Michael Contino is Nintendojo’s resident super sleuth. Fact. Almost as soon as ZombiU was announced at E3 last week, Michael knew there was something afoot. So he put on his detective cap, turned into Sherlock Holmes for an evening, and ended up finding out some rather surprising things about Ubisoft’s new zombie game. For instance, it might seem like a rather unoriginal title given the subject matter, but did you know that the first game Ubisoft ever published was, in fact, a game called Zombi? Nope, neither did I.
Heavily inspired by George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead (or, indeed, Zombi depending on which part of the world you’re from), Zombi was first released on the ancient Amstrad CPC in 1986 and told the story of four civilians trapped in an abandoned shopping mall trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. Their goal? To find some fuel for their helicopter and get the hell outta there.
I was rather intrigued by Michael’s find, so I immediately set about trying to track down a copy of this rather bizarre sounding game so I could see what all the fuss was about. I thought there was no way these two games could possibly have anything to do with each other given the time gap, but after playing through the Commodore 64 version of the game (after trying and failing to get the MS-DOS and Atari ST ports to work), you might be surprised by how much ZombiU actually owes to this twenty-six year old title. So let’s dive a little deeper into the zombie madness and see how these two games of the undead compare.
Katharine Byrne: We begin with a very odd-looking screen. A black and white helicopter occupies the main window while four surprisingly nonchalant monochrome faces bear down on it from above. The rather cocky-looking Alexandre seems to be my default character at the moment, but I have absolutely no idea what that black squiggle’s meant to be in the box next to him, or what the three bars below are all about either. Oh well– hopefully I’ll find out later!
Clicking right into the stairwell seems to be the only way to go for now, so I head down into the depths of the shopping mall. A few beaten-up signs in French line the walls along with the odd crude blood splatter, but for the most part my only companion is the eerie silence. As I wind my way down the stairs, it would appear I have four floors to explore, but there seems to be some kind of magical barrier sealing off the top one, so I guess I’ll have to come back to that one later. Picking the next floor down, I wander in and out of the empty shops trying to search for some vague kind of objective, but all I’m greeted with are broken windows and discarded items littering the floor. I pick up a piece of rope and an old VHS tape out of curiosity, not really sure how they’ll help my survival, but hey, it’d be rude not to.
Suddenly a zombie appears in front of me out of nowhere, and I frantically bash it in the face with my bare hands (or at least I assume that’s what happened). There’s no time to equip an item (though I doubt throwing a video tape at it would do any good), but thankfully it falls to the ground after a few hits and I carry on, wondering when the next one will strike. Eventually I find a hatch with some fuel in it. Success! That wasn’t too hard, was it? Full of hope, I immediately race back to the helicopter, but then I inexplicably drop dead on the next screen, a morbid cross replacing Alexandre’s smug grin on the right hand side of the screen. All my stuff pools on the floor, and I realise those three bars must have had something to do with Alexandre’s health (not that they ever changed, mind you, until that very moment). Begrudgingly, I move the cursor over Patrick and start again.
It was nice knowing you, Alexandre…
I’m back at the helicopter, just as confused as I was before, but I hurry back to the third floor to see if the fuel can is still there. To my great surprise (and relief), it is, sitting huddled amongst the black blur of the video tape and the rope– but let’s face it, those two were never going to be very useful, so I leave them behind as I head back to the roof. I click open the fuel hatch and try and “use” the fuel on the helicopter, but the damn thing’s empty! (Or I’m trying and utterly failing to use it correctly). Is it a dummy can? Who knows. The only thing I’m worried about is, “How do I get out of this place now?”
Leaving the can behind, I venture downstairs again to see whether there’s anything else that can help me. As I round the next corner I catch sight of an “ARMES” shop– result! Hoovering up all the guns, I stick my head in the other shops just to check if there’s anything else useful (there isn’t), and then take the lift down to the first floor to see what horrors await me there. After more rooms full of useless items, the passageway veers off to the right and I follow it round until I’m outside.
