If there is one thing we can say about trends in video games, it would be how we just love to pile on if we see one happen. Everyone making their own pirate game like Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag or Sea of Thieves. Then when Kratos went to murder the Norse in God of War (2018), suddenly everyone wanted to make their own Viking game. It can always be a challenge to say what the next trend will be, but no one would argue that there’s one trend in gaming that will never go away for games like Dead Island 2: The Zombies will rise again. and again.. and again…

Facing off against a couple of zombies in Dead Island 2 with nothing but a modified wrench. I like those odds.

No matter how many you put down, there are always more zombies hiding around the corner.

Ever since George Romero terrorized people with the idea of the Living Dead, we have had this fascination with zombies and how if there was a breakout, we’d be joining them (after they ate us alive). There are usually two takeaways that we see from zombies in most media nowadays: One is how it gives us the grim reminder that the real monster during a zombie outbreak is actually man (usually for being the reason for the outbreak). And the other is how much fun it can be to murder zombies. Shotguns, beheadings, a lawn mower; you name it, and it becomes a weapon that can take them out.

But why exactly are zombie games so popular? Is it because they can seem overwhelming when they are in great numbers? Or is it just fun to murder something that’s already dead? As we prepare for the release of Dead Island 2, let us explore the history of these games and how even after nearly two decades, zombies are still just as relentless.

The Year Was 1996

If only we could start this retrospect off by looking at space zombies from the original Doom or the quintessential classic known as Zombies Ate My Neighbors. While they were some of the first noteworthy examples of zombies in video games (alongside many other noteworthy titles), it would not be until the glorious year of 1996. The year when we would see the kickstart of the zombie outbreak with Capcom’s highest-selling franchise of all time: Resident Evil.

Said to be the game that gave us the wonderful genre of Survival-Horror, Resident Evil threw players into a giant mansion with a simple goal: Survive. Between having to solve various puzzles and conserving what limited ammo you have, every room you enter could have you face a new danger. The zombies might not have been anything special at the time, but when they can take several bullets to the face and not drop, you feel the stress of wondering how many shots it will take before they drop. And even when they drop, they can just get right back up.

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The first zombie you come across in the game. You could shoot it, but you can also use a knife to get the job done.

Out of ammo? Better have your knife ready and land your hits.

As fun as it would be to take the Doom approach and shoot every enemy in your way, Resident Evil forces the player to choose between fight or flight. The idea of how it would probably be better to hold onto your ammo for when you truly need it rather than waste it on the zombies, the dogs, or the crows. It was a revolutionary title and would be the first of two titles to help establish zombies in video games for years to come.

“Man committed a sin disturbing the life cycle of nature…”

Not to be outdone by Capcom, we did see one other highly-acclaimed zombie title come out in 1996 (at least in Japan). A fancy arcade shooter from Sega under the name of The House of The Dead. While Resident Evil had a focus on “Survive by any means,” The House of The Dead took a slightly different approach: Here’s an unlimited supply of bullets. Get into that mansion and shoot anything that isn’t living!

As you explore the House of the Dead, you will come across moments where you can save people for rewards (or shoot them and get penalized for it).

Try not to get too trigger-happy. Don’t want to shoot the innocents.

Light Gun shooters weren’t exactly a new concept back in the mid-90s. However, many consider The House of The Dead to be one of the contributing factors to why they became so popular in arcades. As you run around inside, you find yourself coming across many zombies that will try to bite, swipe, or even throw an axe at you.

With six shots and a disembodied voice reminding you to reload every two seconds, it provided fast-paced action to take down the zombies and other giant monstrosities while doing your best to not take too many hits (or have to pump more quarters into the machine to continue). Was the game the greatest light gun shooter of all time? Not really since that honor went to its sequel (and for giving us the wonderful and sensational Goldman).

