02/10/2012

THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS (ARCADE)

The nights are getting longer, the air grows colder and finally October has arrived, and if you've been following VGJunk for a while you'll know that this can only mean one thing: it's time for the third annual VGJunk Hallowe'en Spookstravaganza! For the entire month of October, I'll be playing and writing about videogames filled with ghosts, ghouls and gremlins, games that marry the creepy to the cute, games that capture the feeling of this most wonderful time of the year. With that in mind, what could be a better place to start than with a game based on the finest spectre-based classic comedy that the Eighties can provide? It's Data East's 1987 arcade who-ya-gonna-call-em-up The Real Ghostbusters!


I know I say this a lot, but I'm sure I don't need to explain what Ghostbusters is all about - if you don't know it from the hit 1984 movie or the sequel, you'll be familiar with the cartoon. Hell, some of you might even know the franchise from the mid-Nineties Extreme Ghostbusters animated series, and if that's the case then I hope you're enjoying your stay here after your journey from whatever parallel dimension you call home.
Presumably this game is based on the original animated series, which was named The Real Ghostbusters to distinguish it from Filmation's far inferior cartoon, also called Ghostbusters. It's not often I call something that stars a hat-wearing gorilla "inferior," but there you go. However, if you're hoping for a faithful recreation of the classic Real Ghostbusters cartoon then you're probably going to find this game a little... lacking.


On the plus side, that car is immediately recognisable as Ecto-1. Everything else, not so much. I'm certain the Ghostbusters’s HQ wasn't called the "Ghosthouse" in the cartoon - Egon would never have stood for a name that made it sound like a fairground attraction. They also didn't bother to put the famous Ghostbusters logo on the building even though it's clearly visible on the side of Ecto-1, so the only conclusion I can reach is that this scene shows one of the "real" Real Ghostbusters heading into the premises of an unlicensed bootleg competitor to serve them with a cease-and-desist order.


At least the game outlines your goals in a clear and concise manner, although the first and third items on that list were pretty much a given. In the Ghostbusters universe, New York must be as synonymous with ghosts as it is with bagels and Broadway in our world because apparently The City That Never Sleeps is also The City That Cannot Let Its Dead Rest Peacefully.


The game begins, and if you were expecting the usual movie-license fare of a side-scrolling action platformer then prepare to have you mind blown - The Real Ghostbusters is a top-down shooter! Slightly unexpected, that, but I suppose one of the Ghostbusters' most famous trademarks is a nuclear-powered particle cannon so it's hardly like shooting at ghosts is unknown to them. The joystick moves your Ghostbuster - who, as far as I can tell isn't supposed to be any of the actual Ghostbusters but some faceless everyman with an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back - and you fire in the direction you're facing. Yes, this game sadly does not have the dual-stick controls of games like Robotron and Smash TV, which is a damn shame because once you've played a top-down shooter with dual-stick controls and the freedom to move and shoot in different directions, it's always a disappointment to go back to the face-and-fire handling of games such as this.
To make up for it, The Real Ghostbusters gives you two separate fire buttons. The first one fires what looks like, of all things, a barrage of tiny rockets. It fires it an odd way: if you face in one direction and hold the button down, it produces a steady but not very rapid stream of projectiles, but each time you change direction you can fire a rocket instantly. This means that if you hold the button down and kind of wiggle about on the spot, always changing your angle, you can fire a spread of missiles much, much faster, and given that there are a lot of enemies this strange thrashing motion quickly becomes mandatory if you want to get anywhere without dying a lot.


The other fire button comes into play once you've killed a ghost, because killing a ghost turns them into... a ghost? They're a little difficult to see here, but those two grey shapes at the bottom-right of the screen are the ghosts of ghosts that you can catch by using the other fire button to produce the famous proton beam. Keep the ghost-ghosts in the proton beam for long enough and you'll "capture" them, although your Ghostbuster doesn't use a trap so I'm not sure how that works. I think Egon's been tinkering with the proton packs and now they work as some kind of ectoplasmic vacuum cleaner.
For every 100 ghosts you capture you get an extra life. Does this reveal that the true purpose of the Ghostbusters is to prolong their own lifespans by harvesting the souls of others? Possibly, but I'm still struggling with the idea that these ghosts have other ghosts inside them. Ghostception? Or are these enemies actually living creatures that you're killing and then capturing their newly-formed ghosts? It's probably the latter: if you're a newly hired Ghostbuster then it can be hard to meet your quotas, and no-one's gonna mind if you knock the ectoplasm out of these guys.


