In the past, I have made reference to my youthful obsession with Ghostbusters, an obsession I think you could accurately describe as “all-encompassing” and which left an immutable psychic scar because I never owned the firehouse play set. I had the toys, the book, the VHS tapes, I asked for red glasses so I could look like the cartoon version of Egon and my first ever crush was on cartoon Janine. Too much information? Probably. Yet somehow, in the period when my twin obsessions were Ghostbusters and the NES, I managed to completely miss out on today’s game. Developed by HAL Labs and released in 1990, it’s New Ghostbusters II!

Here are some Ghostbusters now, as Peter, Egon and Winston chase Slimer out of a cinema screen because it can’t be the Ghostbusters if they’re not causing significant property damage while busting ghosts.
These aren’t new Ghostbusters, of course. They’re old Ghostbusters. The game’s called New Ghostbusters II because there was already an NES game based on Ghostbusters II, developed by Imagineering. The Imagineering version is a pretty terrible game that I wouldn’t recommend to even the most hardcore Ghostbusters fan, because it’s an overly-difficult slog with tedious driving sections. New Ghostbusters II is a completely different beast, as we shall see. For once it was European console owners who got the better deal, because New Ghostbusters II was never released in the US, presumably due to licensing issues. Naturally it was also released in Japan, being developed by HAL, (a Japanese company,) and I’m looking forward to seeing a Japanese take on what is a very American film franchise. I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first person to point out that Ghostbusters is about a business that becomes successful by flouting health and safety regulations, mocking due legal process and monopolising their industry, after all.

Before the action begins, you must select two Ghostbusters to play as. You can even play as the Ghostbusters’ accountant / lawyer Louis Tully, which I imagine marks the first time I’ve ever had the chance to play as Rick Moranis in a videogame. I’ll be going with Egon and Ray for this playthrough, because they feel like the two most Ghostbuster-y characters to me. Plus Egon’s my favourite.

The game wastes no time in breaking out the spooks, beginning with good ol’ Slimer – a floating, unthreatening target on which to practise your busting skills. NG2 has an unusual set-up where you have two characters but only control one of them directly, in this case Egon. You move around with the d-pad until you see a ghost, at which point you press the A button to fire your proton beam. If you hit the ghost they’ll be stunned so long as you hold the beam on them, at which point you can press the B button to make your CPU-controlled partner throw out a trap to capture the ghost. Your partner will follow you around fairly closely and make their way to a good trapping position once you’ve got a ghost in your beam… for the most part. Ray's definitely more reliable than I expected him to be, though.

As far as the core gameplay goes, that’s about it. Zap ‘em and trap ‘em, nice and easy. Each stage is split into a series of rooms, and eliminating all the ghosts in a room opens up the next, complete with a big on-screen arrow telling you where to go next. Let’s pretend the arrow represents the PKE Meter tracking ectoplasmic activity throughout this… wait, where are we?

With all the offices and scattered paperwork, it appears that New Ghostbusters II begins at around the end of the movie’s first act, when the courthouse is attacked by ghosts thanks to the emotion-manipulating pink slime. Perhaps that’s why there are so many Slimers about; slime sticks together. There are plenty of other ghosts here too, though, including the jogging ghost from the movie, pink blobs that split into even smaller pink blobs when zapped, spectral snakes that pop out of bathtubs and chainsaw maniacs.

There’s a chainsaw maniac now, with its chainsaw and its face that’s kind of difficult to interpret. Is it wearing a baseball catcher’s mask, for a Jason Voorhees riff? Possibly, although thanks to my over-consumption of horror movies I keep seeing it as the Chatterer cenobite from Hellraiser. Not that the Chatterer ever used a chainsaw. I don’t think Pinhead would stand for one of his crew torturing people with something so gauche as a chainsaw, he’d have a big speech about how it lacks the brutal elegance of chains with hooks on the end.
It’s been easy going thus far, but I should mention that you don’t have any kind of health bar in this game. One hit and you lose a life, although thankfully your CPU partner is invulnerable. This means that you should try to be careful, and my top tip for doing that is that you can catch ghosts through walls, so use that to your advantage whenever possible.

