Zombies Ate My Neighbors (1993)

System: Mega Drive, SNES Publisher: Konami

Developer: LucasArts | Reviewed On: Mega Drive

By now, you will likely of heard of the Japanese game development company; Konami. Whether it be from their recognisable logo appearing when launching one of your favourite games or the time you heard their name mentioned as a “cool sound” before attempting to show off your dance moves on Dance Dance Revolution at your local bowling alley, there is no denying they have developed a number of great game franchises over their near 50 years of existence.

Whilst the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Castlevania & Contra have been commercially successful, there are a few great titles in their back catalogue that appear to have faded into obscurity. Konami has notably released numerous compilations over the last decade & while we see an increase in re-releases and remasters through this generation, I find that certain lost gems don’t receive the “retrovival” treatment as others. Likely, it’s demand over integrity I guess but if those snubbed titles are actually good, surely they should receive the same treatment, right?

Today, my focus will be on game that I believe to be worthy of such a revival; one that combines the charm of B-movie horror, blended with a delightful level of variety & challenge. Get your water pistols at the ready because today, we’ll be looking into the 1993 LucasArts hidden gem known as Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors (or simply Zombies in Europe & Australia) is a top down, run-and-gun game where your mission to save their neighbours from a variety of monsters and creatures from the world of horror. Choosing from two characters (Zeke & Julia) & spanning over 55 levels, you’ll explore a number of environments from backyards to castles & Egyptian tombs; where you will be met with a variety of spooky enemies such as zombies, spiders, big ants, mummies, squid-men, evil dolls and many more.

Each environment acts as a mini-sandbox, where you must locate & save all of yours neighbours dotted around the map. You start off with 10 neighbours and if any are taken, the number to save in the next level will incrementally decrease. Whilst this may sound like your job is made easier, losing them all is an instant game over (or if you lose all three of your lives).

To help you along the way, there are over a dozen weapons you can find and use including fire extinguishers, bazookas, tomatoes, ice cream bars, a holy cross, cutlery, even an American football! You start off with an issue-standard water pistol which will be effective against those pesky zombies, but other enemy types may require something stronger to put them away & its this wide choice that offers an element of strategy to its gameplay. Learning what weapons are most effective with certain enemies will help you to traverse these levels more efficiently but be warned; more enemies will spawn during levels, so areas you’ve cleared before may not be clear for long.

Items can also be collected to aid you on your journey; ranging from medical kits to shoes, potions, keys and extra lives. These are usually found in hidden storage locations such as cupboards & sand piles, amongst others & sometimes varying with each level. I found the extra exploration resourceful & fun to seek out, as I often found that these items would help me later on. The potions were especially helpful, as they can make you undetectable by enemies or even transform into an invulnerable beast for a brief period of time.

The game’s interface displays your points, health, your weapons and items (which you can scroll through) & a scanner to locate if any neighbours are nearby. In the Mega Drive version, this is collated in a single black column down the right-side of the screen. While the SNES version opts to display these options using a transparent overlay instead which, while offering a larger field of view, can also blend with the background at points. I guess it depends on if you prefer a larger area of sight or a simple area with everything listed. I'm more akin to the latter myself. Its points system is mainly for arcade purposes, however reaching certain milestones can allow new neighbours to be enter into the game, giving a nice chance during the game’s harder levels & when the headcount begins to deplete in numbers.

The game also allows for two players to play at the same time with a second controller. Whilst you are limited to playing the same visible area on-screen, I found this was the better compromise compared to split-screen, as this would've likely caused some complaints if your visible area was split in half and with enemies approaching you at any angle.

Its difficulty curve eases you into the game, however it can get harder over time if you don’t have the right weapon or item in a particular situation. Even with effective weapons, I found some enemies can still be a little tough to defeat in one blow but that just adds to the challenge. Certain weapons that fire projectiles require a degree of accuracy, as you can only shoot in the standard 8 directions but overall, the controls feel responsive & your player moves at a nice pace. The controller buttons are also customisable & whilst this can be played with a 3-button Mega Drive controller, I preferred using the 6-button controller as it’s easier to shift through your weapons & items with the dedicated buttons.

