Zerg Rush

Only Zerg Rush In


You’ve got to hand it to the Zerg: They’ve made their mark in videogame history. StarCraft‘s brood of ichor-dripping space bugs have come to serve as the hallmark of relentless aggression, to the point where a tactic bears their name. Today, the “Zerg Rush” is the quintessential videogame blitzkrieg: Hit early, hit hard and keep on coming until one side stops twitching. Their influence even extends beyond the boundaries of the real-time strategy (RTS) genre: A huge mob of players in an MMOG might zerg a boss or an enemy town, hitting it with waves and waves of cannon fodder until they eke out a bloody victory. Sometimes the term is used as an insult, suggesting a reliance on sheer brainless numbers over the subtleties of strategy and skill. But let’s face it: Sheer brainless numbers do one hell of a number. Love ’em or hate ’em, the Zerg do what they do well.


Back when StarCraft was released, however, the Zerg gave me a different sort of victory. I was new to the game and to RTS games in general, so my experience served as a lesson on the entire genre. The single-player campaign of StarCraft begins with the human forces, known collectively as the Terran, and so my first forays were couched in strictly human terms. As I progressed through the Terran campaign, I was drawn into the story of their struggles against the teeming multitudes of the monstrous Zerg and the distant, calculating Protoss. Sure, the Terran weren’t perfect; but I figured for all their flaws, they were the best this Universe was going to get.

By the time I made my way through the Terran campaign, I was thoroughly disgusted by all the Zerg stood for. Like cartoonishly evil Nazis or a teeming horde of zombies, they seemed perfectly suited for one thing: indiscriminate slaughter. I imagined my role in the game like something from an old Raid commercial: “I kill bugs dead.”

But StarCraft doesn’t play out like that. Immediately after completing the Terran campaign, the player gains control over the Zerg hordes, taking the role of a newly spawned cerebrate in service to its omnipresent Overmind. Maybe it was the sudden jump from slaughtering the Zerg to marshalling them myself. Maybe it was the move away from the play conventions that eased me into the game. Whatever it was, it got under my skin.

I hated everything about the Zerg. I hated their schlocky B-movie dialogue as they chortled over their schemes to rule the galaxy. I hated the dripping pustules where they incubated that burst like a lanced blister as they emerged. Something about watching their pulsing insectoid hives reminded me of that old Night Gallery episode, where an earwig is dropped into a sleeping man’s ear and starts burrowing into his brain. The good news is that the bug is ultimately extracted and crushed. The bad news is that “it was a female, that earwig. And a female … lays … eggs.”

As I made my way through the campaign, I couldn’t wait to be done with the Zerg. I longed for when I could wash my hands of their disgusting goo and their endlessly simpering voices. There’s something about being bossed around by a psionic tumor that just doesn’t sit right with me: “CEREBRATE! BLORB GLORB BLURBL SPAWN MORE OVERLORRRDS.”


I’ll spawn more Overlords when I feel like it. You’re not my dad.

All that stood in my way was the final mission, called “Full Circle,” to bring about the manifestation of the Overmind. The level has you spawn a final wave of your forces to tear down a Protoss high temple situated within the middle of a well-fortified city. But I just couldn’t hack it. No matter what I tried, no matter how I marshalled my troops, I just couldn’t pull it off. The Protoss were too secured and too coordinated to be so easily defeated. My carefully organized onslaughts were torn to ribbons by a well-entrenched and better armed opponent. I was stuck.

I halfheartedly picked at it over a couple of days, but the result was always the same: failure. One day, I fired up the level while my friend, an old RTS veteran, looked over my shoulder. Watching as I meticulously crafted my assault, organizing waves of acid-spitting Hydralisks and colossal Ultralisks, he sighed impatiently. As I struggled to plink away at layer after layer of the Protoss infrastructure, he became visibly agitated: “No … you don’t … it’s not like that.”

“Yeah, I know,” I muttered. “I’m supposed to win.”

“You know, this level’s not actually hard,” he said. “Here, look.”

In a moment of frustration, I stood up and let him take the reins, assuming that his strategies would fail just as completely as mine. Immediately, he began to lay down hatchery after hatchery and started to breed Zerglings – the smallest and quickest units that cost almost nothing to make.

“Not that dude,” I said. “That’s the weakest unit.”

“Just watch,” he replied.

He built more hatcheries and spawned more Zerglings – hordes of them. Then he did something I had never tried. Rather than send them to attack the Protoss defenses, he sent them to attack the temple itself and ignored everything else. They marched off in a thin line, like a procession of ants. Though the Protoss troops picked them off as they passed, splatting them left and right, there were so many of them that a few casualties were meaningless. The Zerglings swarmed the tower, massing around it, each bug merrily clawing away while the Protoss struggled to repulse them. Within minutes, the mission I had spent days attempting to beat was over, won effortlessly by the simplest unit on the field. Somehow that made the whole thing that much more humiliating.

I thanked my friend, weakly, for the help. After he left, I popped the disc out of the computer and tossed it in some dusty corner of the room. I was done.

Robert Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers and thus the leading authority on space bugs, once wrote, “A human being should be able to … take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” I’ve always taken this as a paean to adaptability and complexity. That’s what I wanted in my troops – the ability to analyze, to cooperate, to compose an exact solution to every situation on the battlefield. It infuriated me that my elaborate strategies failed, and that a kamikaze wave of mindless grunts succeeded. As a tactic, it befit the Zerg perfectly – void of thought and bent toward a singular goal of dominance. I had been looking at the mission like a riddle or mathematical equation to be broken down into its elements and solved piece by piece. But some problems you solve with a hammer.


Beyond the embarrassment of my novice play, and beyond the realization that I had been playing the Zerg “wrong” up to that point, I saw the gulf between the StarCraft I wanted to play and the StarCraft that actually existed. Sometimes we get so caught up in how we think games should work that we become blind to the actual mechanics at hand. The Zerg were not to be played like chess; they were a brutal alien scrum, and everything I didn’t want to play in a strategy game. I wanted to “fight efficiently and die gallantly.” I guess I got my wish.

Years later, I’ve now replayed StarCraft many times, and I’ve realized that there was more to the game than I had originally thought. I didn’t understand how close my personality was suited to the mechanistic and logical Protoss, who played in the exact style I was looking for. If I had just stuck around, I could have graduated from “Spawn more Overlords!” to “Construct additional pylons!” which I suppose is a step in the right direction. I’ve looked at FAQs and walkthroughs that have broken down several viable approaches to each faction, their numbers differing, their fundamental approaches varying based off situation and circumstance. It’s easier, now, to see things not in black and white, but in varied gradations of strategy and tactics. The Zerg can be crafty, cunning and open to strategy – you just have to see them for what they are.

But I’ve never set aside the lesson that I learned that day. So now, when I go Zerg, I try to see the game through their eyes – their hideously undulating, multifaceted eyes. From that perspective, the Zerg stop seeming like rubbery castoffs from some Jim Henson backlot and start looking lean and lethal, ready to tear the universe a new asshole. When I go Zerg, I crawl into their insectoid minds fully and completely, watching wave upon wave of Zerglings rushing over the battlefield with satisfaction and a malicious joy.

When I go Zerg, I zerg.

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where the only big bugs are the blackflies. When not failing at StarCraft, he fails at all sorts of other things at kingandrook.com.

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