Was Ghostbusters my first horror movie? As a collector and obsessive of the genre, that’s an important point, but whether it’s horror or comedy or horror-comedy is debatable. It’s filmed like a horror movie and it’s certainly scarier than diet trash like Paranormal Activity, but the Ghostbusters themselves are all played for laughs. Let’s conclude it’s horror and comedy, and as such counts as my first horror movie! And most importantly, when I went to see it at the cinema around Christmas 1984, it became a grand entranceway to a lifelong interest, built on top of the foundations already set by Scooby Doo and my auntie’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies book, that would eventually turn into the hellish six feet one skyscraper I’ve become today! In other words, from the second that the librarian’s ghost went through the most terrifying transformation since An American Werewolf in London (which might have been my second horror movie!), I absolutely adored this film, as I still do on every watch – usually several times per year – to this very day.
And shortly after that there was my friend’s Commodore 64 (and later, for me, slightly inferior ZX Spectrum) Ghostbusters game. As I went into in the second of my Favourite Gaming Anthems series (here), I’m not sure that any game’s title screen made my jaw drop as much as this one did when I first saw it, and it was a double whammy! First what might have been the first sampled speech I’d ever heard shouting “Ghostbusters” (and if you’ve ever heard it too I can guarantee you’re hearing it again now!) and then some actual real life music that you’ve heard in the movie or seen on Top of the Pops is actually being played by your computer! To this day, the game remains pretty much unique, and is absolutely faithful to the movie, with you buying your ghostbusting equipment then patrolling the streets of New York from a map view, and when you spot a ghost infestation you’re top down in Ecto-1, sucking up rogue ghosts on the way (if you bought the right gear) until you arrive at the haunted building. Now your setting your trap, positioning your two guys and teasing the ghost above it without crossing the streams, then when it’s near enough you unleash the trap and get your reward. As the city’s paranormal activity rises (together with your bank balance) you’ll eventually meet the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and head for the big Zuul climax. As you can tell, I could talk about this game all day – it remains one of the best movie licenses ever made, and I still play through it on both C64 and Spectrum regularly. And I still absolutely love it and really should cover it properly here sometime!
Which brings us to Ghostbusters II. By the time it appeared in 1989, it was a bit lost in the noise of a load of other sequels – Lethal Weapon 2, Karate Kid 3, the third Indiana Jones and Star Trek V – and then everything was lost in the noise of Tim Burton’s Batman. Good film though, and it did very well at the box office, and even though it didn’t quite have the spark of the original – which might be down to a painting being the bad guy – it’s a really effective companion to it, with some great ghosts, some great special effects, and several compelling plot lines moving it along. Again, if it’s ever on the telly, I’ll gladly watch it!
The game of the film we’re about to dive into is a confusing mess of different versions by different developers on different platforms being released or not released in different regions. This is then made all the more confusing by a separate game called Ghostbusters II from Activision in 1990 on NES, and HAL Laboratory’s 1990 Japan or 1992 Europe Ghostbusters II game, New Ghostbusters II, which never saw a US release thanks to Activision; also note that this shouldn’t be confused with the Game Boy game of the same name, which is its own thing again!
Right, now we’re properly befuddled, let’s try and unravel the Atari ST version I’ve been playing… This was published by Activision in 1989, having been developed for Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga and ST by UK developer Foursfield. It was then ported to MSX by New Frontier, and Dynamix created a new version for MS-DOS. This was a kind of next-gen extended cut of the first game, but obviously based on the plot of the sequel, where you had to raise enough money by busting the film’s ghosts to tempt the Statue of Liberty into action to get you to the final showdown. It had a cool musical puzzle too where you had to calm down slime with an in-game CD player! No one was playing MS-DOS stuff in 1989 though, so we’ll head back to the non-pervert version…
The game is made up of three levels, spanning a whopping four disks (and we’ll be coming back to this!), and these cover three key set pieces from the movie, which we’ll paraphrase the manual to quickly recap… Ghostbusters stopped busting after they were sued for taking out the top three floors of the up-town New York high rise while they were taking out Marshmallow Man. During the intervening years, the locals began to believe the whole thing had been a colossal hoax, and the gang resorted to making a living running occult bookshops, appearing on occult TV shows and entertaining obnoxious kids at parties. Meanwhile, Dana Barrett is back in town with baby son Oscar, whose buggy decides to go on a supernaturally-charged chase around New York’s busy streets, and she quickly realises there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, and knows exactly who she’s gonna call!
The manual then gives you a bizarre hint that you should watch the film to help you with unravelling some of the puzzles; I’m not sure you’d be playing it if you hadn’t, and despite the primitive digitised stills from the film and accompanying synopsis before and after each level, you’d probably struggle to keep up with the three main sequences of the film we’re playing through if you hadn’t, but all the same, I’m not sure I’ve ever read any game instructions before that start with telling you to watch a movie!
