I was in the world and wanting to see what else it had in store for me. While I didn’t end up beating this one, although knowing me I probably will in the near future, I found myself totally lost in how much fun it was. I simply had a great time seeing the different enemies and themes found in each of the levels.
However, that’s not to say that the game is perfect. For starters, depth perception can be a little hard to make heads or tails of. It’s pretty easy to misline shots or occasionally even the distance between you and some enemies due to the overhead perspective. You do adapt to it eventually, but it is something that does take some getting used to.
On top of that, while I absolutely adore the variety of enemies in this game, there’s no denying that some of them can be beyond frustrating. I’ve already talked about those snake-bois, those awful, awful, snakebois, but the game also features enemies such as these demonic little dolls that are really hard to hit, as well as chainsaw wielding maniacs that can create and take shortcuts to chase you around the level.
I understand the importance of enemies like these in a game, especially for difficulty scaling reasons and because they’re modelled after famous horror characters, but there’s no denying that a certain chill goes down my spine whenever I see them. While frustrating to deal with, and often something that I outright avoid, these characters add tension to the game by making you feel more like their prey than a predator.
There’s a certain thrill to playing through the game and finding yourself getting chased by enemies, only to slip through a shortcut or temporarily freeze them in order to make an escape. And I can only imagine, what with this games reputation as a classic co-op caper, that doing so with a friend makes it all the more fun.
Visually speaking, Zombies Ate My Neighbors gets a lot out of its home on 16-bit hardware. The game features a dazzling color palette that is appropriately playful and macabre. On top of that it also features wonderful sprite work that does a great job of conveying the atmosphere of a classic B or horror movie. Zombies Ate My Neighbors had to have been a work of love from a team of film affionatos who painstakingly and lovingly crafted the look and feel of the game with the best of tools.
I’m especially big on the game’s use of dithering and how it adds layers upon layers of details to the visuals. Even though the SNES can handle transparency, I’ve always loved when developers would rely on dithering to simulate a variable opacity instead. There’s just something really endearing about that kind of technical showmanship at work here. It’s similar to how an artist would employ something like cross hatching in their work, as opposed to shading with different colors. And with a good CRT or shaders on an emulator, there’s no denying how good the dithering looks thanks to scanlines. It really does a great job bringing the environments of the game to life and makes them feel either lived-in or appropriately mythical, depending on the environment of a particular level.
The game’s various character designs are also all on point from a design perspective. They walk that fine line of directly recalling their source material, while also taking the necessary liberties to make these characters both their own, and to avoid legal repercussions over any similarities to their Universal Studios incarnations.
My only complaint with the game’s visuals, if you could even call it one, is that I would’ve loved some more animation in the game overall. Now, don’t get me wrong, what’s on display here is solid from an animation point of view, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least say how great it would’ve been to see things moving a bit more fluidly here. Again, I don’t even really know whether or not you could call this a complaint though, as adding more frames of animations to the characters walk cycles and stuff could’ve ended up changing the look and feel of the game a lot, or could’ve led to a less stable frame rate. And when it comes down to choosing between a solid frame rate or getting a stuttery, unstable game, I’d pick the former every time.
Still, if you even have a passing interest in vintage horror movies, or even something like Tim Burton movies, you’re sure to have a blast with this game and it’s visual style.
And that Tim Burton comparison also extends onto what I think of this game’s music and sound too. The soundtrack reminds me a lot of the work of Danny Elfman and comes across as extremely playful, not to mention it does a great job of inviting the player into the over the top and cartoony game world. It’s also pretty diverse and knows when the slow things down and to be more atmospheric, while also never letting up on how catchy it is.
You could literally tell me that some of these songs were Oingo Boingo demos and I wouldn’t bat an eye; they’re just so kooky and eclectic, as well as appropriate to what’s going on in the game. Take the song “Pyramid of Fear” from the game, which seriously reminds me of Oingo Boingo’s song “Forbidden Zone” from the absurdly offensive 1982 movie of the same name.
However, there’s more to the game’s sound than just an awesome soundtrack. It also has sound effects that are appropriately horror themed and arcadey. There’s just something deeply satisfying about running up to a zombie in this game and hearing them explode as you shoot them with your water gun. The explosion sound that plays when they die is a really bassy sound for the SNES and other enemies also feature appropriate screams or other sound effects when you defeat them.
Hell, even stuff like the clown powerup have some pretty great sound effects to them. While the clown power up admittedly has a bit of an annoying laugh, I also kinda love it due to how uncannily similar it is to the Joker’s laugh in Tim Burton’s Batman.
All in all, Zombies Ate My Neighbors has really solid sound design across the board. It can get a little heavy on the constant screaming of the ghouls and baddies as you kill them, but the actual quality of the sound coming out of your Super Nintendo is superb.
So does Zombies Ate My Neighbors hold up? Well, seeing as I’ve just spent a bit over 10 minutes gushing over, well, everything about the game, I think it’s safe to assume that it does.
The game is an extremely charming and fun adventure, that may be challenging, but still manages to do a mostly fine job of preventing itself from being frustrating.
And even for players that are less interested or familiar with B-movies or horror, I feel as though the game does a fine job of standing on it’s own and providing a fun and fulfilling gameplay experience. If you do like those things though, you’re in for a great game that’s loaded with enough pop culture references to fill an Elvira’s Movie Macabre.
Thanks to this game getting a modern re-release, there’s honestly no reason not to pick this one up. While I didn’t get to play this in co-op for today’s video, I can tell why it quickly became such a standby for co-op gamers. And the game itself, while distinctly 16-bit has aged quite well in spite of it. The parts of it that may or may not have aged that well have, at least for me, become part of the identity of the game itself over the years. It’s as synonymous with the DNA of the title as, say, the sort of cheap effects that populate numerous 50s B-movies are.