The History of Zombies in Video Games

© Telltale Games
They have hunger and they never sleep but zombie games are still a blast
Written by Nodwin GamingPublished on
‘Brains’ was the go-to expression whenever we thought of ‘zombies’ in the olden days. This was the George Romero era of social commentary disguised as horror cinema. While zombies are best defined by The Walking Dead in today's culture, both in terms of popularity and influence, video games have been significantly dabbling with the undead for far longer.
Jill Valentine in the first Resident Evil
Jill Valentine in the first Resident Evil
As with Romero's films, zombies in video games didn't begin with Capcom. Quicksilva's Zombie Zombie, released on the ZX Spectrum in 1984, is credited with being the first video game to feature zombies. There wasn't a whole lot of depth (if the name didn't tip you off already) but it's the undead! Surely that has its own appeal?
Other titles like Entombed (1982), The Evil Dead (1984), Realm of Impossibility, Ghosts and Goblins (1985) and Zombi (1986) all featured the undead in some form or the other as well. Ghosts and Goblins achieved cult classic status more for its crippling difficulty and fun side-scrolling action than zombies.
Capcom saw a significantly different path to take than just throwing undead into a game. Tokuro Fujiawara cobbled together elements of role-playing games and horror to create Sweet Home in 1989 for the Family Computer. Players would explore an abandoned mansion and attempt to solve its mysteries. Zombies and ghosts roamed the hallways - the fact that some of them were former visitors didn't help one's nerves. With its inventory system, quick time events and multiple endings, Sweet Home actually served as the catalyst for another popular zombie franchise down the line.
Telltale's The Walking Dead enters season 3
Telltale's The Walking Dead enters season 3
In the meantime, the world was making progress with other titles featuring the decaying. Doom is infamous at this point for its litany of monsters, demons and undead. Zombies Ate My Neighbors went more B-movie with its top-down shooting in 1993. Alone in the Dark actually innovated on the "3D characters in a pre-rendered background" space while introducing gamers to paranormal mysteries and the occult. Even Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (1991) featured its primary antagonist returning as a zombie.
Two major titles fueled the enthusiasm for zombies in video games and they couldn't be more different. Capcom's Resident Evil in 1996 gave birth to the third person, survival horror genre we know today. Not only did it force players into complex puzzles and careful observation but its zombies were threats that facilitated running away, conserving ammo and fighting when no other choice was available. It was new and different, even as the voice acting and story were schlocky as hell (with less impressive graphics).
Sega's The House of the Dead went the other direction in 1997, incorporating virtual shooting mechanics by way of a plastic gun that players actually aimed in the arcade. Duck Hunt did this more than a decade in advance but House of the Dead's non-stop action and fast shooting helped kick-start an entire generation of light gun games.
Frank West in a familiar predicament
Frank West in a familiar predicament
The success of Resident Evil prompted the development of sequels including the critically acclaimed Resident Evil 2 in 1998. Other developers were hopping on the bandwagon at this point. Blood (1997) and CarnEvil (1998) both introduced nightmarish versions of the world where the undead played a part. MediEvil (1998) flipped things around a bit, casting you as a recently resurrected knight out to redeem himself. Nightmare Creatures, Shadow Man, The House of the Dead 2 and whatnot continued the trend well into the 21st century. There were games that featured bikini-clad zombie slayers in cowboy hats. Some games even saw you typing to eliminate the dead.
However, at some point, the appeal for zombies seemed to have waned, which coincided with the Resident Evil series falling in popularity. Granted, Capcom found a way to revive interest with Resident Evil 4 in 2005 but it was toeing the line with what constituted a zombie. There were still some great zombie titles like Warcraft 3, Dead Rising, Dead Space, Siren and so on that would entice fans. Call of Duty: World at War (2008) was a raging success in its own right when it first introduced Zombies mode to the franchise, resulting in a storyline that only recently concluded in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.
The undead scourge has been raging fiercer than ever post-2009. Telltale's The Walking Dead, Plants vs. Zombies, Left4Dead, DayZ, Dead Island, Dying Light, H1Z1, Lollipop Chainsaw and even Minecraft have all proven that zombies are here to stay. The Walking Dead returns in 2016 with A New Frontier and Dead Rising 4 is due in December for Xbox One and PC. There are more jovial things in life than a zombie apocalypse but it's where insanity and fun times can collide.
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