What do Zeus and Zombies have in common? Well, beside the letter Z, not very much one would say, but 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.
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 the 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, also sharing a very similar approach to theme. It always plays things for laughs, never going overboard with blood and guts. This is Lucasarts, not Sierra, hence 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. Featuring more than fifty levels, some requiring a couple of minutes to finish, others much longer, 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.
With the aid of a 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, an exit door must be unlocked in order to proceed: for that to happen, a minimum number of neighbors have to be saved. Should all of them be killed, that will spell 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 appear to be generically useful but never 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:there are some that 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 almost that of a top-down arcade shooter, exploration and fighting with limited resources are what will take most of the player’s time, thus level design becomes essential in order not to get things 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 framewrok 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 managing to remain engaging for the most part, Zombies features some design hiccups that feel more like bugs (not the horror kind unfortunately) than actual 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 had never really designed a similar title. His relative inexperience does show in the overall gameplay and 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. Once the player is stuck with ordinary weapons, it takes 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, being also part of the 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 that case, 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 one of my favourite: 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 less and less take on. 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 sequel
Released in 1994 as a Super Nintendo exclusive, Ghoul Patrol saw much less public success than the original. While it might be fair to describe it as the official sequel to Zombies ate my neighbors!, it definitely feels a bit like doing a disservice to the original. This is because it originally didn’t see the light as a continuation of the very same flavour of gameplay, being instead designed by the team behind Super Star Wars on the SNES, featuring none of the artists that worked on the original. Mike Sharpe explained that Ghoul Patrol was a title that seemed to have no direction and, in order to save it, was hurriedly changed during development to feature characters and a 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 small 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 people dislike it over the original. It is a shorter title, that clearly was 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 also allows for 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's a God!
Fast forward to 1996, Mike Ebert and Dean Sharpe have just created their own studio, Big Ape Productions. Sharpe comments that the relationship with Lucasarts producer Kelly Flock will allow them to work on two more titles with Lucas’ software house. The first of which (the second is the Star Wars Episode I tie-in) will be a spiritual sequel to Zombies, originally released on Sega Saturn. Ebert and Sharpe decide to try again that very same gameplay style of a 2D arcade shooter, this time with a greek mythological flavour since, also, the overall 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 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 has a choice of two other 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 feels 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 headaches typical 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, mostly 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 switch weapons to find a decent one. Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, the worst one being the piranhas, designed to be little more than a cheap death. 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
Boss battles are also more sensible, taking place in a larger arena inside of 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 Zeus 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 still 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 save mechanic that hasn’t aged very well, for sure. Weapons are also generally less wacky than its predecessors, some weird ones do pop-up like throwing trash, but nothing too out of this world.
Losing oneself is half the fun
Unfortunately, the main design problem in Herc’s Adventures is the non-linear progression. While that might usually be 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 yet or a required key is missing. While that idea might work in a RPG where wondering around might earn the character experience points or items which strengthen them, with the overall limited resources, exploring without a goal might cause some serious issues.
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: if there was a way to find a key somewhere, I wasn’t gonna roam around ofr 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.
The open world map was a great idea, on paper, but ends up creating quite more problems than it was worth. In the end, the overall non-linear progression ends up disrupting the pacing a little too much, which is the main reason why one might understandably prefer the classic level-based gameplay of Zombies. Having bite sized levels to complete can be enjoyed for both quick and long sessions, while Herc’s Adventures, with its archaic save system, requires a serious time investment.
It is a shame cause with 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. 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. It is easy to see why many people still fondly remember them from their Snes 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 is still a fine addition to the series, a smaller title that, not as memorable as its predecessor, is still mostly a fun time. Herc’s Adventures feels slightly different, but in the end, shares some frustrations of the family, while showcasing Lucasarts’ talent for writing, art and music.
Those looking for solid arcade shooters and action platformers, well, these might keep you satisfied for a long time, warts and all.
Thank you for reading.
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