In the early 1990s LucasArts was renowned for its high quality games, especially those with a comedic slant. The company found success with a string of brilliant adventures for computers, including The Secret of Monkey Island, and also a popular movie adaptation of Star Wars for the SNES. Everything LucasArts touched seemed golden. Zombies Ate My Neighbors was born of this era, and is regarded fondly as one of the best original properties to come out of LucasArts. It received a sequel in Ghoul Patrol, plus a mechanically similar successor with Herc’s Adventures on Saturn and PlayStation. The original though is still the fan favorite.
Given that both ZAMN and GP satirize horror pop-culture, especially numerous films, what better pair of games to examine for our Halloween themed special? Two of the gentlemen involved with the games, Mike Ebert and Kalani Streicher, to share their recollections of the two titles, nearly 20 years after they debuted.
Imagine a smooth scrolling multi-screened Robotron mixed with a pastiche of all the major horror or monster flicks from the last 50 years, in a similar humorous style to Maniac Mansion, plus the kind of tight resource management which would later make Resident Evil famous. This is a fairly accurate description of Zombies Ate My Neighbors for the SNES and Genesis consoles.
An entirely original title, ZAMN was designed by Michael Ebert, who started at LucasArts as an artist working on the NES port of Maniac Mansion, as detailed on Gamasutra. Later he worked on Indiana Jones and then The Secret of Monkey Island, under the tutelage of Ron Gilbert. Wanting to become more involved with design, Ebert, along with Kalani Streicher who would work on the ZAMN sequel, began pitching ideas and working with the SCUMM engine. Streicher remembers his time working with Ebert: “During those days at Skywalker Ranch I was a game scripter and an honorary artist, since I had my desk in the art pit sitting next to Mike. As we worked on our different projects we found time to work on original new projects in our free time after work. We wanted to design and build new games that were more action-oriented and had a graphical user-interface, since the UI of the story games back then only consisted of words.“ This didn’t result in any full games, but some of their prototyped ideas were used in later titles. The pair’s big break came when tasked with creating the Empire Strikes Back sequel for the NES console. It was released in 1992 whereupon the two went on to separate projects, and the birth of ZAMN took place.
The premise is that the nefarious Dr Tongue has unleashed monsters on suburbia (plus Egyptian pyramids, ancient castles and tropical lagoons), and as either Zeke or Julie you must rescue all the neighbors. There are ten neighbors in each level; touch them and they disappear, touch all of them and the exit appears. If a monster touches them they die and the number of neighbors for all subsequent levels is reduced by one. If all the neighbors die, it’s game over. Every monster is inspired by a well known horror trope, including: zombies, lagoon monsters, aliens, werewolves, plant pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a diverse assortment of others. Most level names are also connected to films, and not just horror movies are referenced, but serious dramas (“Dances with Werewolves”), old classics (“Seven Meals for Seven Zombies”), and even music bands (“Weird Kids on the Block”). One of the coolest references has to be other LucasArts games, such as the bonus stage “Day of the Tentacle”, accessed by finding a secret path in the first level.
Given how marvelously intertwined the game is with pop culture and movies, it had to be asked: did the team enjoy a lot of “research” time watching films? Mike Ebert responses: “Yes, we did a bunch of movie nights. Also I grew up watching ‘creature features’ at a local Saturday night show in the San Francisco area that always played the worst monster movies, so I was very familiar with the genre. Plus pop-culture references are so fun in games. LucasArts had a very good legal team that let us know exactly how far we could push the parody. That legal support really was important to let us go all out and poke fun at everything.”
As for how the game concept first came about, Ebert was sharing an office with programmer Ed Kilham, who designed a bitmap graphics engine. As Ebert explained to Gamasutra, he began tinkering with it: “I knew some ‘C’, so during my free times I started making all sorts of strange graphics demos and games. One of the demos was a side-scrolling save-the-people-from-the-monsters demo that would later evolve into Zombies Ate My Neighbors.” Speaking personally with Ebert I asked for elaboration on his earlier statement. What did this side-on demo look and play like – did it perhaps resemble the Star Wars platformers? “It was a pretty simple demo. Just a sideways view of a house, with doors that could be opened and closed by the player. Guys with chainsaws would cut the doors down and try to get the player. It didn’t really demonstrate the base game play of rescuing people, but it did demonstrate the art style of the game, and that we’d be treating the violence in a fairly light-hearted manner.”
Development first began on the SNES version of ZAMN, which used a horizontal resolution of 256 pixels, requiring the in-game radar to be toggled via L and R buttons, and overlaid onto the environment. The Genesis version had a horizontal resolution of 320 pixels, allowing the radar to be permanently displayed in a side-bar. Despite the SNES being able to display more colors and featuring an exclusive secret weapon, this inclusion of a permanent radar on the side, along with health bars and ammo counts, makes the Genesis release the best to play through. According to Ebert the Sega version only started much later: “Back then everything was very low budget. We started on the Nintendo version first. The team was just me and Toshi Morita, and one dev kit. Dean and artists came on a few months after that. We were always sort of the ‘low budget off the radar project’. We had offices that were very far from management and the heart of LucasArts. We worked and slept in the offices a lot, and people left us alone. I think they were scared of us, because we didn’t always shave. The Genesis version started maybe 6 months after the Nintendo version, once people started seeing that the game had potential.”
