Jimi Fletcher looks back on the first game he played that he could truly class as horror: the SNES run-and-gun classic, Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Ah, horror movies: that classic cultural rite-of-passage. Unless your family was like the Flanders in The Simpsons – with dozens of channels locked-out to protect the young ones – the odds were that you illicitly watched a “15” or even an “18”-certificate film long before you were legally allowed to. You knew you were too young to see them, but this made them all the more seductive and appealing.

Even me, a late arrival to the horror genre, saw these movies way before I was legally allowed to. However, I was one of the last to do so on my road: neighbourhood kids even younger than me were boasting about watching A Nightmare on Elm Street (we’re talking six-year-old children, here!). The 80s and early 90s, with video-shop culture in full swing, were a fascinating time for horror-movie awareness; what was once terrifying and unwatchable became something addictive.

Yet when I was young, there wasn’t much in the way of horror games. In the pre-32 bit era, games weren’t certified, so they were simply considered suitable for all. Weirdly, this didn’t stop games based on adult films being made; you had harmless tie-ins for RoboCop and Death Wish 3, while there were horror games too, like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, which were meant to be rubbish.

The only games close to horror that I played were ones with both feet firmly planted in the past: Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts and Castlevania. If these had been films, they’d have been Hammer movies – ghoulish for sure, both very much comfortably rooted in the 60s and 70s. Nothing with an 18 certificate, anyway.

Because of this, no games really scared me when I was little – so when Zombies Ate My Neighbors was announced, I was immediately curious.

Platform

SNES

Year

1993

Genre

Run and gun

Developer

LucasArts

Publisher

Konami

A game of the living dead

Simply known as Zombies here in the UK for censorship reasons, Zombies Ate My Neighbors was one of those dream titles that if it hadn’t been invented, horror geeks of the time would’ve been dreaming it would be created. I remember thinking that this game looked like teenage gaming, if not adult gaming, and was an exciting step forward from the more wholesome likes of Mario or the “cool for kidz” hipness of Sonic. Zombies was unapologetically, wonderfully geeky.

The original artwork for Zombies Ate My Neighbors in the US – which I was aware of, probably through magazines like Total! or Sega Power – was something I didn’t initially appreciate. It was a startling change from the animated genre games of the era, and parodied the B-movies of the 50s. Think The Blob, Them! or Plan 9 From Outer Space, with monochrome scream queens screaming in terror while undead ghouls lurked in the background. It stood out and immediately told you what you were in for: scares, but with a twist of humour.

Unfortunately, in the UK, this inventive approach was replaced with a cuter, admittedly more visually appropriate illustrated alternative, featuring the two main characters bouncing up into the air from a trampoline, with the title characters standing on the ground behind. It looked great – especially the SNES version, with the slimy green colour banner – but it was nothing on the US edition.

The NTSC and PAL covers of Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Zombies respectively

Zombies Ate My Neighbors was a total breath of fresh air. It wasn’t based on a specific film, but it was drenched in the atmosphere and spookiness of both horror and sci-fi. It played out like a loving, gleefully garish tribute to film and comic books – more Creepshow and Piranha than The Exorcist. In fact, if Zombies had a cultural equivalent that decade, it was probably something like The SimpsonsTreehouse of Horror, where the splatter was delivered with a gleefully knowing wink – half scary, half delirious with amusement.

The prospect of 55 “un-deadly” levels (!!!) was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before – I really felt like I was getting my money’s worth. Yet the clincher as that Zombies Ate My Neighbors felt as close to being in an interactive horror movie as was possible. But unlike the terrifying games that followed, Zombies was all about having harmless fun.

Or was it?

More than meets the eye

Right from the off, there were concerns about the game’s content, and precautions were enforced to ensure that the fragile minds of children were not forever corrupted. In the UK, even the original title was problematic enough, so the …Ate My Neighbors bit was ditched and all we ended up with was Zombies: an admittedly lean, mean title, but totally lacking the humour of its original. On top of this, a level involving chainsaw-wielding lumberjacks had to be re-animated so that chainsaws were replaced with axes.

Now you may rightly think that one weapon was just as bad as the other, but this was the time when the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies were still banned in the UK, and even a film like Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers had to have its title curtailed and so that it simply read Hollywood Hookers (!!!). Of course, as a boy in his early teens, all this corrupting nastiness was great, even in its censored UK form.

