Monday, October 10, 2022

Game 342: Ghostbusters

Activision, formed in 1980 by former Atari employees, had created nearly 25% of the 2600 system's million-sellers, including its best-selling original title Pitfall. By late 1984, though, with the video game crash in full effect, and with Pitfall II pushing the aging system to its limits, it was clear that neither this console nor the 5200 successor was their future. Refocusing on home computers was the logical next step, and while they had previously created enhanced conversions of their most successful 2600 games such as Pitfall, Kaboom, and River Raid on Atari computers, nothing had yet been developed with computers specifically in mind.

1984 saw, in total, 16 Activision-developed computer games, many of them more enhanced ports, some of them original titles, none quite as successful as their glory days output on the VCS. The most successful of these, though still not a million-seller, was a tie-in with 1984's highest-grossing film Ghostbusters, originally developed for the Commodore 64 by Pitfall! author David Crane.

I never loved the 1984 classic Ghostbusters as much as its wide cultural footprint seems to suggest I ought to. I enjoyed it, sure, found it had a great cast and cleverly written dialog, but I only saw it one time and hadn't given it much thought after it ended. I remember finding it more pleasantly amusing than laugh out loud hilarious. Little except for its special effects make it stand out in my mind from the dozens of well acted, cleverly written 80's comedies, many of which I found funnier, more memorable, and more daring. And for having a budget comparable to The Empire Strikes Back, and a special effects director from ILM, you'd expect the special effects to stand out.

Hope you like the theme song. You'll hear it a lot.

The title screen opens with a synthesized voice that shouts "Ghostbusters! Ahahahaha!" followed by a bouncing ball singalong animation of the theme song, which was probably as much of a selling point as the actual gameplay. It's not bad by 1984 standards, but the SID can do much better. You can tap the space bar to make the computer sing along too. And by sing I mean shout "Ghostbusters!" again.

The city map, where you move a cursor around to pick your destination and the route to get there

Ghostbusters is an action/strategy hybrid that feels akin to something Electronic Arts might have done around this time. You are a Ghostbusters franchisee operating in a city that ostensibly isn't New York but clearly is. Your goal isn't necessarily to save the city from ghosts but to make money trying, but since saving the city nets you a $5,000 award, you might as well.


Throughout the game, which typically lasts about a half hour, the "PK" energy gradually rises, spiking whenever ghosts slip through your fingers, and as it climbs higher, the ghosts become faster, more destructive, and even the PK energy's general rate of increase accelerates. The result is a feedback loop where the game's pace starts out very slow but inevitably gets quicker at an exponential rate, and your inevitable mistakes compound until it's a losing battle against an onslaught of ghouls that you can't possibly keep under control. Once the energy level rises to 9999, which will happen quite quickly once it gets to about 5,000, the game either ends or transitions to a final showdown stage depending on how you performed.

The main threats you'll face are:

  • Roamers, who are seen on the city map, always enter from the corners, and fly towards Zuul, where they'll raise the PK energy by 100 points each. They can be captured while driving around - this doesn't earn you any money, but it does delay the endgame, therefore giving you more time to earn it.
  • Slimers, who haunt individual buildings, which will turn red to signify a call. Entering a haunted building launches a minigame where you try to catch it and earn some cash. Failure, or ignoring the slimer until it leaves on its own, raises the PK energy by 300 points.
  • The keymaster and gatekeeper, who wander around and will end the game early if they both arrive at Zuul. Catching ghosts tends to reset their positions, but when the PK energy is high enough, this stops working.
  • The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man just shows up and starts wrecking buildings once PK energy hits 5,000. Your ability to prevent this will make or break you.


Buying a car

Equipping a station wagon

Before starting the game, you must select a car and equipment for it. The classic white hearse seems the most sensible choice, as the cheap, slow compact hasn't got enough space for toys, and the pricier station wagon doesn't leave you with enough money for toys, but in truth, all three cars are viable options - even the compact, as playing with a destitute budget also means you don't need to earn as much to turn a profit. The high performance is less so, as you can't even afford it unless you've beaten the game before (Ghostbusters has something akin to a New Game+ mode with more starting money), getting a $15,000 return on the investment is quite difficult, and to top it off, it has the second lowest capacity of all vehicles.

