I’m sure my reaction to Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse coming back was similar to many others: huh? That’s not to say that I hadn’t heard of the game before now, as I can vaguely remember playing it many years ago, but more speaking to how weird it is to see a straight port of an old Xbox cult classic about a cigarette-smoking zombie put onto the Nintendo Switch. Weird in the best way, of course.
When I say port, I really do mean it. Besides being updated to be in HD, there are absolutely no bells and whistles added here, and certainly no changes to the gameplay mechanics. It looks fine running on the Switch in both docked and handheld, but considering this is a 15-year-old-game I was a little surprised to see the framerate locked at 30 frames-per-second. It’s not a big deal, and this is still a decent port overall, but I would have liked to see a little bit more done here.
One element of Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse that really impressed me was the music. Besides having some catchy little songs for driving vehicles or using your hand to possess people, some of the licenced tracks are a ton of fun. You’ve got covers of songs like “Earth Angel” and “Lollipop” that genuinely sound great. They’re mostly used in one scene, but they feel like a part of the game’s DNA. They’re also all available on Spotify which is pretty cool.
Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse has you in control of the titular character as he resurrects as a zombie in the middle of a retro-futuristic city called Punchbowl. Stubbs rises from his grave, steals a hotdog and then decides to take it a little further by turning everyone around him into zombies. There’s an ongoing mystery behind who Stubbs really is, but I found it incredibly hard to care all that much and I think the game is aware of that.
The plot is pretty nonsensical and jumps from scene to scene by sometimes literally just by having Stubbs being exploded from one location to the other, but it’s all wrapped up in a dark sense of humour that usually works. Having Stubbs participate in a dance contest between turning people into zombies is genuinely funny, and some of the remarks from enemies can be pretty fun if a little repetitive at times. This can be made worse by the sound mixing occasionally glitching to have lines stacked on top of one another, which in itself is funny in all the wrong ways.
It’s the gameplay where Rebel Without A Pulse gets a little bit less interesting. Most missions have you controlling Stubbs as he shuffles around and slowly recruits more zombies to his horde. Beyond some simple objectives, that’s really the main focus of the game- shambling from area to area killing whatever stands in your way and turning them into zombies. The game acts as if you can build up a massive group to help you but really they’re only passively there and occasionally offer any help and it’s up to Stubbs to take most of the enemies on. Luckily you come equipped with a few abilities that mix things up, such as a hand that possesses people and being able to bowl your head like a grenade.
These abilities make playing the game a lot of fun, as without them Stubbs would be pretty useless. The game also mixes things up quite a bit by introducing vehicles and changing locations pretty constantly. The game is never dull, although the repetition definitely starts to set in by the time the credits roll around. That’s weird considering the game is notoriously short, but that’s likely due to the lack of evolution in the gameplay mechanics. It might seem like I’m missing a lot out, but there’s really not a lot else to talk about. Still, though, I had a lot of fun playing the four-hour campaign. It’s simplistic, but it definitely hits some high notes and sticks with you. It’s really a big shame that it didn’t catch on more, as a sequel that expands on the mechanics at play here would really be a ton of fun.
That being said, this is a game that really could have used some little tweaks and adjustments. Waypoints and objective markers can be vague or nonexistent, checkpointing can be hair-rippingly frustrating and whistling to attract your fellow zombies is taken as more of a suggestion by the game than anything else. Some of these things are admittedly minor, but combined with the minute-to-minute gameplay being so repetitive it can make things a lot more difficult than they need to be.
Playing Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse had me thinking about my own niche games that I adore due to playing them when I was younger, and how sometimes it can be hard for them to appeal to people as the game ages. Psychonauts is a game I’d rant and rave about until I was blue in the face, but I’m sure anyone jumping into it now might find it a bit clunky. I think it’s very much the same with Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse, as I’m sure there are people who adore this game even now when it’s showing its age, whilst I can appreciate what it does without thinking too much of it.
With that in mind, there were times during my playthrough where I thought that Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse really could have benefitted from a remake, akin to something like the recent Destroy All Humans one. This port is fine overall but it doesn’t change the game in any meaningful way when it really does show its age in some instances. There are enough good ideas and fun moments to make a playthrough worthwhile, but seeing a re-done Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse would have arguably been better since there are some really great ideas here.
I came away from finishing Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse with some pretty mixed feelings. I definitely enjoyed what I played, however brief and repetitive it was, but I couldn’t help wishing that this port had seen some adjustments or extra content to the game, or better yet some sort of remake. I wanted to be as big a fan of Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse as I am of other niche titles, but I ended up finding it as a fun, if a bit brainless, time.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Aspyr