From mods to modes to masterpieces of undead action and drama.
Zombies make marvelous antagonists. They’re plodding dark mirrors parodying our society’s short sightedness. They’re plentiful and emotionless eaters of flesh, which makes them perfect cannon fodder for action films and twitch shooters. Their wasted visages serve the purposes of both horror and humor with equal effectiveness. They’ve been a part of the video game landscape for decades – so long that they’ve carved out their own subgenre: the “zombie game.”
Strangely, the still-shambling corpses of the damned have been important to some of gaming’s more notable narratives and innovations.
Here are the 13 best zombie games of all time.
13. Zombies Ate My Neighbors
Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a bizarre, colorful, and expansive SNES cartridge from the golden days of LucasArts. It’s a wickedly funny game that relies on adorable and bizarre animation for most of the laughs, and the delightful cartoon enemies are half the fun. Before the journey is over you’ll battle space bugs, save cheerleaders, leap on trampolines, and fight a giant baby. Beyond the garish trappings, it’s a very well designed cooperative shooter that manages to find environmentally-destructive uses from everything from squirt guns to rocket launchers. Since the main thrust of each level is rescuing civilians rather than defeating enemies, it also requires a lot more thought to finish than your average arcade style game, a design innovation that adds a great deal to the challenge and replayability.
12. I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1
The innovative Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace is sadly a thing of the past, but before the service met its untimely demise it gave the 360 this deeply memorable zombie game. Ska Studios’ twin-stick zombie shooter only cost a buck, and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies on three merits: its value pricing, some awesomely frantic arcade action in the vein of Robotron, and one of the most bodacious theme songs in game history. Seriously, the song alone makes the game worth playing.
11. Dying Light
Survival mechanics meet grappling hooks in Dying Light, a big, messy genre mash up. Dying Light combines some of Minecraft’s greatest strengths like scavenging for materials in an open world, item crafting, and scary monsters that come out at night with solid hand to hand combat, a fun and speedy traversal system, and grappling hooks. Zombies and grappling hooks: a match made in video game heaven.
10. Urban Dead
Think of it as Animal Crossing for the undead, but online, persistent, text-based, and completely social. No graphics to speak of, no NPCs… just thousands of real-world players surviving as scavengers or hunting down their former allies as newborn zombies. You only have a few action points a day to issue commands, after which you have to simply wait to move again, and the tension of anticipating another turn becomes almost unbearable as you start to consider all the awful things that might be happening while you’re asleep. Urban Dead is nearly a decade old, but its innovations are still strikingly unique. Every corpse you encounter or gang you stumble across is a living, breathing player, and the consequences of surviving in a world where both the living and the dead act with cunning makes this a frightfully exciting simulation. Thirteen years after its release, Urban Dead remains a captivating experiment in game design.
9. Call Of Duty: World at War
World War II, zombies, and multiplayer shooters… together at last. Nazis have long been identified with occultism, (both in reality and popular fiction) and Treyarch’s decision to go all-in on the campy grindhouse aesthetic changed the face of multiplayer shooters. Zombies helped lighten the mood in a series that was increasingly mired in its own self-importance, reminding players, critics, and creators that it is all a game.
8. ARMA II: DayZ Mod
The survival genre owes a great debt to DayZ, which began life as a mod for military simulator ARMA II. DayZ contrasted the surrealism of a zombie infestation with the hyperrealism of exposure, infection, hunger, and the degeneration of human nature in the face of disaster. You simply never knew whether the next person you met was out to help you or murder you. Just how much fun can playing as a cowering, nearly powerless victim in a world full of lumbering AI zombies and ruthless human scavengers really be? Turns out it’s a addictively captivating and exhilarating experience. Everything from Fortnite to Rust owes DayZ a tremendous debt for its willingness to throw unarmed players into a hostile land with of their fellow humans and see what happens next. Turns out the zombies are rarely the real monsters.
7. Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
How do you make your surprisingly-successful open world cowboy game even better? Release a reimagining of the western drama where all the characters you know and love now eat the flesh of the living! Undead Nightmare was pure zombie-blasting bliss with a healthy dose of supernatural armageddon to boot. Turns out John Marston was born to slay the undead and ride the horses of the apocalypse. Undead Nightmare set the gold standard for single-player DLC and remains a standout example of reimagined excellence.
