Unearthing the Undying ‘Plants vs. Zombies’ Franchise

The most annoying thing about zombies is how, no matter what you may do, they never seem to die. Zombies have overtaken the media for decades. From Romero’s genre-defining Night of the Living Dead, to the Walking Dead comic series that has spawned multiple video game adaptations and a seemingly never-ending television series, the trend of the undead may have died off, but the genre is still alive (yes, pun is intended) and well. We see different respectable interpretations of the undead, whether it’d be the self-aware slapstick found in Zombieland, or the chaotic 4-player co-op of Left 4 Dead. Indie companies try to catch on as well with indie successes such as 7 Days to Die and State of Decay where survival is of utmost priority. But in the end, killing zombies is just getting… boring.

Call of Duty: World at War introduced its Zombie mode as a gimmicky and fun reward after finishing the campaign. What no one sought, however, was the phenomenon it would be, becoming a staple for almost every title afterwards. It managed to balance cooperative gameplay with survival-horror in a way that makes it the most memorable aspect of the franchise. But the last truly successful take we got on the zombie trend was 2013’s The Last of Us, garnering countless glowing reviews and Game of the Year awards with its raw storytelling, personal and flawed characters, and tense, brutal action setpieces. But let’s admit it: The Last of Us was a game of its time. What cultural impact has The Last of Us left in its wake? It’s undoubtedly Sony’s most critically and financially successful IP in the last ten years, but it’s impact on pop culture is meek at best. 

Very few titles of the zombie oversaturation are engraved in pop culture. We’ve had successes, but very few have lived on as a cultural impact. Is there a title that has lived on even a decade later, spawning itself a legacy and a name for itself? Is there any at all– Yes. There is. So let’s get to it, then.

Upon first glance, Plants vs. Zombies seems wholly familiar. Indeed, Plants vs. Zombies may not be the first of its kind, but it revolutionized its genre. Would games like Clash of Clans, Kingdom Rush, and other visually-similar tower defense games be the same without it? Perhaps not. Perhaps they wouldn’t even exist without Popcap’s Plants vs. Zombies, a series that has had a cycle of ups and downs in ports, sequels, and spin-offs. Though Plants vs. Zombies may have lost its touch in recent years, the original stands as the most charming and influential game of the late 2000’s.

If you’ve heard of Bejeweled, Peggle, and Bookworm Adventures, chances are you’ve played Plants vs. Zombies. Originally published on Windows and Mac in 2009 by Popcap Games, Plants vs. Zombies released to critical acclaim, praised for its simple yet addictive gameplay, charming and vibrant visuals, and the iconic music by Laura Shigihara; her song ‘Zombies on Your Lawn’ becoming a staple piece of the franchise. Released a month prior to the game’s release on May 5, it blew up and gained the game plenty of well-deserved media attention. So how is Plants vs. Zombies such a seemingly household name but seems to have lost its touch over the years?

All it takes to put a sour taste in someone’s mouth is two letters:

Plants vs. Zombies quickly became – if you could forgive the term – ‘EA-ified’ once Electronic Arts purchased Popcap for a measly… $750 million. This meant ports for home consoles and mobile games, the latter being a medium that isn’t regarded too highly as quality. Playing Plants vs. Zombies for free sounds like a steal!… you say, until you’re invaded with microtransactions and ads that interrupt your gameplay. Still, that’s nothing to say with Plants vs. Zombies 2, with its numerous microtransactions for premium plants, coins, and gems. But what’s still important to remember is what Plants vs. Zombies used to be, a game beloved by both casual and hardcore gamers. A story of how something so beloved and iconic can have its legacy tainted. We must look at…

Something Old

In Plants vs. Zombies, you play the role of a homeowner who finds themselves in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Rather than supplying yourself with the age-old reliable shotguns and baseball bats, your only line of defense is scientifically-engineered plants that can shoot, block, eat, freeze, ignite, or explode the endless hordes of zombies. With a vibrant Saturday morning cartoon artstyle, no two plants look or act alike: from the zombie-hungry Chomper, the crushing Squash, to the mind-bending Hypnoshroom. 

The gameplay may not be wholly original, but its fresh and unique way of colliding two different tones of sugary-sweet lightheartedness and the macabre makes an experience that can’t be found anywhere else. You would think slaying hordes of the undead for hours would get stale and tiring, but every level brings something new to the table. The game is also disgustingly funny and charming. Where a zombie game can be scary and depressing, Plants vs Zombies is a hilarious, irresistible commentary of the genre. Zombies scribble you handwritten letters, inviting you out to a “midnight znack” of “ice cream and brains”. Oblivious zombies that detonate (or go SPUDOW!) when they unwittingly step on a Potato Mine. Zombies that will attempt to continue eating a plant even if their heads fall off in defeat. It’s loaded with personality; loaded with passion. 

