On June 8th, 1984, Ghostbusters introduced the world to the giant Twinkie theory, a forty-foot marshmallow man, demon dogs, and enough subtle humor and dry wit to win over audiences again and again becoming a timeless classic. As Time magazine points out, reviews were actually skewed over what to make of it at the time, but since then, it has become an iconic film that continues to hold up today.
What I loved about the film is that it didn’t go completely out of its way to be funny the way the sequel did — the situational humor just came naturally without seeming forced or gimmicky. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson took to the streets of New York to bust some spirits and the learning experience was all part of the fun. Their reactions to the weird were what stood out and not so much the giant subway filled with pink slime or the walking Statue of Liberty driven by an NES Advantage in the sequel.
Activision had also gotten into the action with an adaptation of the film for PCs which was actually quite advanced for the time and planted the seeds for where bigger games might go in the future. It was released on a massive plate of platforms ranging from the Amstrad to the ZX Spectrum, hitting all of the popular PCs at the time from Atari to the MSX. And it turned out to be a decent movie tie-in. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a lot of fun for what it was at the time and pretty challenging.
David Crane, in an interview with Electronic Games in 1985, had just come off the project and revealed that he almost didn’t take it on himself. His wedding day was getting closer and closer.
At the same time, however, Crane had also been working on the basics for a game that would later become Ghostbusters. As he tells Electronic Games:
“I was leaning toward a classic shoot-out, since I hadn’t done one of those in a long time, but it was basically a game looking for a theme.”
He had a city map, he a car driving around it, and the tools to build the vehicle — elements that would later make it into the actual game. As the article notes, “Armed with a 12K byte headstart, he went to work” on what would become Activision’s Ghostbusters adaptation. He envisioned a four-part gameplay scenario, the account number system for saving your cash earned in the game, and within a week of that had a working rough sketch of what the game would be like.
Crane “worked over his materials in two-hour bursts in the middle of the night” and realized that he couldn’t do it all alone. Hilary Mills was brought in to bring life to his roughs as the artist and Tom Shotter worked on the interpreter that converted her data into computer data. By time of Crane’s wedding, the game was at “98%”, handing it off to Adam Bellin to finish things off during his honeymoon.
The game loaded up the splash screen featuring the Ghostbuster’s iconic symbol, but it also screamed at the player “Ghostbusters! Hahahahaha!” which was a surprising piece of bleeding edge tech back in the day.
From the box backing pic above, the note about “Software Speech” by Electronic Speech Systems was for the intro’s disembodied before kicking off a MIDI version of Ray Parker Jr.’s famous song. If Electronic Speech Systems also sounds familiar to you, Epyx had also used them to help give Alvin Atombender a voice for his last lines among other tricks in Impossible Mission which also came out in 1984. The idea to use it came from Activision producer, Brad Prager.
The setup was simple: players were buying into the Ghostbusters franchise and the bank would loan them $10,000 to get started allowing them to buy a vehicle and equip with with tools of the trade. Players didn’t have to start out with the iconic 1959 Cadillac hearse (which actually does cost only $4800 in the game).
Attachments included a PK meter, marshmallow sensor (for detecting an impending Stay Puft attack), ghost traps, and even a portable containment unit if you had enough cash. There was also a strategy element involved, here. Sure, you could buy a fast car and load it up by spending the entire wad, but one of the goals of the game was to MAKE more money than what the bank had loaned you. That is, you have to earn more than $10,000 to make it to the final stage where you “face off” against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and save the world.
And unfortunately, busting ghosts doesn’t pay quite as much as it does in the movie in the thousands of dollars range. Try a few hundred or so instead and only so much time to earn enough to make it to the end game. Practice made perfect.
With their new car, players traveled around a square, top-down map of the city to bust some ghosts. Also visible were four “roamers” at any one time concentrating on getting to the Temple of Zuul at the center of the map to fuel the city’s PK energy reading. You can delay it by “running through” them and then sweeping them up during the driving sequence, though as the PK levels get higher and higher, they start moving in faster and faster and the calls begin getting a lot more frequent.