Levels use a variety of themes to prevent them going stale. One minute, you’ll be exploring a shopping mall & the next, you'll be on a football field mid-game trying to take down a boss. There is also a level of diversity in its gameplay. For example, there are set pieces such as trampolines and swimming pools, which allow you to access other areas or prevent you from being harmed from most enemies. You can enter locked rooms & houses using keys or if you don’t have one, you can simply to blast a bazooka round through a weak part of a wall. Even the weapons offer variety, such as the fire extinguisher which can freeze certain enemies or eliminate them outright.

If you also happen to find a Question Mark during the level, this will unlock a Bonus Stage for you to play. Here, you can earn extra points, items and weapons to aid you in the next level & they offer a calmer pace between stages that feel like an earned break. Plus it wouldn’t be a Mega Drive game without a few boss levels & the B-movie vibes don’t stop here. Some of these big fights have you facing against a giant baby, fast moving giant spiders & an alien space ship! Most of these will require a stock pile of ammo and items, but defeating them was incredibly satisfying and worth the endurance to try and take them down.

With a runtime of 2-4hrs, you may want to savour all that running & gunning over time rather than in one stint. Whilst it doesn’t use battery-backed saves, it opts for a simple password system with combinations revealed after completing a a section of levels. Using a password at a later stage may sound like a nice bookmark or shortcut, however any weapons or items you’ve collected will be lost. I found that in the game’s latter stages, I had to use a previous level password in order to build up my weapons and items so I could take down the tougher enemies. I can see the appeal of using a 4-letter combination, but I personally would rather a longer combination that retained my inventory.

From a presentation standpoint, the game looks and sounds great. Levels are vibrant and well-detailed, coming off with a slight cartoon vibe. Although some styles and themes are repeated in certain levels, there was enough variety in its gameplay that the repetition didn’t come off as lazy. Some of the level names are fantastic! Nightmare on Terror Street? Weird Kids on the Block? Warehouse of Evil Dolls? They’re on the right side of cheesy with a subtle wink, if you get their reference. The music is also great, offering a mixture of low-key, brass-inspired and spooky tracks. When performing a little comparison, there is something about the SNES renditions that I prefer but the Mega Drive tracks still offers some strong and funky music that nicely accompanies you on your journey.

The final thing I should note is that the European & Australian versions were unfortunately censored. Along with the name change, it appears a few edits were made; including the removal of blood & chainsaws. The latter was exchanged for axes with levels mentioning them were changed, referencing lumberjacks instead.

Games like Mortal Kombat & Lethal Enforcers were under the magnifying glass back in 1993, as children could easily buy games that featured moderate & heavy levels of gore or violence. Nintendo games didn’t have this issue, as these elements were generally banned under their Family Friendly policy during the 80s & early 90s. It appears this game was an unfortunate victim of this battle on unregulated video games, which I strangely feel was a good move in the long term. Surprisingly, I felt the game works well without these adult elements & if anything, it makes the game more acceptable & appealing to a younger audience so it’s a win I think!

Final Verdict

Zombies Ate My Neighbors radiates the classic & cheesy tropes of horror to create a entertaining & testing experience; one that offers a strong level of variety & presentation. Its references made me feel this was a game made by horror fans & I can appreciate a title that is fundamental to its core inspirations. It didn’t feel like a breeze in the cemetery but it grew on me over time, rewarding me for being strategic & enduring its tougher enemies. My only negatives were the accuracy of some guns & a more effective password system to retain items but overall, this is a fantastic game with plenty of depth and entertainment.

The game was made available to the Wii Virtual Console back in 2009 but as this service is now defunct, it is unfortunately no longer available to purchase. In 1994, LucasArts would release a sequel on the SNES called Ghoul Patrol & whilst similar in design to the original, it’s an experience I unfortunately cannot comment on as I’ve not played it.

With LucasArts being acquired by Disney as part of the LucasFilm acquisition in 2012, it seems highly unlikely we will ever see this game ported to modern consoles. It would've make for an exciting dark ride at DisneyWorld, but Buzz Lightyear managed to get there first (likely for infinity and beyond).

Both SNES & Mega Drive versions are currently well priced on the reseller market (here in the UK) but with most things retro, it’ll only increase in value over time. If you should ever encounter an opportunity to buy or check this game out, I highly recommend you take this as I feel this is one of the top-tier top-down games of this console generation.

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