Once you’re back from the video rental store (assuming no one else has already nabbed their only copy of Ghostbusters II), what you’re getting is an admirably diverse set of three levels. The first is Van Horne, which sees you guiding your Ghostbuster to the bottom of an air-shaft beneath the street to collect a sample of slime that we’ll now know from the film is charging all the city’s emerging paranormal problems. You’re swinging left and right and up and down (then generally doing it all over again because you’ve overshot the tiny contact window) and you progress lower and lower down the shaft, making your feet touch things to collect them! To keep things exciting, the shaft is full of all kinds of ghosts, and if one of them touches you you’ll lose courage, which is indicated by a status mugshot of his face getting more and more terrified. This can be restored by touching the occasional bottles of elixir conveniently positioned down the shaft with you feet, but if you decide this is way more hassle than its worth and end up scared out of your mind, you’ll fall to your doom and start again.
You’ve got three weapons to help you down though, and a press of the space bar will cycle through them… The proton beam is your regular spook repellant from your backpack, and as long as you’re collecting extra charges that you’ll also find on the way down, you can pretty much do it with just this one. Next is the PKR bomb, which delivers a powerful burst of anti-spook, but is just so awkward to use that you’ll probably avoid it if you’ve got some proton beam left. It involves holding down fire, then pushing either up or down to deliver its devastation above or below you, then releasing fire, but it’s just so ham-fisted to do in practice! Finally, you’ve got the PKR shield, and that will protect you enough to make some quick progress or navigate a particularly tricky swing, and like the proton beam, you can pick up more of these and the bombs at various points as you travel downwards.
In general, progressing downwards is far more challenging than any of the monsters you’ll come across, and you’ll often find yourself trying to rebuild some left and right swinging momentum so you can start to make your way down again having either been grabbed by a ghost, or, more likely, just got stuck on some scary graphics! That said, there’s one monster you want to avoid as much as possible, which is a sawing hand that will hack away at your winch cable until is snaps; and like the terror-meter, you’ve got one for the cable condition too. When these appear, you need to get rid fast, either with a PKR bomb if you can get lucky with the controls, or a regular proton beam will do if not. One final problem here is that you didn’t bring a retractable slime scoop of your own, so you’ll also need to look out for the three parts of that on the way down. And once you’re there at the bottom, being battered by waves of ghosts flying up and down slime river, you’ve got one more awkward piece of positioning to negotiate to get that slime scoop lowered into the goo to trigger the next cut scene and series of disk swaps before the next level.
Now we’re on Broadway, and we need to get to the Museum of Art before the birth of the New Year. The Ghostbusters are all inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty as it makes its way through the city, and your job is to control its fireball to protect the Statue and the population at large as it gets bombarded by wave after wave after wave after wave of evil ghosts intent on your destruction. I’ll say it now, this goes on way too long, and reminded me of the similarly horizontally-scrolling shooter-type level in Agent X II if you’ve played that; and if not, they both outstay their welcome several times over!
Anyway, we’ve now worked out that the Statue of Liberty can also be powered by our slime from the first level, and this is represented by a glass jar of slime at the bottom of the screen, which depletes every time a ghost avoids your fireballs of freedom and bashes into you. You’ve only got a limited number of shots with each fireball, which you can move anywhere around the screen and shoot from there, but as soon as it needs to recharge it will reset back to your torch. And that recharge is also going to cost you slime, so you can’t go buck-wild with it because no slime means no Liberty.
You can replenish your slime as you go though, with ghosts dropping droplets onto the ground when you shoot them, and they’ll stay there until the next wave of ghosts appears. To help you with this, you’ve got the population of New York following you (though in reality it’s about ten people at any given time), and a press of the space bar will send them forwards or backwards. As soon as one of them touches a droplet, it will be automatically transferred back to your slime jar to keep you going, but it’s all a balancing act, between both your attention on this versus the waves of ghosts in the air, and also those ready to take out your population on the ground if you let them stray too far forwards.
As well as the slime-o-meter, you’ve got a depressing progress bar that indicates the distance travelled by the Statue, and at certain points along that progression you’ll be hit by three types of mini-boss enemy, though in reality you just need to react quickly rather than batter them incessantly or with any degree of skill. The last one will see you trigger the final level, but I really wonder how many people that haven’t decided to write about it ever got that far? It’s just so long, so repetitive and so hard, and whilst on the one hand the game is to be praised for its multiple risk-reward (and quite unique) mechanics on the go at once here, on the other you could just say it’s all just there to add longevity to a game with only three levels that could probably be done in under twenty minutes as the crow flies! After the awkwardness of the first level too, this feels like such a slog, which is a shame because its so ambitious in so many ways!
