With all the noise around backwards compatibility and the glut of remasters, reboots, and remakes, it is sometimes easy to think that we have access to pretty much every notable title from the history of gaming at our fingertips. This is far from the case though, with many games only being accessible at prohibitive prices or through illegitimate means, whether due to console updates, the shutting down of central servers, or issues over lapsed licensing deals.
Stubbs the Zombie has always been one of the most (in)famous of these titles, accruing a notoriety and fame due to its unavailability. Now, thanks to the game’s publisher Aspyr, the current champions of rereleasing games for newer system,) the scalper market for Punchbowl’s most tenacious resident is about to go belly up.
I have fond memories of playing Stubbs way back in the mists of the past on the original Xbox. At the time it stood out for its novel approach to the usual horror conventions and its use of the Halo engine. I distinctly remembered a surprisingly moving narrative, epic set-pieces and a full range of bodily related abilities as well as a distinctive soundtrack and impressive visuals.
Upon returning to this remastered version it is clear that several of these memories were rose tinted at best, or completely wrong at worst. Aspyr are completely honest in their approach here. This isn’t a fancy remake, but a remaster in its purest form, taking the original game and updating the code to work on modern machines. Along the way they have added widescreen display, full controller support on PC and online co-op through Steam Remote Play Together, so the overall package is much more in line with modern expectations.
For new players coming to Stubbs without the benefit of nostalgia, the beginning of the game is refreshingly obscure. There is little in the way of explanation as to why you are playing as a zombie and your only real motivation an unending desire for sweet, sweet brains. The initial tutorial is functional (although the ironic achievement for completing it is an example of the annoying trend for developers to think that saying a game action is boring excuses its inclusion) and abilities are gradually introduced at a good rate throughout the game. Effectively all you know at the start of the game is that you are a zombie and that you are in a retro-futuristic town called Punchbowl that benefits from revolutionary new power sources. From here you must shamble ever onwards until you discover the real reasons behind your death and return from the grave.
Graphically Stubbs is understandably dated. This is not a full remake in the vein of the recent Destroy All Humans release (a game that shares many aspects of tone and theme) so you are getting a game that is over fifteen years old now. That being said, some of the level design and the town itself still hold up pretty well. Character models and textures clearly show their age, but nothing is offensively bad. Some of the humour, visual and verbal, is also very much of its time with stereotyped 1950s jocks and rednecks found amongst the enemies. Sound effects are suitably squishy and visceral and there are some nice musical moments, but most of the game is tune free. Despite the original soundtrack having been published under Aspyr’s own label, any licensing issues seems to have been circumvented by just not providing music outside of several key moments, which does make the game feel like an uncanny echo of the DMCA issues around Twitch streams.
As you work through the game you expand your abilities from simple attacks and bites, but these remain the core of your arsenal. Biting unaware or weakened enemies recruits them to your side and this remains an awesome gameplay experience. Seemingly impossible odds slowly shift in your favour as each defeated foe becomes a fellow zombie shambling forward in search of brains. These arena battles hold up pretty well, although they make up the bulk of the game and do begin to feel repetitive by the end.
Some variation is offered by the later addition of a possession ability which involves your severed hand sneaking up on enemies and then using their weapons to thin the crowd. This, alongside exploding gut grenades (a copy and paste of Halo’s satisfying sticky plasma grenades), poisonous flatulence and a bowling ball head attack result in some different options in combat, but there is generally one obvious approach that works.
The sense of linearity in combat is exacerbated by the level design and progression. There are almost no alternative routes or approaches; locked doors and blocked passages funnelling you forward in an unerring hunger for revenge. This feels appropriate, but also shows Stubbs’ age. Combined with the relatively short playing time, the overall effect was simply not as impressive as my memories led me to believe. There are some great moments in here – the confrontation with the police chief is a masterpiece in surreal game design – but the game itself feels like a relic from an earlier age.