On Coming of Age With Call of Duty and Zombies

Welcome to Memory Card. Here, we embark on one final—maybe even fatal—playthrough of the forgotten games of our past. Just like the old days, we might pull some all nighters, we might lose a friend or two, we might resort to eating too many Hot Pockets. Let’s see how far we’ve come. Or regressed.


We would line up every morning under the big basketball hoop, five-foot-tall, middle-school munchkins—hauling brown bags and binders, nervous and cruel, full of B.O. and word vomit, never, ever ready to start the day—and tell Takeo that he was doing it wrong.

“Guys, I did it THIRTY TIMES last night, it doesn’t work,” he’d always say, little face twisted in a spiteful knot, holding up a crumpled piece of looseleaf riddled with intricate code: X + A + Y + Y + Y + LEFT STICK + LEFT STICK + RIGHT STICK. It went on and on: A 30-something-line cheat code.

We told him that if he followed the instructions on the looseleaf—without messing up, like we told him he kept doing, the idiot—it would unlock a super-duper-secret minigame on his Gamecube. Upon flawless entry of the code, Mario himself would pop up on the Gamecube’s homescreen, scream an unholy “ITSA ME!,” and then drive around or something or other. Hard to remember.

Gamecube minigame never existed. He knew it was bullshit; we all kept it up anyway, every morning, because it was the sixth grade, and we weren’t good at sports or school or girls, so we played video games.

There were three of us: Nikolai (first prankster, loud, the kid who’d come over and clog your toilet), Dempsey (second prankster, formless and anxious, me), and Takeo (the prankee, nerdy even for our crew of dweebos, where the punchline was often screaming “BOB SAGET” without context). We’d been best friends since kindergarten class—naps at noon, wreckers of the sand table, crooning “One Bread, One Body” together at Mass like a toddlered Nirvana. In elementary school, we spent most afternoons warring in Smash, still in our pizza-roll-stained white polo uniforms. Then middle school, typified by the Gamecube minigame that never was, when the punchline slowly shifted from “BOB SAGET” to “TAKEO,” and the only savior from a laughing fit was the 10-foot-tall, crucified Jesus in the stairwell.

The one thing keeping our goobery triumvirate together was those afternoons—Takeo’s house, where were hurled Wiimotes around his basement. Sometimes, Takeo showed us the game he’d made in a rudimentary RPG maker, a side-scroller I’m sure exists on a floppy disk somewhere. Freshman year of high school, 2008, we played our last game together: Call of Duty Zombies.

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Call of Duty zombies—formerly, Nazi zombies, as if normal old zombies needed a dash of facism to achieve peak horror—debuted in fall 2008 as a bonus mode in Call of Duty: World at War. Social media wasn’t enough of a thing by then to have spoiled the surprise: If you beat World at War’s Private Ryan-esque campaign, you were suddenly dropped in a beat-to-shit, abandoned building, littered with cobwebs and boarded-up windows. This was about as much mystery as a 14-year-old boy could encounter, besides the mystery of whether or not Mary was making eyes at him while studying the Old Testament. (She wasn’t, she’d tell you four years later after a few drinks at a shitty house party.) Then? URRRRRRRRR. GRRRRRROOOOOOAN. BANG! The zombies arrived and started ripping down those boards. Quick: Buy a gun from the wall. Shoot them. Now! Two hits from Mr. Nazi Zombie, and you’re dead. Survive as long as you can.

We were hooked. You were assigned one of four characters: Dempsey, Nikolai, Takeo, and Richtofen. Players one through four, respectively. (No one was ever Richtofen. We had no fourth friend.) This was in the days of the Xbox 360, which meant you could play, wow, online. So, Takeo’s basement was only needed by Takeo, all of us at our own homes, jabbering away on cheap headsets long into the morning, praying we’d make it one more round than the night before. You should know: The game wasn’t very good. It’s like pizza rolls. Shitty but addicting, a snack that’ll never fill you up.

Over the course of that freshman year—as Call of Duty added new levels, guns, and a sci-fi storyline that still hardly makes any damn sense—we probably logged, cumulatively, weeks stabbing zombies with Bowie knives. I don’t even think we talked about, you know, school or anything. Just Dempsey, Nikolai, Takeo, and the zombies. Which gun did you get? How far did we make it last time? Run! There were traps in the game—flip a switch, and an electricity field would pop up—that we’d lure Takeo into. If Nikolai said “zooooombies,” that was code for, pretend like Takeo’s microphone is broken, firing up 15 minutes of Takeo going, “I KNOW YOU GUYS CAN HEAR ME!”

Then, Takeo would spend another 15 minutes legitimately trying to fix his plastic Xbox headset. It was hardly a friendship.

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Sophomore year, Takeo met an older kid who lived down the street. Played hockey, loud but not loud like Niklolai, annoying loud. I would’ve described him as a fuckboy if that designation existed back then, and if I hadn’t thought every swear word inched me a foot closer to hell. But Takeo liked him, I think. Started hanging out with his friends, many of whom were, gasp, girls. He got a homecoming date. An older girlfriend. The older girlfriend took him to prom that spring. That was a big deal. Meanwhile, Dempsey and Nikolai toiled away in Der Riese, the newest, biggest, zombies map, readjusting to a two-player strategy—which, actually, was a little bit easier—never mentioning Takeo’s absence, unless it was to talk about how mad he would get! when we pulled the “zooooombies” stunt.

We’re not sure what happened to Takeo. We think he’s still in our hometown, somewhere. A boy we shared 10 years of life with, taken away by the hockey guy and thrust into the teens we should’ve had but never knew we could have. Nikolai and I still play zombies. He came over last weekend, 50-inch TV and PS4 in tow, so we could play Call of Duty’s remastered take on Der Riese back-to-back, blaring the same Lady Gaga album we always do—like we’ve done so many times in the, fuck, 11 years since we last played a three-person game of zombies. With the newest Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War out the next week, fueled by noodles from the noodles place a couple miles away, we said this would be the time we’d break Round 60. I got tired two hours in. Round 33, bum-rushed by a rogue zombie. We watched Borat and went to bed. Nikolai said we’d get to 60 another time.

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