Ghostbusters The Video Game: Nostalgia is a Dangerous Weapon

Just wait until they get the bill THIS time.

Including the New York Public Library as a playable mission in the demo1 should have been a dead giveaway. As one of the signature setpieces in the film Ghostbusters, allowing players to take part in a second trip to this locale with familiar faces in tow, is essentially what Ghostbusters: The Video Game entails. It collects a series of touchstones for players to reminisce about, while attempting to tell a new story. Except the story reclaims entire sections of the film and its sequel, patching together plot points, locations and famous adversaries in what amounts to playing inside a world of Ghostbusters: Greatest Hits. You are constantly harangued by Walter Peck and the new Paranormal Contract Oversight Committee. You have to fight the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man (again). You get to destroy the Sedgewick Hotel (again). About the only thing interesting is the encounter with Ivo Shandor, the Architect of Dana Barrett’s apartment building from the first film, who remained a legend that was never really explored. In Ghostbusters: The Video Game, you discover how obsessed with the Gozerian cult he really was, as the Ghosbusters slowly uncover a plot designed by Shandor years ago, to bring about the coming of The Destroyer.

This brief incursion into Ghostbusters lore comes too late in the game, and it’s frustratingly obvious that the previous missions were filler to relive everyone’s favorite moments from the films. But as you play the game, its intentions are clear: this is not meant to be a video game as much as it is intended to be those Greatest Hits, as it was not designed for an audience who plays video games. Rather, it was created to placate fans of the movies that also happen to play video games.

As a result, both Terminal Reality and Atari are banking on this brand recognition to give the game a passing grade. Any critic or reviewer that has been paying attention over the last eight years would see this game for what it is: old, outdated, unnecessary. So why the relatively high scores2, respectable sales performance3 and praise as wistful recollections? The answer is simple: Nostalgia is a dangerous weapon used to great effect in the video game industry. It will beat people senseless – especially in a hobby that helped many people through their childhoods.

If Terminal Reality were feeling ambitious when they started the project, they could have made Ghostbusters into a game that stood beside other “open-world” 4 titles like Red Faction: Guerrilla, inFamous, and Prototype that seemed to be in fashion in the first half of 2009. The entire concept behind Ghostbusters is ripe for exploitation with this formula, where side-missions can be completed while following the main plot to key story-driven missions in the streets of New York City. Even the films themselves establish such a framework: the Ghostbusters are either starting out (Ghostbusters) or making a comeback (Ghostbusters II), completing small tasks on the way to fighting a greater evil. The entire film worked towards a final confrontation. This should be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a video game.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game is not just another example of the lack of ambition on the part of game designers to develop a captivating product, but of the industry at large: stuck in the past assuming that the weight of intellectual property and the familiar will bear heavily on the opinions of those that play their game. Ghostbusters: The Video Game is not just old because it reuses scenes, jokes and events from the films, but also because of its unwavering approach to the game’s objectives. Its linear design is based on the most rudimentary of movie-tie ins. While the actual “ghostbusting” remains fun until the end, it’s hard not to view Ghostbusters: The Video Game as anything more than a third-person shooting gallery with proton packs. In this regard, the game fails on two fronts: it cannot provide an engaging framework for a game, and it cannot provide an engaging enough story to excuse the simple mechanics.

I was hoping for something like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, where the creators clearly took the source material to heart, and created a brand new adventure that may have borrowed from the original films, but didn’t overtly copy them. Instead, the game carried the spirit of the original source so that it wouldn’t seem out of place next to the films that inspired it. Ghostbusters: The Video Game had the potential to do this as well, and would have made the limitations of the game a little easier to tolerate. The story and script were handled by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis – the writers responsible for the original films – and the best they could come up with falls hopelessly short of these expectations.

Ackroyd often said in the interviews promoting the game and his involvement with it that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is “essentially Ghostbusters III5, or the sequel that everyone wanted but never received. And to revisit the same locations so predictably says a lot about their opinions and assumptions of the fan base. The fans want wish fulfillment, they want cheap thrills. They want the security blanket of their youth. And they got it.

The dialogue will make you laugh, and the sarcastic delivery of most lines will certainly bring you back to watching the movies as an impressionable youth. The fluidity of the dialogue is also impressive. Either the actors are drawing from experience, or more time than usual was spent in the studio. In either case, it suits the game and presents a playful atmosphere reminiscent of the films. Any scenarios intended to invoke fear are always undermined by a one-liner or wisecrack from one of the team, which is something the films did so well. However, the cutscenes between levels felt long, as if the development team were trying to assemble a movie. Except it doesn’t actually work when the game is already stripped to the bare essentials.

