Resurrected with a bit more rot.
I didn’t think anyone was clamoring for Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse’s triumphant resurrection from the mid-aughts grave of the original Microsoft Xbox. The Nintendo direct announcement of this third-person action game was bewildering, and instantly piqued my interest as someone who was tangentially aware of the series but never had the opportunity to play it on its original release. The re-release is a nice continuation of bringing new life to older games that still have some embers of fandom.
Stubbs is a shade of green, has a gaping wound in his abdomen, wears a suit, and smokes a cigarette. He comes to life in the city of Punchbowl, Pennsylvania, a retro-futuristic hybrid town where robots take care of every need, like in Wall-E, with a style taken directly from doo-wop. I’m sure there was some story, but despite completing the game I cannot remember for the life of me anything beyond a string of ten second cutscenes that were madcap and silly. The whole tone of the game is equally ridiculous: police officers sounding like bumpkins mixed with the crookedness of a cop drama; actual bumpkins that badly exaggerate how they sound; and robot assistants that sound like Rosie the Robot but have the dry humor that comes off like a less cutting Fallout joke.
In the beginning, grabbing victims, eating brains, and swiping with your decaying hand are your only tools. One of the most joyful moments comes from seeing your victims come back to life as fellow zombies, attacking the living along with you and controlled by your whistle. As you stagger across malls, police stations, and town squares, humans sustain you by filling meters for special attacks unlocked throughout the game. These include a spleen-tossing for grenades, a big wind-up fart for an area-of-effect attack, and being able to temporarily possess a human by tossing your severed hand and having it skitter around like Thing from The Addams Family until it can latch on to their head. They are fun tools to use in an otherwise uncompelling experience. Stubbs the Zombie feels like a great example of 3D action games of its time: an experience based on a premise (being the zombie terrorizing people), using character to paper over movement that doesn’t feel great and combat that feels imprecise.
Between the typical combat moments are brief departures into different gameplay types. One has you driving bouncy-feeling tanks and pot-shotting people with its cannon in movement that feels like a facsimile of the Halo warthog. Another has you facing off in a disco dance-off that plays like a round of Simon and includes truly magical, mind-bending renditions of popular music of the time including “Earth Angel” performed by Death Cab for Cutie. All of these scenes are interlaced with a kind of lowbrow humor that sometimes falls flat, while others hit the so-bad-it’s-good territory.
Unsurprisingly, Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse is a product of its time. A simple third-person action game whose distinctions are chomping on victim’s throats and a riffing off a distinct style of a bygone era. Comedy evoking flatulence, old/tired stereotypes, and an environment with a classic foundation dipped in futurism do provide occasional dystopian humor. Whether this is for you depends on how much fondness you have for games of this era. This is no remaster or remake; it’s a direct port. For me, the pieces come together just enough to find fun in spite of itself.