I should’ve shot that giant monster baby with a bazooka before it killed me. Good thing for extra lives.
Such is un-life in Lucasfilm Games’ re-release of Zombies Ate My Neighbors (and Ghoul Patrol) for the Nintendo Switch. Many millennial gamers will remember this co-op classic from the halcyon heydays of the mid-‘90s. Players control Zeke or Julie, plucky teens in suburbia whose lives are transformed when the nefarious Dr. Tongue unleashes a bevy of silver screen horrors. You race around 16-bit labyrinthine levels collecting random weapons and saving civilians as you battle chainsaw maniacs, werewolves, little green men, and plenty of zombies, among other classic chilling villains.
Hence the bazooka judiciousness. There were 100-ft Snakeoids coming once I got through Troy McClure-sounding levels like “Chopping Mall” and “Mars Needs Cheerleaders.” I never even got the chance. The titanic toddler crushed me again and again. Soon it was game over. But I’ll keep coming back for more. This is as close as I’m going to get to being alive in 1993 again, so it’s well worth the $15 price of admission.
Endless Arcade Action
Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a cult classic for a reason. It has a frenetic pace perfect for grinding. It’s a resource management simulator with the trappings of a classic action arcade game. At first, you’ll tear through levels picking up lots of wacky, seemingly random weapons. Your default is a squirt gun filled with holy water which dispatches weak-ass zombies and other low-tier foes instantly, but good luck when you’re staring down a mutant ant the size of a Buick.
This is where your bazookas come in handy, provided you didn’t squander them. The strategy is all about momentum; You want to stockpile powerful weapons from earlier levels, relying on dodging danger so you can carry health and extra lives into the late-game. There’s a rock-paper-scissors element too. Freeze blobs with fire extinguishers, throw silverware at werewolves, etc.
The same management applies to the civilians you rescue. You start with 10 and once you lose one, they’re gone. Now you have nine per level, and so on. Seems like it’d make things easier but without the ability to rack up points on the scoreboard (more civilians per round = more points) you won’t earn any extra lives. And with 55 levels to conquer, you’re going to need them.
Wonky controls throughout don’t make things any easier, either. One of the big issues here is that ZAMN for Switch doesn’t include any thoughtful improvements in the overall gameplay, including accessibility options like rewind. A quality-of-life save feature was added, but that’s about it. (Passwords still apply but don’t keep your inventory.) If you’re used to playing retro classics via the SNES or NES Online service, you might miss some of those features, particularly the rewind. It’s a noticeable flaw that this paid game doesn’t offer as much as the freebies.
Good Design Never Dies
If the SNES era is your dream aesthetic, Zombies Ate My Neighbors is your REM cycle. It demonstrates why the SNES entranced a generation. The color palette is vibrant and fun, an easy-on-the-eyes arcade aesthetic enhanced by some great design choices like Zeke’s blue and red 3D glasses. The bulk of the bundled “extras” are in-game visuals for a reason.
ZAMN also showcases how clever environments and map design can permit a massive gameplay experience despite the obvious hardware limitations of the era. An entire generation of gamers grew up with this game and never met anyone who actually beat it. Hidden passages, destructible walls, and secrets galore make each level worth exploring. The kitschy vibe goes a long way, too. You really don’t get tired of not-quite-licensed characters like Gillman of the Blue Lagoon (aka, Brook Shards).
And you can’t talk about ZAMN without mentioning that killer soundtrack. It’s full of legit earworms, so don’t be surprised if you’re humming along hours later while washing dishes or writing emails.
Cop Out On Co-op
One of the disappointing things about this re-release is the lack of attention to co-op play. There’s no online multiplayer which is a permissible letdown for a classic port of this ilk, but the game doesn’t even add split-screen, so couch co-op players will have to share the same play area. If you listen to Mike Ebert in the developer interview, he says they really wanted to incorporate split-screen, but the SNES couldn’t support it. Nearly 30 years later, I think it's safe to say the tech is there. So where is it?
The co-op snafu is part of a growing trend with many similar games in the space. As such, the game as a whole feels more like a cash grab than a passionate remaster, which is a real shame. ZAMN has a strong following to this day because of the connection many players felt sharing the screen with siblings and friends and un-zombie-eaten neighbors. Lucasfilm Games either missed this point entirely or chose to ignore it. It’s tough to say which is worse.
The inclusion of Ghoul Patrol seems like a value add on the surface. I’d never played it but was eager to try it out. It ages like cheese. Strange, squishy controls, a jump feature that makes no sense, a different aesthetic (no map), and a bland soundtrack only serve to provide a loving contrast for ZAMN.
I have played a lot of ZAMN since the release on June 29. I plan to play a lot more. It works really well on the Switch platform and is perfect for an on-the-go session or a longer couch marathon. The caveat here is that this is a game that was built into my muscle memory 28 years ago. It takes me back to simpler times in the ways we want these games to, and it’s been lovely wiling away the hours revisiting yesteryear.
If ZAMN isn’t one of your childhood favorites, your mileage may vary. SNES stans will likely appreciate this cult classic regardless, but players who are merely curious about the hype or sold on some cool aesthetics may find it lacking. The $15 price tag is barely fair thanks to an utter lack of new features, but the core game still holds up — but hardly enough to breath new life into the undead franchise.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Ghoul Patrol is now available on Nintendo Switch.
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