The gear, sorted from most to least important in my opinion:

  • Traps are absolutely required, and the game won't let you start without at least one. You can actually softlock yourself by filling the car to capacity and not buying any traps. More traps means you can catch more slimers before you have to return to HQ to empty the traps, and I find three is a good number, but you can get away with one if you're driving the compact.
  • Ghost bait is also absolutely required, as it's the only way to stop marshmallow attacks. Go without it and you will lose.
  • The image intensifier makes slimers more visible. Without it, they'll turn invisible on certain portions of the screen, and depending on the building this might be a large part of it. You can reckon their locations without it, but this tool makes catching them easier. And since catching slimers is one of the most important things you do, making it easier is a good thing.
  • The ghost vacuum is needed to catch roamers, which sounds more important than it actually is. Catching roamers buys you more time, but you can do without it, especially if you're on a destitute budget. Once the PK energy reaches about 3000 this becomes moot as you'll be too busy hunting slimers to worry much about chasing roamers, who will soon be moving too fast to catch reliably anyway.
  • The PK energy detector highlights haunted buildings in pink as you move the cursor past them, revealing slimers' locations earlier than normal. Pink is no guarantee that the slimer will show itself when you enter, but it still helps with efficient route planning, as a pink building might turn red by the time your car gets there. It becomes less useful later in the game, as you'll be so busy trying to keep up with the red-marked buildings that you don't have time to inspect pink ones. Certainly worth buying if you have the spare cash and space for one, but if it's a choice between this and an extra trap, I'd take the extra trap.
  • The marshmallow sensor highlights buildings adjacent to the cursor in white before the Marshmallow Man wrecks them. It seems nearly useless; by the time attacks are an issue, you simply don't have the leisure of moving the cursor all over the city to search for his targets, and even if you happen to find one, it's not clear to me what you can do with that information as you can't pre-emptively stop an attack - all you can do is bait him once he shows, in the few seconds you have before he stomps his target. Furthermore, there can be more than one target, and the one you find first might not be the one he destroys first. This would be a bit more useful if it showed all targets on the map, but it still wouldn't be great.
  • The portable laser confinement system holds up to ten slimers without having to empty your traps at HQ. Convenient? You bet. Worth $8,000? No way.


My best attempt took the station wagon with three traps and all of the gear except the marshmallow sensor and laser system (obviously).

Plotting a route from G.H.Q to a slimer sighting

Driving is a minigame where you have a chance to suck down any roamers that your route intercepts.

Once you arrive at a scene with a slimer, you play a minigame where you position a trap and two busters, and then activate their proton packs to try to force it into the trap's ghost catching zone. Or you can just wait for it to fly over and trigger the trap and hope it doesn't fly out of the way. In any event, this minigame becomes much easier when you realize that you can not only move left and right, but up and down too. You'll want to position everything as high up as possible to make the slimer less able to fly out of range, and it's puzzling why the game even gives you the option to place anything below the highest possible line.

I found that the slimer never moves far to the left of the screen, making the left-hand ghostbuster kind of pointless. The best strategy is to position the busters apart, backs facing, and let the slimer approach the right-hand buster before activating the packs and then "pull" it into the trap, but there's not much you can do if it stays at the top of the screen out of your reach. Annoyingly, once you position everything, there's no way to move either buster away from the trap, only toward the trap, so if the slimer flies over you, regaining control will be tricky. And, of course, don't cross the streams, but this won't be an issue if you position them correctly in the first place.

The first 20 minutes of the game are, sadly frightfully dull, as the roamers move so slowly and the slimer hauntings are few and far between. You'll spend a lot of time just waiting around for something to happen that you can react to. And the better you keep things under control, the longer it takes for things to get interesting again. But it's also during this slow time that you have the most opportunity to make money.

Things eventually pick up.

And this guy can ruin your day.

Once the PK energy reaches 5,000, it becomes impossible to keep things under control. Roamers are too quick to chase, slimer sightings are called in faster than you can trap them, and Stay-Puft starts showing up to smash some city blocks. Stopping him should be your top priority - expect him to appear every time you leave a building, and be ready to hit the 'B' key immediately to lure him away. If you're too far away, this won't work, so what I did is to completely avoid going into any buildings on the edge of the map except for G.H.Q., and even going there should be considered risky. Getting more cash from whatever slimers you can catch is nice, but far less important than baiting Stay-Puft, and forget about wasting time chasing the roamers.

