In February of 1987, a company named KAZe was founded. Headquartered in Aoyama, Tokyo, the company sought to enter the rapidly growing video game market. They quickly turned their attention to the Famicom. Nintendo’s home console had revitalized the North American gaming scene after its devastating crash in 1983. Owing to the console’s success, one could expect any game released on the platform to sell reasonably well. There was only one major obstacle standing in the average developer’s way: Nintendo themselves. The company had researched what led to the North American gaming industry’s crash, or the Atari shock as it was called in Japan, and imposed strict limitations on how much help they could receive from third-party developers. If a game didn’t receive Nintendo’s Seal of Quality, it had no chance of seeing the light of day on their platform. On top of that, when considering international releases, only five of a given third-party developer’s output could be released abroad.
Even with these strict limitations in place, KAZe managed to launch their inaugural title, Hooligan Tengu, in December of 1990. The game saw its international debut the following month in January of 1991 under the name Zombie Nation. Despite being released on a popular platform, Zombie Nation was left to fall into obscurity. Only when a certain internet personality highlighted it in 2007 did Zombie Nation achieve any kind of notoriety. With thousands of titles passing through its ranks, did KAZe’s first game get the company off to a strong start?
Analyzing the Experience
The year is 1999. An ostensibly harmless meteorite that crashed in the Nevada desert turned out to be an alien lifeform known as Darc Seed. Using his horrific powers, he turned citizens into zombies. He even managed to turn the Statue of Liberty into a monstrous automaton to accomplish his desires. The rays emanating from his powers gave him control over many deadly weapons, including the legendary samurai sword, Shura. Only one entity is capable of stopping Darc Seed: the great head of the samurai, Namakubi. Learning of Darc Seed’s machinations, he wastes no time springing into action, departing for the United States to reclaim the sword and defeat the alien invader once and for all.
Pressing the “START” button on the title screen doesn’t immediately throw the player into the game. In a manner similar to Mega Man, you can start on any stage you wish. The undead forces of Darc Seed have ravaged the United States, and as Namakubi, you must travel to four different regions of the country to take them down. The stages take place in New York City, the American Southwest, a Texas oil refinery, and a Dakota granite mine. There is a minor catch that comes with the freedom you’ve been afforded. Despite possessing a degree of non-linearity, the stages are numbered. Once you complete a stage, you move on to the next in line. If you start on a stage other than the first, you will be forced to complete it upon clearing the fourth.
Once you’ve selected a stage, you will finally get to see what kind of game Zombie Nation is. Given its premise, one would be forgiven for believing Zombie Nation to be a side-scrolling hack-and-slash affair not unlike Ys III: Wanderers from Ys or Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Very few would be able to catch onto the game’s true nature simply based of the opening text crawl. Indeed, when the narrative states “the great head of the samurai, Namakubi […] set off immediately for the United States”, the writers meant that quite literally.
As befitting his name, Namakubi is a disembodied severed head, and he is on a quest to stamp out the zombie menace plaguing the United States and recover the Shura. Setting aside the question as to what a Japanese sword is doing in the United States, most players would be openly wondering how on Earth a disembodied head could possibly go about saving anyone – even in light of the game’s obvious supernatural elements. He can’t exactly use psychic powers to levitate a katana and slice zombies in half. Instead, he settles for the next best thing – simultaneously shooting eyeballs and acidic vomit at his foes. The eyeballs travel forward while the vomit arcs downward.
Even in a medium whose most famous character resembles a pizza with a missing slice that goes around eating ghosts, Zombie Nation is quite the oddity. The original Japanese version was equally strange, thrusting players into the role of a floating tengu mask, though the basic premise is the same. One would assume based off of this that changing the protagonist’s appearance was done to cater to Western reference points. After all, the tengu, which are demons from traditional folklore depicted as having long noses, are deeply rooted in Japanese mythology. On the other hand, thanks to classic jidaigeki films such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, the Japanese warriors of old were well-known even abroad. As it turns out, Namakubi was intended to be the protagonist of the original release. However, the development team believed Japanese consumers would find playing as a severed human head unappealing, so he was instead saved for the Western release one month later.
Either way, I am willing to wager even the savviest gamer wouldn’t extrapolate from hearing its premise alone that Zombie Nation is a shoot ‘em up. It doesn’t take long before you realize just how anomalous Zombie Nation is compared to its contemporaries. To begin with, Namakubi is not like the Vic Viper from Gradius or any number of vehicles from rival shoot ‘em ups that explode when they touch any hazardous object; he has an actual health meter. On the bottom of the screen are eight icons that resemble Namakubi himself. It functions very similarly to the heart meter in The Legend of Zelda in that it doesn’t measure Namakubi’s exact health. Instead, it gives players a vague idea of their character’s fortitude. In practical terms, Namakubi can withstand an enemy onslaught before a unit of health is drained. When a unit is completely drained, it transforms into a skull. If only one unit remains, the music changes, and you must be prepared to tough things out until you restore his health. This is accomplished through the simple act of scoring points, making the act far more important than it is in most games.
Despite being there to save the United States, Namakubi isn’t exactly concerned when it comes to minimizing collateral damage. His projectiles can tear buildings, mountains, and other set pieces asunder, and there is no punishment for doing this – quite the opposite, in fact. As you’re in the process of destroying the country you’re ostensibly trying to save, you may end up releasing innocent people. In turn, they will begin yelling for help as they plummet towards the Earth. If you rescue them, Namakubi is rewarded with extra firepower.