6. Left 4 Dead
Around the same time Treyarch was bringing Zombies into World at War, Valve was introducing us all to their own cooperative take on battling the forces of undeath. Left 4 Dead pitted teams of four allies against mobs of zombies ruled by an invisible enemy: the innovative AI director, a carefully constructed protocol designed to dynamically influence the game as it unfolded. The AI director worked to create a constant sense of danger, tweaking the action on the fly to keep things feeling constantly exciting but never allowing the challenge to dip into the impossible. The result was a ridiculously replayable zombie shooter that makes us wish that Valve was still in the business of making new video games.
5. The Last of Us
Yes, the clickers are technically big fungus-people, but really they’re zombies. And yes, this is largely a game about throwing bottles and bricks at people, but who cares? It’s scary, it’s heartbreaking, it’s infuriating, and it’s beautiful. A generation after launch, The Last of Us remains a benchmark against which great video game drama is compared.
4. Planescape: Torment
Planescape is one of those games that you occasionally hear is really good and then you look up one screenshot and go “nope, I’m never playing that” and walk away and your life is worse for it. Listen, I get that the appearance is anachronistic, but seriously, this game is too good to miss. It’s so good I can barely find words worthy to describe the magnitude of its goodness. It is a crime against life itself not to play this game.
It’s an RPG about being immortal, crammed with more undead than you can shake a severed limb at, including zombies assigned to alternately sad and hilarious purposes. The necrotic atmosphere permeates every moment in the game: you start the story laying on a slab, your best friend is a disembodied skull, and there are so many dead things running around that there’s a special ability dedicated just to talking with them. Torment is a deeply biting and tragic RPG that turns practically every trope and convention of the genre on its head. It’s also quite accessible today, with ports to mobile and a nice shiny GOG wrapper to play on modern PCs.
3. Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 2 is a triumph of survival horror, a sprawling, weirdly compelling epic that somehow managed to overcome its famously lackluster controls. RE2 allowed you to experience a single terrifying night through the unique perspective of two victims, their occasionally overlapping paths both snaking toward horrific discoveries in a city torn apart by an unleashed bioweapon. It’s a tremendously moody and atmospheric game with great pacing, a growing sense of dread, nice monster design, frequent jump scares, and just enough resource scarcity to keep things tense through the end. It’s also absolutely packed with slow, old school zombies, and even the weakest among them can be a threat in the right circumstances.
2. Resident Evil HD Remaster
The HD remake of the OG survival horror classic edges out Resident Evil 2 on this list largely on the virtue of the improved controls. The original Resident Evil doesn’t boast quite the scope of its sprawling sequel, but the tighter, almost claustrophobic design of the mansion often works to heighten the horror. The constant threat of the fearsome double-reanimated Crimson Heads in areas you’ve previously cleared fuels a compounding sense of dread that you’re in continual zombie danger no matter how heavily armed you become. The legendary cheesy dialogue is icing on the cake.
Also, if you finish the game in under three hours, you can blow up zombies with a bottomless rocket launcher. If for some reason you want to watch me play RE HD Remaster for three hours and show you how, look no further than this link.
1. The Walking Dead: Season 1
“Carly will remember that.” What a gut punch.
Long ago, before the TV show sucked, the Walking Dead made us giggle a little and made us cry a lot. Through the masterfully-written inaugural season, Telltale proved that point and click adventure games could somehow manage to terrify. The writing and delivery are minimal and masterful, with the bulk of the effort spent creating flawed characters we love or loathe and then stripping them away from us one by one. By the end we wonder if anybody is getting out of this alive. The Walking Dead Season 1 helped kick off a revival of adventure game storytelling which continues to influence game design today. Telltale may be gone, but their horror masterpiece remains undead in our hearts.
Jared Petty produces Red Dead Radio: The Red Dead Redemption Podcast, Hop, Blip, and a Jump, and Pockets Full of Soup. He’s a host at Kinda Funny Games and a frequent contributor to IGN. Happy post-Halloween, everyone. Follow him on Twitter @pettycommajared and on Instagram @pettycommajared.