Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.

Advertisements

The Adventures of Bayou Billy (NES)

Love, Cajun style. Tastes like crawdaddies!

In 1988, Konami released an ambitious multi-genre action title for the Famicom called Mad City. The game followed ragin’ Cajun vigilante Billy West on a mission to rescue his absurdly buxom girl Annabelle from the ruthless New Orleans crime boss Godfather Gordon. While he may incidentally share a name with the famous Futurama voice actor, it’s obvious that Billy’s appearance was deliberately modeled on the title character from the then-popular Crocodile Dundee movies. They just relocated the main character from Australia to Louisiana, swapped out the crocodiles for alligators, and threw in tons of that good old 8-bit violence.

It worked. Mad City was a pretty fun experience, if also a bit on the short and easy side. When it came time to release the game in North America the following year, things had…changed. Rumors persist that this was due at least in part to the booming video game rental market in America. Nintendo and other game companies had lobbied Japanese lawmakers to effectively make the practice of game renting illegal there, while U.S. courts had decisively rejected their efforts to do the same on our side of the Pacific. Owing to this, it’s thought that some developers made the international releases of their games more difficult specifically so that gamers would be unlikely to be able to finish them as a weekend rental and would therefore be more likely to purchase the game outright.

Whatever the truth of this little conspiracy theory, there’s no doubt that numerous NES releases were altered so as to be significantly more difficult than their Famicom counterparts, none moreso than our version of Mad City: The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

As stated, Bayou Billy is a multi-genre game. The tv commercial featured a rubber alligator wrestling doofus portraying Billy who promised “hand-to-hand combat with drivin’, shootin’, and, of course, zappin’.” Of course. It was sold as a Konami caliber combination of Double Dragon, RoadBlasters, and Operation Wolf. In other words, a sure thing. Right?

Let’s start with the beat-’em-up action, since it comprises five out of the game’s nine stages. You start out in the bayou, naturally, and must plow through waves of Gordon’s men and the occasional pissed-off gator. Billy has a basic punch, kick, and jumping kick at the beginning. He can also pick up and use weapons if he can manage to disarm certain foes. It won’t take you long to realize that these levels really don’t play much at all like they do in other games. Enemies recover very quickly from being hit and are able to retaliate almost immediately, so you can’t just mash the attack buttons to lock a baddie in place and repeatedly pummel him until he goes down. What will happen instead if you go toe-to-toe is that Billy and the enemy will take turns trading hits. This is a problem because most enemies require a good seven or eight hits to put down and so does Billy! The bottom line is that trying to play Bayou Billy like a normal beat-’em-up will invariably get you killed off on the first or second screen.

So what are you supposed to do instead? The best option I found was a very patient, methodical hit-and-run strategy. Typically for this style of game, enemies won’t initiate attacks unless they’re lined up with Billy on a horizontal axis. If you approach them on the vertical, fire off a quick punch or kick as you pass, and keep on going, they either won’t have time to retaliate or their counterattack will whiff. Just keep moving, pick your moments, and slowly grind them down. Fortunately, you don’t have a time limit. Later brawling stages introduce different enemy types and new weapons (like the almighty whip that lets you strike rapidly from a distance), but this basic strategy still applies through the end of the game. It’s kind of a drag, honestly.

How about the next mode, the first-person gallery shooting? Well, it’s actually quite cool. You’re able to use the Zapper light gun or aim with the controller and everything is smooth, precise, and decently challenging. Enemies rush onto the screen and you do your best to gun them all down before they can pop a shot off at you. Eventually, you’ll get to battle a big bullet sponge boss before moving on to the next stage. There are even power-ups like health packs, screen clearing bombs, and temporary invincibility. You have limited ammunition, but your stock of bullets will only decrease when you miss a target. As odd as that is, it does mean that you generally don’t need to worry about running out of bullets as long as you exercise some minimal trigger discipline and don’t just try to spray the whole screen. Everything here looks, sounds, and plays just fine. These shooting sections, all two of them, are the high point of Billy’s adventures.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the game’s two back-to-back driving levels. If Billy wants to save Annabelle, he has to ride his rickety jeep all the way from the swamps to Gordon’s mansion in New Orleans and he’s in for one hell of a bumpy ride. The basic gameplay is similar to Mach Rider, minus all the freedom of movement and fun. The biggest issue by far is that the roadways in the NES version of the game are only about half as wide as they are in the Famicom original, giving you almost no space to maneuver your vehicle and leaving you stuck in what amounts to a narrow corridor the whole time. Almost as detrimental is the fact that Billy’s health bar has now gone AWOL, making these driving sections the only part of the game where you’re subject to one hit deaths from hazards. Both levels are long, and between the time limit, the various hostile air and ground vehicles attacking you, and the static obstacles in the form of rocks and poles, you can expect to die early and often. Repetition and memorization will eventually see you through to Bourbon Street, but I exhausted my limited lives and continues several times over here before I was finally able to squeak past. These two stages are easily the most difficult and obnoxious stretch of the entire game.

