What do Zombies ate My Neighbors and Herc’s Adventures have in common? Well, not very much one would say. Zeus and Zombies do share the letter Z, but one is the Greek god of everything, the other is a smelly undead being usually hungry for meat/brains. Still Lucasarts would beg to differ, especially Mike Ebert and Dean Sharpe.
The two designers worked on two Lucasarts console releases, Zombies Ate my Neighbors and Herc’s Adventures. The two titles stand apart from the usual point and click adventures and Star Wars titles the software house is usually known for and share a lot of similarities, even though they were released years apart and for different consoles. They’re both 2D action games with an overhead view where the player explores levels (or one big map), shooting enemies and unlocking doors.
Let us go back in time and see what made the two designers tick.
Dawn of the 16 bit arcade shooters
Designed by Robotron and Smash TV fan Mike Ebert with Dean Sharpe as the lead programmer, Zombies Ate My Neighbors! was originally released in 1993 for both major 16bit consoles of the time, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. In a similar vein to Haunting on the very same Sega console, Zombies (or ZAMN) is a horror experience through and through, sharing a similar approach to its theme. It always plays things for laughs, never going overboard with blood and guts, ZAMN never really goes beyond the limits of a family friendly horror experience a là Monster Squad.
The player has the option to choose between two characters, Zeke or Julia, leading them through fifty different levels filled with all kinds of horror characters: zombies, mummies, vampires, serial killers with chainsaws, etc. Most of the enemy roster is lifted from classic 50s and 60s shlock b-movies, plus some slasher classics from the 80s, along with spoofing their titles in the screens between stages. With so many levels to be completed, even though some require a couple of minutes to finish, Zombies is not a short game by any means. The boss stages don’t play any different from ordinary levels, the player is still required to save neighbors to finish them.
Using the radar, the players are tasked with exploring the level looking for neighbours to save, finding keys to open locked doors, ransacking cupboards and chests to find weapons and health restoring items. In each level, the exit door will appear only when a minimum number of neighbors has been saved. Should all of them be killed, that will mean an instant game over. Our heroes have a whole arsenal at their disposal, ranging from wacky weapons like a magical fire ankh, bunches of tomatoes or a fire extinguisher that freezes enemies, to more serious ones like a bazooka. Each weapon is particularly effective against certain enemies, even though there are some, like forks or ice creams that, while generically useful, never seem to help in a pinch.
Along with collecting weapons and health restoring items, there’s several other pickups in the levels. These have a separate inventory slot from weapons: some help during combat, like Bozo the inflatable clown which will attract enemies with his irritating laugh. Potions help the most during a boss fight or a hard stage, even though they all have very random (and unpredictable) effects: from transforming the player into a hulking invulnerable beast to halving health points. Resource management does definitely play a part in keeping the main characters alive, planning ahead is always recommended.
Tonight I'll swallow your Bozo the Clown
Since the core gameplay is basically that of a top-down arcade shooter, exploration and fighting with limited resources will take most of the player’s time, thus level design becomes essential in order for things to not get repetitive. Sharpe designed the first 20 levels to be as varied as possible, as to hook the player, then allowed for some repetition. Basically, every trick in the book is used, while still remaining inside the limited gameplay framework of an action arcade title. Most memorable, the level where the player can go anywhere without locked doors or keys to collect, but the terrain is crawling with mutant plants. The plants in Zombies grow spines out of the ground at a breakneck pace, thus speed – as opposed to careful planning – is the key to save the victims before the entire level gets overgrown by the mutant plants.
While engaging for the most part, Zombies features some design hiccups that feel more like bugs (not the horror kind unfortunately) than deliberate choices by the developers, hindering the player with lightly sprinkled frustration that – in the course of the many levels featured – does tend to add up over time. Sharpe was working as a fan of the genre, trying to imitate the gameplay flavour that he very much liked, but his relative inexperience in the genre does show in the final product, both in the gameplay and, especially, the level design.
In a Tremor-inspired level, “Invasion of the Snakeoids”, three giant worms lurk underground, waiting to ambush the player; when killed they will drop skeleton keys, each of them required to progress and defeat another worm. The only efficient way to dispatch the grab-snakeoids is the “beast” potion, which is not available in the level. If the player is stuck with ordinary weapons, it will take ages to kill even a single one of the snakeoids. If one wastes the potion or is not fast enough, then it’s more efficient to just restart the whole level.
Another arguably not very entertaning design choice is the way the unlocking door mechanism is designed, since it is also part of the overall resource management. The ordinary (non-skeleton) keys can be carried between levels, which is definitely useful but it also means that there are levels when the number of keys will be scarce. Hence, careful planning is advised in the first few levels, using too many keys for non-essential doors to search for items, will most likely result in the player getting stuck in future levels. In that case, unfortunately, the only solution is restarting the game all over again (or using a password).
Invasion of the Snakeoids level
Design choices aside, the overall aesthetic is definitely a favourite of mine: the b-movie horror vibe is my cup of tea, along with a similarly themed soundtrack that alternates slow tracks with fast paced ones. Let’s not forget the sumptuous art design, especially the sprite work, with each monster having its own clear identity and inspiration, not just being a copycut of previously seen monsters. It really goes to show that Lucasarts had the best artists on the market: Steve Purcell, Larry Chan and Larry Ahern (click here to read Larry’s memories about his involvment with Zombies Ate My Neighbours) among others.
