In 1984 the world was treated to a surprise and unexpected blockbuster box office hit. A bizarre blend of comedy and supernatural adventure featuring some of the hottest stars of the decade. That movie was Ghostbusters.
A Classic Franchise
Even today the movie is looked back on fondly with millions of fans around the world. It spawned two sequels (the latest of which is with us soon), an animated series, and a modern cinematic reboot with an all-female lead cast. That’s before you look at the endless merchandise, comic books, toys and a steady stream of video games over the years.
At a time when movie tie-ins had a notorious reputation for poor quality, Activision took it upon themselves to bring the movie to the small screen. Their official adaptation landed on the Commodore 64 along with most other major 8-bit platforms of the day.
Ghostbusters On The C64
The first thing that strikes you loading the game is the C64 shouting “Ghostbusters” at you followed by the blood-curdling laugh. Now bear in mind that this is 1984 and speech in games was a relatively new thing. Hearing it not only with such clarity but with equal volume to the rest of the audio (in many of its peers it was often muffled) was an impressive feat.
As you’d hope, the title screen (featuring the classic Ghostbusters logo) was accompanied by a rendition of the Ray Parker Jnr theme song adapted to the C64 by Russell Lieblich. Unusually for a licensed game, the song lyrics appear on screen. Straight away, before the game started the fun began as a bouncing ball followed the words karaoke-style. Hit the space bar at any point during the time and the C64 would shout out “Ghostbusters” joining in with the digital sing-a-long.
Playing The Game
Frivolity aside, the game proper begins when you take on the mantle of a new Ghostbusters franchise owner. Given a fixed starting budget you’ve got to buy and equip your own vehicle with everything you need to get started on your new venture. Ghost traps, PK energy meters, bait and so on – before heading out into the big wide world… Well, the streets of New York at least.
First impressions make the game seem relatively simple. The city map highlights buildings that are facing ghost infestation and are in need of help. At the same time, others roam the city making their way towards Zuul in the city centre. It’s your job to capture as many ghosts as possible earning more than your opening budget before the city’s PK energy level reaches 9,999 and Zuul is unleashed. Each time the roaming ghosts reach Zuul this level rises so you can intercept these en route to each job, scooping them up with your ghost vacuum (if you remembered to equip it).
Anybody Seen A Ghost?
When you arrive at each location, the game switches over to the capture mini game. This is mode puts you outside one of the game’s locations with two of your crew and one of the offending ghosts. To capture said ghost, you simply position a trap, then moving two of your crew into place to guide a ghost over the trap before opening it, earning cash in the process. Miss and the ghost escapes after sliming one of your team, the city’s PK level rises and you’re off to the next job. It’s more a case of timing than anything else but still fun nevertheless.
As with the opening titles, there’s more speech here. If you successfully capture a ghost the game cries out “Ghostbusters!”. But if a ghost gets you, the C64 shouts out the classic line, “He slimed me!”. And remember… don’t cross the streams!
Eventually, if you’ve earned enough cash and Zuul is about to emerge you have to face off against them. It’s a short climax to the game where you have to get at least a couple of your Ghostbusters past the Marshmallow Man and if successful they’ll close the portal trapping Zuul forever…
It has to be said that Ghostbusters was never going to push the C64 to its limits. The legendary David Crane – responsible for some of Activision’s most memorable games of the 80s – delivered flawless code that ran smoothly and quickly throughout, leaving no quibbles on the gameplay front. Graphics were stylish, bold and colourful with enough variety in the buildings to give you a real sense that you were visiting a city and not just the same location over and over again. It was just a cosmetic detail, but with this making up the bulk of the gameplay it was an important feature to reduce what could have been a degree of monotony of the game.
What was surprising was the sound. While not wanting to generalise, American composers hadn’t quite managed to master the nuances of the SID chip in the same way that the likes of Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway and their peers had here in the UK. It still managed to retain the upbeat feel of the movie’s theme that helped set the tone of the game throughout. And the speech was really the icing on the cake that helped itstand out from its counterparts across the pond.
But where Ghostbusters shone was it’s gameplay. Despite its outward simplicity it was incredibly addictive, helped by the alternating between the driving and ghost busting elements. What is easier to appreciate now looking back is the depth the game has under the surface. There’s a significant amount of strategy in the gameplay and resource management involved as you have to not only balance your team and equipment but make constant decisions and adjustments as you play depending on your current funds and the city’s PK level and ensuring that you can get to the end of the game, especially as the pace picks up rapidly later on.
Despite working against the odds, Crane and his team not only delivered a great game but one of the most memorable movie tie-ins ever. Its no surprise that it was Activision’s most successful release that year and that the success was repeated several years later for the Mastertronic re-release on their Ricochet label. Ghostbusters has deservedly become a timeless classic and one of the Commodore 64’s must-have games for every owner.