Monday, January 10, 2011
Genesis Game Reviews: Ghostbusters
Ghostbusters was arguably the most successful entertainment franchise of the 1980's. The original 1984 film starring legendary funnymen Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis directed by Ivan Reitman was the perfect storm of action, comedy and romance with a unique and memorable concept that instantly became a permanent fixture of American pop-culture.
For those who don't know about the Ghostbusters — all three of you who have just recently given up your old order Amish lifestyle to join the rest of us in the modern world — the story was about a group of parapsychologists who lost their university jobs due to their research into the supernatural being viewed by their peers as a ridiculous waste of money. It didn't help that Murray's character Peter Venkman was a sleazeball using his career to take advantage of female students. Out on their rear-ends and needing to make cash the three discover a real live... er... dead ghost at the New York public library and hit upon a brilliant idea to make money: charging people to remove malevolent spirits from their homes and businesses, becoming some kind of insane supernatural cross between firefighters and exterminators.
After hiring a fourth Ghostbuster by the name of Winston Zeddemore played by Ernie Hudson, the Ghostbusters discover that the recent surge in ghostly activity isn't just good for business, but a threat to the entire planet when an ancient Sumerian god named Gozer is summoned to our plane of existence. As the only ones with the necessary equipment and know-how the team is forced to battle this primordial force and save the world.
The mega-hit movie led to the creation of a cartoon series that lasted well into the early 90's and an often maligned but decent sequel in 1989. The cartoon also spawned a vast toy-line that practically printed its own money. Ask anybody who was a child in the 80's and very early 90's, Ghostbusters was huge, almost Pokemon huge.
For some reason this success never translated into video games which is a shame because the source material has all the makings of a great game. Given its popularity, Ghostbusters games were quickly released for almost every video game platform imaginable and ranged from barely playable to legendarily bad in the case of both Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2 on the NES. To add insult to injury one of the only halfway decent Ghostbusters games to be released was New Ghostbusters 2 by Hal Laboratories, the developer famous for the Kirby and Super Smash Brothers franchises, was only available in Europe and Japan. North America did get the Gameboy version but it wasn't nearly as good as its NES brother. Ghostbusters fans would have to wait until 2009 for the original writers and actors to return to help craft Ghostbusters the Video Game for all current consoles which finally contained good gameplay in most versions accompanied by great writing, acting and a canonical story that was spiritually Ghostbusters 3.
This brings us to our review for this installment of Sega Scrutiny which is, you guessed it, Ghostbusters for the Sega Genesis both developed and published by Sega themselves.
The Sega Ghostbusters is an oddity first and foremost because it doesn't completely suck and secondly because the game follows its own original story taking place sometime between the first and second movie. Most other Ghostbusters games attempted to just shoehorn in the movie storyline. It was released in 1990 which was not to its benefit as Ghostbusters was on the decline after the lackluster second film. The cartoon was still trucking along but that too was suffering from worsening quality. The franchise was beginning to implode in terms of popularity. The game also battled consumer distrust. Since other Ghostbusters games were monumental flops people weren't exactly running out to buy this one. All of these reasons helped the game fall into relative obscurity.
The storyline isn't necessarily a good one but at the very least it sets the stage for your adventure. After defeating Gozer the Gozerian in the original movie the Ghostbusters basically put themselves out of business. Supernatural activity around New York City was suddenly non-existent. This suddenly changed as mysterious earthquakes began to occur along with new hauntings for the Ghostbusters to investigate. The mystery deepens with the discovery of ancient puzzle pieces that the boys in gray must hunt down and combine in the hope of discovering the underlying cause of the disturbances.
The writing is pretty poor and badly presented since the game doesn't care which Ghostbuster you choose. Since the dialog remains the same no matter what you'll get some strange out-of-character lines such as Egon saying, "We've got money, let's party!" which is something Ghostbusters fans will find odd coming from the emotionless scientist we know and love. There are a lot of other tidbits that won't make muchsense to people familiar with the franchise like needing to buy equipment from this random scientist guy. The iconic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man also makes a welcome and obligatory appearance as a boss character though it makes little sense from a story perspective. They've already defeated Gozer (Stay Puft) and nobody makes any mention of his return. You can ignore these elements and their lack of adherence to the source material easily enough but they're still irksome. For the most part the story is just there to move the game forward and nothing else. Don't expect anything near the caliber of the films.