It does feel a bit like a product coming from a different era: when Lucasarts could release small scale non-Star Wars related titles on both 16bit consoles to good critical and public success. Well, to be fair, it IS a product from another era, since working on a new IP is a risk that, in the following years, Lucasarts will definitely do much less, at least before cancelling games. Hence, it might come as a bit of a surprise that there are actually two sequels to Zombies Ate My Neighbours.
Well, kind of.
Attack of the 50ft diminished returns sequels
Released in 1994 as a Super Nintendo exclusive, Ghoul Patrol saw much less public success than the original. While it might be fair to consider it as the official sequel to Zombies ate my neighbors!, it feels a bit like doing a disservice to the original. Ghoul Patrol was not originally conceived as a sequel, instead just a generic shooter, being designed by the team behind Super Star Wars on the SNES, featuring none of the artists that worked on the original. Mike Sharpe mentioned that the game seemed to have no direction and, in order to save it, was hurriedly changed during development to feature characters and an overall resemblance to ZAMN.
Zeke and Julia are back and, this time, they’ve relesed a demon via a spellbook who seems to be hellbent (well…) on conquering the world. Despite a slightly different premise, the gameplay is exactly the same: explore the levels, save the required “victims” and defeat the bosses that appear. The main difference in gameplay is that now the characters can jump, which makes gameplay tend more towards the platforming flavour, but, since the levels aren’t designed to feature much in the way of platforming, it is a negligible difference. Another slight change in pace is that now boss battles take place in their own dedicated level, which might also be considered an improvement, arguably.
Honestly, Ghoul Patrol is fine, as much as many dislike it over the original. It is a shorter title, clearly developed with less time and resources. Personally, I find the overall gamplay experience to be even slightly enhanced, with less frustration all around. The level design is obviously less creative, but it also makes for an easier time for the player to lay down strategies and easier resource management. But alas, the fragmented development process still shows in the final product, since it features little of the care and fantastic style that the original team injected in ZAMN.
Most of all, it is the change in artstyle that is not very much to my liking: gone are the witty level titles, with the design of the monsters feeling very much like cheap generic 90s horror. The bosses are also pretty much stock: a huge cyborg after the first stages, a skeleton samurai at the end of the asian themed levels or a ghost pirate (hello Le Chuck!) in the ship level. Definitely, very predictable and not very memorable, as opposed to the huge horror babies of the original. Indeed, Ghoul Patrol might be a case of a better gameplay experience does not make for a better sequel, as much as that might sound hard to believe.
The very same Zombies ate my neighbors! graphical engine will also be the basis for another title developed by Lucasarts, helmed by Indiana Jones & The Fate of Atlantis lead designer Hal Barwood: Big Sky Troopers. It is another top down shooter which definitely closely imitates the maze gameplay of Zombies, even though it was aimed at a younger audience. It was another Super Nintendo exclusive, and saw little to no success overall.
Herc's Adventures - My Father is a GOD!
Fast forward to 1996, Mike Ebert and Dean Sharpe have just created their own studio, Big Ape Productions. Sharpe comments that the good relationship with Lucasarts producer Kelly Flock will allow them to work on two more titles with the software house. One of them will be the Star Wars Episode I tie-in, the other a spiritual sequel to Zombies, originally released on Sega Saturn. Ebert and Sharpe decided to try again that very same gameplay style of a 2D arcade shooter, this time with a greek mythological flavour since, well, the Greek divinities theme was hot at the time, with Disney working on Hercules. How’s that for a slice of Moussaka?
By 1997 many classic artists had already begun departing from Lucasarts, but with Mike Ebert on board Big Ape Productions and the software house still providing several talents, the sprite work remains top notch. Then again, several of the graphic designers who worked on Herc’s Adventures also worked, among others, on The Curse of Monkey Island and The Dig, Veteran composers Micheal Land and Peter Mc Connell also do a great job here, a mix of folksy greek music and orchestra, a fantastic body of work which is a shame that was never released as an original soundtrack.
The Lord of Hades has captured Persephone, goddess of nature, causing all of Greece’s nature to wither and die: it is up to our heroes to get her back. Yes, despite the game being named after Hercules, the player can still choose between other two characters: quick on her feet Atlanta with her strong ranged attack and the smart kid Jason. While each character has its own unique abilities, they all share a melee attack and a long range one, other weapons can be collected throughout the levels. They also all share the stamina meter, which is used both to run and use magic.
Herc’s Adventures, which would be also later converted for Sony Playstation in 1997, got pretty much decent reviews but didn’t go on to sell many copies. Among the many reasons, with 3D graphics being all the rage, a 2D hand drawn platformer was definitely out of fashion, as Mike Sharpe himself commented, “it was an odd title for the time“. Sharpe also adds that the open level streaming mechanic was a mistake, since many players missed the sense of accomplishment that completing a level gave them.