I mean, some of them are KKK members. Who's going to miss these guys? Well, their bug-eyed purple elephant monster companion might. The story of how a grape-coloured snout demon came to be working with the Ku Klux Klan is one that I'm sure must be utterly fascinating, but sadly it's never expanded on.
Something that's also never mentioned is exactly where the hell this first stage is meant to be taking place. It consists of a series of dilapidated buildings linked by concrete walkways, but if you look over the edge you can see what appears to be a distant galaxy hanging in the blackness. Honestly, I find it a little unsettling - I'm not scared of many things, besides the usual ones like "hard work" and "human contact," but vast, blank, formless labyrinths from which there is no hope of escape creep me out on some deep subconscious level. Maybe I was laboratory rat in a previous life.


So what else is there to see in the first stage? Well, there's the usual array of power-ups: increases to the power of your shot and your proton beam, temporary invincibility, that kind of thing, and you can also summon Slimer to help you out. I say "Slimer" but the game simply refers to him as "Green Ghost," a name that he was given in the early years of the Ghostbusters toy line before the animated series gave him a name and a personality beyond "food go in ghost now." Slimer acts as a shield of sorts, sometimes protecting you from enemy attacks but mostly just bouncing around the screen like an irritating twerp, so at least Data East captured his cartoon personality pretty well.


Of course, there must be bosses, and here are the first, a pair of traditional sheet-wearing apparitions that attack by firing toilet paper at you. It doesn't even seem to be particularly haunted toilet paper, either, although any contact with it will kill you instantly so there must be a little more to it than the average two-ply. The most baffling thing about this fight is that you can't destroy the papers by shooting them with your particle accelerator, which leads me to wonder what would happen if you blocked the Large Hadron Collider with wet tissue paper like it was a high-school toilet.
Fortunately for our hero, toilet paper doesn't move very fast and if you keep on your toes you should be able to deal with these ghosts pretty easily. Once they're (un(un))dead, a key appears and you can escape from this terrifying concrete maze and head back to the "ghosthouse."


I guess I was right about the proton packs working like vacuums, because our hero seems to simply flip his from "suck" to "blow" and fires all the ghost he's captured into the Containment Unit. Ah, the Containment Unit, home and prison to all the ghosts the Ghostbusters ever busted. As a kid I was a huge Ghostbusters fan - and I mean "fan" in the actual "short for fanatic" sense, a ectoplasm-fuelled zealot who would try to convert everyone to the Ghostbusters cause with all the ferocity of a living Jack Chick tract but without all the evil - and the Containment Unit was a source of endless fascination for me. Any episode of the cartoon where they actually entered the Containment Unit, revealing it to be a twisted, hellish landscape of pure nightmare horror, that was the best episode. Sadly there's nothing so exciting in this game, and once you've dropped off the ghosts you caught it's time for stage two.
If you're looking at this game so far and thinking "well, it doesn't look that Ghostbuster­s-y" then congratulations, you've seen through Data East's cunning ruse. The Real Ghostbusters is actually a conversion of a different Data East game called Meikyuu Hunter G, which looks like this.


It plays the same as The Real Ghostbusters, apart from the proton beam being a more powerful special weapon activated by pressing both fire buttons together. If I had to guess at the design process for The Real Ghostbusters, I'd say that someone pointed out to a Data East executive that the main character from Meikyuu Hunter G looked a little like a Ghostbuster, and when said executive saw the "proton beam" weapon his eyes turned into cartoon dollar signs and he was on the phone to his American distributors within seconds.


Back to The Real Ghostbusters, and the rest of the game is pretty much identical to the first stage, just with a different background: you move vaguely up the screen, shooting and capturing ghosts until you reach the boss, who drops the key to the exit once he's defeated.


The second boss is at least more interesting than the first, looking as it does like something you'd expect to find hiding in the Devil's U-bend. Slimer refuses to take the whole thing seriously, despite the fact that this monster is clearly very angry: you can tell by the way it's frowning its single eye.


The next few stages gradually introduce new landscapes, like this desert graveyard, and new enemies, like these mummies that crawl from the ground when you shoot their graves. I'd say their anger is justifiable, firstly at not being buried in a grand pyramid like any self-respecting mummy and secondly at some dick with a proton cannon blasting away at their eternal resting places.
Actually, it was at about this point that I realised that as well as capturing ghosts, the proton beam also damages enemies. Suddenly I had to question the usefulness of the basic shot - after all, the beam is a constant attack that seems to be more powerful than the missiles. The thing is, I think the proton beam is supposed to have limited ammunition, measured by the yellow bar at the top-left, but for some reason while I was playing it never went down. Odd, but it was certainly helpful to find I could use my beam on everything and it definitely made me feel more like an actual, non-rocket-firing Ghostbuster, so I stuck with it.