Another issue where the story is involved is something that a lot of Ghostbusters games have screwed up. There's no Winston. Winston was an integral character to the films. He was the outsider that didn't have a PhD and gave us the common man's perspective of what was going on. He wasn't one of the original Ghostbusters and was hired later in the first movie but this game takes place after the movie so where is he? For some reason game developers just didn't like Winston. Was it because he was black? That may be an unfair assumption to make but the fact remains that he's not here or in many other old Ghostbusters games and the absence is annoying.
The graphics are nothing stellar but there's nothing terrible here either. The first thing you'll likely notice are the character sprites which have gotten a lot of criticism for displaying our heroes with giant heads and tiny bodies. The obvious reason this was done is to capture the facial likenesses of the characters without making the sprite so large that it would impede gameplay. It actually sort of works for me by giving the game a fun and cartoony feel. Your Ghostbuster will make a shocked expression when they're hit and knocked back in slapstick fashion. The goofy look may take some getting used to and is one of the aspects of this game that you'll either enjoy or loathe depending on personal taste.
The level graphics are unfortunately mundane. While they do their job of portraying different environments you basically get your generic fire level, ice level and so on. The backgrounds are static and don't really take advantage of things like the parallax and animation that the Genesis was capable of. Even by 1990 standards the eye-candy is kept to a minimum. The weapon graphics get the job done with the most visually impressive being the Ghostbusters' famous capture stream but you'll never find yourself going, "wow that was awesome!"
One place where the graphics department didn't slouch is the bosses. The boss and middle boss monsters have a lot of visually unique designs that range from cool looking to really, really weird. Some people don't really like how odd some of the bosses and minor enemies are in this game but I found the strange enemies fitting for the Ghostbusters universe, especially when you factor in the Real Ghostbusters cartoon series which has a lot of creatures far more absurd than anything represented in this game.
At its core the gameplay is that of a standard platformer. You run, you jump and you shoot. This basic model is actually a good thing since earlier attempts at Ghostbusters games often had complex and confusing elements that contributed to their unplayable natures. Another plus is that the controls are responsive and fun. There aren't really any sudden death pitfalls and the jumping puzzles aren't frustrating or very difficult. The fun of simply controlling your character is make-or-break for this type of game and I feel Ghostbusters performs admirably here.
You start by choosing one of the three Ghostbusters available: Egon Spengler, Peter Venkman or Ray Stantz. Egon is the fastest but has the least vitality while Ray is the slowest but can take the most punishment. Peter is predictably a balance of the two. While it really doesn't matter which Ghostbuster you choose I've found Ray to be the easiest since speed isn't a major factor and it takes a lot to kill him.
Between each mission the Ghostbusters discuss current events in their firehouse headquarters and you have a choice of proceeding to the city map where you head to the next level or visiting one of the shops. Although you can choose what level you want to go to out of the first four levels in Mega Man style it works best to just do them in the order given to you. The first shop is an item shop run by a Chinese man who sells you Chinese food like a Peking duck that restores your health, screen clearing bombs that effect ghosts for some reason and night vision goggles which are all but required to beat the fire level. It's a pretty strange combination that's not worth questioning. The other shop is a weapon shop where you can upgrade your Ghostbuster with more powerful blasters, protective shielding and energy tank upgrades to give yourself more ammo for your special weapons. Why you have to go to a store and buy anti-ghost weapons is beyond me since Egon is supposed to have invented them.
Only a few of the special weapons are particularly useful unfortunately. There's a three-way spread shot that will all but replace your primary weapon since it doesn't use much energy and a bubble gun that traps ghosts and floats them off the screen, very useful for the few enemies in the game that are invincible to your normal attacks. Other weapons include a slow but very powerful single shot gun and an explosive shot with an area-effect that's good for groupings of enemies but uses a lot of your energy.
Speaking of the weapons this is another complaint that the game gets. You don't often actually catch ghosts like in the movies and cartoon. You use your arsenal to outright destroy most ghosts. A few ghosts take only a shot or two to kill but there's also annoying enemies like supernaturally floating dishware that take a lot of shots to destroy for no obvious reason. This problem is alleviated by purchasing some of the other weapons but I still have some issues with the enemy balancing decisions.