The level design isn’t exactly the most imaginative, but provides plenty of variation and level gimmicks to keep it fresh. From the straight-forward front lawn, to the nighttime where Sun is a limited resource, to the backyard pool that requires more resources to defend your home, to the nighttime fog that obstructs your view, and finally the rooftop that changes the terrain entirely. With 10 levels for each “world” and a new plant earned in each level, levels play out nearly the same, but there’s always a tiny twist.

Zombies in the game add a whole new dimension of charm to the world. Funny while still remaining a threat, zombies stop at nothing to fight through your defenses, invade your humble abode, and eat your succulent brains. As one might expect, the threat starts out relatively simple: default zombies that take small amounts of damage each to defeat. Soon, you’ll be greeted with Conehead Zombies, zombies with a traffic cone on its head that can absorb more damage. Then shortly, the sprinting Pole Vault Zombies that leap over your first line of defense. Then the All-Star Zombie, a tough and fast zombie decked out in football gear that charges through your defenses. With every new plant you get, you soon find a zombie that will inevitably cause you to rethink your strategy.

Despite the simple presentation and the small development team, there is so much more the game has to offer outside of the level-based gameplay. Upon completion, a whole array of bonus content unlocks, such as mini-games, puzzles, and a wave-based survival mode. The mini-games in-particular can get especially brutal. From zombies turning into plants, a level that ups the speed, zombies that are invisible, and a level where a single plant takes up entire columns at once, it can get pretty messy (and often very frustratingly luck-based). Puzzles are pretty straight-forward. You get two modes: ‘Vase Breaker’ and ‘i, Zombie’. ‘Vase Breaker’ is briefly introduced in the Campaign but the Puzzle Mode definitely develops it. Smash a vase and you’ll either get a plant or a zombie. It’s a mix of strategy and luck, and it’s a very welcome challenge. Meanwhile, there’s ‘i, Zombie’, a mode where you can actually control the zombies in an attempt to fight through cardboard copies of plants and reach brains in each lane. It’s arguably far more strategic than most of what the game has to offer, as you only have a certain amount of “Brains” in each level or wave. I personally definitely prefer this mode over ‘Vase Breaker’ for its uniqueness and challenge. It goes to show that less is oftentimes more.

The real meat is in the Survival Mode, however, where your skills will truly be put to the test. It starts off relatively simple: survive 5 waves of this level, and then it slowly picks up with harder levels. After completing all levels, you unlock Endless mode, which should be pretty self-explanatory. Your garden layout stays the same through each level, though new zombies will arrive, forcing you to often re-pick your plants and adapt to a new strategy because one or two zombies would be able to easily decimate your current lawn. Endless Mode really doesn’t mess around and is really where a good chunk of the game’s difficulty comes in. It’s something for the most hardcore lawn strategists.

I can safely say Plants vs. Zombies is one of my all-time favorite games. Aside from being a wonderfully fun time-waster, it’s also incredibly innocent. Plants vs. Zombies is a game that values the player. All content is unlocked through just playing the game. All plants are unlocked legitimately without the need for a single penny from you. All modes are very pick-up and play that doesn’t require anything from you except your attention. It’s a game that can be played and enjoyed equally by anyone. It’s good that we kept the game sacred and–


$omething Different

I must firstly admit that I believe Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a solid game on its own. It may lack the personality and charm that made the first game so special, but the gameplay is still mostly the same, fine-tuned and polished, which makes it a fun time. It’s definitely the best-looking PvZ game in my eyes, each plant and zombie loaded with personality thanks to the amped visuals. However, it definitely warrants a lot of its negative backlash.

As the title might suggest, the game is about time travel. Because of this, we get a lot of variety in the level designs and the zombie variety. Levels play out mostly the same, but with different gimmicks in each world. In Ancient Egypt, gravestones block your defenses and projectiles. In Lost City, golden tiles give you free sun when planted on. In my personal favorite level, Neon Mixtape Tour, music will change a certain enemy type’s behavior. It adds some originality and different difficulty spikes for each world. 

But since the original Plants vs. Zombies was very linear, there was always a good sense of progression to be had. In each world, you unlock a new plant, and the game had to adjust the difficulty accordingly. For example, you are often introduced to a zombie that can simply shrug off your defenses. In this case, the Snorkel Zombie, which stays underwater in the pool levels and can avoid most attacks. Then you unlock the Tangle Kelp, which can assist in instantly yanking the stubborn Snorkel Zombie and pull him underwater. There was a good sense of progression and reward. That element is lacking in Plants vs. Zombies 2. Instead of plants that are intended to fight against a certain type of zombie, most can just flat-out fight any type of zombie. Rather than unlocking plants in each level, you only get a very small handful of Coins. You only unlock plants every so often, so the reward after finishing a level is seldom very satisfying.