Another zombie blinks onto the screen, but I quickly punch him in the face and move on, edging round the side of the building until I stumble upon a huge lorry. I pop open the door and jump inside but can’t for the life of me figure out how to operate it. Maybe this thing needs some keys…? Hopping back out of the driver’s seat, I press on, but then I hit an entire wall of zombies out of the blue, and Patrick is presumably mauled to death before I can click the back button or get my gun. Great. Sorry Patrick. Back to the helicopter we go.
But before I go any further, let’s just take a small reprieve and see how Zombi’s living up to its Wii U successor, because I don’t know about you, Michael, but there are already quite a few similarities starting to appear…
Michael Contino: Thank you for that strong introduction, Katharine, and yes, there are definitely some similarities. Ubisoft has come a long way since Zombi, but even though the original’s main window is where all the action takes place, I can’t help but think someone at Ubisoft remembered seeing that rectangular box, thought of the Wii U GamePad, and subsequently proposed a drastic overhaul of ZombiU‘s previous form, Killer Freaks from Outer Space. As you hinted at above, the idea of controlling one survivor, dying, and subsequently becoming another survivor starting from scratch returns in ZombiU. Both games allow you to trek back to the spot where your dignity and ammunition separated to stock up, but unlike Zombi, your main goal in ZombiU is a much more realistic one: to survive.
But despite these slightly different objectives, you mentioned earlier that Zombi takes a lot of inspiration from Dawn of the Dead. ZombiU, on the other hand, can be seen as something inspired by a plethora of films, even some non-zombie ones. As the game’s teaser trailer showed us, one zombie can’t help but rip open a poor soul’s car wind-shield with its bare hands, just like one insanely desperate man does in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Diving further back in time, ZombiU‘s fog of death must also have taken some inspiration from the legendary Alfred Hitchcock and his seventy-five year old silent film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, with its menacing portrayal of hooded killers sweeping off into the misty streets on London, never to be seen again.
This zombie must prefer baseball to cricket.
Gazing upon the game’s logo (as seen in the screenshot above), the red “U” against the black backdrop also definitely sets the tone for this M-rated title. It doesn’t seem to pull any punches in regards to its content, especially since ZombiU‘s teaser brings back vivid memories of 2011’s Dead Island trailer. The zombies look menacing, blood is gushing everywhere, and the teaser looks amazing. The only thing that’s unsettling for me is when we see a man with a gun in his mouth almost halfway through the teaser. Now, I understand this is a zombie game and innocent people are going to be killed, some more gruesomely than others, but the sight of him ending his life in order to prevent himself from becoming infected by the oncoming zombie horde (which he’s possibly cured if his computer screen and the needle beside it are anything to go by) is just a little disquieting.
Katharine Byrne: Zombi, on the other hand, is a lot lighter on the blood and gore. My comrades don’t come back to life, and there’s not a single grizzly death scene in sight. Of course, we are talking twenty-six year old hardware here, so it’s perhaps a little unsurprising given the graphics capabilities of such machines, but even the environments don’t show many signs of having suffered a zombie-pocalypse. The bed store, for instance, seems to have come away completely unscathed– I can’t say the same for the burger joint, but I guess zombies prefer a good night’s sleep to ketchup and fries!
But back to my helicopter. With only Yannick and Sylvie left, now it’s time for some serious survival tactics. I take Sylvie down through each floor again, bopping zombies left, right and centre as I desperately search for something I might have missed (even though I still have no idea what that something is), clicking every single pixel on the screen and trying all directions to see if I missed part of a shop. I even suffer momentary blindness when I stumble into the pitch-black basement by accident. Then I find it. A hidden room on the second floor corridor containing a set of keys. Bingo. Now I can move that truck. Retracing my steps, I find the lorry again and try to start her up, but it still doesn’t work! Damn. Right, well, maybe they’re for the fourth floor instead? I inch my way round the building again, but alas the zombies must have edged closer as well, and down goes Sylvie, another victim claimed by the wall of the undead.
