Despite the entertainment industry's penchant for recycling antique, profitable properties ad nauseam, I'll admit that I never thought I'd see a modern "Ghostbusters" video game. I mean, I've seen some crazy stuff out of the film industry. "The Mod Squad"? Please. And, for the sake of all that is holy, "S.W.A.T."? Even the movie producers intimated that it was more or less based on a particularly recognizable TV theme song. But, no, "Ghostbusters," I never saw coming. No matter the movie's sequel was superfluous, sure it's about time — indeed due out in a few years — that somebody makes a third movie, which at this point may as well be a shot-by-shot remake of the original, taking for granted that Ray, Venkman, Winston and Egon all slipped on some ectoplasmic goo and fell into a rapid-aging machine of Egon's wonky invention.
However, once the news was out there, I had to deal with it. No doubt contemporary consoles are up to the task of retelling an expanded version of the "Ghostbusters" movie as a game, but with this kind of perpetually hot property, the publisher is going to lay down some Ecto-1 tracks on every platform imaginable. How did they ever think they'd translate one of the most iconic action-oriented films of the 1980s to a Nintendo DS title? Well, they thought they'd drop a hybrid RPG/RTS game, that's what.
For the most part, Ghostbusters: The Video Game for the NDS is just that: RPG mechanics with featherweight RTS elements, such as limited resource management. The at-the-scene action elements are party-based and fairly well-suited to an RPG model; you can dynamically switch between the four 'busters just by tapping. The other part of the game is a driving game, which a Ghostbusters title couldn't possibly be without considering the ongoing nostalgia for that Frankenstein's Monster of an aged ambulance called Ecto-1. Even the driving game, at least the part about preparing to drive, has both RPG and RTS design elements in it. Without the clarity of hindsight, "Ghostbusters" was a weird sort of movie, and the NDS title is a weird game. Various top executives in Hollywood must be thrilled that the gamble on that oddball movie paid off a great deal better than rolling the dice on this oddball DS title.
As "Ghostbusters" was a big, glitzy film experience, especially so for the day, I'll start with the sparkly stuff. Visually, Ghostbusters is a humble effort, though it is a DS game, so you can't think the platform was chosen for its eye-popping graphical theater. The game design dictates the top-down perspective used on the touch-screen, which is where all the action takes place. Despite being a modest visual outing, the graphics are fine for DS games, at least middle of the road. There are some nice lighting effects; objects mostly appear where and how they should; textures are simple but effectively chosen; the small character models, while rather indistinguishable from one another, are sharp enough; and the overall layout of both the top screen and touch-screen is clear and easy to watch for long periods. I say the lighting and textures work well, but I'll omit the driving portion of the game from that accolade. Lighting and textures in the driving scenes are too dark and murky, so navigating Ecto-1 is difficult. The driving controls aren't great, either. Since the driving sequences are timed and beating that timer is imperative for success at the game, these issues approach on disaster.
Audio is a mixed bag. The only dialogue is contained within cut scenes, most of which are exclusively incorporated within the historical missions following the original movie plot. Otherwise, in tutorials and standard missions, there are a lot of text and message boxes to wade through. It's old hat for handheld RPG fans, but perhaps not the most inviting for a predictable "Ghostbusters" audience. I'd have preferred the developers employed anonymous sound-alike voice actors to handle some of the interstitial text dialogue — though who can really sound like dear little Annie Potts, I have no idea. The in-game audio effects sound better via headphones than through the DS speakers, per usual. The Ecto-1 siren will drive you bonkers, but blessed saints, it's optional. You know how once you started hearing Ray Parker, Jr.'s famous "Ghostbusters" theme song again, you thought you'd never tire of it? Believe me, you will. Rather quickly. It plays incessantly during driving sequences, but you can turn that off, too, with the SELECT button.
This far in, Ghostbusters is just a ho-hum tribute to what has become a classic piece of cinema history, but it's the nitty-gritty of gameplay design that will leave most fans of the movies cold, and perhaps covered in green slime, too. The game is too difficult for younger children, too stale and repetitive for the kids who can handle it, and most adults, no matter how enthralled they remain with "Ghostbusters" mythology, will likely not find it worth much of their time. A simple, fast-paced arcade shooter would have better suited this title's diverse intended audience.
