Recently horror fans learned of the sad news that George A. Romero, the father of zombie films had passed away at the age of 77. We have Romero to thank for our idea of what a zombie is. Ask anyone young or old to do their best zombie impression, and they’ll groan and stumble along with arms raised just like the undead in Night Of The Living Dead. Romero’s body of work has had a huge impact on my tastes in movies, TV shows and of course video games. So, in memoriam of Romero’s passing, I thought I’d resurrect my semi-regular RETROspective column to share my zombie gaming highlights.
Since the debut of Night Of The Living Dead in 1968, the walking dead have broken free from the confines of the horror genre, and their video game counterparts are no different as they’re now found in almost every type of game, from platformers to FMV to tower defence. Mostly, zombies are used as cannon fodder – the rank and file, second only to Nazis in terms of video game baddies. Heck, some games even combine the two such as Rebellion’s Nazi Army Trilogy and (to more comedic effect) South Park: The Stick Of Truth. Other games have zombie modes released as expansion packs and DLC, such as the Call Of Duty franchise and Read Dead Redemption’s Undead Nightmare.
Unlike most of my favourite gaming genres, I don’t recall having played a video game that prominently featured zombies until the 16-bit era with the top down run and gun game Zombies Ate My Neighbours on Sega Mega Drive. The game cast the player as one of two teenagers who had to save their neighbourhood from attacks from various horror-movie monsters including the titular zombies. The game was subject to heavy censorship, with blood and gore replaced by bright purple goo. I remember the first dozen or so levels being a breeze, but as the difficulty increased my interest soon waned.
The flames of my love for anything involving the undead were fanned with the release of Capcom’s Resident Evil for PS1 in 1996. I first learned of the game having watched a rolling demo prior to its release and was so impressed that I travelled to my nearest Electronics Boutique (known as GAME today) to pre-order the game. As I counted the days to Resident Evil’s release, I read various previews of Resident Evil, where I learned that the game was heavily influenced by Romero’s Living Dead franchise and binge-watched the original Dead trilogy to better understand what zombies were all about.
On release day I remember how excited I was and obviously Resident Evil didn’t disappoint, despite some iffy dialogue – “hope this is not… Chris’ blood”. I loved the fear of a Z being around any corner and to this day there are a few jump scare moments that get me every time. Twenty years and several sequels and spin-offs later, Resident Evil is still regarded as the standard by which all other zombie games are measured. I was so addicted to the franchise that in preparation for the release of the fifth instalment of the main series I asked my wife for a Nintendo GameCube for Christmas just so I could play Resident Evil Zero, the remake of the original and Resi 4; all of which were Nintendo exclusives at the time.
Moving away from the dastardly deeds of the Umbrella Corporation and combining my addiction to light gun compatible games, I found another outlet for zombie killing in Sega’s rail shooter House Of The Dead 2 on the Dreamcast, which was released in 1998. The game was an almost pixel perfect port of the arcade version that I’d merrily pumped money into in the foyer of my local cinema. The franchise also spawned one of the weirdest spin-offs ever in Typing Of The Dead, substituting a keyboard for the light gun and tasking the player with typing out words to see off attackers.
The limited amount of the undead on the screen changed with the release of the Xbox 360 and PS3. Capcom’s Dead Rising shopping mall overrun with zombies was so similar to Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead that the game case’s front cover carried a disclaimer. The Willamette Parkview Mall was huge, and I had great fun battering the undead with everything from widescreen TVs to red hot frying pans, so much so that I don’t recall actually completing the game. What I do remember is how dangerous it was to be caught in the middle of a mass of Z’s hungry for protagonist Frank West’s brain.
Valve’s Left 4 Dead series also featured huge swarms of walkers, though I’m not a fan of 28 Days Later style face paced infected, so I really didn’t enjoy what little I played of the original. Whilst I loved the idea of being able to fight off hordes of enemies with my friends, I really couldn’t get past zombified Olympic sprinters hurtling towards me. I much preferred Techland’s offering Dead Island, which much like Resident Evil initially hooked me in with its beautifully shot reverse-time announcement trailer, as there were both shufflers and runners to deal with.
I liked that Dead Island was set in a bright, tropical resort rather than most other games’ bleak concrete jungles and also had a mixture of runners and walkers. Dead Island 2’s announcement trailer was as impressive as the original’s, with a jogger oblivious to the chaos and carnage going on around him; unfortunately, the game remains in development hell as at the time of writing, with no upcoming announcements from current licence holder Sumo Digital.
Whereas most zombie related games focus on action, those based on The Walking Dead comic books centred on the struggle of the survivors themselves. I’ve played through every season of Telltale’s ongoing series (some of them numerous times) and have a permanent place in my heart for Clementine. The first season made me protective of her whilst also making sure she could handle herself on her own. I’ve played every subsequent season, including the Michonne mini-series, so was equally excited to learn that the next season will switch back to Clem and sad that it will also be her final farewell.
Naughty Dog’s modern day classic The Last Of Us also focussed heavily on character development, albeit with fungal spore carrying clickers and runners taking the place of more traditional Z’s. I’ve played the main story and Left Behind DLC many times, and as with the majority of gamers consider it one of the best video games ever made. Naysayers will complain that TLOU has too many cut-scenes and is little more than an interactive movie; though I think that without them players wouldn’t have the same level of attachment to Ellie and Joel.
MMOs such as H1Z1 and 7 Days To Die have also used the Zombocalypse theme to great success. These games show just how fragile life would be when there’s no more room in hell and the dead walk the earth. Crafting and survival skills take precedent, with combat as an absolute last resort. Drink infected water or consume rotten food and your avatar joins the ranks of the undead. Being MMOs, they also prove that the living are much more nefarious than the dead, willing to kill for something as trivial as an apple – even a digital one.
My latest encounter with the digitised walking dead came in the form of VR shooter Arizona Sunshine. The draw was a no brainer (no pun intended) – zombies, light guns, VR… a chance to channel my inner Rick Grimes. Much like Dead Island, I like that the game is set in broad daylight, not because I’m a wuss, but because to a degree dark cityscapes have been done to death. If you want to know my full thoughts, head over the reviews section.
Despite being perceived by some as clichéd, the zombie video game genre certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Sequels to State Of Decay and The Last Of Us are in development, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m gonna pick up a copy of Bend Studios’ Day Gone upon its release. So, in closing thank you, Mr Romero, for without The Night Of The Living Dead and all its sequels the lie of the video game landscape would be a very different and, in my humble opinion, a much more boring place.