Despair takes hold. What now? Will I be able to retrieve the keys to the fourth floor, or will they have been lost forever in the zombie throng outside? I guess there’s only one way to find out. Yannick, my bald friend, it’s up to you. I lead him back downstairs and punch another zombie in the face as I deliberate whether or not to risk going outside again. I strongly suspect I’m going to die the moment I set foot past the door, but on the flip side, I’m also going to die if I just stand here, so I may as well go down fighting and get chomped by zombies, I guess (even if that fight is, in fact, incredibly one-sided in this game). Taking a deep breath, I brace myself and take the plunge. To my great amazement, the coast is clear and all of Sylvie’s items have suddenly materialised at my feet. Without stopping to question such logic, I grab them and charge back inside, sealing myself in the lift as I hammer down on the up button. Haha, zombie-pocalypse, that’s humankind, one; zombies nil. The doors open into some kind of control room and another three sets of keys are all neatly lined up on the floor. They must be for the trucks, surely! Dumping the fourth floor keys, I gather up the others and try once again to get that infernal truck started.
Seriously, you want me to click those tiny pedals instead of something obvious like the steering wheel?
I almost think I won’t make it, as every conceivable click on the truck’s control panel apparently does nothing, but then I click the foot pedal, half hidden at the bottom of the screen, and voila, the truck has now apparently moved across a door! Great! That should stop those zombies getting in, but what about the other two sets of keys? Are there two more trucks lying around I can drive? Unfortunately, I don’t get the chance to answer that question, as the second I turn the corner I slam straight into the undead zombie-wall again, and the game comes to an abrupt halt. Well, that went…well?
Somewhat dissatisfied with my performance, I consulted possibly the world’s only Zombi game guide on what I should have done and found out that, yes, you are indeed meant to move the trucks in front the doors (even though doing so effectively prevents said truck driver from ever entering the mall again– unless, of course, you use the rope on the second floor balcony so they can climb up again– seriously, who thinks of this stuff!?), but that’s just the beginning. You also have to fix the fuse box, turn on the lights in the basement, find (and kill) a bunch of thugs who arrive and move your truck for no reason while you’re in said basement, and then you use the hosepipe to siphon off their van’s gas into the fuel can! Simple, really, when you look at it like that (Ed– Err…).
So there you have it, Michael, that’s Zombi. Any final thoughts?
Michael Contino: Katharine, Zombi sure does sound tough and tantalizing, but I think ZombiU will be even tougher. You only have one life in this eerie, psychological thriller, and while ZombiU gives you a countless number of people to control as opposed to just four, there are no checkpoints in this game, and it doesn’t restart each time you die. There aren’t any difficulty levels either, making this zombie apocalypse both challenging and rewarding for the player.
Adding to the difficulty of staying alive as long as possible is the fact that every time you look down at your GamePad, you’re still prone to attacks. All you have is a voice in the dark guiding you through zombie-infested London, and the varied locations will each provide their own challenges. In ZombiU, you’ll go everywhere from Buckingham Palace to a nursery school (think Toy Story 3, gone horribly wrong), and Ubisoft has also promised a rich backstory that can be pieced together by the player, something that’s even more pleasing to core gamers. The game’s persistence, as Ubisoft calls it, keeps the world around you as it was, despite a survivor’s death.
The code is 1986!
The unique Wii U GamePad also acts as your Survival Kit, and contains everything you collect in London, including tools, weapons, ammunition, med kits, food, maps and more. Unlike Zombi, it’ll allow players to use a much greater number of satisfying features, including a sonar to scout out upcoming enemies, a scanner to search the environment for supplies, a sniper mode, a door hacker, a lock pick, and finishing moves. Never before has a developer packed so many cool and interesting features into one controller, and this Resident Evil 4-esque inventory screen makes me very happy, especially because I love to be organized. But one of the coolest and most frantic features has to be the door hacker. That and being able to deliver devastating attacks with your axe, cricket bat, or whatever melee weapon you happen to have on you by smacking that zombie with your GamePad!
Katharine Byrne: Yeah, it’s a shame that Zombi doesn’t really offer any satisfying combat, but suffice to say, I think ZombiU will more than make up for its predecessor’s flaws.
So, readers, how about that for a history lesson? Are you now tempted to track down Zombi in preparation for Wii U’s launch? Let us know in the comments! And if you want Michael to put on his Sherlock Holmes hat again and solve more ancient gaming facts, ask and you shall receive.