I'll put on my flannel shirt and thick rimmed glasses now and admit to being a hipster. I liked zombies BEFORE they were cool. That's a bit disingenuous- Zombies were always cool. While cool and popular since before I was even born with the Romero movies, Zombies had a big explosion of popularity in the early 2000s with rise of The Walking Dead and other zombie media. This meant a lot of zombie video games too, and zombies kind of got repetitive. People had a falling out with zombies- but I didn't. I wasn't the type to get sick of them so easily, I still liked them. Without going to into the culture around zombie hype or disinterest; I think we're in the cool off period. People are no longer raving against zombies, pretty soon we may very well see a resurgence.
However,I'll admit that I liked zombies for the weird zombies. Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, and a few others. The Thing-esque necromorphs are a very cool take on zombies, as well as having mutant zombies with special powers ala Left 4 Dead. I always liked these because they made zombies varied and difficult opponents, regardless of how they appeared. But over the years, exactly one piece of zombie media has truly captured the spirit of zombies for me.
And it's this.
That's right. Death Road to Canada has the best zombies in any game I've played, despite the fact that all the zombies in that game are almost all the exact same. They may have slightly different speeds, aggression levels, or hit points (or maybe just your damage is randomized, which may be more likely), but there are no special zombies. There may be some rare or special encounter with a unique infected zombie I haven't seen, but I've beaten the game 2-3 times and played a bunch of runs where I died, trying lots of different survivors and random events, and I've never seen it. So I think it's safe to say that all the zombies are pretty much all the same.
But despite this, I love them. They're my favorite zombies. I think there are three main reasons for this. The first is their design. They are just kind of generic zombies, but they kind of aren't. They have these great putrid skin tones, with some great open mouths and disgusting features that only pixel art games can give justice with lots of randomization. But they have this great design in how they amble around.
Truthfully the zombies in this game suck. They're weak, especially individually. But you aren't really fighting them if you can help it. The zombies take up just enough space and are just aware enough of your presence that they are a nuisance. They barely seem to even notice you; if the zombie hoard status is “sluggish” then they don't even notice you unless you hit one a few times to even wake up to your presence. They get in your way, and you'll bat them out of the way with one or two strikes of your melee weapon. Just enough to kill that one zombie or knock them down. Now during the night time, or during special hoard sections, or depending on how angry the “hoard” is, the zombies will be more or less aware. I love how they amble around, and if you start shooting off your gun, they'll start being drawn towards you. When you get near them, little hand sprites appear that show they're reaching towards you, it's great- and since this is a 2d game you can have truly huge hoards attacking you sometimes.
Secondly, I love the mechanics of the game built around them. Despite the game only really having one enemy type, it never really gets old. The zombies don't really do “attacks” to hurt you in Death Road, instead it's just if you spend too much time close to one. If you get close to a zombie, little symbols like !@# appear above your head, as if your character is swearing, and if you spend too long in that state you'll take damage. This damage will not happen if you move away quick enough, giving you incentive to sidle right past a zombie or two, but if you're in the middle of a hoard they'll quickly damage you. It's just enough time to subconsciously move out of the way, but not enough to switch weapons and do a complex “plan” if you're in the middle of a huge hoard. It feels just perfectly timed. In addition to this; using melee weapons in the game is preferable since they don't run out of ammo of course and they make less noise then guns; but swinging in melee is slow and your characters will get tired depending on their stats. If a character is tired and sweating, it will take them longer and longer to prepare a swing. Your NPC followers will do a dance with you, moving close to strike a zombie and then moving back with you. It creates this great spacing game; but you quickly run out of space. It gives the perfect sensation of being trapped by a zombie hoard which is closing in faster then you can kill them. You stop thinking about killing the zombies and instead about finding the thinnest part of the circle growing around you; the part where you start swinging and finding a risky moment to slip through- until your low health ally is killed. But just like in horror movie fashion, they are eaten alive while the rest of the group can run past and avoid the zombies. This is a great mechanic for any game like this- you could even sacrifice your allies on purpose to do this if you wanted.
Finally; I think the third and final reason I like the zombies in this game is because they ARE generic. They aren't special individually. There's nothing to watch out for, and as I said I believe they just all have the same stats. They aren't interesting as individuals, at all. That's not the point. There's a certain elegance in every zombie in the game being the same; all being kind of weak and slow that ramp up depending on how far along in the game you are, if you're defending from a zombie hoard and so on- the zombies in this game feel like zombies should feel. They can be felt like a flood or on obstacle, they are relatively predictable, but the game thrives on putting you in situations where you are stretched to your limit no matter how much skill you have. I've played it enough times now that I can pretty easily range most zombies, but when a big hoard comes you need to get the hell out of the way or else you will get eaten. It's great; even a powerful weapon like a shotgun or chainsaw can't save you if you make a bad decision or get totally trapped. I'll admit- I've gotten good enough at this game I've beaten it a few times and can avoid zombies, but I still fear going into those damn sewers.
This is the reason why, for my own zombie-apocalypse ideas, I like the idea of all the zombies being the same. As much as "special infected" give flavor and new dimensions to combat or survival, the concept of each member of the undead hoard being just another zombie, weak individually but together a force of nature, grants a kind of purity to the whole thing.
Anyway, this post ended up being a lot more zombie focused then intended, but I just liked to post something relating to a design philosophy which I feel a lot of people into DIY, Tabletop, or OSR like. The sort of simple, yet deep. There's an elegance in the generic, the vanilla, the white bread. Like how swords, axes, maces are all just d6 damage, or the feeling of an oldschool game where all hit dice are d6 regardless of your class. I like that kind of thing from time to time, it gives a feeling of making a lot with nothing, and Death Road to Canada fills that desire when it comes to zombies, at the very least.