Using a miniature diorama to advertise a game isn’t anything new, but it’s certainly rare enough that seeing it done like this makes Zombie Nation’s ad campaign stand out like few others can. It’s a crazy look for the action game, but Zombie Nation isn’t your ordinary side-scrolling shooter, either.
It was published in 1990 by Meldac, a Japanese company that also worked in music releasing things like Jennifer Love Hewitt’s “Love Songs” album in Japan. Developed by a dev house called KAZe, the player hit the side-scrolling skies over the United States as a disembodied samurai head. I told you this was strange.
The story goes something like this: in 1990, a meteor crashes in Nevada. But this was no ordinary meteor. The meteor is actually an alien called Darc Seed who then uses “magnetic rays” to zombify the United States and bring powerful creatures to life such as the Statue of Liberty and a mobile nuclear plant that is “10,000” feet tall. These powers have also given Darc Seed power over the samurai sword, Shura, which pisses off Hamakubi — the disembodied head of a powerful samurai. Heading to the United States, Hamakubi is on a mission not only to take back Shura, but to destroy Darc Seed as a good-guy version of Zardoz. No, sorry, an orange loin-clothed Sean Connery character is not a part of this game.
The game has the reputation in Japan of being called a “kuso-ge,” a combo of kuso (shit) and ge-mu (game) which you might also have seen as “kusoge” to describe titles that are heavily flawed. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the game is truly bad — it could be that the only offending thing about it is the setting which Zombie Nation could be blamed for. Or it could truly be terrible with horrid gameplay, ruthlessly cheap challenge, or it’s just terrible in every way imaginable.
Zombie Nation falls somewhere in that category of being a “cult” favorite of sorts. It’s not absolute garbage — it’s actually kind of fun as a shooter — though it does have some issues, not the least of which is the Hamakubi moves around on-screen as if he were uncontrollably skating on ice. Once you get used to the controls, though, it’s actually not a bad game with catchy 8-bit tunes and crazy visuals to go with them.
Hamakubi shoots stuff from both his eyes and mouth. His eyes blast some kind of bullet at an angle up and forward while he pukes loogies at enemies below which can be anything from tanks or zombified snipers. Structures like buildings and even mesas have to be blasted through in order to get past them leaving wrecked tiles in their place as an early stab at a destructible environment. You also have to avoid Darc Seed’s magnetic rays and other environmental obstacles like flaming smoke barricades adding to the challenge as you have to time your way past them. And not every obstacle can be destroyed. The smokestacks at the oil rig in Texas, for example, can’t be blown away, forcing you to try and time your way past the toxic smoke above.
The game takes place over four stages, the last of which is Darc Seed’s super lair right before the confrontation with the Green Man himself. The first three — New York, the Grand Canyon, and Texas — will all throw tanks, planes, and zombie soldiers at you as a possessed America tries to keep you from their master. Hamakubi can also power up by rescuing de-zombified humans falling from the buildings and other structures he demolishes with his spit, though you don’t have control over what options you get like in Konami’s Gradius. Instead, it’s a straight-up power scheme dependent on how many humans you can rescue.
Health is represented as a line of heads on the bottom. Every time Hamakubi gets hit, he loses a head, but he can regen his health every so often by defeating bad guys. The bar also improves based on your score for an added bonus. You only have a limited number of continues, but the game allows you to earn more to keep chugging away. Two difficulty levels are also available from the start — Easy or Hard.
The game underwent a few changes when it came out to Japan. Instead of a flying, decapitated head, players would get a flying tengu mask instead, for example. But the basic action was retained. Even the ending screens are pretty much the same with a White House flying the US flag after a hard won victory.
Once you got past the skittish controls, Zombie Nation wasn’t a bad side-scroller, though it’s also easy to see why it could be so bad. It’s amazingly short, for one thing, though its crazy difficulty may also make it appealing to shmup junkies eager to play anything. So it can also be a guilty pleasure of sorts with its rockin’ 8-bit music and enough weirdness to make it not so much of a scary game, but a tongue-in-cheek horror-themed sci-fi romp that no one expected.