What’s better than a simple, effective, multi-directional, multiplayer, twin-stick shoot ‘em up? It’s all in the music, according to Matt Gardner.
When it comes to shoot ‘em ups, you want something that’s simple, but not in an easy way; you need good weapons, but not ones that are disproportionately powerful to others on offer; you deserve a good multiplayer experience, where no-one consistently gets the upper hand over others every time it’s played.
What’s more, the controls need to be sharp and simple; the enemies need to pose problems individual to their class (which you can anticipate); any mistakes you make are the fault of you, and not because of a dubious design flaw or an unfair AI; and, of course, you need a sense of accomplishment once you’ve endured the whole thing, however well you do.
Now, with those T&Cs in place, you could probably only count four or five games that adhere to every single rule. Still, only one title in recent memory delivered on all of these fronts, yet cost less than £1 from launch. Thing is, given the hours of game-time it served up to my friends and I, it’s worth 100 times that to me.
I realised too late that this review was meant to be a quick ‘n’ easy 800-word stroll through an indie classic. 2,800 words later, it turned into a bit of a love letter. I’m not sorry in advance.
Shoot ’em up
I Made a Game with Zombies in It! – stylised as I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, because leetspeak was still pretty megalols back then – hit Xbox Live Arcade in 2009, at a time when the Indie Games sub-brand of Xbox Marketplace was sharpening its shovel to dig its own grave. While Indie Games had opened the doors to budding developers to release cheap and cheerful titles, it would sadly fall by the wayside, where “games” such as Avatar Fart and Try Not to Fart would somehow pass the quality control process and undermine higher-quality titles on offer, like Akane the Kunoichi and Blocks that Matter.
IMAGWZII! was a top-down, 2D, twin-stick shooter – something that’s so rarely done well, even now. It was the brainchild of James Silva of Ska Studios, the company probably most famous for Charlie Murder, an Xbox 360 Arcade title that came free on Games with Gold in mid-2014. Despite being relative minnows in the gaming scene, Ska created one of the handful of great games with the freeware XNA platform, which was also used to create other big hitters like Terraria, Bastion, Reus, the recent Stardew Valley, and cult favourite Score Rush.
At just 69p in 2009 money (around £24 in 2017), and weighing in at a paltry 12.76MB (around 12.76MB in 2017), I Made a Game with Zombies in It! was an absolute godsend to single and local multiplayer fans across the world. I still value it so highly that at the time of writing, and around three years since I last played it, IMAGWZII! sits alongside only Saints Row: The Third, Blur and Spec Ops: The Line as the remaining great games still missing from Xbox One’s backwards-compatible line-up.
Yet it was so much simpler than those triple-A titles, and it likely gave our house five times the hours of gaming than all three combined.
What truly set it apart wasn’t really its gameplay – it was the music. Now, I’m a massive fan of VGM – from the 16-bit perfection of Sonic the Hedgehog’s Star Light Zone to the classical overtones of Final Fantasy’s PlayStation outings – but IMAGWZII! took the piss out of convention to such a degree that it didn’t just improve the game, it made the game.
I made this game, using XNA
It costs a dollar, and I hope you pay, yeah
Ah, just a dollar, ah… please pay
‘Cause I made a game with zombies in it
Now at the time, demos were rife, especially with Xbox Live Indie Games. With IMAGWZII!, the trial let you play the full game, though with two caveats: firstly, it limited the experience to one player, which admittedly didn’t seem like much of an issue on the first play or two.
Secondly, you couldn’t keep your high scores. The first issue was a bitter pill to swallow. The second? The pill became cyanide.
Initially, we individually played the demo a few times, testing the waters. We started to write down high scores, discuss tactics, and see how well we did by our own rules. But the song kept telling us it was just a dollar. It was a clever marketing ploy to say the least, and one that wouldn’t change if you owned the free version, which just made it funnier.
As Xbox Live costs were, and continue to be, dictated in dollars (with direct UK conversion), it was an oddly low price for a game. But 69p was only the cost of a high-end chocolate bar – a Topic, a Galaxy Ripple, a Yorkie Raisin & Biscuit – and I was already a right fat bastard back then, so for the good of everyone in the house, I Made a Game with Zombies in It! was quickly bought, downloaded and installed.
Soon, we were busy trying to perfect our strategies on the same screen. Luckily, the music continued to aid our decision-making process.
Music makes the people come together
The game’s single-song soundtrack weaved between sections which, in turn, informed you of what to expect in the visuals. A switch to a higher tempo meant a more frantic set of enemies, from standard-issue zombies to malicious rhombuses; spaced-out musical moments were slower, calmer game homages, such as Asteroids – just one of many retro hat-tips.