The final level is The Museum, and we’re now using the space bar to alternate control between all four Ghostbusters (hopefully…) as we try to rescue Oscar the baby – who we now know will be a vessel for the reborn big evil, Vigo the Carpathian, who we then need to destroy as he emerges from his 16th century painting to rule New York and probably other well-known places too.
The level starts with all four Ghostbusters at the top of abseil ropes in roof, and your first job is to control each of their hands, with a push up on the joystick to close them, or down to open them, thus controlling their speed. And it’s all a bit sensitive, so it might be okay to go all-out at the start to get down in time, but these guys demand a very, very soft landing otherwise they’re getting stunned out of action for a while if you’re lucky, or dead if not, and in reality, if you’re not getting them all down in one piece you might as well start the disk swapping and Statue walking all over again before this level even properly starts!
This stage is a kind of isometric action-adventure affair, and as the most baffling of all three levels, the instructions (and even the movie!) are a bit sparse on detail apart from rescue the baby and destroy Vigo, where they go nuts on the two simpler preceding levels. Again, I assume, this is all to extend the life of the game, but I really don’t want to do that Statue level over and over again to try and work this one out! What you are getting, though, is a diagram to explain the mass of character status meters at play here! You’ve got the weapon energy and strength level of your selected character; you’ve got Vigo’s strength and also that of Janosz, his human minion; and then you’ve got another meter for the “percentage of transfer to baby” which is effectively the timer you’re up against.
After a bit of trial and error, you’re going to work out that the baby is hidden away in an upper corner of the museum, and pressing fire is going to pick it up. Now you’re going to find some boxes and literally dump it down on the floor so its safe during the big fight… Now we switch to Peter then Egon (or vice versa) who have some proton beam things that will draw Vigo out of the painting if you get them both shooting at it. Meanwhile, we also need to switch to Winston or Ray to take out Janosz with a slime gun, and once he’s done that, Vigo will appear out of the painting and you’ll have to turn your attention to shooting him. And while all of this is happening, the baby is going to start levitating towards the altar in front of the vacated painting, and you’ll want to keep removing it back to safety, but after a bit of shooting Ray will get possessed, so you’re now shooting him too until you trigger a final happy cutscene. It’s relatively fun working all of this out, but it’s just such a shame you have to go through everything else to do that!
And all that disk swapping! Now, it’s not unusual to have ST games on multiple disks, and it’s not unusual to have to change disks now and again, but this one is insane! To just start the game, you’re loading up Disk A to get to your sampled Ghostbusters theme screen, then Disk B to get to level one. Finish that, and it’s Disk A followed by Disk C to get to level two. Then it’s Disk A followed by Disk D for level three. And every combination in between every time you lose all your lives and have to start again – thanks goodness it is only three levels!
As down on pretty much everything as I’ve been so far, I have developed a bit of a soft spot for this game! For all its faults, it does a wonderful job of drawing you into Ghostbusters II. The three levels are well curated, and the simple, mostly text-based cut scenes pull everything together into a decent replication of the movie’s plot. And it looks great! For what it lacks in playability, the production values are sky high, and the almost oversized sprites that inhabit all three levels (but especially the Statue one) are bold, full of detail and move beautifully. The backgrounds are rich and equally full of detail – again, the second level in particular pays some lovely fan service to the movies.
As does the soundtrack, with various sampled renditions of the Ray Parker Jr. theme popping up and sounding even better than it did on the Commodore 64! Sound effects do veer towards variations of white noise at times, though there’s some great exceptions, for example the deep throb of the proton beam in the first level. Generally they fill the space where there’s no background music though, and that in turn gives that theme tune some real impact when it kicks in for the between-level scenes! My only gripe in the sound department is the continuous, looping, grating simple chip-tune rendition of Auld Lang Syne throughout the final level that puts me in mind of old Spectrum platformers!
It’s not the best game ever, and it’s not the best Ghostbusters game ever, but behind the relentless disk swapping, slight clunkiness and too much level two, this is the opposite of so many lazy film tie-ins of the time, with creativity and variety, backed by great attention to detail and what appears to be a real passion for Ghostbusters. And this just tips the balance into it being not only fun, but addictive while you’re playing and thought-provoking while you’re not, and enough to make you go back through all that pain just to try one more thing on that last level you’d previously decided you’d never see the end of! As a final bonus, the big, classically oversized Atari ST game box is also doing a great job of covering a crack in the wall behind my desk, as well as hiding some leads and generally looking good while I’m working, so as a total package I can’t really complain!