All right, let’s not put it off any longer. The reason why this game gets so detested by hardcore fans. The microtransactions. In the game, there are roughly four different types of currencies you’ll commonly use. Coins, gems, gauntlets, and fuel. Coins are used to buy power-ups, upgrade plants, buy Plant Food, and purchase Seed Packets to upgrade said plants. There are about 18 premium plants that require real-world money to purchase, and each premium plant is $5. That’s about a total of $90 you’d spend on the game. And that doesn’t include the plants you buy exclusively through gems. But each individual plant costs 100 Gems, in which there are 9 that require Gems. $10 will get you 110 gems. If you go this route, you have roughly purchased a Plant for $10. Altogether, you will have spent roughly $90 for each Premium Plant via Gems. 

You following me?

This ignores all the other aspects of the game that you can spend on gems, such as the Zen Garden to power up plants, gauntlets so you can participate in certain events, and Pinatas, which are effectively Loot Boxes. You can earn Gems through gameplay, sure. But the act in doing so is so grindy, slow, and painful that they’re almost useless to spend on Premium Plants. But listen, I understand. If you’re running late for that job interview or to court to gain custody of your kids, then you can just lend them your money if you want. At maximum, $100 will get you 350,000 Coins, and a seperate $100 will earn yourself 1,800 Gems. That’s two different currencies for six different modes of play: the base game, the store, Tournaments, leveling up, Zen Garden, and Plant Food

Okay. I’m done.

Oh, and this happened too, I guess.

All that said, though, if you can get past the egregious microtransactions, there is a lot to appreciate in Plants vs. Zombies 2. There is a common misconception that Plants vs. Zombies lead designer George Fan was fired by EA for being against the “freemium” model of the sequel. But the truth is that Fan, a longtime indie developer, just didn’t belong with one of the biggest game conglomerates on Earth. His objections to the free-to-play model may have played a part in it, but there are a lot of things we don’t know behind the scenes. It may sound like a cop-out, but we just don’t know.

With a different approach to things, Plants vs. Zombies 2 would have been a far cleaner and worthy successor. Unfortunately, it’s just held back by aggressive pay-to-win elements and milking the game for all it has. I’ve poured through hours of the game and have beaten the often repetitive Adventure mode twice now. There is a great game here, but shows what can happen when a title is effectively turned into a cash-cow. Thankfully, there is the fan-made passion project Plants vs. Zombies: Eclipse, the definitive version of Plants vs. Zombies 2 that fixes the progression system, as well as those nasty microtransactions. It’s practically an entirely new game. Give it a go!

Something Weird

When Garden Warfare was revealed at E3 2013, putting the Plants vs. Zombies world in a squad-based, objective-oriented, third-person shooter, there were varying responses of “huh?”s. And “what?”s. And “okay”s. The idea itself is honestly absurd, taking the charm of the PvZ world and turning it over its head like this. But in all honesty… where else could we take the series? Turning it into a more chaotic but self-aware shooter weirdly makes sense. And I’m happy to say it’s actually good.

Now prior to Garden Warfare‘s announcement, we’ve heard no word of Plants vs. Zombies 2 outside of an announcement trailer. People were wondering what we’ll get from the much-anticipated sequel after so many years. Well, you can probably imagine the shock of what we got instead.

But like I said, it’s a fun and weird game. The creative team knew it was a bizarre idea so they ended up doubling down and making the weirdest, wackiest shooter they could imagine. The game’s visuals would either be eye candy for others, or a nightmarish Lynch-realm. It can be a bit uncanny to see the PvZ in a more real-world setting, but still manages to keep the same cartoony slapstick and style found in the mainline games with some solid character designs and maps. 

Well. I did say “some” good designs…

The game plays much like a straight-forward team-based shooter, where plays form into teams of four Plants or four Zombies. It contains a classic Team Deathmatch mode of team vs. team. There’s ‘Vanquish Confirmed’ where players must collect orbs after killing another player rather than just killing them, akin to the ‘Kill Confirmed’ mode in Call of Duty. There’s also ‘Garden Ops’ where a team of Plants must defend their base against computer-controlled Zombies, and ‘Gardens and Graveyards’ as an objective-focused mode with unique and varied goals. There’s a fair amount of variety to the game, a shooter more casualized for players than can be found in the more “hardcore” Call of Duty, Battlefield, and other streamlined shooters.

