I finished the Ghostbusters level pack for Lego Dimensions last week, actually on the very same day that news emerged that the next film in the franchise – the Kristen Wiig- and Melissa McCarthy-starring reboot, directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, in cinemas this summer – will have a video game tie-in. Or at least, it might have one – a Retail Merchandiser report on forthcoming Sony consumer products (Sony owns Columbia Pictures, the studio behind the previous two 'Busters movies of the 1980s) states that "a new full-fledged Ghostbusters video game from Activision will release alongside the movie on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4".
Colour me several slimy green shades of actually quite excited, mainly because the Lego expansion pack has scratched at an itch that I'd forgotten I had: the desire to play through a decent video game based on one of my favourite series from my pre-teen years of pressure-free existence. If you, like me, are a child of the 1980s (and yes, I know, millennials exist and will ultimately inherit the Earth; but give it a rest for now, Generation Y), then you know the original Ramis-and-Aykroyd-and-Murray-and-Hudson Ghostbusters of 1984 is amongst the greatest movies of all time. I needn't go into the hows and whys – that's just how it is.
'The Real Ghostbusters' promo. I used to love this show so much.
The sequel of 1989? Yeah, not so much – but the animated The Real Ghostbusters, which began in 1986 and featured highly stylised versions of the first film's spectre-fighting four, was a lot of fun and very quickly convinced me to nag my parents for the accompanying toys. An Egon whose tie would flip up if you squeezed his arm. Ecto-1 with a seat on the top because, obviously, that's where you can bust the best from. The team's fire station headquarters with slime-slots in the roof and floors, so you could ruin your Christmas present within 30 seconds of opening it by pouring brightly coloured gunk all over the thing.
Bringing this back to video games, while I loved the fan service the Lego Dimensions pack provides – it's basically the first movie, in virtual block form, with more physical humour and a whole bunch of lines from the film shifted about in the narrative to fit said scenes of silliness – it's unlikely to last all that long in the memory.
Playing as any one of the four Ghostbusters – once the story itself is done, and you set about exploring the section of New York that makes up its free-roam hub – is a neat touch, but they constantly repeat select few lines from the game's parent picture: "I collect spores, moulds, and fungus"; "You're always so concerned about your reputation." They each play the same way, too. And while it's a genuine treat to face-off against a blocky Gozer, take down a mammoth Marshmallow Man, and hear Winston cry, "I love this town," when Stay Puft's been scorched into so much burning gloop, the story's only ever on wheels – it knows its destination, and you're merely a passenger, unable to really affect the direction of how this tale plays out.
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Of course, this isn't an uncommon aspect of licensed video games – if they're based on a movie, chances are they'll stick to the script. And yet, the first Ghostbusters game I ever played – the first video game to be based on the franchise – wasn't quite such a stickler for partner-media accuracy.
Designed by Pitfall-maker David Crane at Activision, and first released in 1984 (though I played it much later than that, owning the '86-released ZX Spectrum version), Ghostbusters the game was just as much a business management simulation as it was an all-action, phantom-trapping adventure. It was tactical, methodical and mature in a way that Lego Dimensions' take on busting – it takes the term literally, with most environmental assets breakable into rebuildable pieces or collectable studs – most certainly isn't. You have to stock up on gear, get your modifiable vehicles out on the streets of New York, and make money. That's the primary goal here: not to immediately rid the city of malevolent spirits, although that helps, but to collect enough cash to stay in business until a climatic encounter with a disturbingly diminutive sweet-tooth-tempting sailor. (He was a little bigger on the Commodore 64 version, but still less threatening than Casper wrapped in candyfloss.)
I appreciate that the "real" Ghostbusters embarked on their paranormal business venture to turn a profit, but it felt unusual to me, as a kid playing this game in a bedroom-above-a-garage, to have to count dollars and cents instead of ploughing through zap-and-trap sequences without considering the cost of using these unlicensed nuclear accelerators. I don't recall the lure of lucre being a necessary evil of progression come the game adaptation of Ghostbusters II, which we had on the Amiga – cracked, of course, because even with so many hours of overtime, my dad was in no position to bring us home new games on the regular. But then, I barely recall the game at all.