Upon turning the SNES on, one of my favourite-ever sounds from any game glittered into earshot. Chances are you know how game developer logos can bring about a flurry of nostalgic emotions – that dinging sound of the Game Boy, the two-note refrain for Sega – but the pretty twinkling that forms the Konami sting, which kicked off the Zombies Ate My Neighbors experience, is my favourite.

Zombies was also developed by LucasArts, so that gave it a more cinematic background. The title screen was perfect – a swirly, red and black vortex, like a gateway into the horrors that were to come, scored by a foreboding, quietly booming soundtrack, complete with creepy theremin…

The concept of Zombies Ate My Neighbors was delightful: you selected one of two characters (if you had a friend in tow, you could both play, but no split-screen – you had to stay close to each other), and your mission was to save the townsfolk from impending death at the hands of various monsters.

It wasn’t just zombies; we’re also talking vampires, werewolves, axe murderers, chainsaw massacre-ers (unless you were in the UK), feral dogs, mummies, robots… the victims were spread around the level, and you had to simply touch them to save them. If an enemy got there first, they were dead: they’d scream a ghastly shriek and turn into a ghost, drifting off into the ether.

A freshly dead victim in Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

In at the deep end

There was little time to relax during Zombies Ate My Neighbors – you had to save a minimum number of people in order to pass the level, and sometimes they weren’t easy to get to. Locked doors, barriers, hedges were often in the way, which you’d either need a key or a handy rocket launcher to clear.

Any victims you failed to save in a level would stay dead for the rest of the game, which meant you had fewer victims to save in the next level. This may sound easier, but if you were like me and ended up rapidly losing your victims over the course of the game and were down to one, that singleton absolutely had to be saved, otherwise it was game over.

The first level was relatively straightforward, although you were immediately aware of the total lack of on-screen tutorials or instructions. Of course, you always had a manual to refer to, but the fact the game trusted you to work out what to do on your own, armed only with a water pistol (other weapons do become available) was proof of the game’s success at making you act on instinct. See a zombie? Either kill it or run away. See a baby? Save it.

You could turn on a radar to work out where victims were located, and how many there were to save. Once you did, a magic door would appear which you could walk into and instantly exit the level. A quick tally of how many victims you saved showed up on screen, before you were hurled into the next level which, like all the others, had their own delightfully B-movie-sweetened title, accompanied with crashing sound effects and ghoulish typeface. Gleeful stuff.

Not content with remaining in the neighbourhood, with its football pitch and toy factory, Zombies Ate My Neighbors would drop you in totally random places, like a desert, a haunted castle and even a pyramid. Additionally, the music by Joe McDermott and Eric Swanson was absolutely fantastic – supremely catchy, very inventive (sampling zombie groans for use as percussion) and, when it wanted to be, very spooky indeed. Just like the game itself.

Fear factor

Despite the massive entertainment that Zombies Ate My Neighbors provided, the fun sometimes turned to genuinely anxiety-inducing suspense. The self-explanatory level “Ants” was a squirm-inducing nightmare: you had to work your way clockwise through a hedge maze in order to reach the one available victim on the outer perimeter, while dealing with monstrously oversized insects.

Then there was “No Assembly Required”, set in a dilapidated toy factory where there are countless, ghastly miniature dolls armed with axes that won’t stop chasing you, and they were bloody awkward to kill too.

With so many weapons to acquire, and given that certain ones were more effective on specific enemies than others, there was a lot of experimentation required to master Zombies Ate My Neighbors. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the pain-in-the-arse weapon selection, which forced you to scroll through your arsenal with the Y button to get to the right one while making sure that, in a panicked rush, you didn’t whizz past the one you needed; there was no option to scroll back, meaning you had to go all the way around again. A pause menu option would have been really handy in this case.

A cruel mistress

Sometimes, Zombies Ate My Neighbors was horrendously brutal. There would be instances where a victim would be impossible to save, thanks to unpredictable AI that resulted in a zombie being nearer to them than you ever could have been. To avoid this situation, you’d simply avoid any chance of being on screen with them until you knew you had the opportunity to barge into shot and head directly for them. Meanwhile, some monsters were ghastly. There was an enormous baby that zoomed up, down and diagonally like it’s drunk a pint of coffee. It’s a pain to target with your rocket launcher.