Fortunately it's not all spiritual annihilation and you do get to capture some ghosts with your trusty proton stream and ghost trap just like in the movies. Each level has a number of "middle ghosts" you must defeat, essentially middle bosses, before you can move on to the final boss. The middle bosses are the only enemies you need to capture but first you have to beat the tar out of them. After they're defeated they'll be reduced to a little green spirit which you must reel in with your capture stream in a little tug-of-war mini-game. Once you get the ghost close enough to the trap it will automatically trigger and suck the ghoul in. The capture mini-game is a bit awkward and sometimes difficult because the ghost can leave the screen and escape. Occasionally this will happen without even giving you a chance to capture the ghost depending on where the middle ghost is on the screen when you defeat it. You only get paid for defeating the middle ghosts if you actually capture them and since money is important for buying new items this can be extremely frustrating until you manage to master ghost wrangling.
The game also allows you to grind for money if you need to, sort of, by placing safes in the levels. You blow up the safes to see what's inside and it will either randomly be a bomb that will blow up and hurt you or a bag of money. You can leave the level by returning to the beginning and exiting which resets the safes so you can try your luck again. You also get a small amount of money for defeating regular enemies. If you're patient you can fully arm your Ghostbuster at the very beginning of the game.
The game's difficulty is low but it's not mindlessly simple. The bosses are interesting and rough at first but they all have conquerable attack patterns that most experienced gamers will master quickly. The game is also short with only six levels though the difficulty understandably heightens in the last two. It shouldn't take the average person very long to get through the entire game and while extra lives are rare you're given plenty of continues should you need them. Regaining health is done by either leaving the level and visiting the item shop or using the Peking duck. You can also find health and energy restoring balls by destroying the famous and recognizable ghost "Slimer" of cartoon and movie fame. Slimers will show up in predetermined locations but they're few and far between.
The game's sound isn't drop-dead incredible but it's actually fairly good. Given that this is a Sega developed game I would expect no less. The 16-bit mix of the famous Ghostbusters theme song by Ray Parker Jr. is presented acceptably and the rest of the level tunes are catchy and memorable. Some of the sound effects are unique but most of them will be familiar to you since it was common for Sega to re-use sound effects in order to save time and money. This seems especially true with earlier Genesis games.
Ghostbusters for the Genesis isn't going to be mistaken for one of the greatest games ever made but compared with other Ghostbusters games of the time it stood far above the competition. It's a serviceable platformer that fans of the genre and fans of the franchise will no doubt enjoy. Despite some strange design choices and unnecessary liberties taken with the source material it still lives up to its Ghostbusters namesake and is well worth your time. Except for New Ghostbusters 2 and the modern games there's really no other Ghostbusters title you can say that about.
Bustin' makes me feel good and so does this frequently overlooked game.
Presentation: 6 A passable story but the weird dialogue hurts the game in the presentation department as well as a laissez faire approach to the source material. Still, it looks and feels like a Ghostbusters game which is more than I can say for the NES original among others. While I find the character designs to be endearing others might find them a tad strange.
Gameplay: 8 It's a very basic platformer but tight control and fun bosses save it from total mediocrity. Some parts need work like the ghost catching sequence and the game is both short and easy but they were probably hoping to target a younger audience so these things are forgivable. I think it would have gotten boring if it were to drag on any longer anyway.
Graphics: 6 A lot more could have been done here. The backgrounds are plain, static and repetitive and your repertoire of weapons is uninspired and not nearly as flashy as the Ghostbusters' high-tech arsenal should have/could have been. There are some cool looking parts, especially the bosses, but in general nothing here really stands out.
Sound: 7 Filled with catchy but somewhat repetitive songs and good sound effects that are mostly reused from other Sega titles not that there's anything wrong with that. It was standard practice back then.
Lasting Appeal: 5 This really depends on if you're a Ghostbusters fan or not. If you are you might want to bump this up a few points. For everybody else this is a fun platformer that you'll beat once and probably not see any reason to revisit.
Overall Average: 6.4/10
Collector: As one of the best Ghostbusters games out there and the fact that it's getting harder and harder to find, this obscure title is highly collectible. Despite flopping when it was released it's a very desired title today. James Rolfe the Angry Video Game Nerd may have had something to do with that. Expect to pay more than you usually would for Genesis games if you're looking to buy this one.
Gamer: If you like platforming games then fire up your emulator and give it a shot. If you like Ghostbusters then what are you waiting for? If you're not a fan of either of these things Sega's Ghostbusters probably won't change that.