What do Zeus and Zombies have in common? Well, other than the letter Z obviously, 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 are among the lesser known and celebrated titles by the software house and share a lot of similarities, even though they were released years apart and for totally different consoles. They’re both 2D action games with overhead view where the player explores levels (or one big map), shooting enemies and unlocking doors.
Let’s have a look and see if they’re still worth a try.
Dawn of the 16 bit arcade shooters
Designed by 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.
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. In order for the exit door to appear, a minimum number of neighbors have to be saved; should all of them be killed, it is 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 effective against certain enemies, even though, many of them, like forks or ice creams, are generically useful but never seem to help in a pinch. While exploring the level and looking for victims to save, aided by a radar, the player might find keys to open doors, along with chests and cupboards to ransack.
Items have a separate inventory slot from weapons: health restoring ones are important, along with some that help during the battle, 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 have very random effects: from transforming the player into a hulking invulnerable beast to halving health points.
Tonight I'll devour your Bozo the clown
Zombies (or ZAMN) is a horror experience through and through, but as a console experience it is similar to Haunting: it always plays things for laughs, never going overboard with blood and guts. This is Lucasarts, not Sierra, hence it never goes beyond the limits of a family friendly horror experience.
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. Weirdly enough, the boss stages don’t play any different from ordinary levels, the player is still required to save neighbors to finish it.
Since the core gameplay is that of an action platformer, 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. Ebert and Sharpe do spice things up a bit: there’s a level where the player can go anywhere without locked doors or keys to collect, except it’s crawling with mutant plants. The plants in Zombies grow spines out of the ground at a breakneck pace, thus speed is the key to save the victims before the entire level gets overgrown by the mutant plants.
Attack of the 50ft hair tearing bugs
While managing to remain engaging for the most part, Zombies’ design has some weird hiccups that feel more like bugs (not the horror kind) than voluntary design choices, hindering the player with lightly sprinkled frustration.
In a Tremor-inspired level, three giant worms lurk underground, waiting to ambush the player by coming out of the ground; when killed they will drop skeleton keys, required to progress. The only efficient way to dispatch the graboids is the “beast” potion: with ordinary weapons, it takes ages just to kill a single one of them, let alone three. Since the ordinary (non-skeleton) keys can be carried between levels, careful planning is required in the first levels: too many keys used for non-essential doors will result in the player getting stuck.
It wouldn’t be fair to refer to this as Lucasarts’ best game ever, that statement will also probably cause a lynching mob of Monkey Island fans to appear at my doorstep. Still, the b-movie horror aesthetic is my perfect 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 identity and inspiration. It really goes to show that Lucasarts had the best artists on the market: Steve Purcell, Larry Chan and Larry Ahern among others, all having worked on Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle.
It does feel like a completely different era, when Lucasarts could release smaller scale non-Star Wars games on both 16bit consoles to critical and public success. Well, to be honest, it probably was. Too bad we never got a “Zombies ate my neighbors again!” that could iron out some of the design problems…
Well, actually we kind of did.
My father's a God!
Fast forward to 1996, Mike Ebert and Dean Sharpe are both still at Lucasarts and are given an opportunity to develop a Sega Saturn game. Why not try again with the same 2D arcade shooter format, with a greek mythological flavour since, with Disney working on a similarly themed movie, Hercules, was hot property?
How’s that for a slice of Moussaka?
Herc’s Adventures came out first in 1996, later converted for Sony Playstation, got decent reviews but didn’t sell many copies. 2D games basically went unnoticed on consoles, it was an odd title for the time. 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. Even though the game is named after Hercules, the player has a choice of two other characters: quick on her feet Atlanta and the smart kid Jason.
The design refers pretty closely to Zombies with a open world format: Herc will roam all over Greece, killing enemies and finding keys to open doors while running around doing quest for the gods of Olympus. Even though each character has its own unique abilities, they all share a close range attack and a long range one, other weapons can be collected through the levels. They also all have a stamina meter, used to run and to use magic.
Herc’s Adventures‘ design is more akin to an action platformer than a pure shooter, generally suffers less from the frustration of its predecessor. Still, that is not to say the title doesn’t feature some of the headaches of an open world design, as we will see. The humour is particularly prominent, both in the character design (like Cassandra predicting rains of random assortments of killer clowns and pizzas) and the Gods having funny one sided conversations with the hero.
Why do you keep calling me Jesus, do I look Puerto Rican to you?
The two titles share both the designers and the design: Herc also has two inventories, one for weapons and the other for items like health restoring gyros and potions, akin to the ones in Zombies. Many enemies have the same way of attacking and spawning out from the ground, some so similar that almost seem to be copied and pasted from 1994!
Luckily, combat is slightly better here, having two attacks available at all times saves the player from having to constantly switch weapons to find a decent one. The worst enemy are 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 which will result in being unable to move. They can be killed with bombs, sure, but they will respawn in a bunch of seconds. The only good thing about them is that they’re sparely used.
Boss battles are also more sensible, since they’re required to progress and will drop keys or items required to advance, also they all have a health bar, thank Zeus for quality of life improvements! One major difference between 1994 is that Hercs has some very light RPG elements, it is possible to strengthen the hero by raising stamina/magic and health points. Hercs has no cupboards or places to be ransacked, instead rocks or houses can be lifted to look underneath. Still, most items have to be bought with coins, which can also be used to save the game when there is a scribe around. That is one throwback mechanic, to be sure.
Hercs has curiously less wacky weapons than its horror counterpart, there are surely weird ones like trash that can be thrown and some magical powers, but nothing too strange.
Losing oneself is half the fun
The main design problem in Herc’s Adventures is the non-linear progression; usually that is a good thing, especially in late 90’s game design, but not here unfortunately. Allowing the player to roam in areas where there’s no point in going, because either some power hasn’t been collected yet or a key is missing, works in an RPG to level up the player, but it is of no use here. While it is easily solved by backtracking, it keeps happening all too frequently.
Another similar problem to Zombies!, should all ordinary keys be used, to unlock a power-up for example, the character might not be able to open the door required to progress. I did find myself apparently stuck forever: perhaps there was a way to find a key somewhere, but I wasn’t gonna roam 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, but Hercs only has one main quest and many little roads, not shown on the map, which usually lead to death or waste a lot of time just to collect some weapons.
Non-linear progress ends up disrupting the game’s pacing too much, which is the main reason why one might prefer the level-based gameplay of Zombies since that can be enjoyed for both quick and long sessions. It is a shame cause with better technology, great soundtrack and wacky humour, this could have easily been the better of the two.
By 1997 most famous artists had departed from Lucasarts, the ones who worked on Herc are animators who previously worked on, among others, Curse of Monkey Island and The Dig, hence the sprite work remains top notch. 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.
It is kind of comforting to look back at two smaller stakes Lucasarts titles.
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. While I only played Herc’s Adventures back when it was released, I was always attracted by its humour and old style gameplay which was a rarity especially on the original Sony Playstation. If you’re after solid arcade shooters and action platformers, well, these ones might keep you satisfied for a long time, warts and all.