Stage three also introduces the first really infuriating boss fight, a gaggle of scissor-headed demon... I was going to say birds, but they're actually not that bird-like at all, are they? Sure they've got beaks, but they look more like recently flayed sheep skulls attached to balls of lint by bungee cords. They attack by extending their heads at you in a manner that seems more borne of curiosity than any real desire to kill you, but because there are loads of them you'll quickly be overwhelmed as their desire to get a closer look results in you being pummeled to death.


By the time you reach stage five, it becomes very difficult to make any progress without either moving very slowly and eradicating every single monster you encounter (which really isn't an option because of the time limit) or without dying constantly. Enemies attack from every angle, often appearing right next to you without warning, and you die in one hit. My age-raddled brain found it quite difficult to keep up with everything that was happening on-screen - and between enemies, moving spikes, deadly projectiles and power-ups, there was plenty going on - and so I ended up dying and respawning so frequently that Jesus himself would have let out a slow whistle of appreciation had he seen it.


These turd-headed red demons are especially annoying, as their only attack pattern is to swarm all over you as a group and stay on top of you as you respawn, so if you don't clear them all away in the brief period of invincibility that comes with a new life you're just going to die again straight away. I suppose it's nice to see that at least one species of unspeakable monstrosity has come up with an effective strategy, at least - it definitely beats the KKK guys, they just slowly launch fireballs at you and infuse you with an unshakeable sense of man's inhumanity to man as they prattle on about the mixing of the races.


At least stage five has a good boss encounter, a battle with a group of bizarre scythe-wielding demons whose huge saucer eyes give them a constant look of confusion... until they swing their scythes at you and brutally murder you. Then they're all business.


Unfortunately, The Real Ghostbusters rather loses its way after the half-way mark. Backgrounds are repeated, no new enemies are introduced and the game because more of a chore than anything else. The gameplay never changes, there are no new weapons to collect, and there's only one music track that plays throughout the entire game. Luckily, that track is a slightly wonky recreation of Ray Parker Jr.'s famous Ghostbusters theme.



It is a testament to the incredible catchiness of the Ghostbusters theme that this not-quite-accurate digital recreation powered by arcade technology a quarter of a century old never grates. You might start to tune it out after a while, but it never makes you want to ram angry wasps down your ear canals.


I would also like to add that this boss looks like Shadow Weaver from She-Ra but without the curvaceous - and for a young but maturing boy, kind of, erm, confusing - body.


It's a much better boss than this ball-swinging Cyclops. All he does is swing his ball-and-chain around. I don't think he even knows I'm there, he's just been told by the head ghost or his demonic department manager or whoever is his direct superior that he should just stand here swing his weapon around. Remember this guy, we'll be seeing him again soon.


The next boss is even worse, as it's just a swarm of those purple elephants we've been seeing since stage bloody one. No new powers, no special tricks, they can't even morph together to form one giant purple stalk-eyed pachyderm - they're exactly the same as they've been for the whole damn game, except now they've discovered the joys of teamwork.


By the time I reached the final stage, I seemed to be spending more time dead than alive. Enemies that were once bosses have returned as normal enemies, which at least makes some kind of sense - the infernal bureaucracy of Hell probably would demote you if you failed to stop the Ghostbusters. Those red demons are everywhere, and they won't be happy until forty of them have piled on top of me and crushed me beneath their bulk. Like, they've got axes but screw that, axes are so passé, I'm going to sit on this human until his internal organs are crushed into the consistency of minestrone soup.
I'm sure this will all be redeemed by the final boss, though. He'll be the King of the Ghosts, after all! It could be any number of hell-spawned monstrosities! The Ghostbusters fought Cthulhu once, you know. Or maybe, just maybe, we'll see an appearance by a certain gooey white advertising mascot.


Oh, you poor dope, you shouldn't have gotten your hopes up. The final boss is just two of those Cyclopses (Cyclopi?) and they're doubly irritating. That's right, no impressive final encounter and not even an appearance from the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Not a single appearance from him, in fact, which is weird given that he's one of the most memorable things from the entire Ghostbusters franchise. What a sour note to end the game on, right? It's a good job I wasn't really expecting anything interesting, I would have been really disappointed!


Good bustin', indeed. The city is safe from all the Cyclopses and purple elephants, and our hero can return to headquarters for some well-deserved rest...


