Brock Wilbur explores the lesser-known horror games of the 20th century.
Here comes the most 2005 thing that ever happened: Stubbs the Zombie: in Rebel Without a Pulse. Yes, that’s a real title for a real triple-A game. This is where I shine. This is what I was built for in this series.
In 1959 (yes, the same year Bioshock is set, so a great year of fear-based entertainment), Punchbowl, Pennsylvania, is hopping. Sock-hopping but also hopping technologically and in other valuable categories. A billionaire industrialist playboy named Andrew (my god Bioshock, how much did you steal) runs this utopian paradise that mixes Jetson’s futurism with Jetson’s naiveté. It’s the kind of place where pneumatic tubes shove the populace to-and-fro but they’re always accompanied by jetpack aided barbershop quartets or jetpack aided robot helpers. It’s a city designed to help everyone and no one ever consider that this assistance should have limits.
Enter Edward “Stubbs” Stubblefield. Or, I suppose, exit Edward “Stubbs” Stubblefield. Stubbs was a traveling salesman back in the ‘30s who started dating Andrew’s mom (Maggie Monday) but then her dad straight-up shotgun murdered him and buried him in the woods. Now our fedora-sporting protagonist has risen from the grave and this city of the future is more than happy to help him find his way back to his one true love.
Unfortunately, Stubbs is now a flesh-hungry, bloodthirsty, bone-craven undead monster. As a zombie, Stubbs has a lot of newfound powers. He can devour the living and turn them into zombie subordinates that he can use to mob enemies. He also has organs he can tear from his body cavity and launch at foes like a grenade. He can tear arms off living humans and beat them to death with them. This last one is entirely unnecessary, but, boy, do I love doing it.
To recap: You’re a zombie in love with a woman you lost twenty year previous, whose son built a city of futurism that he cannot control and you’ve got to kill everyone to find love again. Look, I think this is a tale as old as time and/or a song as old as rhyme.
In one of the strangest turns in the history of gaming, this title was built using the engine from Halo, right after we got Halo. When I say built in the Halo engine, I mean it plays identically, despite being Not That Game in any way. If you choose to enter the campaign in co-op mode, you’ll find yourself shouting “Why am I playing Halo?” Entire levels seem to have been lifted with no consideration for the fact they do not belong in this Jetsons Nightmare. This barely touches on the fact that this is absolutely not the way Stubbs should play, but this is the way Stubbs was delivered to us, so you find a way to say: “Sure. Fine.”
Even the most invested fans won’t clamor to demand an HD remake of this. Revisiting it is a shocking disappointment. These are gigantic levels that are poorly designed in such a way that I remember losing an entire hour trying to solve checkpoint issues in level three and, a decade later, I’m doing the same thing. Just like the first Halo, this game is insanely easy with a friend by your side, but oh wow was it not built to support that with any sort of balance and levels can become unmanageable quickly. A different kind of difficulty.
You can throw parts of your body that explode and you can throw parts of your body that crawl on the ground to hunt foes through other rooms and you can just be yourself, but that is terribly boring in a world that starts with a stylized bang and almost immediately becomes level after level of the abandoned Missouri mall from Gone Girl.
God, this is a crap revisit. I wish I wasn’t writing this. Stu, I am actively mad at what I’ve given you. Cancel this column.
When the game starts, it seems like you’re about to see the scale and excitement of what videogames can do, in a time when videogames needed this kind of push. This is exactly the title that, if fully realized, would be what we make hardcover art books for now. If Alice: Madness Returns can have it, so can Stubbs.
The game slips from this stylized city into warehouses and industrial rooms and abandoned streets. The civilians you turned into monster allies soon becomes endless waves of soldiers and scientists using Mars Attacks! ray guns and jetpacks. Then it’s back to weird missions based around eating certain brains, or breaking some kind of machine or series of machines. It’s all so badly put together. Even within the time period. Psychonauts did a better Patton tribute. I’m a little lost as to have my memory shifted on this. I love this game, but this is a slog and simultaneously two short by half.
Between sections where your body parts go on their own separate journeys, dating the mother of the antagonist and throwing organ-based fart grenades – these are all elements that set Stubbs apart from nearly every other videogame in existence. That is the enduring legacy here: a title so outside the box that perhaps there never was a box. That doesn’t necessarily create a good, or even interesting, gameplay experience. As far as survival or horror, it doesn’t do anything interesting despite being plenty gory.
As you may not play the game now, may I suggest that you do find the soundtrack CD (available for like $3 used) and make it your new favorite album. It’s a bunch of fantastic indie bands doing alt-universe versions of bopping 50s pop tracks. Death Cab does a flawless “Earth Angel,” Cake’s “Strangers in the Night” is unreasonably excellent and The Flaming Lips do one of their all-career oddest arrangements of “If I Only had a Brain” from Wizard of Oz. You get it? This is a game about zombies. Zombies eat brains. We’re all having fun.
There’s tongue-in-cheek, and this game is drenched in it, but it could have been tongue-outside-of-cheek or even tongue-through-cheek and the real shame is that no one gave this team a chance to do anything this original again. It still feels both punk and exciting to see the biggest videogame engine of the time taken over by horror anarchists who wanted to fill you with joy by mobbing unsuspecting men and women with your army of zombie children.
Sorry Stubbs. I’ll miss what we had.