Things get more difficult when projectiles are involved, such as in this room full of Slimers that chuck food at you. For whatever reason these lethal projectile pineapples cannot be stopped by blasting them with a highly-concentrated, nuclear-powered proton beam, so you’ll have to dodge them. Fortunately your chosen Buster handles well, with sharp, precise controls, although the perspective can sometimes make it difficult to tell if an attack is going to hit you even though it looks like it should pass “above” you.

Having cleared the building you arrive at the courtroom itself, where the jar of pink slime explodes and releases the game’s first boss – the Scoleri Brothers! A pair of murderers given the electric chair, they’re freed from Hell to enact their sinister plan of running around the screen in predictable patterns. Yeah, they’re not the most menacing pair. The difficulty comes from having to hold your beam on them for a little while before they turn pink and trappable, but you can move around while you’re zapping a ghost and your remain “tethered” to it up to a certain distance so you can still avoid the other brother.

Onwards to stage two, which takes place during the Ghostbusters' exploration of New York’s abandoned subway tunnels. It’s also where the ghosts of all the Mets that Mega Man ever destroyed have ended up. They’re happily working away down here with their pickaxes and pneumatic drills until you bust them. I’m sure they were working on something evil. I assume they were trying to cause as much pubic transport disruption as possible, driving ordinary people to contemplate all manner of terrible acts as they’re crushed against someone who hasn’t bathed in three weeks while their train is stuck in a siding – a diabolical plan indeed.

You can’t have small train tracks in a videogame without mine carts, can you? If an alien civilisation learned of Earth solely through videogames they’d have to assume that mine carts are a fundamental aspect of an Earthling’s everyday life, along with opening chests and killing each other. Uh, scratch that last one.
So yeah, mine carts that’ll kill you if they crash into you. You still have to bust the ghosts inside, of course, but you can hold out your beam as they pass and let them ride into it. This stage represents a good step up from the first, with the same basic gameplay that’s spiced up by having to pay attention to where you’re standing. It feels like an organic addition to the complexity of the game and is definitely preferably to the game simply dumping more ghosts on you, or bigger ghosts, or ghosts with guns.

Sadly this stage does suffer from being a bit dull to look at. Ninety-five percent of the stage is the same orange bricks and mine cart tracks patrolled by undead construction workers. I’d be more critical of it if I wasn’t having so much fun with the gameplay, but it could definitely use a bit of sprucing up. At least chuck in a bit of graffiti or something, maybe a giant albino alligator that was flushed down the sewers and grew to an enormous size beneath the city. This is New York, after all.

The final few screens take place aboard a train where you’re attacked by ghostly severed heads. I certainly hope they’re ghosts, anyway. If not, I think the Ghostbusters should also be keeping an eye out for Herbert West.
Right at the very end of the train is Slimer, except now he’s a locomotive engineer with a little hat and everything, and it is adorable. Less adorable when Slimer fired a spread-shot of projectiles that immediately killed Egon with no warning, but still a lovely sight to see. Then I blasted the old onionhead. I felt a little bad about it, but not bad enough to prevent me from seeing the rest of the game.

Stage three takes place in Peter Venkman’s apartment building, where he let Sigourney Weaver stay after an evil force tried to kidnap her baby. Unfortunately the lifts aren’t working, so you have to work your way up from the ground floor, trapping a ton of ghosts as you go because Peter apparently lives in the most haunted building in America. Common spooks in this stage include pink blobs, strange winged things that look like Cupid fell asleep on a tanning bed and, for some reason, ninja ghosts. I want to know how the spirits of an entire ninja clan ended up bound to the earthly confines of a New York apartment building, although as I type this I realise I already know the answer – this must be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ doing. “Ghostbusters meet Turtles” is a crossover event that, had I read it as a child, would probably have killed me through raw excitement. A couple of years ago there was a Ghostbusters / Turtles crossover comic, but I can’t bring myself to read it. I know it won’t live up to my childhood fantasy of the Turtles meeting Zuul and thinking of Shredder so they have to fight a giant Shredder and then the Ghostbusters arrive in the Statue of Liberty and they fight and it is the best. Ahem.

The apartment building has minibosses at the end of each floor in the form of these flail-wielding cyclopses. A menacing sight at first, you’ll soon learn that they can only attack directly downwards so once you’ve gotten around the side of them they’re completely helpless.