Shandor Island

Apart from the infiltration of Ivo Shandor’s hidden island laboratory, players have seen everything else before. There is precious little information offered to substantiate the lore presented in the previous films. Reusing old plot points with different characters is common practice. To take Ghostbusters: The Video Game as the third film would therefore be a mistake, as I doubt any studio would support such a horrible script. And this is yet more evidence of the divergence between video games and their clumsy and pleading comparisons to the film industry: a bad plot in film is a pretty good plot for a video game, even as we “turn our brains off” as the reviewers love to justify. No one should play video games because they want to watch a movie. They would be wasting their time, and that of everyone else when they start complaining about the lack of interactivity afterward.

The depth to the system in Ghostbusters: The Video Game is through upgrades that can be purchased with money earned on each mission: better traps, four types of particle beams, modifications to the PKE meter. In other words, the most callous and unimaginative reason to ask someone to keep playing your game.

I’m willing to give Egon the benefit of the doubt for some of the weapons that were invented specifically for this game – the character was clearly a wizard with technology. They also keep with genre conventions to some degree: Boson darts are the shotgun, the freeze beam slows enemies, etc. However, simply pausing the game will allow the purchase of these upgrades. In fact, there is one mission where a new technology is suddenly activated on your proton pack in the middle of a mission, meaning you had been carrying it all along. I can understand the need for a certain technology to be available for a particular mission, but the mission progression should be designed so these upgrades could be purchased or handed out at the beginning of each. Allowing this kind of freedom to access new technology at any time removes the need for a planning phase. Even in such a linear game as this, the addition of something so simple would at least give the illusion of challenge.

Trapping ghosts is still satisfying right until the end. The game really makes you work for it. You feel the bend and pull of the makeshift equipment in your hands. With the “Slam Dunk” modification to the trap, ghosts can be captured in one shot if you Slam a ghost near a trap. In either case there is an exaggerated feeling of relief when the ghost is finally caught. You have to take a few seconds to regroup, even though there are five other ghosts floating around above you. The moment has to be savored. There are so precious few of them in this game.

One in the box, ready to go.

A dynamic of the game that only reveals itself later on is teamwork. This isn’t as necessary at the beginning, where fallen teammates were an inconvenience during a boss battle. In the later missions, there are multiple ghosts requiring attention from your particle thrower, and even then they will require more than one person to knock it into submission. During these encounters, you need your teammates to survive. Even though a ghost may be seconds away from being trapped, you have to drop everything and revive your teammates or you will die attempting to do everything yourself. An example of this is in the Museum mission, where you must manage the ghostly possession of civilians as well as your own teammates, all the while attempting to capture the ghosts that are responsible. It’s a harsh lesson, but one that was clearly presented by the films. The war against the supernatural in New York City is not a solo effort.

In fact, starting with the fight against the Librarian partway through the third chapter, the game starts to show promise. Aside from the constant direction and commentary from your teammates, the encounters with large ghosts and mission bosses are challenging as you manage damage and try to recover teammates. It can be a frustrating system as you attempt to compensate for the middling squad AI, but at the end of each battle there is a sense of accomplishment. It’s like repeating the last 10 minutes of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II each time. These encounters are the reason you keep playing.

And yet the game really starts to break down in the last act when travelling towards the final encounter with Shandor. It becomes difficult in the way you have to manage projectile enemies, swarming enemies, ghosts that must be trapped, and larger monsters. This is a sharp spike that throws off the previously established rhythm of the game. It is no longer about “hunting” ghosts, but fending them off with random blasts of particle beams just to get some space to do your job.

The final showdown with the mayor of New York City – possessed by the ghost of Ivo Shandor, no less – provides a two-stage battle that evokes something startlingly similar to the conclusion of Ghostbusters II. Though Terminal Reality must be given accolades for this encounter, as it is an extremely satisfying, drawn-out fight in the spirit realm, instead of the lucky shots at the end of each film that were favored in the name of pacing. The game’s plot had genuine closure, and all was right with the world (again).

So it’s quite puzzling as to why Terminal Reality assumed that multiplayer would be a big draw for people after the main game was completed, when all it really amounts to is a collection of random task-based missions that can be played co-operatively. It was wasted effort, considering that it had no hope of competing with more attractive options for online play at the time. And Terminal Reality wasn’t even responsible for this component of the game; it was contracted out to Threewave Software. Assuming that this freed up more time to be spent on the single-player campaign, the overall package doesn’t show it.

A familiar, angry face.

