If there’s one thing for certain in the unpredictable and ever-changing world of gaming it’s that a franchise as popular and as readily marketable as Ghostbusters can proudly display a huge back catalogue of incredible tie-in titles. The setting has it all: A pre-made gang of main characters wearing a simple and easily recreated uniform housed within their own distinctive base of operations and bundled with their own range of offensive equipment and interesting gadgets to use against a conveniently broad bestiary of supernatural enemies ranging from small silly things to quickly dispatch to end-game tier boss-gods from distant dimensions – there are few concepts that can be wrapped up into a fun game as effortlessly as Ghostbusters.
That’s how I see it anyway… even if history insists on repeatedly proving me wrong. The first film had an early interpretation by none other than David Crane, the end result being a title I will politely describe as “not a complete waste of everyone’s time”. Then there’s unrelated the Mega Drive game to consider, which is apparently not awful but possesses a visual style I find so repulsive (“Cute” big head proportions with semi-realistic faces? That’s kinda creepy if you ask me) I can’t even bring myself to try it out. The Real Ghostbusters (the slight renaming serving as perhaps the biggest middle finger in cartoon history) was practically a license for any game developer willing to have a go to print money seeing as the wildly popular series ran for around a million years, all of the hard work involved in simplifying the characters and their distinctive gear into clear bright shapes had already been done, and it had levels of merchandising so He-Man like the exact same toys have been re-released this month, terrible paint job and all. In spite of this success The Real Ghostbusters only had two tie-in games – somehow less than The Extreme Ghostbusters, a show that barely survived its first and only season – and both were deeply unimpressive re-skins of other games. Data East’s arcade game – arguably the perfect place to see some bold cartoonish action – is nothing more than a low-effort tweaking of Meikyuu Hunter G. Kemco’s Game Boy game was somehow even more of a wasted opportunity than that, existing merely as a generic (and largely pilfered) title to lazily hang a Ghostbusters, or Garfield, or Mickey Mouse, license on.
At this point I’d like to say that years and years of wasted potential were finally quashed by Ghostbusters II‘s arrival in cinemas and the inevitable glut of high-quality related games that would follow it… but that’s not true. To be fair the DOS version’s reenactment of the movie’s antics did dare to nudge this apparently cursed collaboration towards “At least that wasn’t completely awful” territory… but all of its noble not-quite-there efforts were sadly undone by every other Activision-published mangling of the game, and as was usual for the era there were a lot of those clogging shop shelves whether anyone wanted them or not. I remember playing the Amiga version as a Ghostbusters-loving kid – a format that was perfectly capable of delivering a decent Ghostbusting game – and the experience was so thoroughly miserable I still wince at the thought of sending Ray swinging down into the depths of the old Van Horne station to collect slime samples (Slime samples?! Of all the openings they could have gone with they went for collecting slime samples?!) as giant ghost-hands cut through the cable holding him up again. I gave up at this point – movie games were bad, would always be bad, and I would never look at another one for… OK not for long enough but that Aladdin game made for a decent enough rental.
Then along came HAL Laboratory – yep, Kirby HAL Laboratory – and much like buses, you wait what feels like forever out in the cold and then two good Ghostbusters games come along at once.
On paper these NES and Game Boy titles lack all the things that were typically seen as important to movie games in the early nineties: There are no scratchy speech samples or heavily dithered movie stills, no weedy shoehorned driving sections to break things up, and no attempt at creating lifelike versions of the cast’s Hollywood counterparts from raw pixels and code. Then things get worse. Anyone with even the mildest interest in the film they’re based on could make a list as long as their arm detailing all the things wrong with HAL’s low-tech translations: The stages make only the broadest references to the movie scenes they’re based on, the proton packs look all wrong, there shouldn’t be a million Slimers floating around everywhere, Dana Barrett never said “Oh! Baby” as little Oscar was snatched away while out on a walk with Peter (a walk that also didn’t happen), nobody ever fought a succession of chain-brandishing trolls even in Dan Aykroyd’s wildest dreams, and at no point did Janosz Poha split into three enormous versions of himself and crab-walk in circles around a room. What they did manage to capture, in a space smaller than just one of the numerous JPGs cluttering up my computer, and the one thing every other game bar the excellent 2009 production
Ghostbusters III Ghostbusters: The Video Game seemed to misunderstand was this: Even people who know their FRVs from their PKEs, their Mooglies from their Muons, realise that Ghostbusters isn’t really about bustin’ ghosts at all, but the people that do the ghost busting. HAL were wilfully inauthentic to the source material, and by doing so they ended up making some of the most authentic Ghostbusters games ever.