I was very disappointed by The Adventures of Bayou Billy and not just because the game was made more difficult than Mad City. I firmly believe that no respectable game reviewer will ever hold a game’s challenge level against it as such. Konami also altered one of my favorite games of all time, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, with the same goal in mind and I’ll defend that one anytime. It’s perfectly fine for a game to be demanding as long as it’s also rewarding. Bayou Billy is not rewarding. Other tough titles I’ve enjoyed recently (Silver Surfer, ActRaiser 2) present a steep learning curve, but really open up to the player once that initial hurdle is overcome to reveal a fair amount of satisfying gameplay under the surface. Not so with Bayou Billy. You can adapt to the boring moveset and repetitive, time-consuming avoidance tactics of the brawling stages and even to the white-knuckle gauntlet that is the driving section, but there are no hidden depths waiting to reveal themselves to you at that point. It’s simply a superficial experience that gets easier without ever getting good. The two shooting gallery portions are solid enough for what they are, but they can’t carry the whole game. Not even close. Mad City made the right call by keeping the challenge low and the pace brisk, insuring that the player would be too occupied with novelty and spectacle to dwell on the lack of substance.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll add that the graphics and music are pretty sweet for the hardware and definitely up to the high Konami standard. Beyond that, the most enjoyable things about Bayou Billy are probably the game manual and box, which is never a good sign. Whoever was in charge of writing the instructions really gave it their all in terms of selling the whole cornball Cajun bayou theme. Damsel in distress Annabelle is described as “a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ellie May Clampett” and “a three time cover girl for the glamour magazine – Swamp Digest.” Even the common thugs you fight are given punny names like Tolouse L’attack and the murderous scuba diver Jacques Killstow. My favorite of all is the cover art, which depicts Billy with the body of a super buff Crocodile Dundee and the head of…Jim Varney!? That’s right, there’s a ripped Ernest P. Worrell brandishing a giant knife right on the front of this game. Now that’s my idea of an awesome action hero! Know what I mean, Vern?

Vice: Project Doom (NES)

DSC_10182~01~01

With cool, dry wit like that, I could be an action hero!

I just got back last night from the 2017 Portland Retro Gaming Expo. It was a grand time, as always. It’s just a pity that it only comes along once a year. I even got to meet Q*Bert creator Warren Davis! I left the convention center with 21 new games in tow, including many I’ve wanted to try out for years. The current plan is to complete and review them all before PRGE 2018 rolls around. I’m off to a good start already, because I managed to complete Vice: Project Doom during the train ride back to Seattle.

Vice: Project Doom (Gun-Dec in Japan) was developed by Aicom and published by Sammy in 1991. It’s a side scrolling science fiction action platformer with some minor overhead driving and gallery shooting elements.

You control Detective Quinn Hart. He’s a square-jawed, hardboiled, tough-as-nails action movie cop through and through and he’s got the pithy one-liners to prove it. He even looks like Mel Gibson on the NES box cover and Bruce Willis on the Japanese one. In the actual game? Steven Seagal during his skinny years, slick black ponytail and all. Way to cover all your bases there, guys. Quinn’s task is to investigate and shut down a shadowy conspiracy by aliens posing as humans and using a front corporation to…get rich selling drugs. That’s right: It’s Steven Seagal versus alien drug dealers. There are also some side characters in the form of other cops helping Hart with his investigation, one of which is identified in the manual as his love interest Christy. You’ll have to take the manual’s word for it, though, since the game itself isn’t exactly long on romance. The plot unfolds in the form of cinematic cut scenes sandwiched between the levels and these do a serviceable enough job depicting the various twists and turns in the story, even if some of them might raise more questions than they answer.

