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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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.