I remember descending into the sewer system of Manhattan, controlling Ray Stantz, to check out the river of slime. I remember that section being bastard hard. I can't picture what came afterwards. But thankfully we have YouTube these days, so I can shake up my memories with the help of a "longplay" video that only lasts for 15 minutes. A lot of it is slideshow exposition – the video's three minutes deep before we even see the stage I know I played, monstrous hands reaching out from plasma-coated walls, nightmares of the awful controls flooding back. Stage two, it turns out, puts the player in control of a mood slime-animated Statue of Liberty, the section presented as a perfunctory side-scrolling shooter; and the third and final level is an isometric, squad-based battle against the movie's painted antagonist, Vigo the Carpathian. It looks like complete garbage. I'm glad my dad didn't pay money for it.
Ghostbusters II actually had a few games made in its honour, with the NES take on its events framed as a tough-as-nails run-and-gunner. It was followed by the HAL-made New Ghostbusters II in 1990 (it came out a year later in the UK), which upped the cutesiness, flipped the perspective to top-down, turned Winston blue and let you play as Rick Moranis. Think Hotline Miami, but with fewer gangsters and gore and more ghastly ghouls. It's actually still fun to play today, if you've the means and/or time to do so.
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Right, hands up, now: after Ghostbusters II, games based on the franchise rather passed me by. Without a movie to serve as the hook to hang each new release on, the quality and profile of these titles began to dip – he says, having not actually played any of the likes of 2003's Extreme Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Invasion, the 1993 Real Ghostbusters game for the Game Boy, or the 2006 mobile title simply called Ghostbusters. But I don't feel I need to – the internet (oh, the internet) tells me that these games were at times awful, at best irrelevant, and should be burned in a skip. (Okay, I'll concede that the Mega Drive game does look pretty great. Mean Machines scored it 80%, which should have been enough for me to seek it out back when.) However, perceptions of all things interactively Ghostbusting changed in 2009, when the first film's cast got together to effectively make Ghostbusters 3, albeit in video game form.
And here's where I welcome back any younger readers who can't remember what it was like to lust after a Hypercolor T-shirt only to see it ruined after one hot wash. Ghostbusters: The Video Game, for various PlayStation systems, Xbox 360, Wii and Windows and more, had the writers (and stars) of the first movie, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, consulting on its story, and also featured the voices and likenesses of the four Ghostbusters of old alongside a host of other familiar faces.
Much like the Lego Dimensions add-on, it's a product soaked in amazing fan service; but rather than retreat plot points, it takes the tale of four guys loaded with proton packs to a new place entirely. The setting is Thanksgiving, 1991, and its big bad is a demonic Ivo Shandor, aka the architect behind 55 Central Park West, the towering building that's home to Dana Barrett and Louis Tully in the 1984 film. Everything connects back to the lore that Ramis and Aykroyd laid down 25 years prior – there's even a significant role for renowned Environmental Protection Agency officer with no dick, Walter Peck. "You" are a rookie 'buster who rides with the old pros, ultimately saving New York (and, ergo, the planet) from becoming merged with "the Ghost World". Which isn't to be confused with the Thora Birch-featuring indie flick of 2001, as a world entirely like that would just be the worst.
Anyway, the Ghostbusters save the day, and Ghostbusters: The Video Game got itself some follow-up fun in the form of a lower-budget but respectable sequel, the digital-only Sanctum of Slime. Which pretty much brings us up to Lego Dimensions and the new game in the making – assuming it definitely is in the making. I'd love to see the all-female squad cross over into the gaming medium – I mean, who wouldn't want to play as a virtual Kristen Wiig, wisecracking around New York City, occasionally slapping a spook into a containment unit for "safe" keeping? C'mon, Activision – assuming you are making another Ghostbusters, please don't make it an all-dudes affair. I love Bill, and Dan, and Ernie and the late Harold; but have you seen the photos from the upcoming movie? That, in game form, this summer, thank you very much.
The Ghostbusters level pack for Lego Dimensions is out now, more information at the game's official website.
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