At its core, Vice: Project Doom is an action platformer that owes a lot to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden and Sunsoft’s Batman. You wouldn’t know that from the opening level, though, which throws you a curve ball right out of the gate by starting you off with some overhead view driving action. It looks a bit like Spy Hunter, but plays more like a fast-paced vertical shooter in the vein of Zanac or The Guardian Legend. It’s not nearly as substantial or satisfying as those Compile classics, though. After blowing away a simple boss and watching the subsequent cut scene, Hart will leave his red Ferrari behind and set out on foot.

These side scrolling levels are where the game hits its stride in more ways than one. Hart proves to be quite the nimble fellow. He can jump high, run at a decent clip, and even run while crouching, which is a great ability that I wish more games like this had. Being able to continue advancing forward while ducking under enemy fire really helps to minimize stop-and-go and keep the pace up.

Hart’s default attack utilizes a “laser whip” that functions as the standard sword type weapon. It lacks range, but is fast, requires no ammunition, and can even hit things above and behind you on the backswing. You’ll likely find yourself using the whip the majority of the time. Pressing select will also let you cycle through two additional weapons: A magnum revolver and hand grenades. These extend your attack range, but have limited shots and don’t strike quite as fast as the whip. In practice, I found myself using the whip the majority of the time and saving the highly damaging grenades for tricky boss fights. The magnum proved to be surprisingly wimpy, doing no more damage than the whip and only reaching about halfway across the screen. Dirty Harry Callahan would not approve.

The stages themselves closely resemble ones from a Ninja Gaiden game, right down to the gritty, frequently gruesome backgrounds and the bizarre menagerie of enemies that sometimes detract a bit from the dark and serious tone that the rest of the game is aiming for. I mean, the first stage alone has you facing Chinese hopping vampires and pumpkin-headed ghosts that toss boomerangs. Stages are visually appealing and nicely varied, even if you’ve probably seen their like many times before. They’re also fairly challenging at times, though never overwhelmingly so. Detective Hart can absorb a lot of punishment and defeated foes will frequently drop health replenishing food and drink. Most of your deaths will likely be the result of falling (or being knocked) into bottomless pits. You have unlimited continues at your disposal, however, so even the trickiest section will yield to some trial and error before too long. Really, the best and most exciting option is to keep moving forward and powering through each stage whipping down everything in your path. There’s little need for caution or subtlety, but it’s plenty fun.

You’ll need to be a little more strategic with the bosses. As you might expect, they can do a lot more damage than the standard enemies and their health meters are just as long as Hart’s. Thankfully, each one (except for the final boss) only has a couple attacks at their disposal, so they shouldn’t be able to slap you around for too long before you pick up on their patterns. In terms of design, they’re pretty cool. The opening level’s mutant rat man that throws giant steel girders (that you can leap onto and run across) makes a strong first impression and the remainder are also quite memorable and fun to take down.

Just when you think you have Vice all figured out, it switches gears yet again and briefly becomes a first person auto-scrolling gallery style shooter reminiscent of the Taito arcade classic Operation Wolf. Enemies rush onto the screen from both sides and Hart must blast them with bullets and grenades before they can shoot or stab him. There’s no light gun support here, but your cursor handles reasonably well with the NES controller’s standard directional pad. Like the two driving levels, these two shooting stages are very short and very easy.

Aside from a few forgivable flaws, Vice: Project Doom is a very high quality action game. While the superb graphics showcase some sweet parallax scrolling effects and make great use of the NES color palette, the soundtrack is strictly mediocre. None of the tunes stand out in any way and they can even verge into droning territory at times. The story is also a bit of a mess, with stilted dialog and an ending twist that makes less sense the more you think about it. Finally, the driving and shooting levels, while competently programmed and quite playable, aren’t nearly as fleshed-out, challenging, or stimulating as the side scrolling main game. In fact, it helps if you just think of them as short mini-games or bonus rounds that act as palate cleansers between the real stages rather than as fully-fledged extra gameplay modes.

Even without these half-baked segments, Vice still packs in a full game’s worth of tight, fast-paced action platforming and pulls it off with a deliciously doofy ’90s cyberpunk cop flourish. It’s too bad that it had the misfortune of being an 8-bit game released around the same time as the 16-bit Super Nintendo, and by a second string publisher to boot. It may not have set the gaming world on fire, but it’s never too late to say no to drugs by smacking the hell out of some no good space aliens with a laser whip. You have the right to remain exploded, punk.