Featuring drum and bass, pseudo-metal and the aforementioned cock rock, the song never got boring; it just signalled the next wave of pain (and, occasionally, a quick break). You planned accordingly, scrambling for the most capable weaponry for the wave to come.
Occasionally, the vocalist – presumable Silva himself, given the first-person lyrics – would drop back in to check on you. He’s give you no direct hints, but definitely applied a swift kick up the jacksy to remind you things were getting serious again. It’s one of the greatest songs to feature in a game, and when there’s only one song, what better credit is there to give?
You can still stream the tune for free, or download it for a pay-as-you-feel price, at the Ska Studios site. It actually proved so popular that within a year of the game’s release, Ska Studios ported the theme to the Rock Band Network, in turn creating arguably the most difficult drum experience I’ve ever endured – a), because it was legitimately difficult, and b), it was (an abridged) 10 minutes long. Fans of the game like me knew how it went, but it was still pain squared. Take a look around the 6:45 mark to really get an idea of the monstrosity it dished out.
Getting a grip
In line with the music, I Made a Game with Zombies in It! was remarkably simple in its approach. And with that, BULLET POINT KLAXON. I don’t usually do this – retrospectives are usually anecdotal, not outright explanatory – but holy shit, it’d be so nice if just a developer read this and went “Hm. I’ll take these issues on board and make something good for the current gen, and sell it for next to nothing.”
Not that they will, given about two people read my nonsensical ramblings past a couple of sentences, but here’s hoping…
First of all, the graphics were crap, to the degree where you looked like the silhouette of an electric guitar with no animation as you moved, aside from the bullets coming out of your gun. But with so much going on at once, and the synchronicity between arenas shifting with the music, it was perfect for the run of play.
The standard opening tile-set of green grass gave way to disco lights at the chorus, before a chequered board hosted references to Centipede. Before you know it, techno beats warn you of Geometry Wars-style homing glass shards, and it all ends with a mighty crescendo that abruptly stops, like a violent night at the opera.
There were three classes of pick-up:
- Weapons: A range of icons in red octagons. We’ll get onto them in a minute.
- Assistance: Two icons in green octagons, including a speed boost and extra lives (the latter being the holy grail as you got MEGAPOINTS for every single one you completed the game with. More on that later…)
- Shield: One solitary icon with a yellow octagon. It effectively granted you invulnerability to enemies – but also gave you the ability to serve them instant death if you ran into them.
IMAGWZII! was somewhat revolutionary – and fairer for it – by allowing you to stack ammunition by picking up the same weapon more than once. Sure, you’d accidentally pick up something else in the chaos of the action and break your chain of ammo collection, but you effectively kept an eye out for your desired power-ups as much, if not more, than your foes. The weapon balance was perfect, too:
- Machine gun: You start with this standard, and somewhat pathetic, weapon. Still, it was pretty good for easy enemies, plus the Asteroids knock-off encountered later in the game.
- Shotgun: This slowly fired three bullets in a cone at a slower rate – it was good in a bind, especially when accuracy wasn’t an issue.
- Laser: God-awful. This fired “through” enemies, but didn’t do all that much damage. Avoided at all costs.
- Flamethrower: Actually excellent, though very limited in range. However, spinning on the spot in a bind would basically kill anything – just be prepared to piss that ammo away at an alarming rate.
- Rocket launcher: The bazooka did splash damage, and was devastating to large groups, which you could create by looping around swarms of enemies. It had a low fire rate, though.
- Minigun: The base gun, x10. My personal favourite, especially on a busy screen, so long as you had discipline with the right stick.
- Fucking ridiculous green laser shotgun thing: I think this is the official name for it. It was what you fought over in multiplayer. It had a slightly faster firing rate (and the same cone than the shotgun), but did devastating damage. It was indiscriminate; it was disgusting. It was the best weapon, but as it was so coveted, you had to be fast on your feet to get it in multiplayer.
Want the skinny on how to be champ? Listen to said champ, my friends:
- Finishing with extra lives gave you larger bonuses. Get lives, don’t die. That’s where the points are.
- Run from danger; shoot behind you. I’ve never seen a game like it before or since; every enemy is after you, so get used to having your sticks in opposite directions.
- Don’t care about where your fellow gamers are. The field of vision gets so ridiculously large that you don’t need to worry about invisible rubber-banding based on whoever’s furthest away on the other side of the screen.
