With the recent release of the new film (which is not as totally dreadful as it might have been), now seems a good time to review Ghostbusters on the Commodore 64.
Written by David Crane (of Pitfall fame), Ghostbusters is a title I’m oddly fond of, although it’s hard to know why exactly. From a gaming point of view, the gameplay’s neither particularly strong nor challenging – the whole thing can be easily completed in around 30 minutes. From a licence point of view, it’s not that strongly linked to the film, with only a few nods towards its source material. Yet despite all this, it just feels right – it captures the spirit (pun intended) of the film and ends up being a well-designed and – more importantly – fun game.
I say “game”, but it’s actually more a series of mini-games. Such a concept didn’t really exist in 1984, but nevertheless, that’s what David Crane created. Taking the role of a titular Ghostbuster, your aim is to save New York from a ghost infestation, whilst accruing over $10,000 along the way.
The first step involved kitting out your Ghostbustin’ car, choosing which equipment (or could afford). The most essential items were the Ghost Vacuum (crucial for stage 3) and Ghost Bait (crucial for the later parts of Stage 4) – without these you were really going to struggle to progress. After that, the game began properly.
On entering stage one, you’d be forgiven for thinking “what the ?@!#@ is this?” It comprised of nothing more than a small grid-like map with buildings. Ghosts would fly around the map and you had to drive your car (represented by the Ghostbusters logo over them). Not exactly the most exciting start ever. Eventually, one of the buildings would flash and you had to hotfoot it over there, thereby triggering the second mini game.
The second stage saw you driving to the building. Again, the game took an overhead view of the road and your car and you had to use your Ghost Vacuum to suck up any ghosts you came across, earning a few bits of cash for doing so. And that was it. There were no obstacles to avoid, no enemies attacking you – just a nice, leisurely drive to the next mini game. Not exactly challenging; not exactly exciting.
By this point, you’d be thinking “why have I paid £10 for this pile of poo?” Once you arrived though, the game picked up and the links between the film and the game became more obvious. In phase 3, it was time to strap on those proton packs and do some serious ‘bustin’. Controlling two Ghostbusters at either side of the screen, you had to slowly move both figures inwards, and use your proton streams (making sure not to cross them) to trap the ghost in between them, then release the trap to catch them. This was more like it – it was a huge amount of fun, easily the stand-out stage of the whole game and really captured one of the film’s big set pieces (the capture of Slimer in the hotel). Successfully capturing a ghost earned you a wodge of cash towards your overall target.
And that was pretty much it. After this, you repeated these stages over and over until you reached your $10k target. When you reached around $8k, a new danger was introduced. Without warning, some of the ghosts that roamed the maze stage would suddenly all rush to one spot and start to form the Marshmallow Man. Assuming you’d bought some Ghost Bait (I did tell you it was essential), you had to quickly hit the B key to deploy the bait, attract the ghosts and stop the Big M from forming. If you were too much of a cheapskate to buy the bait or if you didn’t deploy it in time, you could only sit and watch helplessly as the Marshmallow Man would stomped all over a building and the city charged you for the damage caused.
The final stage saw you face-off against Mr Stay Puft. An impressively large (if slightly flickery) sprite jumped from side to side in front of a small doorway. Your task was to sneak two of your three Ghostbusters through the doorway without getting stomped on – not as easy as it sounds as the margin for error was very small. Succeed and you saved New York; fail and the world fell to the ghosts.
Looking back, it’s hard to see why Ghostbusters made such a splash. The mini-games were mostly dull and repetitive and there wasn’t much substance to the game. Once you understood the fairly primitive AI, it was easy to predict events and use that to your advantage. It took me several attempts before I was able to sneak past Mr Stay Puft, but once I’d done it the first time, it became pretty easy. Once you’d beaten the game, there was no real reason to ever come back to it… and yet, I did. During 1984 – and even into 1985, even as my gaming collection grew, I continued to play Ghostbusters.
I think there were two reasons for this. First off, despite being fairly easy and repetitive, the game was fun. It captured the knock-about feel of the film and tied some fairly basic sub-game together in a coherent way. In some indescribable, unfathomable way, you really did feel like you were taking part of the film. It managed to be more than the sum of its parts and, rather than being the incoherent mess it probably should have been, it somehow was a real blast to play.
The second reason is the presentation. Ghostbusters was a little different to most other games and displayed a quirky sense of humour. The main title screen featured the Ghostbusters logo with a decent rendition of the Ray Parker Jr song. Meanwhile, the words of the song appeared across the bottom of the screen with a little bouncing ball moving over each word as the song reached it. It’s hard to imagine now, but back in 1984, this was impressive. Be honest: how many of you loaded up the game just to look at that title screen and sing along? I know I did!
The game also featured speech – again a rarity in 1984. On first loading, it shouted out “Ghostbusters, Mwah! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” causing many a jaw to drop, whilst in-game the plaintive Bill Murray “he slimed me” sounded if you failed to capture a ghost.
On the basis of the (mostly) weak sub-games, the title screen and the speech, you could argue that Ghostbusters was little more than a tech demo disguised as a game. This would be to do it a massive injustice. Despite being very different, it somehow captured the essence of the film and created a fun, coherent game around it. It was a game that gave me hours of fun somehow captured the zeitgeist of my teenage years.
In case I was looking back on this with rose-tinted glasses, I went back and played Ghostbusters again recently. And you know what? My feelings haven’t changed at all. When I finally switched the machine off, I did so with a massive grin on my face. Even after all these years, ‘Bustin’ makes me feel good!