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The evolution of videogame zombies

As we wrap up another year’s worth of Halloween-themed features, it seems as good a time as any to reflect back on the foot soldiers that make about 99 percent of all horror games possible: Zombies. Whether fallen back on as a lazy crutch for games without a lot of enemies, used artfully as hidden metaphors or even trotted out as heroes, zombies have been a key component in videogames – horror and otherwise – for almost as long as there’s been a game industry. And time and time again, we’ve seen that their mere presence can be enough to get people interested in any given game, because hey – they’re a lot of fun to destroy.


Above: Don’t we all, really? 

You might not have noticed it (mainly because they all act the same), but zombies have undergone a long series of changes, subtle and otherwise, over the years. While their single-minded, shuffling hunger remains just as strong as ever, they’ve evolved with the games they populate, becoming more nuanced and complicated than most people realize. Don’t believe us? Then join us as we take a look at just how time has changed our favorite monsters.


Stick Zombie


As seen in: Death Race (1976)

Disposition: Frightened, panicky

While alternately referred to as “zombies,” “gremlins” or “stick figures,” the little white blobs in the controversial-for-its-time Death Race display all the classic characteristics of zombification, from the aimless wandering to the complete lack of self-preservation. Sometimes, you don’t even need to move to score against these idiots – they’ll wander right underneath your tires while you’re idling. We put forth that only a zombie could possibly find such a stupid way in which to die, and as such declare them to be the very first instance of a zombie in a game.



Vaguely Threatening Zombie


As seen in: Ghosts ‘n Goblins (1985)

Disposition: Lumbering

One of the earliest recognizable instances of a classic zombie, these pale creeps had it all. Not only could they walk in a straight line with their arms outstretched and knock Sir Arthur out of his armor (and, later, skin), but they actually came up out of the ground to do it. Also like movie zombies, they’re only really a serious threat when they mass in groups, at which point it can be difficult to jump over them or take them out quickly enough.


 

Self-Mutilating Zombie, Mark 1


As seen in: Chiller (1986)

Disposition: Passive-aggressive

For a game that’s ostensibly about shooting undead creeps (but is actually more about shooting defenseless torture victims bloody), Chiller is awfully stingy with its zombies. In fact, it only really busts them out during its final stage (or first stage, if you’re playing the NES version), and even then it’s debatable if what’s onscreen actually qualifies as a “zombie.” Is the chick whose shirt can be shot off actually an undead monster clawing her way out of the grave, or has she just been buried up to her waist? The only thing here that really qualifies is the weird zombie in the foreground, which just keeps ripping off its own head and throwing it into an open grave full of flames. Fun!


Hurrying Zombie


As seen in: Castlevania (1987)

Disposition: Gliding

Zombies have never been less terrifying than they’ve been in the Castlevania games, in which they’ve been Dracula’s bottom-feeding cannon-fodder for about 22 years now. They also represent an early form of moral choices in games, as players confronted with zombies have the option of either killing them or jumping over them. They won’t care either way, as – like the Vaguely Threatening Zombie before them – they have no interest in anything except for moving in a straight line as quickly or as slowly as possible, depending on which game you’re playing.


Zombie with Something to Hide


As seen in: Psycho Soldier (1986)

Disposition: Grabby

To be honest, we’re not entirely sure if the “zombies” in Psycho Soldier even count as such, in the traditional undead sense. It’s hard to see much of anything under those trenchcoats and hats they’re wearing – which, by the way, seem more suited to hanging out at porn theaters circa 1976 than they do to fighting the forces of good. Still, if they aren’t zombies, then their behavior – shuffling around, arms outstretched, and making a beeline for any shimmer of movement/smell of fresh meat – is awful damn zombie-like. At this point, we feel secure in calling them a close cousin, if not the genuine article.


Really Gross Zombie


As seen in: Haunted Castle (1988), our nightmares

Disposition: Indifferent

While we’re going to steer clear of pointing out every stage in the evolution of Castlevania’s zombies – that’s an article for another day – it’s worth swooping back for a quick look at the little-known arcade version, which marks the first time a zombie in Castlevania dared to walk around with an exposed rib cage and gobbets of gore hanging off like it’s normal or something. These were also among the toughest zombies in Castlevania history, able to absorb two whip strikes and big enough to be difficult to jump over. Not really surprising, considering the game was intended to suck down quarters more than it was to actually be enjoyable by human beings.

31 comments

  • electricsheep - October 30, 2010 7:40 p.m.

    The entry for the ghoul is incorrect. Ghouls first appeared in Interplay's Fallout, From 1998.
  • xthesawnoffx - July 31, 2010 3 a.m.

    anyone notice that in the "8 games that didnt need zombies" had some of the zombies in here in it? for example the husks.
  • aznknight102 - July 28, 2010 10:47 p.m.

    dam i was hoping theyd put the zombies from Killing Floor on this list, but oh well.
  • drock1467 - July 27, 2010 11:49 p.m.

    Homer Simpson on the cover of the Zomdie Nation cover. lol looks alot like him. fat,white shirt, 5 oclock shadow and jeans
  • mikeandike76 - November 7, 2009 3:22 p.m.

    hey where are all the dead space zombies?! dont they count?
  • 24Reece93 - November 3, 2009 6:57 p.m.

    Is it me or does the Diversity Zombie look alot like Kurt Cobain.
  • rjeffw - November 3, 2009 2:54 p.m.

    Ahh lets us not forget all the mindless zombies that voted for Obama..no those are scarry.
  • BootlegAsian99 - November 3, 2009 12:39 a.m.

    Zombie Nation is THE best game ever made. EVER. ReCapthca: (Chris will like it :) Rockville naples LIKE THE PLACE IN ITALY. Get it? :D
  • TheWebSwinger - November 2, 2009 10:57 p.m.

    I'm a little ashamed to say I read all 7 pages... great article, as always Mikel. No one does verbosity like you :)
  • Cyberninja - November 2, 2009 11:47 a.m.

    great list so long i took one day to start and today to finsh
  • gmilf71 - November 1, 2009 11:40 p.m.

    Lol nazi zombie "no longer racist"
  • GameManiac - November 1, 2009 4:44 p.m.

    Damn this is a long list! Unfortunately, the only two zombies that I have known well about are the ReDeads (Ocarina of Time) and the Flood (only from Halo: Combat Evolved). Wait, what about the zombies in Final Fantasy Tactics A2 Grimoire of the Rift? If I remember right, one of them reverts back to human.
  • AlexMercer1337 - November 1, 2009 11:59 a.m.

    You guys forgot the Grave Diggers from Brutal Legend.
  • oryandymackie - November 1, 2009 11:26 a.m.

    Ah, headcrabs.
  • Spartan523 - November 1, 2009 4:09 a.m.

    in fallout, the all ghouls have decaying brains (radiation+FEV=not fun?) ferals are just further along in the decay process
  • NanoElite666 - November 1, 2009 2:04 a.m.

    Another evolution of the zombie that isn't mentioned here... The robot zombies of Ratchet: Deadlocked. You don't often see zombie robots, but there are some out there.
  • lovinmyps3 - November 1, 2009 1:50 a.m.

    Yes!! I love zombies!!
  • gangrenous - October 31, 2009 11:56 p.m.

    Zombies remind me of Steve Busimi, and no one needs that
  • thelonewolf501 - October 31, 2009 7:06 p.m.

    i like zombie on meth and zombie with more meth was funny
  • Expertgamer0001 - October 31, 2009 6:05 p.m.

    Not sure if it counts but what about Dead Space?

Showing 1-20 of 31 comments

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