It all begins at the character select screen, where players are allowed to freely pick their own favourite pair of Ghostbusters to use throughout the rest of the game. It’s as simple as it is inaccurate – Winston and Peter, for example, never take on a ghost train together and the games just don’t care – but it makes both games feel far more personal than being forced to use the “right” person for the sake of matching the script. Putting the character selection entirely in the player’s hands was especially genius decision when faced with a familiar team-based IP: Just like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, everyone has a strong and unshakeable opinion on who the best Ghostbuster is (and just like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the correct answer is “The smart one, stupid.”). The game design rulebook tells us that at this point the right thing to do would have been to make one of them tough but slow, one fast but weak, one an all rounder, and another some weird specialist with a longer proton stream/better trapping abilities or whatever – otherwise it’s too simplistic and boring, right? Wrong. By making them all functionally identical the perfect team is always going to be the one the person playing likes using the most. Want to take on Vigo the Carpathian (Scourge of Carpathia, Sorrow of Moldavia) with the bookworms? Send in the cool guys? Any combination of the above? All are equally capable. And even though they all play the same nobody could accuse HAL’s distinctive spritework of lacking individuality: Look at Ray’s goggles or Peter’s hairline – there’s no mistaking one for another even when they’re portrayed as tiny three colour sprites.
This is all very well and good but these are still action games at heart, and action games demand aggressive things to get rid of and points to be scored. This is where it could have (and in lesser hands, would have) all fallen apart: The easiest and most obvious thing to do here would have been to treat the neutrona wand as a stand-in for a pew-pew laser beam and shoot at ghosts until they fall over or flicker away like a knock-off Ikari Warriors, but HAL saw the potential and significance in dealing with spooks the same way Ghostbusters does – by capturing, rather than destroying, them – and built the game around a unique single-player-team-co-op trapping system instead. It works. It works as an extension of the movies: Ghostbusting is always a team activity – both films make a point of showing a wide variety of psychokinetic disturbances, and it’s no accident that these are always dealt with by at least two Ghostbusters. It works as part of an enjoyable game: It’s an unusual idea yet there’s no doubt the “elastic” nature of HAL’s proton stream plays the way ghostbusting should feel. It serves a practical purpose too; making it possible for players to hold on to a spirit while keeping themselves out of harm’s way, or alternatively to help their AI partner to get in to trapping position – a small thing that doesn’t just feel right but also largely eliminates what might have ended up as a game-long headache (on a related note: It’s something of a minor miracle that HAL managed to add Trapping-Buster health and enemy collision to the Game Boy version without making the whole game unplayably irritating).
There are differences between the two that go beyond colour graphics and the presence/absence of Louis Tully: I find the Game Boy game’s final area more reminiscent of an actual art gallery and prefer its exclusive special items/optional Ghostbuster-swapping, however I find the NES enemies a bit more interesting and think the ghost train section’s much better there – but the main thing is they both still feel as legitimately Ghostbusters as each other because they both get the same thing right: Focusing on recreating the concept of the movie rather than wasting valuable time trying to present a film-accurate visual scene that wouldn’t have played anything like the original anyway. This is why it doesn’t matter that the Statue of Liberty – modified NES Advantage controls and all – only makes a brief cameo appearance in both games, and why the lack of quippy one-liners doesn’t leave the characters feeling empty and flat: Because the heart of the film’s still in there, enshrined in thematically appropriate cooperative “Zap ‘n’ Trap” gameplay performed by distinctive sprites instead of forced into another side-scrolling platform/shoot ’em up hybrid bookended by postage stamp-sized cutscene artwork that might look a little bit like a member of the cast when viewed on a tiny and out of tune TV.