Nevertheless, there are the collective opinions of the press that must be resolved. If anyone took the time to consider what was being offered by the game, it would be very hard to justify the 78% average that the XBox 360 and Playstation 3 versions have received. Reading any number of reviews6 will yield the same sentiment: if you like Ghostbusters, this game is for you. But what if I like video games? No one dared look at this game critically, or in depth beyond pointing out obvious faults – it was perfectly acceptable to give the game an average score an move on, business as usual. There is no need to desecrate happy childhood memories. But sometimes there is.

Make no mistake: Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a tie-in to the films. The producers of the video game said as much: the release of the game was intended to coincide with the anniversary of the theatrical release of the first film, and the remastering of the films on Blu Ray. And yet any other movie tie-in is automatically approached with contempt by the video game press, as if these other video games were the reason the industry overall was being cheapened. Except that’s exactly what’s happening in this case. It’s just that no one wants to see it.

A recognizable piece of intellectual property can be made into a good video game – there are already a number of examples from recent years – but they, too, suffer the same fate of being intellectual property first, and a video game second. The most recent case of this is Batman: Arkham Asylum, where the general sentiment was “a Batman game that isn’t terrible.” How special developers Rocksteady must feel!

If players are happy to “play Ghostbuster”, Ghostbusters: The Video Game certainly succeeds on that crude level. But why should it get a passing grade just for fan service? It’s the same reason why video games should not be given the right of way because it supplies “a good story”7. These are games, and should be judged as such from the beginning. Giving these types of games an acceptable grade assures that we we will see more of this half-hearted approach, proving once again that we are destined to recycle the same material with better graphical fidelity. Being satisfied with “good enough”, assures a future of being fed leftovers from the trough of nostalgia.

The final push.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game isn’t long, and so despite the numerous faults that have been pointed out here it doesn’t take long to finish. The thrill of wrangling ghosts and capturing lasted until the end, even with the spike in difficulty. The production is also well done: Atari spared no expense in obtaining the music and original actors (they even dug up William Atherton to play Walter Peck). All the earmarks of a work inspired by these movies is there. But this is looking through the Ghostbusters Yearbook, and we’re all grown up now, and the Ghostbusters are old friends that aren’t as interesting as your remember them. Ghostbusters: The Video Game could have put a familiar face on the proven, comfortable sandbox/”open world” formula. Bust ghosts with your pals Venkman, Stanz, Spengler and Zedmore. But do it inside the structure of a game that is well-equipped for such a theme. Invent your own story. Save the city of New York again, on your terms.

So the question for the player becomes: Am I interested enough in a recycled story to continue?

Even though Ghostbusters: The Video Game takes place in 1991, the game is still stuck in its own past as a hopeless artifact of the 1980s. A retread referencing old jokes, old plot points and forever doomed to be a nostalgic curiosity. If Terminal Reality had worked on making a video game instead of a finely polished homage, there might have been something in Ghostbusters: The Video Game worth praising. As it stands, nostalgia is the selling feature and weighs heavily on the game’s proceedings. For some, that is obviously enough. However, complaining about a lack of advancement in video games, while cuddling with one that is mired in our collective childhood means there is really only one person to blame. And there will be no sympathy.

  1. Ghostbusters: The Video Game continues the assault on Nostalgia”, July 2009.
  2. Metacritic shows Ghostbusters: The Video Game with a 78% average for the XBox 360 and Playstation 3 versions, which should be considered the “complete” versions (the PC port didn’t have multiplayer). The Playstation 2 and Wii versions (ported by Red Fly Studios) has an average of 64% and 76%, respectively. The mobile versions (Nintendo DS and PSP) are the pariahs of the group with their 55% average.
  3. In July 2009, it was reported that Ghostbusters: The Video Game sold over one million units worldwide, across all platforms, within the first month of release. This tapered off very quickly, of course.
  4. But not really. We’ve been over this before.
  5. This quote can be found anywhere; it was a great sales pitch. It should also be noted that Ghostbusters III the movie was confirmed earlier this year.
  6. See the quotes from my review of the demo for a small sample; these sentiments are everywhere.
  7. See the failure of Prince of Persia (2008) in Prince of Persia: Destiny or Inevitable Conclusion”, October 2009.
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3 Responses to Ghostbusters The Video Game: Nostalgia is a Dangerous Weapon

  1. Sissyneck says:

    ” I doubt any studio would support such a horrible script.”

    Wait, you *did* see Ghostbusters II, right?

  2. Pingback: Tales of a Scorched Earth » Blog Archive » Darksiders: Uncanny

  3. Very interesting, thorough take on the phenomenon of rehashing a nostalgically familiar canon through a new game. I love your lament over developers being so timid about spinning new tales with old characters — how awesome it would be to let some truly talented writers have their way with the Ghostbusters world, or others (limitless possibilities, really), with the intent to craft a quality game. We can only dream, I suppose, with the occasional exceptions.

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