The internal structure of the game has the Ghostbusters HQ office phone ringing off the old firehouse wall. While you're trying to prepare supplies, repair the Ecto-1 — you'll do that a lot, and, boy, has the cost of auto repair gone up since the 1980s — research new technology, assign skill points to character attributes, manage the Ghostbusting business …. I could go on, but suffice to say it's a little unnerving, that damn loud phone ringing in the midst of everything, each call bringing in a new mission that must be started within a certain time limit or you'll lose reputation points for skipping it. Despite the historical missions, the Ghostbusters takes places in a time frame picking up right after the second movie ends. I'll grant that the frenzied design mechanic does a fair job of simulating the atmosphere of a busy Ghostbusters shop smack in the middle of a major metropolis teeming with unquiet spirits, but it's just a little too much frazzle for what is supposed to have been a casual and fun experience.
Phoned-in missions must be taken without too much delay. You can check the mission board for a list of available missions, and on the board are also rows of alarm clock icons informing you how much time you have to get rolling before the mission expires. (Old movie-plot missions are highlighted in red text, and you can do these whenever you wish. They're much like standard missions but have more primary objectives, therefore last longer and are more challenging.) Standard missions take place at a variety of locales within the city, familiar to fans of the movies. In general, standard missions eventually become doing very similar sorts of things — rescue tourists, collect slime, collect artifacts, trap ghosts — in the exact same places. I readily confess that for several hours over a couple of days, I was well addicted to Ghostbusters. I even put up with a lot of the mechanics and play-balancing issues to keep taking missions, tapping away and busting those ghosts, but there comes a point, and it comes abruptly, when you'll sit back and say, "You know, I think I've done just about everything there is to do here."
Another issue with game design is that primary objectives rule all in missions. There are numerous secondary and additional objectives allowing you to earn things that are needed to further grow the Ghostbusters business. (That's one thing to remember: There's a whole lot of simple business management simulation at the heart of this game.) Once you've completed the primary objective, often as simple as trapping a single powderpuff of a ghost, you're back at the firehouse, and you lose your shot at further objectives in the mission. Granted, the repetitive nature of incoming missions gives you a lot more chances at the collecting-type objectives, but I'd rather not have to take on a whole new gig to get at something I should have had the latitude to do the first time around. For the most part, the primary objectives don't depend on completion of the alternative objectives.
I hope you're pleased: I've saved the worst for last. You've got that lovely Ecto-1 in the garage, so how else are you gonna get to those calls? When I was a kid, I would have given my left foot to drive the Ecto-1 for half an hour. When I was older, I even witnessed the actual beast on a cordoned-off street in New York during the filming of the "Ghostbusters II." I loved that Ghostbusting ride. Ghostbusters for DS, though, has nearly ruined it for me. While playing, I was beginning to hope for some unlockable, an Ecto-9 maybe. In addition to the aforementioned issues with seeing where you're going, navigating to mission sites can be perverse. The roll-outs to missions are timed, and those times are variable. For most cases, I arrived at my destination in plenty of time, which is good because if you don't, you fail the whole mission, lose rep, and can't repeat the mission unless you want it so bad you drop back to the last point you saved the game. The city map is designed to send you in wrong directions and down dead-end streets, but it's over-designed in that regard. Even when I knew the map and had been to the same place innumerable times, I'd occasionally get turned around and could not get on the right track in time. The Ecto-1 takes quite a bit of collision damage, which slows it down and reduces already poor handling, sometimes making it impossible to reach the mission point in time. You can boost skill points for Winston so that he's the full-time expert Ecto-1 driver and so that repairs he makes back at the firehouse cost less, but these concessions to durability and economy only help so much. There's a free-drive mode for the Ecto-1, so you can roam the city and blast away at specters haunting the streets, but I figure the less time spent in the Ecto-1, the better.
Overall, Ghostbusters: The Video Game in its DS incarnation is more of a collector's item than a lasting entertainment. Those mobile gamers enamored with RPG-esque leveling systems, weapons research and resource management may fare better than the average player. Yet Ghostbusters is most certainly intended for the average player. The RPG elements don't ever come near the dreaded headache of level-grinding, but the whole game is still far from splendid. Between racing the clock in a grossly awkward Ecto-1 and racing to the mission board every time that damn phone rings, I think I'd rather dust off the "Ghostbusters" DVDs, sit back and watch all that mayhem rather than actually dealing with it.Score: 6.0/10
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