What really held this game back from being anything excellent, however, was really the lack of content. With four unique classes for each team, it leaves a bit desired in terms of gameplay variety. Also, the fact it’s effectively an online-only experience did sour it a bit, but it released under a $39.99 retail price and not the hefty $59.99, but that’s not that much of a dealbreaker. Oh, and it has lootboxes. I would give it a pass if it was cosmetics much like the already-egregious Overwatch, but having upgrades for different characters was probably not the greatest choice.

THICC zombie

But Garden Warfare was still an oddball, fun game for casual players. Though it was a bit simplistic, it had enough character and was enough of a success to warrant two more sequels with far more content, variety, and loot boxes less tied to character progression. Amidst the suburban chaos was a game that dared to be different, a risky but worthy venture and a way to change the formula of the series entirely.

Something Else

This is maybe the first and last time you’ll hear about this game. Early in the original Plants vs. Zombies development, George Fan had the idea of having players create a deck of plants, and those plants would be obtained through a conveyor belt in a game of chance. George Fan was also a massive card-game fan at that time. That idea got scrapped for a more focused strategy game, with elements of the game vaguely representing the original idea. Plants vs. Zombies: Heroes is that idea mostly realized. A Plant and Zombie would go against each other with a player-generated card deck in a more casualized version of Magic or Hearthstone. It was a good successor to Plants vs. Zombies 2 and contained some strong gameplay and the best visual design in the series, the game exploding with color and detail.

Unfortunately for Popcap, the game flopped. Badly.

The game received a lukewarm reception upon release, and was slowly completely forgotten about within months of its original release in 2016. Heroes was very structured and level-based, but was wildly repetitive with a weak progression system causing the player to grind. Oh, and this game sure grinds. The game requires the player to grind for cards and upgrades, and while that may be okay for the more hardcore audience of Magic or Hearthstone, Heroes is obviously targeted for a younger and more casual audience, effectively alienating most of its target audience.

PvZ: Heroes is a beyond-frustrating game; not for its savage grinding or minimalist progression system, but because the promise the game had. It had the potential to change the tired PvZ formula and make it something unique. A card game is a change of style and tone, something the series really needed. But it comes down to the series failing because of Popcap/EA’s persistence to turn it into a money tree.

Something New

I’m not talking about this.

Final Thoughts / Conclusion

When it first released in 2009, Plants vs. Zombies was an instant hit that appealed to everybody, from the young, to the casual, to the hardcore. It balanced the tone with simple but addictive gameplay. There’s a reason that, even over a decade later, the first Plants vs. Zombies is still looked highly on as an innocent and ambitious game that inspired a generation of games. You don’t make it as a World of Warcraft sidequest for one modest success.

So… what happened? Well, there are a variety of factors that play a part in the decline of popularity of Plants vs. Zombies. The EA acquisition of Popcap did definitely change the company’s legacy. There’s also oversaturation of the series rather than EA/Popcap letting the series rest, causing the PvZ name to lose its charm. The franchise is soon turning 11 years old, and no installment has come close to besting the original. It’s a franchise that means the world to me, but if I must let it die before it goes down even more, then so be it.

At the time of this writing, Plants vs. Zombies 3 is in beta and is set to release on iOS and Android late in 2020 or early 2021. And uh. It’s not looking good.

Is there hope? Well, I hope EA/Popcap finds an idea on where to take the series as it transitions more and more into mobile devices. The success of console releases like the Garden Warfare series gives me hope there’s still an audience for console players, but it looks like it’s heading down the mobile path. But don’t be discouraged on where the series is headed. Let Popcap make the game they want, let EA milk the series for all it’s worth. Because, in the end, we still got the original Plants vs. Zombies.

Happy Earth Day, everyone. As things are getting crazy nowadays, please remember how important it is to still take care of your Earth, as there is just the one. Though we may be trapped inside, we can still do a lot to help. Recycle, donate, and clean to make sure the Earth stays happy and healthy. Consider helping a charity to help your planet: https://learn.eartheasy.com/articles/where-to-donate-10-high-impact-environmental-charities-with-integrity/. Let’s fight the most important fight, everyone!

Though I intend to do mostly movie think-pieces and reviews, I still enjoy the occasional video game like Plants vs. Zombies and my upcoming Doom Eternal quickie. For movie-related content, please check out my Cats review and my 10 favorite movies of 2019!
Want more gaming content? Check out DK’s post-mortem of that weird Cooking Mama fiasco. Also, look at Skeith’s review of Final Fantasy VII and Victiny’s analysis of Nomura’s storytelling!

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