...except there's some kind of cock-up (probably Slimer's fault) and all the ghosts escape, regaining the forms they had before I shot them and hoovered up their spiritual essences. Nice try, Data East, but there's no way I'm playing through this again just yet.
Before I wrap up, it would be remiss of me to not take a closer look at some of the various spooks and phantoms that I didn't mention - after all, this is the first article in this year's Hallowe'en season, and what says "Hallowe'en" better than deformed freaks from a realm beyond the ken of Man?


Oh man, look at this wonderful bunch of weirdos. First, there's a small green monster who looks perpetually disgusted at everything he sees, which given his huge eyes is probably quite a lot. I like to think he's a good, decent creature who is most horrified that his ghostly brethren have teamed up with the KKK. The other green monster doesn't look quite as happy, and you would be happy if your teeth resembled the front end of a snowplow. I do like the pin-point glow of his sunken eyes, though. Thirdly we have some living spikes, more of an environmental hazard than an enemy as they do is pop up out of the ground, trying to stab Ghostbusters in the butt. The life of a sentient spike is not a glamorous one. Finally there's a ghost that I recognise from the cartoon, or at least from the toys - this running ghost appeared on a lot of early promotional material and is apparently called the "Creepy Thing Ghost." I think that might be the most generic thing that you could possibly call a ghost.


That's The Real Ghostbusters arcade game, then, a proud example of the gaming tradition of slapping a licensed name over a different, unrelated game. So, did busting make me feel good? Well, kinda. A little bit, at the start. For someone of my generation and background, it's difficult to not get excited when that familiar theme starts up, even if I knew this was never going to be a great game. It does what it does well enough, though, or at least for the first half of the game - it becomes tedious quite quickly and once you've seen all the ghosts and monsters there's not much else to keep you interested. The actual gameplay is fine, with decent controls and even a surprisingly smooth difficulty curve, but it's just missing something, a certain spark that might have raised it above the average.
You know that it reminds me of the most? Zombies Ate My Neighbors. A slightly dull, undercooked version of Zombies Ate My Neighbors to be sure, but there's just enough of a connection to make me wonder if the developers of ZAMN took some inspiration from this. And now that I've reminded you all of a far superior monster-blastin' top-down shooter, my work here is done. I mean for today, at least; I'll be back soon with yet more Hallowe'en frolics.

Actually wait, there's one more thing: the return of the VGJunk Hallowe'en season also means the return of the VGJunk Hallowe'en-O-Meter! This is a measure, not of how good a game is, but how much Hallowe'eny-ness it contains, judged by my own set of loosely-defined standard (although the involvement of pumpkins always bumps it up). Last year, for example, Castlevania scored a full ten out of ten, whereas something like Katamari Damacy would get one out of ten (it gets one point because the King of All Cosmos can be pretty creepy.) So, where did The Real Ghostbusters fall on the Hallowe'en-O-Meter?


Not a bad start to the spooky goings-on, but I thought a Ghostbusters title might have scored higher - sadly this game was let down by being too brightly-lit and suffering from a notable absence of any Hallowe'en staples. Except, y'know, ghosts. They were in there.

4 comments:

  1. Ahh, the opportunity to contemplate Extreme Ghostbusters. As a fanatical devotee of the original animated series, the Extreme version caught be off guard. I gave it a chance, and found myself vaguely enjoying it, up to the point at which one of the team, who was in a wheelchair, was lowered - without comment from his team mates - through a manhole and into the sewers in pursuit of spectres. That sadly broke my willing suspension of disbelief, despite its obvious positive inclusive message, which the animators should be commended for.

    And a slap on the back of the head for Data East being so damn lazy with their licensed version. Would it break their staff in half to re-skin the main sprite, at least? Sheesh. Angry letter in post.

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    1. Ha ha, yeah, Extreme Ghostbusters definitely went all-out when it came to inclusiveness. I also kinda enjoyed the series - it had some cool ghost designs, and when I was growing up there weren't nearly enough series that starred monster-fighting goth girls with particle accelerators.

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  2. Love your work - another cracker. Very funny and informative. Do the screenshots have to be so big? Mouseover expand, perhaps?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! As for the screenshots: yeah, they're definitely not perfect. What happens is I blow up every screenshot by 200%, because at their original resolution they're too small to be seen well (an NES screenshot would only be 256 pixels wide, for example) and whatever Blogger uses to scale the pictures makes them look blurry and horrible (and breaks animated gifs) unless they're at their original size, so this was the best compromise I could come up with for now. Like I said, I know it's not perfect and I hope it didn't harm your enjoyment of the article too much, and if I find a better solution I'll definitely be implementing it.

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