Once the PK energy reaches critical mass, the Keymaster and Gatekeeper (you see them as little icons on the city map roaming around but you can’t actually stop them) meet up at the Temple of Zuul and the final confrontation begins if you manage to make it there with enough cash.
Now, depending on how far the call was, it impacted the length of the driving sequence which consisted of moving the car left and right and occasionally vacuuming up those roamers along the way to buy a little extra time. Otherwise, it wasn’t that exciting. You could get up and snag a cold one from the fridge if you wanted to depending on how far you had to travel.
Once at the site of the haunting, the game switched to a side-view stage where the player had to set the trap and then position the two Ghostbusters responsible for coralling the ghost using their proton beams to nudge it above the trap for disposal.
The controls back in the day were also very limited. The game only used arrow keys and two buttons (or a joystick if you had one). One button served as the ‘action’ button and another for throwing down Ghost Bait (to disrupt Stay Puft’s occasional rampage). Setting up to trap your ghost got pretty routine after awhile, but it was also tricky. If you placed the trap somewhere you didn’t want or a Ghostbuster was facing the wrong way, there was no undo. Once something was placed, that was it.
Trapping the ghost could be pretty tricky because of its random movements onscreen making it challenging to time when you should push the action button to snag it. If you missed with the trap, one of the three Ghostbusters in your car would get slimed and the escaping ghost would then add to the city’s PK energy, accelerating the countdown to doomsday. If you didn’t have enough Ghostbusters to trap a ghost, or empty traps for that matter, it was time to swing by HQ.
Your proton packs could also run out of juice if you take too long to trap a ghost, automatically triggering the trap whether or not you’re ready.
Once the final phase kicked off, it was time to sneak two of your Ghostbusters into the Temple of Zuul by slipping underneath a jumping Mr. Stay Puft Marshmallow man to get to the door. Failing here fails the game, but players could start over with the cash they had earned if they punched in the account number the game gives them as something of an early example of a password feature (you couldn’t save your game, but you could at least use the cash you earned if you made it past the starting limit).
Success means players are treated to a cut scene at the end showing our two heroes crossing the streams and closing the gate. Afterward, a text screen comes up thanking the player by name and bestowing a fat cash bonus along with an account number to use for later play.
Today, you can play it on sites like Virtual Apple or the Virtual Atari and check it out for yourself. There’s even a remake by an outfit called Auld Games that redoes the game with new graphics, music, and makes the driving around stuff a bit more interesting by adding in oncoming cars. It even has different difficulty levels (the original game doesn’t…it was just hardcore that way) which make the ghosts faster and harder to catch but don’t increase how much they’re worth. It’s still pretty repetitive, but it captures the essence of the original game including the aggravating “run into the door when Stay Puft jumps” sequence. Unfortunately, it looks like Auld Games no longer hosts a copy of the game, but a copy has found its way over to Fileplanet.
Other games have come out since then based on the famous franchise, some okay and others not so much, hitting everything from the arcade to PCs and consoles. The Xbox 360, PS3, and PCs had also gotten a Ghostbusters game in 2009 which was essentially Ghostbusters III (with a storyline written by both Dan Aykroyd and the late, great Harold Ramis) and is, at least for me, one of the best if not THE best iteration of the series as a video game.
The first game also stood out for the tantalizing directions it could have gone in and which properties today have extensively explored on their own. Extending the driving sequences and city map out into a sandbox the size of San Andreas in Grand Theft Auto or Watch Dogs’ Chicago, creating side quests to compliment Ghostbusting techniques, and adding in the strategic element of smart purchases and customizable gear (but not so much forcing the player into a time limit with a rising PK energy mechanic), and it’s interesting to think about what David Crane and company could have done back then with all of those pieces using today’s technology.
Ghostbusters III looks like it finally might happen. Having another game celebrating the franchise in the right hands? I’d still like to see that, too. Happy 30th, Ghostbusters!