Retro Game Review: “Ghostbusters” (SEGA Genesis, Festival of Dread Special)
Welcome back to the Festival of Dread, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things strange in you neighborhood.
Today we’re going to take a look at Ghostbusters, a side-scrolling action game released for the SEGA Genesis in 1990.
Developed by Compile (Guardian Legend, Blazing Lazers) and published by SEGA, Ghostbusters is based on the characters from the movie of the same name. That’s not to say that it follows the same plot as the original movie, because it doesn’t. Curiously, it also isn’t based on the Ghostbusters II sequel that was released only one year earlier in 1989 (math!). Why would that be, one wonders?
“And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake…”
In any case, Ghostbusters for SEGA Genesis (aka Mega Drive) is a run & gun platformer with nonlinear stages and a completely new story serving as a backdrop for the action. An earthquake has caused yet another spike in paranormal activity in New York, and the Ghostbusters crew has discovered that the key to the disturbances is a broken stone tablet that has been scattered across the city. It’s unclear where the falls in the canonical Ghostbusters timeline, but who cares?
Players can choose from one of the three original Ghostbusters – Peter Venkman, Ray Stanz and Egon Spengler (RIP) – each with his own speed and stamina stats. No, Winston Zeddemore is not an option. Today, he’d be sold as DLC in Ghostbusters: Winston, which would later be released as an overpriced standalone game.
Your buster is – no, I don’t like “buster” – your character is equipped with the best ghost-hunting tech that petty cash can buy. This includes your standard proton pack, infrared goggles, and a limited set of anti-ghost bombs, which cause damage to all ghosts on screen. As you explore and complete each stage, you can also find cash to invest into equipment upgrades, new weapons, additional bombs and goggles. Of all the weapon upgrades available, I only found the spread shot to be very helpful, but your mileage may vary. No matter which weapon you select, you can shoot it in multiple directions.
With each stage, you are given the choice to “answer the call” from multiple locations, which include a frozen apartment, a haunted house, a fiery wooden house (that is confusingly presented as pitch black), and a high rise. You still have to complete every stage of course, but it’s always nice to be able to experience multiple stages at the outset, particularly if you suck and aren’t likely to see the later stages otherwise.
Running, gunning and jumping through these haunted locations works well enough. There are several familiar platformer conventions on display, including ladders, aggressively respawning enemies (ugh), and the platforms that are inexplicably scattered across areas where they don’t belong. “Shut up! The ghosts did it!” Yeah, I know. Furthermore, since I know that some of you are wondering – no, you can’t jump onto the ladders, but you strangely can’t be hurt if you are climbing a ladder either, and while you can’t shoot your proton pack while climbing, you can still throw bombs.
“The last days, when the dead would rise from the grave”
Each stage is fairly large and designed in a somewhat nonlinear fashion, and of course littered with enemies. Most of the enemy ghosts don’t resemble much of anything from the Ghostbusters movies, and they include gelatinous blobs, zombies, floating chairs, tables and candlesticks, and last but not least – haunted teddy bears. You will spot Slimer from time to time, and defeating him means a health power-up for you.
You can’t just power through the enemies and reach the boss, however. First, you have to track down “middle ghost” mini bosses to open path to final ghost. These mini bosses include a giant fire dragon (WTF?), the Grim Reaper (yes, Death itself is a mini boss), possessed versions of your fellow Ghostbusters, and the apartment mini boss looks like the sexy, floating lady ghost that de-pantsed Ray and implicitly gave him a supernatural blow job. When you defeat these middle ghosts, you get a chance to trap them for extra cash. This takes a few tries to get the hang of it and time is limited, so they will run away if you take too long.
Finding these mini bosses isn’t particularly tough, as you can access a map of each stage on the pause screen where they are clearly labeled. It’s important to note that there’s also no time limit, so there’s no penalty in getting lost. You can also take your time and search for extra cash or health upgrades if you like. Just don’t forget that you will still have to contend with the respawning enemies when you backtrack.
Once you reach the final boss of each stage, there’s a quick dialogue before you have to start blasting. The bosses include a giant, multi-headed caterpillar, a scaly pot, a floating snowman, a plant inspired by Little Shop of Horrors, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man returns, this time with the ability to breathe fire and shoot lasers from his eyes. It’s worth mentioning that your bombs won’t hurt the bosses, so there’s no use in saving them up.
If you’re able to overcome all of the main stages (which is no easy task) and restore the ancient stone tablet, you will then realize that the Ghostbusters are actually a bunch of careless douche bags who inadvertently destroy a giant section of New York. This where you now must confront the ultimate evil: Janna, Lord of Destruction (aka “Not Gozer”), but only after fighting all of the main bosses again in a single stage, which is honestly as tough as it is annoying.