In fact, during these early days, it wasn’t even called Zombies Ate My Neighbors, it was referred to as Monsters. At some point a beta was leaked, showing the earlier name, and containing levels cut from the retail version. The reason for the name change was in case LucasArts wanted to grow the game into a brand and further products. “There was a TV show called ‘Monsters’ around that time,” explains Ebert, “So they wanted a name they could completely control, in case the game took off and we needed our own TV shows and so forth. It took a long time for people to decide on Zombies Ate My Neighbors. At first I didn’t like the name, but it grew on me, and now I really like it.”
Video games have always influenced and inspired each other, sometimes in wildly unpredictable ways, with a few landmark releases that break new ground and then gradual evolutions of the best ideas. What’s fascinating about the creation of ZAMN, is how in addition to evolving from the above Kilham engine demo, it was influenced by the most unlikely and obscure of things. Critics have made comparisons between ZAMN and the arcade classic Gauntlet, since there are some similarities, but it’s actually a much rarer arcade game, which itself was likely influenced by Gauntlet, which directly influenced ZAMN.
As Ebert explained though, he couldn’t remember what it was: “I played a game at an arcade in Berkeley once that reminded me of the movie Big Trouble in Little China in game form. I never found out what the game was called, nor did I ever see it again after that arcade. I searched a lot of arcade databases looking for the game, but never found it. I know this sounds like a strange dream or something! I learned later that they apparently tested a lot of game concepts at the arcade where I played it. So I can only imagine it was a prototype game that didn’t see mass production. That game influenced me a lot. I remember the character was almost a Ken rip-off from Street Fighter and he used kung-fu moves to beat of a variety of monsters in a Chinese-looking environment. The whole game had a ZAMN style perspective. It reminded me of Ikari Warriors, but with better graphics. It had clearly defined boss areas, and doors that would open and close allowing access to different areas. You’d fight a variety of guys in Lo-Pan outfits, floating head monsters and other bad guys. This may seem strange, but I always thought the fighting music was a rip off of Far from Over by Frank Stalone. This was around the same time as Dark Adventure, a four-player Konami arcade game… so that would be about 1987. It’s possible it was some foreign release game that didn’t make it to the US. The Arcade ‘Silverball’ in Berkeley was notorious for finding lots of strange, rarely seen video games.”
Upon doing some research, this ended up being the oddball ADK overhead brawler Kyros. The major difference of course is that Kyros is mostly a brawler, and only sometimes does the player receive a projectile power-up, whereas ZAMN is very much always a shooter. Whether it’s with the default water pistol, dinner plates, silver cutlery, soda pop grenades, or the extremely rare flamethrower, it plays like an overhead arcade shooter. Which is unsurprising given that Ebert is quoted as describing Eugene Jarvis’ Robotron and Smash TV as his “favorite arcade games of all time”. The fast paced action and immediate gratification when playing ZAMN is a testament to Ebert’s love of arcades: “I used to be into collecting and repairing old standup arcade machines. I gave it up, because they take too much space to store.”
When asked if the team had ever considered using Robotron/Smash TV style controls, allowing you to fire in the opposite direction to movement. “We considered using Smash TV style controls, but thought they may be too difficult for some kids. A lot of younger Nintendo players didn’t have those arcade game reflexes from playing Robotron.”
ZAMN builds on the mechanics of these arcade classics with its diverse and versatile weapons system, based (mostly) around everyday household items. The weapons system is ingeniously implemented, with many having secondary functions and the environment being highly interactive. The bazooka for instance can be used to blow open doors or knock holes in hedges, fences and cracked walls. Usually you need to find keys to unlock doors, but with a bazooka almost nothing blocks your way. On occasion you come across a lit fireplace, but use something like the water pistol or fire extinguisher (which normally freezes enemies), and you can put the fire out to open a secret passage. The weed-cutter meanwhile can be used on generic enemies, but is best saved for the deadly plant growths on some levels. Enemies also have specific weaknesses – for example the Chuckie-inspired “evil dolls”, which are a major pain until you discover they can be one-shot killed using silverware. Also the giant flying saucer, which terrorizes you on some of the alien levels, may seem impossible to destroy, until you realize that a well placed soda pop can into its open hatch will take it down. Crazy, yet brilliant. As some critics have said, the later released Dead Rising by Capcom has a slight ZAMN vibe, given the variety of wacky weapons available.