Though Zombie Nation sounds like a basic shoot ‘em up in spite of its premise, a few minutes of playing it reveals it to be a subpar effort. As is the bane of many terrible games, the controls in Zombie Nation are abhorrent. In most shoot ‘em ups, releasing the control pad or joystick will cause your vehicle stop instantly or within such a short timeframe that most players wouldn’t notice. In Zombie Nation, holding down the control pad causes Namakubi to fly at top speed in that direction, seemingly gaining absurd amounts of momentum along the way.
The slippery controls are especially bad because Namakubi is a gigantic target. Though he is reasonably durable, you will see that health meter rapidly drain if you don’t exercise prudence – and occasionally even if you do. In order to have any reasonable chance of dodging enemy projectiles, you must make subtle taps on the directional pad. This is next to impossible whenever the screen is swarming with enemies and you must avoid colliding into them as well. Making matters worse is the presence of electrical storms and other natural hazards. These have the potential to reduce Namakubi’s health to a single unit. If this happens, you’ve effectively lost, as they tend to be placed in areas that greatly limit his mobility. Although Namakubi does not take damage from touching a barrier such as a wall, having to dodge obstacles within such a confined space is next to impossible. This problem is only made worse by the fact that it’s often unclear what is and isn’t a solid barrier.
Compounding this game’s problems is that the level design is boring. With a premise as outlandish as the one on which Zombie Nation operates, it would seem impossible that the level design could ever be described as boring. Unfortunately, the reality is undeniable. Though graphics are far from the sole factor to consider when assessing a game’s quality, there’s no getting around that Zombie Nation is absolutely hideous. Every single stage has a dark, unappealing color scheme that, in addition to making the game ugly to look at, makes dodging obstacles all the more difficult. Furthermore, because your targets are often utterly dwarfed by Namakubi, shooting them accurately can be next to impossible during the busier portions of a given stage. Had the developers been selective in the colors they used, they would have vastly alleviated this problem. As it stands, it’s often a viable strategy to dart around the screen randomly and hope enemies don’t end up intercepting your flight patterns.
In another parallel to Mega Man, a given stage culminates in a boss fight. These fights are poorly designed for a number of reasons. The most obvious one stares at you in the face in the above screenshot – or perhaps more aptly put, doesn’t. Though causing the interface to disappear for the sake of drama eventually proved to be an interesting storytelling technique exclusive to this medium, Zombie Nation is too goofy of a game for it to be viable. More importantly, without the benefit of your health bar being onscreen during boss fights, it is nearly impossible to gauge how well Namakubi is holding up. It goes without saying that you should avoid getting hit, but knowing your character’s status is an important part of strategizing in any game. You can’t even pause during boss battles, so if something comes up such as a phone call, you’re out of luck. In general, it’s not a good design choice to withhold information to which the player is typically privy or arbitrarily prevent them from accessing basic features. In both of these scenarios, the game is actively refusing to play by its own rules.
I also have to comment that there really isn’t much of a point to choosing which stage to start with. Ideally, there should be some kind of benefit that comes with this freedom. In Mega Man, the title character gained the boss’s ability upon vanquishing him. In turn, he could use this ability against other bosses to exploit their weaknesses, making the battles much simpler. However, in Zombie Nation, not only is there no lasting advantage to choosing a stage, you’re stuck playing them in the intended order anyway. You retain all of the power-ups you receive within each stage, but you lose them if you die. This means it only ever makes sense to start with the second stage. The first stage is the easiest one, so if you manage to rescue several citizens in the fourth, your victory is practically a foregone conclusion.
In spite of this game’s transgressions, it at least had a vague possibility of bouncing back somewhat with an epic confrontation. Creating zombies by exposing humans to magnetism, Darc Seed is doubtlessly a formidable foe the likes of which you have never encountered. Gazing upon a being with such a terrible power would drive mortals to insanity. To stand up against such a threat would require a force so great, it could threaten to rend the universe itself.
Alternatively, you can just position Namakubi to the left of Darc Seed and hold down the “B” button until the utterly generic alien dies in roughly five seconds. If Namakubi is fully powered up, you can win this fight before Darc Seed’s attacks have a chance to connect. You barely have to move to reach the spot in the above screenshot; it’s only slightly below where Namakubi enters the arena. In light of the game’s track record, having an insultingly easy endboss is thematically fitting, but it doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
Drawing a Conclusion
Whenever a significant artistic movement reaches a certain age, you start getting a widespread sentiment that pines for the good old days. In the case of video games specifically, when its first adopters came to age and became journalists, they would write think pieces about how much more diversity existed in the eighties and nineties compared to the first two decades of the twenty-first century. I could easily envision somebody writing such a think piece citing Zombie Nation as a perfect example as to the kind of off-the-wall concept that would have no chance of being pitched successfully to the garden-variety cynical marketing executive. However, I have to say there is a major caveat to such an assessment that is often overlooked. The medium’s formative years featured no shortage of creative premises, yet because the rules and idioms hadn’t been fully cemented, creators also lacked focus.
Proof as to what happens when this creativity was left entirely unbridled can be seen in Zombie Nation. Though its premise and gameplay could easily get a newcomer’s attention, were they to experience it firsthand, they would quickly determine it to be an incoherent mess. For its time, it could have been considered somewhat passable, but it has absolutely not stood the test of time in any way, shape, or form. If you’re looking for a good shoot ‘em up from this era, you’re better off trying out Gradius, Life Force, or R-Type. Given that all three of these games predate Zombie Nation by a significant margin, it’s evident KAZe’s debut effort brought nothing new to the table. Realistically, the only kind of enthusiast I could imagine getting anything out of Zombie Nation is someone who prides themselves as a connoisseur of bizarre games. On that front, Zombie Nation certainly delivers, though it wouldn’t last an afternoon in the hands of the skilled.
Final Score: 2/10