“He’s an ugly little spud, isn’t he?”
Much like its namesake film, the visuals in the Ghostbusters Genesis game don’t stray too much into anything gruesome or terrifying. The three Ghostbusters themselves are depicted as squat, cutesy versions of themselves with oversized, caricatured heads that are honestly pretty good likenesses of the actors portraying them. Your gadgets and weapons are adequate, but it’s odd that your primary proton pack weapon looks more like large bullets than they do the electrified bolts of the movie.
The disappointing enemy designs have already been mentioned above, but long story short, most of the ghosts are lackluster designs that don’t match the Ghostbusters franchise very well. I will give Compile credit for having the zombie enemies look different whether they are facing left or right, as a lazier developer would have simply mirrored the sprites.
There were a few nice stage effects which would have set the 16-bit Genesis game apart from the competition of Nintendo’s aging, 8-bit NES. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is the boss of the penthouse stage, and not only can you see his creepy face peering through windows from time to time, but he will also smash his fists through the wall, King Kong style. There is also a slick lightning silhouette effect in the final castle stage, which Compile would come close to perfecting in M.U.S.H.A.
The story of the game unfolds via semi-cinematic interludes between each stage. It’s nice to see the Ghostbusters interact with each other, and it gives the game a bit more character than many other licensed games (including earlier attempts at Ghostbusters game). The newspaper headlines featuring your character’s victorious pose at the end of each stage are a small, but nice touch, too. Remember newspapers?
“Listen! Do you smell something?”
To the discerning ear of a SEGA Genesis aficionado, the music in Ghostbusters will sound very much like early Genesis fare. Other than the title theme, though, none of the background music comes from the movies. In fact, the music throughout the game doesn’t seem to match the franchise very well at all, which a little disappointing.
There’s unsurprisingly no voices to speak of, either, as SEGA’s Sports Talk series is still two years away at this point. The sound effects are adequate enough, but some of them are a little jarring and too high-pitched for my ears. Your character’s jumping sound being the most distractingly out of place.
There’s a few more cheers and jeers to mention before wrapping up this review. To start, I have to say how refreshing it was for there to be an ice stage where your character doesn’t slip and slide everywhere. Why any developer ever thought that would make for a fun time is beyond me.
On the stages, though, there are only two ways to describe the fire stage: either entirely unfair, or a sorry excuse for including the infrared goggles in the game. When you start the stage, you can only see a very short distance around your character. Not only does it make zero sense that a building that is fully ablaze would also be pitch dark, but it makes the stage nearly impossible to traverse without using a set of infrared goggles. If you don’t have any and don’t have enough to stock up, you’re basically screwed. Enemies that spawn immediately in front of you, blind jumps that often lead to death pits… yeah. Screwed.
Other than the respawning, the enemy AI can be pretty frustrating, overall. This was most apparent when scaling a ladder, and multiple enemies would converge on the top and crowd me out, essentially guaranteeing that I took a cheap hit (unless I had a couple of bombs to clear them out). They will also do this on the edges of platforms, but that is more manageable since you can still fire your weapon while you’re jumping. The window for hitting some of the bosses can be remarkably narrow, too, which makes some boss battles drag out.
The only other gripe that I’d like to mention is that it is disappointing that you can’t swap characters between stages. Once you select your Ghostbuster at the beginning of the game, you’re locked in. It would have been fun to be able to swap between them and exploit their different abilities and, if nothing else, to mix things up.
“Nobody steps on a church in my town!“
Among the retro games based on the movies, it seems as though this SEGA Genesis game is remembered the most fondly. While I’m absolutely a Ghostbusters fan, I didn’t play it until I was fully grown up and roughly three decades late to the hype. As such, I think the fondness for this game is probably more due to previous Ghostbusters video games being received poorly, not to the credit of the Genesis game’s quality.
It’s certainly a lot more straightforward than the NES and SEGA Master System Ghostbusters game, but it’s not particularly interesting, and many of the mechanics, sounds, and visual aesthetics honestly don’t match the franchise very well.
Ghostbusters is also one of the rare games that I recommend trying on the easy difficulty level first, and I don’t say that lightly. Some of the bosses will take quite a bit of practice to actually land a hit and to navigate around while waiting for your opening. It is nice that you have access to multiple stages from the outset, though, so you can experience more of the game from start, and having three characters to choose from extends the replayability a bit.
All in all, Ghostbusters for SEGA Genesis is a fairly average game that could certainly still be enjoyed by die hard fans of the franchise. For me, I am happy to have had the chance to play it, but it’s probably going in my “to sell” pile – especially considering how much it goes for on eBay these days. “No job is too big! No fee is too big!”
Thanks for reading!
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I bet it’s still better than the one that came out on the 360 a few years ago with that squad of no-names! “Slam sandwich!”