One of the rarest weapons is the flamethrower, which most players won’t even know exists, since there’s only one in the game, and only in the SNES release. On Level 22, Revenge of Dr Tongue, if you bring the spare skeleton key from Level 16 you can access a secret part of the level. Once through the skull door and around a passage, there’s a part of the wall you can walk through to find it hidden behind scenery. It’s the most powerful weapon in the game, and rather handy! Visiting this same spot in the Genesis release won’t grant you the flamethrower, though it’s possible it’s just hidden in a different area. “Wow, we made that way too hard to find!” exclaims Ebert when I describe the process. “We never really intended it to be that hard to locate. We had a lot of spare time near the end of the project, while we waited for all the contracts to be signed between LucasArts and Konami. I think Dean and I just stuck that in at the very last second. I was not aware it was missing from the Genesis version.”
Stockpiling a surplus of weapons in early levels is essential to succeed, since rescuing the neighbors can get rather tricky towards the end. There are several strategies to make things easier though, as Ebert explains: “I really like the dynamics of keeping the neighbors alive. Keeping all 10 alive gives you a nice safety net from losing, but if you only keep one or two alive, then you can finish the levels faster and not use as many resources. It creates some interesting strategies to get through the game.”
It also used passwords, given out every four levels, so you didn’t need to replay earlier areas. Even so, the game can get especially difficult if you’re not aware of how this password system works. Each password is four letters long: two letters represent the level number, one letter represents the number of surviving neighbors (1-10), and one letter represents a checksum for the above. The thing is, it doesn’t take into account any items you’ve collected. This means if you use a password to skip to Level 17, chances are when you reach Level 20 and fight three Snakeoids (based on the worms from Tremors), you won’t have enough ammo to take them down. In fact one online guide even gives a detailed breakdown on how the difficulty changes depending on which level you start from with passwords. The important thing to realize is that sometimes starting a few levels earlier than the latest password you received will actually make it much easier.
Item management is crucial to completing ZAMN, but as Ebert reveals this was more a side-effect of two other factors: “If we could have afforded the battery on the cartridge we would have saved it all for you! The password to save all the weapons you had would have been too long, so we decided that about every four levels we’d at least make it somewhat feasible that you could restart from that location. Admittedly the last few save points are very hard places to start a game from, but we did challenge ourselves doing it several times.”
An interesting point with the limited resources is how it fundamentally changes a two player game, making it more challenging. ZAMN supports simultaneous play, with one person controlling Zeke and the other Julie, but the amount of resources is the same as in a single player game. Which is fine if each player does their share of work – after all, in a single player session you tend to accumulate too much anyway. But it does require absolute trust with your partner, and good communication, otherwise you’ll end up ambushed or with one character running out of supplies and dying prematurely. This is definitely not the kind of game where you can screw over the other guy for your own benefit. “It was always intended to be two players,” explains Ebert. “We really wanted split screen, but at that time our game engine just wasn’t set up to handle it that well. The frame rate dropped too low. You’ll notice we did get split screen on ‘Metal Warriors‘ which we did next!”
With regards to changing the final design of the game, Ebert was quoted on Gamasutra as saying: “We managed to get just about everything into that game that we could squeeze onto the cartridge. Looking back I wish we hadn’t hidden the flamethrower so well. Most people don’t even know there is one in the game. I wish we had more focus testing on the product too.” The interesting point is Ebert’s wanting more focus testing, which I asked him about: “I think we only did about two focus tests of the game. My goal in the design was to try to make the first 20 levels all feel unique. This worked really well and the kids loved playing the game the very first time, but none of them got past more than level 15 before losing all the neighbors. I feel in the end the game was maybe too hard. Nothing in the game past level 20 was ever tested with a focus group.”
Generally it seems that little was left on the cutting room floor and, besides some tweaking to the difficult and including a battery save, the game turned out as Ebert and the rest of the team envisioned. Even the leaked beta, titled Monsters, didn’t contain any removed material, rather some scrapped level layouts which were later expanded for the retail release. There were, however, some changes made regarding censorship. Nintendo was infamous for not wanting violence or religious imagery in its games – and who could forget the exploding hamster from LucasArts’ earlier Maniac Mansion, which had to be removed from later versions of the game? How did Ebert and co get the crucifix weapon in ZAMN past Nintendo? “You’ll notice that crucifix is more like a ‘+’ symbol,” he explains. “They made us change that. We changed the blood dripping game over screen to purple for Nintendo, and on the credits level there’s a guy holding little dolls, which were originally severed heads. We attached tiny bodies under the heads for Nintendo, which actually looks even creepier I think.”
Curiously, Europe had to have its own specific censorship, with the name changed to Zombies, and the chainsaws changed to axes. Ebert remembers the changes, but isn’t sure on the specifics: “For some reason people in England are not allowed to see chainsaw wielding maniacs… so they got crazed lumberjacks instead! I remember making that change, and being very confused by it. We had to change the names of the game levels so as to also not mention chainsaws. The company handling the sale of the game in Europe also wanted a simple name, so they changed it to Zombies there.”
Regardless of the name changes, the European press along with the US praised ZAMN, and it sold well. Given this, you would naturally expect some sort of sequel. It arrived in the form of Ghoul Patrol. As revealed, however, it did not start off as a sequel…