At this point, it isn't long before the keymaster and gatekeeper join at Zuul. 


At this point, if you've made more money than you started with, which isn't hard if you kept the trampling to a minimum, then you have one last challenge - sneaking into the building. If not, you lose - the world is doomed, and even worse, the bank forecloses on you.

To win here, you have to get two of your three guys inside, timing it so that you enter the door as Gozer is hopping up and over it. The window of timing is pretty lenient here, but if two of your men get flattened, well, you still win the game because you avoided insolvency. Get two men through, though, and you get a tidy cash bonus and a neat animated sequence.

Now you can try again, or you can use the provided account number as a password function to restore your new credit line at a later date. With this much cash you can easily buy that sports car and fill it with gear including that laser containment field you couldn't possibly afford as a startup, but good luck getting an ROI.

GAB rating: Average. Ghostbusters manages a good deal more sophistication and style from the C64 than was ever possible on the old VCS, blending action and strategy cohesively, but the strategy layer isn't as deep as it ought to be and the action-based minigames aren't particularly challenging or interesting. It took me a few tries to figure out how to deal with each problem, but once I played enough that I felt I knew what I was doing, I found the overall experience rather monotonous.

Later ports to systems including the NES and Sega Master System added some more depth and content - more ghost hunting gear to buy, and more challenging minigames - but these were less well received than the C64 original. I expect that by the time they came out in the late 80's, consumers expected something more substantial.

Data Driven Gamer will be on sabbatical, as "D" and I have just gotten married and intend to spend the next few weeks relatively unplugged. See you again around late October/November!


  1. Congrats on your wedding!

    The NES port of Ghostbusters added an absolutely *infernal* challenge at the end, when you have to manually bring your Ghostbusters up the 20+ floors of the final building while trying to avoid a swarm of deadly ghosts. And you don't control them by pressing directional buttons - you make them walk forward or back by *repeatedly mashing* the A or B buttons. Bring a turbo controller or perish (and even with it, probably perish anyway).

  2. Congrats and best wishes on the wedding! Will await your return!

  3. My impression from seeing the Angry Video Game Nerd talk about it is that the gameplay itself was okay, but what really screwed it up was that you had to constantly deal with getting fuel, emptying ghost traps and managing money, a balance that would be fairly easy to screw over if you weren't careful. Then you had the Tower climb. There were much better games that blended together a strategic layer and then action mini-games soon enough.
    While I've gotten the impression over the years that some of AVGN's reviews were exaggerations of a game's badness, I never saw any reason to question this one. TBH, I think starting from now that sort of thing is going to crop up with certain titles, especially console ones. AVGN has certainly affected the opinions of many, especially those that never played the games or even had the system.

    1. He wasn't talking about the C-64 version.

      I played the Sega Master System version, and all the parts of a game were there, they just didn't work well. Yet another argument for not buying licensed games.

  4. I'm fascinated to see the version I grew up with features, since in my experience, most people who write about this game know it primarily from the other ports, which change up a lot of things (IIRC there's even an Atari 2600 port, though that might be a modern demake). Trying to remember if it was the NES version that allowed you to revisit the store later in the game.

    As I recall, the strategy I had the most luck with was buying the larger car but skipping all the detectors, though even then, I only won maybe twice - the marshmellow man tends to completely wreck you in the late game.

    Also, it warms my heart that they correctly identify "the" Ghostbusters car as the hearse conversion, rather than the ambulance.

  5. "Ghostbusters manages a good deal more sophistication and style from the C64 than was ever possible on the old VCS, blending action and strategy cohesively"

    Well, the game did get a slightly downgraded VCS port, so this isn't entirely the case. The VCS port removes a bunch of the more advanced items (leaving only the traps, bait, intensifier and vacuum) and only has a single car, but otherwise plays more or less the same. It lacks the password system though, and unfortunately the difficulty level is practically zero since the game starts spamming constant marshmallow man attacks once the PK energy hits 5000 and you no longer have to be within a certain range of a target building to stop him. The amount of money the game awards you for simply pressing the button on the joystick whenever the marshmallow alarm sounds will be enough to hit the 10k treshold for winning the game even if you haven't caught a single roamer or slimer.

    This combined with the lack of a password to take a break between games means you'll just keep playing until you grow bored, and with all the expensive items gone from the shop there's never any fun toys to save up for either.


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