Much like the previous stage, this area does suffer from repetitiveness -  a feeling exacerbated by it being about three times longer than the previous stage. You move through the very similar looking rooms, fight a couple of cyclopses, repeat – and I repeated it for long enough that I was worried I was missing something, that I needed to do something special to break the cycle in a Zelda-Lost-Woods kind of deal. But no, you just have to keep plugging away until you reach the end of the stage.

I’m happy to keep plugging away, mind you, because I’m having a really fun time with New Ghostbusters II. The action’s slick and smooth, with just enough thought required to avoid boxing yourself in or getting surrounded that it avoids becoming stale. The range of your proton beam is long enough to give you room to manoeuvre but still short enough that you have to get involved and can’t just trap ghosts from a mile away, and when you’ve learned how the ghosts move you can use their patterns to your advantage. Plus it looks great, with endearingly chubby little sprites and simple but charming ghost designs. Oh, and the music is really good, too. You’ve got a fantastic NES recreation of the famous Ghostbusters theme, for starters, and all the stage music is a blast, from stage one’s bouncy use of motifs from the theme to stage four’s funky riff on “Entrance of the Gladiators.” Then there’s stage three’s theme, which is clearly from a Kirby game.

If you listened to that out of context, you’d definitely say “hey, that sure sounds a lot like music from a Kirby game.” I know I did. It’s because NG2’s soundtrack is by Kirby composer Jun Ishikawa. Having heard this track I’d have been amazed if Ishikawa wasn’t the composer.

Any complaints I may have had about this stage being repetitious were allayed once the Ghostbusters were attacked by these grim reapers with pumpkins for heads. They are, with only mild hyperbole, the greatest enemies in any videogame ever. I’d like to believe they’re based on the pumpkin-headed “Ghost of Halloween” Samhain from the Ghostbusters cartoon, but I don't have any evidence for that.

There’s no boss at the end of stage three, but you do get a cutscene showing Dana’s baby Oscar being abducted by the creepy Renfield-a-like Janosz. Like almost everything in this game, the cutscene is very cute.

Into the river of slime for the next stage, where our intrepid paranormal investigators must do battle with evil strawberry jam while avoiding the projectiles that come their way. You might also notice that NG2 does have some problems with sprite flickering, especially when you’re zapping a ghost / deadly emotion-enhancing fruit preserve. It’s a fairly minor issue, and overall I’d say that there’s very little to criticise in NG2. Once or twice Ray managed to get himself stuck behind a wall and I had to go back and fetch him, but the pathfinding on your CPU helper is generally very good. The stage backgrounds do get samey, and that’s probably the game’s biggest flaw. I’ve played games with a lot worse biggest flaws.

Hey, maybe there is something to the whole Slimer / slime connection in this game? There certainly are a lot of Slimers down here and not much else beside, you know, slime. Maybe Slimers are independent, fully-realised globs of emotion slime, and that emotion is “me at about 8pm when I suddenly realise I’ve forgotten to have any dinner.”
It was also around this point that I realised what other game NG2 is reminding me of – Sunsoft’s NES version of Gremlins 2. They’re both top-down games based on spooky comedy movies set in New York that I watched a lot when I was a kid. There’s no point to this revelation, it’s just nice to finally figure it out.

Something that didn’t appear in Ghostbusters II (the movie) is this stage’s boss, a pack of slimy… lizards? Dragons? Whatever they are, they seem to have been flayed alive, given that they’re red and you can see all their musculature. They can also breathe fire, so I’m going with dragons. Slime dragons, the worst kind of dragons. Like the Scoleri Brothers you have to keep your beam on a dragon for a while to defeat it, although you don’t have to trap them. I assume this is because they’re made of slime and not ectoplasm. It works out nicely for Ray, who can spend the entire battle doing bugger all and being invincible. Hang on, why doesn’t Ray join in with the zapping? Does he not have a proton pack? Were there budget cuts at Ghostbusters HQ? C’mon, Ray, start pulling your weight.

