Robotron: 2084 with zombies. Somebody at Nihilistic Software must have plugged a lot of quarters into this Williams Electronics classic back in the day, because the developer's Zombie Apocalypse is a pitch-perfect modernization of the shoot-'em-up that occupied prime arcade real estate next to Donkey Kong and Galaga in 1982. The action in this Xbox Live Arcade/PSN game is intense, unrelenting, and soaked in blood as you blast your way through thousands of shambling undead who want to chow down on your cranium. All of this merciless carnage can turn into a grind after a few hours of play and do real damage to your thumbs, but not before you've had more than enough fun to justify the cost of the download.
Gameplay is centered on, surprisingly enough, a zombie apocalypse. An unexplained comet or disease or whatever Romero-ish plot device you can imagine has caused the dead to rise from their graves absolutely famished, so you need to deal with them by blasting them back to hell. You pick one of four B-movie hero archetypes and head into the game with the single-minded objective of killing swarms of attacking zombies and occasionally helping an uninfected human be airlifted to safety via helicopter. All of the action is viewed from an isometric perspective, and you move with the left stick and handle eight-way shooting with the right stick. Clinging zombies can be shaken off by moving the left stick rapidly, a chainsaw can be whipped out for melee combat and executions, and you can throw out an explosive teddy bear as bait to draw off the zombie hordes when you're about to be overwhelmed. Even with these extras, running and gunning is a fluid process where you don't need to think about what you're doing. You just flow into the game and let your thumbs take over. Blisters are the only thing you have to worry about.
So zany action is Zombie Apocalypse's best characteristic. But there is also a fair bit of depth here for an old-timey arcade game, as long as you aren't expecting the world for your 10-spot (or 800 Microsoft points). The 55-mission campaign can be tackled either solo or with up to three of your buddies cooperatively either online or off. A number of special modes can also be unlocked as you complete goals through the campaign, including the 7 Days of Hell marathon and a blackout option that darkens the entire screen except for a pool of light around your character. There are just seven different maps in the game that cycle as you move through the campaign, which is a bit of a drag because you can get bored with running through the same old graveyard, spooky carnival, and smashed-up helipad over and over again. These levels feature lots of explosives, however, along with zombie death traps like an airplane engine that can suck in the brain-eaters, so you're not just fighting in front of static backdrops. Levels are also spiced up with the regular introduction of new zombies and power-up weapons. At first you can get by running around and strafing packs of shuffling zombies with the default machine gun. Later, you need to deal with more deadly undead, such as vomiting Pukers, dancing Dodgers, powerhouse Big Boys, knife-throwing Grannies, and dynamite-toting Kamikazes, by employing a range of hardware that drops from the sky, like shotguns, flamethrowers, grenade launchers, and chainguns. Game balance is nearly perfect. The blend of melee- and range-attack zombies keeps you on your toes, and you get enough weapon drops to keep things interesting.
With all that said, Zombie Apocalypse can turn into a slog. The game simply wasn't meant for lengthy solo play. Playing the campaign solo turns into a continue-fest around level 20, since by that point the number of undead is overwhelming and the standard zombie types start coming in a tougher radioactive flavor. You need to kill at least 200 to 300 zombies in each of the upper levels, along with an insane 1,500-plus of the hungry dead in the penultimate level, and also take out the occasional flesh-pile boss that shoots lasers at you. The finale is just brutal, with lasers flashing, teeth erupting out of the ground, giant hands spawning flying insta-death thingies, and, of course, a few zombies. It's all flat-out impossible for a single player and is tough even when you've got three friends tagging along. At least the continues are unlimited, and your progress is automatically saved at the end of each level. It can also be hard to find players online interested in sticking it out to the last-day finale. Going all the way to level 55 is a hefty commitment that requires a good three or four hours of steady play.
Some aspects of the game also seem a little limited. The game's four heroes are exactly the same except for looks, so there is no difference in how the OCD-addled doctor and the requisite babe battle the zombies. It's a bit disappointing that the heroes don't vary in terms of even some minor characteristics, like speed or shooting rate, just to give the game extra replay value. All the heroes do to distinguish themselves from one another is perform a signature celebration at the end of levels, but there are so few variations of these whoop-whoop moments that they get grating almost immediately. Graphics are good and gory, with blood and severed limbs all over the place, but foreground objects sometimes obscure your view and leave you open to be killed by an unseen zombie. An even bigger problem comes from the radioactive zombies, who are so blurred by their green glow that it's hard to tell a Granny from a Big Boy. The audio really delivers when it comes to shooting and ka-boom noises, although the generic metal music is forgettable, and the Tickle Me Elmo voice of the zombie-bait teddy bear starts off funny with its cooing "I'm stuffed with love…and C4!" line but gets annoying when you realize you're going to hear this incessantly.
After spending a dozen or so hours shooting, scorching, and otherwise scouring the earth of the living dead, you'll wonder why it took more than 25 years for somebody to come up with the idea of mashing together Robotron and zombies. Zombie Apocalypse isn't any big achievement in game design, but what it lacks in innovation it more than makes up for with good, mindless fun.