As a younger lad, I was fortunate enough to experience large arcades in the local malls, not quite in their prime, but certainly a few years before their decline into the dark days of a few busted cabinets shoved into a neglected corner, one malfunctioning change machine dropped nearby as an afterthought, joysticks and buttons crippled, raped of their former glory by snot nosed punks with their hip shoes and music posters on the wall. Uh, anyway, like most future murderers, I always gravitated towards any game that featured a gun controller, and in particular any game with a gun that involved shooting zombies. I spent absurd amounts of quarters on CarnEvil and House of the Dead, and even after finally beating them, I'd always want to go another round.
There really wasn't anything quite like blasting zombies, at least until a certain gathering of mucus-infested children of a younger, hipper, generation descended upon those pristine hunks of plastic, forever tarnishing the ever-satisfying triggers with their greedy little mitts - but their hotbed of reckless destruction can only last for so long, because the purveyors of the arcade are only bound to live in obscurity for so long, and the eve of reckoning quickly approaches. So about Zombie Panic in Wonderland. I've always yearned for a replication of the arcade experience at home - sweaty palms around a controller, noises blaring all around, people gathered around to watch. But really, no game is capable of bringing all that into one's living room. The House of the Dead ports do come close, but it's just a fact of life that you can't have a true arcade experience in the home. And Zombie Panic in Wonderland may be the first game I've ever played that appears to have taken that notion to heart.
There is a backstory to this game, and it has a few memorable quirks, but it's mostly just fluff. However, it's a zombie blasting game, and story isn't a necessity beyond getting the player from point to point. You play as some standard anime-looking characters, who have just enough distinction to make them interesting to watch on screen. Initially there are only two playable characters, the others unlock as stages are beaten, with seven in total being available at the end. The basic premise is that you are in an amusement park of sorts that is infested with zombies, skeletons, and other monsters. Your goal in each regular stage is to get the clean-up meter to 100%. Clean up is achieved by killing monsters and destroying the scenery. At the start of each stage, the area is rife with props, buildings, and flora, all of which can be destroyed. There is also a timer, so if you don't hit the magic number fast enough, it's game over. Monsters appear in predefined waves, with some advancing towards the front, others just standing their ground and hurling projectiles. The player is only able to move back and forth, as they dodge and blast the enemies - it's a design akin to the Base levels of the original Contra. And just like Contra, one hit and you'll lose a life. You start with 3 lives (which includes the vaunted 'zero guy'), but have unlimited continues.
Graphically, this game is fantastic. Zombie Panic in Wonderland is colorful, smoothly animated, and chock-full of little destructible doodads. Both player and enemy characters are beautifully drawn and animated, full of charm, and a pleasure to watch. Think later-era PS2/Gamecube, and you'll have a good idea of the quality to expect. The best part of the graphics department is that even when the field is crowded with enemies, enemy fire, and player fire, I never once experienced a slowdown in gameplay.
Mastering your zombie smasher is a cinch, thanks to the superb control scheme, which takes full advantage of the nunchuck/wiimote setup. On the Wiimote, the B trigger is the fire button, the A button fires grenades, while aiming is accomplished as expected by pointing. The control stick on the nunchuck moves the player from left to right, while the Z trigger performs a dodge move and the C button swaps weapons. It's a simple setup, properly placed to give the player total control. My only gripe in the control department is that there is no pause/menu button, so once you start a level, it's do or die. I did give the game a try using the Wii zapper, but actually found it was more comfortable to use the standard setup, as you'll be making heavy use of the nunchuck, and mostly just holding the B trigger on the wiimote endlessly.
Weaponry comes in a few flavors: the starting gun, which fires unlimited semi-automatic bursts, a heavy machine gun that tears through any enemy with ease, the flamethrower, which is invaluable against swarms of zombies, and lastly a grenade launcher, perfect for clustered enemies. Ammo for each of these weapons drops regularly from blasting pieces of the scenery, so it's always a good idea to shoot absolutely everything. Though the weapon types are a bit limited, the mechanics of the game allow for some different strategies on the player's part. Because ammo for the flamethrower and heavy machine gun runs out quickly, using them exclusively to mow down a wave of enemies will leave you underpowered. But using the flamethrower for just a couple of seconds to ignite a horde, then using the regular gun to pick off the weakened foes is highly effective, as is firing a spray of heavy machine gun ammo to fend off the pesky birds while using standard ammunition to knock back the slower moving fat zombies.
Enemies also come in a variety of styles. There are lurching zombies, booger-flinging zombies, ninja zombies, sickle-tossing skeletons, dive-bombing ravens, skeleton archers, armored zombies, fat zombies (boulder tossing and charging types), pumpkin hurling tree monsters, and even a zombie santa claus. Each enemy type has a distinct behavior and fire pattern, so recognizing how each attacks is key to surviving. As the stages progress, waves of mixed hordes start to appear, resulting in harrowing gauntlets of varied enemy fire. Once you start getting into the skeletons that throw spinning sickles, zombies that hurl slow moving projectiles, birds that divebomb periodically, and fat zombies tossing fast moving boulders, it almost becomes like a bullet hell pattern, requiring great dexterity from the player to navigate while shooting down the enemy. Bosses are a different affair, offering multi-stage cinematic fights somewhat similar to House of the Dead. Every boss looks fantastic, and poses unique challenges to the player. The giant Tin Man was my personal favorite.
Surprisingly, this little game offers a decently varied soundtrack as well. It starts with J-pop sounding tunes in the start, and morphs to more rocked out themes in the forest and somber piano melodies in the winter areas. They aren't exactly tracks that will have players foaming at the mouth for an OST release, but they do a great job in accentuating the mood of each area. Sound effects run along the same path, doing a fine job in differentiating each weapon, each enemy, and each combination of the two. It is a little strange to hear the birds make a deep death grunt, but then again, we are talking about a game where cute anime girls massacre monsters in an amusement park.
As I mentioned at the start, this game isn't designed to exactly bring an arcade title into one's home, but it mimics several aspects while taking advantage of the home console environment. The story mode allows the player to pick up at the stage where they left off, while the arcade mode offers free play on any conquered stage. The levels are challenging, but never have those irritating quarter-sucking moments where you are destined to lose a life. The gameplay is easy to learn, takes some time to master, and is addicting as hell. It took me three sit downs of about an hour or so to finish the first time, and immediately after, I was starting the game back up with another character. The two-player option is a blast as well, especially during the crazier moments.
Zombie Panic in Wonderland isn't a genre-defining experience, a hilarious romp, or something you'll remember and discuss at every opportunity. What it is however, is an arcade-style shooter that just oozes charm - from the cute little strut that the characters do at the end of each level to the tiny dwarfs that meander about during heavy gunfire, the game is full of little touches that make it a great experience. For a mere $10, you really can't lose if you have any interest in this sort of title.
LOOK WHO CAME:
Dr Light ate your Magicite