"If you can stand the notion of devouring brains, watching your victims rise from the ground and stumble about at your will is quite enjoyable. A kid with the baseball bat soon joins your team, and you can whistle to make him shamble over to you, or just leave him to expand your army the best he can."
It happened in the late 1950s. Two teenagers, very much in love and very hungry, headed to the park to share a single hotdog. They knelt on the grass and began to nibble from both ends, sincerely planning to meet in the middle. At that very moment, a slimy green hand burst from the turf beneath them. It gripped the hotdog for a second before a hunched over form climbed out of the earth, barely clothed in tattered rags that didn’t hide the spaghetti-like intestines dangling from its exposed ribcage.
Rather than run screaming, the young man shouted at the zombie for taking his food. The girl also remained remarkably composed. They sought assistance from a nearby guide robot, which scooted over to reprimand the zombie for the weenie theft. This is where Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse begins, with you in the role of the eponymous member of the undead. Your objective throughout the game’s remainder is to eat as many brains as possible, and sometimes to complete a few other objectives in the process.
You might wonder how robots stroll the streets in 1950s America. While you ponder that, know that there are also hover cars and rocket packs and mad scientists and various other fixtures of 1950s science fiction cinema. Seeing such a mix while listening to remixes of music from that decade is odd, but you’ll quickly adapt because everyone is shouting about communists and dressing like squares (familiar ground for gamers who played things like Destroy All Humans!). Also, the whole game is filtered so that it looks like you’re watching an ancient home movie. Most games wouldn’t get away with such a gimmick, but here it really adds to the charm.
You need all the charm you can get, too, when your game is about some zombie munching on brains. Don’t doubt for a second that Stubbs earns his “M” rating. Our hungry protagonist is an emotionless monster, at least at first. He kills the young lovers in the park, the police that come to rescue them, and just about everyone else. Deaths are gruesome. Generally, Stubbs punches someone a few times to weaken them, then rocks them back and latches his decaying jaws on their heads. Blood flies and over-the-top slurping sounds follow, while your victims scream things like “I have kids” or sometimes something inane like “that was my second favorite arm!” Then they’re dead.
That’s not their end, though, and it’s here that Stubbs the Zombie finds its appeal. If you can stand the notion of devouring brains, watching your victims rise from the ground and stumble about at your will is quite enjoyable. A kid with the baseball bat soon joins your team, and you can whistle to make him shamble over to you, or just leave him to expand your army the best he can. What about the chainsaw guy? Dodge his attacks long enough, counter with a few of your own, and he’ll rise from the ground as one of your minions. It’s really cool at first, until you realize that zombies lose the ability to wield weapons. I would have loved to see my hapless clones pick up firearms or crowbars, but they never did. Even so, it’s a lot of fun once you have a crowd following you. Enemies at that point are typically overwhelmed without too much effort, and they serve as the distraction you’ll need to get up close and personal with law enforcement officials, soldiers or scientists.
Though forming zombie squads is fun, it does get old. Fortunately, the game adds a few clever diversions. These mini-games don’t occur very often, and they’re always tied into humorous plot twists, so I’ll do you a favor and avoid spoiling them. Let me say this, though: they’re hysterically random. The game is often at its best when you remember how absurd everything is.
Despite the frequent hilarity, the plot is actually a compelling reason to keep playing. What starts simply, with a zombie killing teenage lovers, quickly turns into a remarkable love story. The fart jokes, the sexual innuendo, the parodies… none of that gets in the way of the game’s central theme. As threads begin to weave themselves together and you realize the relationship the various characters share, there are a few “Aha” moments that propel you through that next level or two, just to see what happens next. Then another cutscene comes and you’re laughing again, even if just a moment before you were grimacing as Stubbs tore off some guy’s arm and brandished it as a club.
The game needs that compelling plot, because it definitely does have some dents in its armor. For one thing, environments are often rather bland. They range from a few skyscrapers, to city rubble, to sterile labs, to a farm with corn stalks and sheep, to a canyon with wacky plant life. That’s about it, and it’s easy to get lost if you forget to keep track of your bearings for even a moment. Sometimes, you’ll be making progress, then turn around because you’re sure you’ve already been to that area before, even when you haven’t. The game is short, but I spent about an hour just wondering where the heck I was and where I was supposed to go next. It doesn’t help that objectives aren’t marked on your map, or—wait a minute, there’s no map! That might not seem like much, but one definitely would have been appreciated in this case.
Still, you can’t take away what Stubbs the Zombie does right, which is just about everything. The unique mix of humor, gore, drama and mayhem means that it’s easy to spend a few hours lost in the game’s magic. Then you’re watching the credits scroll while you listen to catchy tunes. They don’t generally make music like that anymore. Then again, they don’t usually make games like this one, either. Give it a shot. You know you’re dying to.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (November 08, 2005)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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