- There’s no get out of jail free card. Unlike nearly every top-down shooter, you don’t get a bomb-like power-up to clear the level. Fight or die. Fuck you. It’s so much better for it.
- You don’t know if you’re a success until the very end. Once you’re dumped unceremoniously out of the game at the song’s crescendo, you find out your score in a lump sum. It’s painful to anticipate; I’ve played over 300 rounds of this, and I never knew how to guess the score I’d get.
- Think twice about playing it twice in a row. You’re shagged by the end of it. Done. Kaput. Once you get good, you invest yourself in one run at a time. Do it nightly, after you’ve had your tea.
Now, see that all in action…
IMAGWZII! was released in a simpler time for our house, when a Labour-governed Britain only had to care about swine flu and Terry Wogan’s last-ever breakfast show on BBC Radio 2. We decided to club together for a projector in the living room. As far as decisions go, it’s one of the best.
My Xbox 360, which was there only because Wi-Fi wasn’t built into consoles and I needed to be online somehow, was hooked up to it. Most of the time, the projector showcased Shadow of the Colossus, Fallout 3 and Rock Band. Then we projected Rock Band onto the side of a house and played it on the roof.
War of attrition
With an entire front-room wall used as a screen in our ultra-competitive household, multiplayer games were, as a matter of course, central to tension. Sadly, IMAGWZII!, and one of my closest friends, soon became a thorn in my side for the best part of four years.
The first night we got the game, we played it a good ten times, back to back. Early tries ended in failure – we died before the end of each “round” – so we just started again.
This went on, most nights, for about a week. It was all fun and games, and high scores weren’t much of an issue for a while, because we were still getting better at it – but all it took was one insurmountable points tally to blow all of us out of the water.
The Great British Jake Off
Everyone knows someone like Jake. He’s into games, but not as much as you – but he’s better than you at every single thing he plays. He has the highest gamerscore of anyone you know, and on whichever console you pick. What’s more, he’s just naturally good at whichever title he picks – if not a little fluky.
While I was at work, Jake – still seeing out university as I was loathing my first job – decided to have two or three goes in my absence. I got home to play it in an empty house, while everyone was out, and “JMA” topped the table. Not “MDG”. Oh no.
His top score was 100,000 higher than mine, in a game when top scores averaged the 700,000 mark. In his round, he must’ve had not only a perfect run (pretty rare, even for a master) but there must’ve been plenty of extra lives on screen. This was pot luck; sometimes, you’d only get two or three. Other times, especially in multiplayer, you’d get ten or 11.
I got nowhere near his score for so long. A month or two after he moved out, I started playing it once a night, most nights, to beat him.
It took me two years to topple him. But that wasn’t enough; I wanted total dominance.
It took me another two years to remove him entirely from the eight-strong leaderboard, as I needed to beat him seven more times.
It’s one of my greatest achievements, gaming or not.
(Xbox) Live forever
Since the Indie label was shut down in 2015 – likely due to it allowing so many fart-based titles to kick up a stink – the great games that did it justice have fallen into relative obscurity. But with the advancement of the Xbox One and upcoming Xbox One X – and the lack of backwards-compatible support – IMAGWZII! may be consigned to another era. Sad, but understandable; given it’s a dollar per download, the compatibility development probably isn’t worth Silva’s time.
I’ve sold my Xbox 360. I’m only waiting on the previously mentioned trio of titles to get the next-gen tuning, but at this rate, the depreciating value of 360s might see me getting one again – and honestly, it’ll be a IMAGWZII console, first and foremost. The main reason I’d do it is to prove to Jake, through the good grace of cloud saving, that I finally removed him from the entire eight-strong high-score list.
And then, you know, switch it off, hit it with a sledgehammer, cover it in lighter fluid, set it on fire and then shoot it out of a cannon into the moon. If I don’t, he’s bound to go back to the top of the table on his first go.
- There’s no record of someone playing it and disliking it
- Proof that sound is critical to a game’s success
- Simple, brilliant mechanics
- Probably the most game you could get on the 360 with just a 12.76MB download
- The best 69p you could spend on XBL Arcade
- The 14-minute runtime and single-‘story’ approach made back-to-back sessions rare
- Maybe a bit too basic with the graphics
- The laser is the worst weapon in modern gaming
- Those little red centipede fuckers
It’s hard to come to terms with the thought of missing a game that’s under ten years old, but I Made a Game with Zombies in It is a shining example of simple, fun and incredibly clever experience that will be consigned to the footnotes of a history book. Please come back. We’ll take a HD reboot – so long as we get it back.