With the dragons defeated it’s time for the final stage – the art museum, where kidnapped baby Oscar has been taken so that the evil wizard Vigo the Carpathian can transfer his essence out of the painting he’s trapped in and into Oscar’s body. Oh yeah, Vigo the Carpathian. You remember him, he’s the driving force behind the events of Ghostbusters 2. Kinda weird that we haven’t seen him in the game yet, huh?
I like the exhibits on display in the museum. You can’t go wrong with pictures of Slimer and blank canvases that drip blood, can you? Plus I reckon that the pictures you can see just about Egon and Ray in the screenshot above are teeny-tiny recreations of the Ghostbusters 2 movie poster.

The museum takes everything that you’ve seen thus far during the course of the game and bundles it all into one stage. Almost every type of previously-encountered ghost makes a return, including the Scoleri Brothers and the pumpkin reapers, and it feels like one last section of “pure” gameplay before the final battles ahead. Nothing much has changed, but nothing really needed to change because the gameplay was perfectly enjoyable as it was.

The stage ends with a battle against Janosz, as portrayed by the actor Peter MacNicol and represented in-game as a sprite of Peter MacNicol with a gigantic forehead. There’s something I find very entertaining about doing battle with an American character actor who I associate most with Ally McBeal in a Japanese-developed NES game. Like, I wonder if Peter MacNicol has ever seen this? I’m far too British to ever do it, but part of me wants to get in touch with him on Twitter and let him know about this (please do not take this as a request to bother Peter MacNicol). He does have a Twitter. I just checked it out. He seems to really like Halloween, so he’s okay in my book.
As for the boss fight itself, it’s… not great. The game’s lowest ebb, as far as I’m concerned, mostly because it’s an enormous spike in difficulty compared to the rest of the game which, up until this point, has been relatively easy. To defeat Janosz, you have to zap one of his clones with your beam for fifteen seconds or so – but as soon as you hit one Janosz, the other two begin firing projectiles at you, so you have to try to avoid those missile while maintaining your beam and that is no easy task. It’s made worse by you having to eliminate about ten Janosz clones before the fight grinds to a halt, with any lapse in concentration or false move leading to the loss of a life because hey, it’s one-hit kills. A frustrating battle needlessly stretched into a gruelling slog, then – but those sprites are fantastic.

There’s Vigo, the Scourge of Carpathia, the Sorrow of Moldavia. About bloody time. He used to sit in a castle of pain on a throne of blood, now he’s reduced to possessing art restorers and looking like a sculpture of George Carlin carved from scabs. No wonder he’s so angry.

After getting my arse kicked into a brand new shape by Janosz, fighting Vigo was like skipping through a summer meadow by comparison. It seems that Vigo’s been telling fibs on his CV and by “dark sorcery” he means juggling. Vigo throws slow, easily dodged balls at the Ghostbusters and then spins a protective ball barrier around himself, and it’s a very simple task to avoid the projectiles, hit him with the proton beam and then simply walk backwards a little so the spinning balls don’t hit you. Vigo’s must be out of practise, because he’s the scourge of nothing in this state, except maybe people who have to tidy the ball pit at a kid’s soft play centre.

With Vigo defeated, baby Oscar is saved and the game is over. There’s not really an “ending” as such, but that’s fine by me – I know how Ghostbusters II ends, and instead you get a fun series of little skits over the credits, like the Statue of Liberty chasing Vigo down presumably so she can kick him right in his huddled masses.

My favourite is definitely when Egon steals the reaper’s jack o’lantern head.
I’ll use the obvious gag to sum up New Ghostbusters II – bustin’ made me feel good. HAL crafted an enjoyable little game that, unlike the Western Ghostbusters II game, does one thing and does it well. It’s extremely cute, and there’s a lot of fun to be had as you waddle around the stages hoovering up non-terminal repeating phantasms thanks to the solid controls and the smidgen of space for a bit of tactical play, especially when it comes to learning enemy patterns and grabbing ghosts through walls. It’s also not too difficult, Janosz fight excepted, and it’s nice to play through a NES action game that doesn’t spend every moment reminding me that I’m an old man with failing reflexes and encroaching baldness. New Ghostbusters II definitely gets my recommendation, and doubly so during the Halloween season. If only you could play as Janine, I’d be ordering myself a cartridge from eBay.

High marks of the Halloween-O-Meter for NG2, because hey, it’s Ghostbusters, and also I wouldn’t be surprised if that sprite of Peter MacNicol crept into my nightmares. Plus it’s got pumpkin-headed grim reapers, that’s worth an extra point all on its own.

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