Out of the small handful of non-gaming franchises that I can claim to be a fan of, Ghostbusters is easily the one that I’m most enamored with. I built my own replica proton pack in high school, I’ve donned a flightsuit for many Hallowe’en nights, and my apartment is littered with related merch. I’ve read the comics, watched the cartoons, so of course I’ve been there at the times when it’s crossed over into video games. Most of the time, anyway.
The movie was released in 1984, which wasn’t a particularly good year for gaming. The previous year had seen the industry collapse under the weight of millions of unwanted Atari 2600 cartridges and it wouldn’t truly recover in North America until around the release of the NES. Nonetheless, the license for Ghostbusting was scooped up by Activision and games were churned out for the multitude of 8-bit microcomputers that were competing for the market at the time.
Those ports were bad, the NES game was worse.
I'd run some red lights if there were any intersections on this road. (Image source: mobygames.com)
Ghostbusters didn’t hit the Famicom until 1986, and it would be another two years before it made it stateside to the NES. The Famicom port was done by a rather anonymous Japanese firm called Workss (believed to have become Bits Laboratories), who used the template of the original microcomputer versions and found creative ways to make it worse.
The core game at least adheres to the spirit of the film. You start out as a poorly equipped team of Ghostbusters who must scoot around the city, looking for ghosts to capture for money. As you make money, you can then buy better equipment from the… Ghostbusting supply store? This allows you to catch ghosts more efficiently and build up your gear for a final assault on Gozer.
Finding ghosts involves moving an icon around a simple city map and waiting for one of the buildings to start flashing red. You then have to drive a certain distance that depends on how far you moved your icon while looking.
The driving section is the first place the game diverges from the ports it’s based upon. It’s more zoomed out than the microcomputer versions and tasks you with driving the car, rather than simply protecting it from assault. The driving sections seem like a first pass at programming gameplay, because it’s so barebones. Your car auto-accelerates at a speed determined by how far you push up the screen. You simply need to avoid other cars on the road, and for extra credit, can pick up gas tanks or suck up ghosts using a special ghost vacuum.
Or not, because really you can just push your car up to the top right of the screen and walk away while it drives itself. You’re unlikely to hit much of anything there. You also use less fuel at top speed, since the game calculates fuel usage by time spent on screen, rather than distance travelled. Yeah.
So then you arrive at your destination, your all-white team of Ghostbusters (there’s no Winston, apparently) shuffle out of the vehicle, and stand under a group of four ghosts. It’s always four ghosts, it’s always the same ghosts, and they always move randomly near the top of the screen. You drop the trap wherever you want, then try to capture the ghosts in your proton beam. Try not to cross the streams, of course.
You’re only given a brief amount of time, but the ghosts can’t hurt you. It’s dead simple. The only real obstacle is the fact that the random movement of the ghosts often puts them against the top of the screen where you simply can’t reach them. If they choose not to descend into reach, then you may never have the opportunity to catch them. The more ghosts you catch, the more money you get.
Thus closes the gameplay loop. From the start until you’re ready to storm Gozer’s temple (or the Zuul building as it’s called in the game), you do this exact same process.
Again and again.
While the same 8-bit rendition of the Ghostbusters theme loops in the background.
Still on the first floor and already tired of this. (Image source: mobygames.com)
So, you bust some ghosts, buy up your equipment, and are ready to save the world. That’s assuming you did all that before the PKE meter managed to max out, signaling the coming of Mr. Staypuft. It’s at this point that the game finds a way to somehow become worse.
Do you remember the scene in the movie where the Ghostbusters had to climb all those stairs? Well, you’ll be happy to know that the developers managed to capture the slow agony of climbing 22 flights of stairs with heavy equipment on. To reach the end boss, you must ascend a seemingly endless staircase by tapping the A button for every baby step your team of spirit janitors take, all while under duress from the same randomly moving paper ghosts from the capture scenes.
I’ve attempted this sequence many times, and I can honestly say I’ve never actually reached the top. I’ve bought all the equipment, I’ve used a turbo controller, and still I’ve capped out at the 15th floor. The worst part of all of this is that if you fail, you’re not sent back to the bottom of the stairs. Instead, you’re kicked right back to the start of the game to do the whole damned thing over again. No thanks.
Did I mention the game is ridiculously ugly to look at? Granted, it was first released in ‘86, but the graphics here look like a collection of placeholders that were never replaced. The ghost look like Hallowe’en paper dolls, the Ghostbusters seem to belong on an Atari 2600, and the scenery, especially on roadways, is repetitive and bland. Everything appears very amateur, which at least matches the rest of the design.
Even if Ghostbusters looked like a tray of fresh baked goods, it would just be a chandelier in a sewage drain. The game is offensively bad. It’s easily one of the worst games I’ve ever laid my hands on, and that’s just made worse by the fact that it’s based on the sacred scripture of my favourite movie. There are, luckily, better games based on the license out there. Years later, Japanese developers would take a crack at it again and produce New Ghostbusters II, which is more enjoyable in every way (and also included Winston).
Ghostbusters is just all around unpleasant to play. I can’t imagine anyone on the dev team playing it and coming to the conclusion that it was fit for release, but at the same time, I can hardly believe that someone felt that tapping the A button was a suitable input for locomotion in the stairway scene. It could only have been developed with malicious attempt. A targeted blow to the mental well-being of anyone playing it.