The giant baby in Zombies Ate My Neighbors

Another very, VERY annoying thing was that if you lost a life, you couldn’t immediately carry on with your next one – there was around three to five seconds of stalling time before you had a chance to pick up where you left off, and that usually resulted in a lost victim.

As it was such a big game, Zombies Ate My Neighbors offered a password system; completing every fourth level offered a new code for you to restart from. These were a handy way to return to a game at a later point, but as these passwords were set in stone and could be used by anyone, there was always something impersonal about returning to a game this way.

What’s more, you couldn’t keep any of your points or items, no matter how spectacular your progress; it was erased and you just started like anyone else. If the game had been battery-backed, you could have picked up where you left off with all your saved items and points. It really would have felt like a proper continuation of your original journey, but sadly that was not to be. At least there were passwords available – with so many levels, it would have taken spectacular talent and a lot of free time to clear the game in one fell swoop.

Breaking the rules

Passwords or no passwords, I was never able to complete Zombies Ate My Neighbors. Put it down to a lack of talent, patience or time, but I don’t remember even making it to the game’s halfway point, let alone its conclusion. And as such, this always gave it this truly formidable aura – that “one that got away” essence that always made me come back to it over the years. Of course, given that I’m now writing about it, I HAD to finish it.

So, did I manage to complete it? Without cheating?

Er, no.

Cheating in games is something I’ve always loathed to do, for two reasons. Firstly, games were expensive, so I was keen to get to the end properly. Secondly, well, it’s shit, isn’t it? There’s no real sense of achievement. It was the case back then, and it’s the case with any new games I play now.

However, if it’s a case of playing games from my youth – games I could never finish in the old days – I occasionally have to admit that enough is enough. I only recently managed to complete The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario 64, long after I failed to best them back in the day, by referring to online guides. I may have cleared Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels without the need to cheat, but when all’s said and done, I only managed to do this on its SNES incarnation, which was a lot easier and kinder than the original.

And so it comes to Zombies Ate My Neighbors, where, on level 20 – a particularly frustrating level (the end of a four-level stretch, just before the next password, and therefore evil) – that involved killing massive snakes that lived under the earth like the worms in Tremors, which had keys inside them that could only be accessed by blasting them to death. Thing is, I always had a crap aim, and finite rockets. And like I said, I had no patience! No, no, no, I said, I promised myself I wouldn’t resort to the passwords online.

Ah, fuck it.

It felt wrong, but at least I could stop driving myself crazy with this goddamn game. I tried. I failed. I can live with my failure. And now I get to enjoy new levels! Some of these felt disconcertingly easy after the one I had to skip, and yet there would always be another one down the line that would cause me just as much grief.

At the time of writing, I still haven’t completed the game. I was hoping to, but despite the throwaway, trashy look and feel to the game, it actually requires very judicious use of your weapons, and I think I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that, as convenient as those passwords are, by resetting your victim and weapon quotient, you’re not left with enough firepower and leeway to make any real significant progress with the game.

It may be that I have to run through the game from start to finish and build up a formidable arsenal to deal with those later levels. And that, my friends, is scarier than anything.

Yet despite its horrors, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is almost always a pleasure. The execution is just delightful, even when, more often than not, you the gamer are the one being executed.

Unfortunately, Zombies was not included in the line-up for the SNES Mini Classic or Sega Mega Drive/Genesis Classic, which is such a shame as it really could have brought in a new audience. The only legal way to play it is to get a second-hand cartridge.
Because it was wilfully, gleefully out-of-date back in the 90s, it remains so now, and is still one of the most terrifically enjoyable games ever made during the 16-bit era. For a game that deliberately evoked an earlier era at the time, playing it now evokes that 90s vibe, which makes it a doubly nostalgic hit.

Pros

  • Delightfully retro ambiance – horror movie fans will love it
  • Amazing soundtrack
  • Stupendous number of levels

Cons

  • Too damned difficult at times
  • Password system that doesn’t save your weapons or victim count
  • Clumsy weapon selection makes combat very stressful

Jimi’s take

For a 90s teen just beginning their journey down the wicked, ghoulish path of horror movies, Zombies Ate My Neighbors was the perfect game – and, at the time, one of the only releases to offer serious chills, albeit lightened by a delightful sense of humour. It was as close as I got to actually starring in my very own zombie flick, and long after the likes of Resident Evil became a thing, it still rocks.