The Outbreak That Could Not Be Contained

Between Resident Evil and The House Of The Dead, the zombie outbreak had begun and we found two distant types of zombie games: One that makes you feel helpless as you try to survive. The other that makes you feel like a one-man army as you take down zombies as though they were a minor inconvenience. Both styles can have their own draw to them (and even Resident Evil has dipped its toes into that latter category a couple of times with its “Mercenaries Mode”). In a way, we can say this is the formula most to all zombie games take: Survive and (if possible) Kill Them All.

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Even if they might not be zombies, the elements are there to make you feel overwhelmed.

They can certainly overlap, but games where mowing them down (sometimes literally) is less about surviving are more about how many zombies you can take down before you decide to move on to the next location. And over the years, there have been so many iterations of zombies and how you dealt with them. Chopping off Necromorph’s limbs in Dead Space, surviving a mall or city completely overwhelmed with zombies in games like Dead Rising and Dying Light, or having a green thumb and letting your plants deal with the zombies on your lawn in Plants vs Zombies.

Our hero watching as a man stuck in the middle of a crowd gets torn apart.

Could you kill all of them? Maybe. Can you kill them all before Duncan bites it? Probably not.

So… Why Zombies?

With so many ways you can kill a zombie and how you can utilize them in games and other media, one unanswered question remains: Why are Zombie games so popular? You don’t need to look too hard to know that when there’s an oversaturation of something, it can all just become the same thing after a while. Not every zombie game out there can hope to reproduce the success Left 4 Dead or its sequel achieved (as what we saw for Back 4 Blood). So, what’s the point?

Not to oversimplify it, but if we are being completely honest: Zombies are the perfect mob enemy. Need a common enemy to blow their brains out? Toss in a zombie and watch them go boom. Want to make them more dangerous? Give them the ability to run or make an army of them. Want to make the zombies even more dangerous? Have them mutate giant muscles of dead flesh, spit acid, or transform into a zombie T-Rex.

At one point in Resident Evil 6, you do fight a particular zombie that can transform into a T-Rex. How? Well,  you will need to play the game and find out.

A zombie that can transform into a zombie T-Rex. Resident Evil 6 was weird…

Zombies are almost like a power fantasy of sorts where it is you versus a being that (most of the time anyway) can’t think. If they see you, they will move towards you to try and take a bite, and you need to survive. But who says you have to treat survival as a serious thing if you’re supposed to be playing a video game? For as many people who enjoy The Walking Dead and how it is more about the human interactions rather than the zombies themselves, other people still want to just kill themselves some zombies in the most over-the-top way possible.

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In the end, the biggest hurdle zombie games have to overcome is how to make the act of killing zombies fun and engaging while also looking at the human interactions too. After all, why are people going into mansions unless there’s something inside there that could help to explain why there are so many dead people walking around? Why should we care about the survivors mowing down waves of zombies? And who keeps weaponizing zombies in the sequels if some of these games usually end with the nuclear option?

Part of the fun with several of these series such as Dead Island is to watch and understand how we got to this point where civilization seemingly has fallen apart, and what the people do in order to survive and perhaps even stop the outbreak from going further (if there’s a way to stop it).

Some zombies might slow, but then you have this zombie from Dead Island 2 winding up for a face punch.

That and experience some unique zombies like this big guy here really to sock you in the face.

Whether you find out by the end that the threat is dealt with or that this is life now and you have to adapt to it in the end, there will be monsters that are out there that will not do much else than try to eat you alive. But once the fear has passed and you find yourself ready to go on a killing spree, might as well grab a chainsaw and see how many of them you can chop down and see if you or your weapon breaks first.

Tell Us…

Which Zombie Game do you enjoy the most? Do you play for the story? Or just to murder as many zombies as possible? And will you be checking out Dead Island 2 next month? Be sure to follow us here at Strangely Awesome for more on Dead Island 2 and other things happening in the gaming world.

Dead Island 2 is coming out on April 21st, 2023 on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Series X/S, and PC.

Michael Solseth
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