Despite the switch to an open world format, the overall design still does not stray very far from Zombies: Herc will roam all over Greece, killing enemies, collecting coins and items, while – naturally – finding keys to open doors while also doing quest for the gods of Olympus. Herc’s Adventures also features two different kinds of item slots: one for weapons and the other for health restoring items like gyros and potions, akin to the very similar design in Zombies. Also, it is hard not to notice, especially when playing both games back to back, that several enemies have a very similar way of attacking and spawning out from the ground, so much so that they almost seem to be copied and pasted from 1994!
Updating zombies for the 90s
Despite the various similaraties, with the open world format and the reduced numbers of enemies spawning, Herc’s Adventures‘ design feels closer to that of an action platformer than an arcade shooter. Definitely like an evolution of Zombies’ gameplay, while also ironing out some of its frustrations. Still, that is not to say the title doesn’t feature some typical headaches of an old school open world design, as we will see. The humour is – again – particularly prominent, both in the character design (like Cassandra predicting rains of random assortments of killer clowns and pizzas) and the Gods regularly appearing to have witty one sided conversations with the hero.
The combat mechanics are now much more streamlined, since having a melee and a ranged attacks available at all times saves the player from constantly switching weapons to find a decent one. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, the worst one being the piranhas. While they don’t kill the hero instantly, when there’s more than two of them – which is almost always the case – they will get the character stuck in an endless loop of being hurt. They can be killed with bombs, if one has enough of them, but they will respawn in a matter of seconds anyway. The only good thing about them? At least they were used pretty sparingly, but they’re still designed to be little more than cheap death.
Boss battles are also more sensible, taking place in a larger arena inside the open world map. Once killed, they will drop keys or items required to advance, but, most importantly, they all have a health bar now. Thank Athena for quality of life improvements! One major difference between 1994 and 1996 is that Hercs features a sprinkling of RPG elements: it is possible to strengthen the hero by raising stamina/magic and health points. This is mostly done automatically by progressing through the map or by collecting certain items, there is no overall experience points system at play, for better or worse.
While there are no cupboards or places to be ransacked, our Greek heroes will have to instead look under rocks and houses. Resource management is overall less of a bother, though, since most items required to survive will have to be bought with coins (which are also collected by killing enemies). Drachmas will also come very much in handy, since they’re required to save the game, provided there is a scribe around. That is one classic 90s console save mechanic that has not aged very well, for sure. Weapons are also generally less wacky than its predecessors, some weird ones here and there like throwing trash, but nothing too out of this world.
Losing yourself is half the fun
Unfortunately, the main design problem in Herc’s Adventures is the non-linear progression. While that usually is a great design choice, especially in late 90’s action platforming design, but, alas, not the case here. The main problem is allowing the player to roam in areas which can’t yet be completed, because either some power hasn’t been collected or a required key is missing. While that idea might work in a RPG where wondering around does earn the character experience points or items which strengthen them, in Herc’s Adventures, with resources being limited, wasting time exploring without a goal does cause serious problems later on.
Which leads me to another design issue: in a similar vein to Zombies, should all ordinary keys be used for collecting resources, the character might not be able to open the doors required to progress. Once I apparently found myself stuck forever in front of a locked door: if there was a way to find a key somewhere, I wasn’t gonna roam around for hours to find out if that was the case. This is where subquests would have been useful, in making the pacing more varied and fun, along with opening up possibilities for the players to collect more keys and items. Unfortunately, Hercs only has one main quest and many little roads, not shown on the map, which usually lead to death or wasting a lot of time just to collect weapons.
On paper, giving a quite big open world map to the player for exploring around was a great idea, but in the game it does end up creating quite more problems than it was worth. The non-linear progression ends up disrupting the pacing a little too much, which is the main reason why one might understandably prefer the more focused level-based gameplay of Zombies. Having bite sized levels to complete, that can be enjoyed for both quick and long sessions, while Herc’s Adventures, with its archaic save system, does require serious time investment, especially if one is playing on the original consoles.
It is a shame, since considering its higher resolution hand drawn graphics, atmospheric soundtrack and wacky humour, along with pretty well done voice acting, this spiritual sequel might have really been Zombies 2.0: a clear improvement on the original. The kind of the “bigger, better” sequel for sure, even though released at at time when 2D over the head arcade titles had long been out of fashion. But, no, even if I’m a little more partial to Herc’s, I would be hard pressed to declare it the better game out of the two.
At the end of the day, despite my grievances, it is honestly kind of comforting to look back at these smaller stakes Lucasarts titles. Easy to see why many people still fondly remember them from their Super Nintendo or Saturn days, while also explaining the “cult” status of Zombies ate my neighbours, akin to a b-movie horror one used to watch on VHS as a kid. Ghoul Patrol, while probably the odd one out here, is still an okay addition to the series, mostly a fun time even though it is not as memorable as its predecessor. Herc’s Adventures feels slightly different, but in the end, shares some of the frustrations with the rest of the family, while showcasing the great Lucasarts’ talent for writing, art and music.
Those looking for solid arcade shooters and action platformers, well, Zombies ate My Neighbors and Herc’s Adventures might keep you satisfied for a long time, warts and all.