Ghostbusters (Prototype, Family Computer)
In a December 13, 1988 AP article about Nintendo’s restrictive licensing policy, Bruce Davis, the former president of Mediagenic, Activision’s name at the time, was quoted as saying that, although he preferred “not to pay a licensing fee,” or have Nintendo “be the sole source manufacturer,” he saw the Japanese juggernaut handling its licensing agreement procedure in a “principled way” by controlling software quality and quantity. Activision’s only two Nintendo-licensed titles at that point were Super Pitfall and Ghostbusters. Anyone who has ever played either of these games can no doubt see the irony in Davis’s statement.
The Ghostbusters game was originally designed and programmed by Pitfall! creator and Activision co-founder David Crane for home computers like the Commodore 64. Crane and a small development team finished the game in just six weeks to ensure that its release would coincide with the 1984 comedy.
Ghostbusters grew out of a work-in-progress racer called Car Wars, in which the player could outfit a vehicle with weapons to be used while driving around an urban setting (link).
“But it was a game which was looking for a theme at the time,” Crane said in a 1985 PBS interview, “and when Activision and Columbia Pictures got together, I saw this as an opportunity to lend a theme to [the] game, but it’s a game that people have told me they would enjoy playing whether there was a Ghostbusters name on it or not” (link).
Car Wars became the Ecto-1 driving sequences, and the weaponry morphed into the Ghost Vacuum that sucks up stray specters, called Roamers, from New York City’s streets.
The original version of Ghostbusters functions more as a quirky business simulator than anything else, as the ultimate goal is to make your ghost-busting franchise profitable by earning more than the bank’s initial $10,000 loan, which goes into purchasing a vehicle and various paranormal gadgets at the start of the game.
You do this by traveling around the City Map to buildings that flash, signifying they are haunted.
Successfully using your Proton Pack and Ghost Trap to capture Slimer during the action sequences will reward you with cash.
You can also use Ghost Bait on the map screen when the Marshmallow Man appears to distract him and save the city from property damage, which will further increase your balance.
When the city’s psychokinetic energy nears 9999, you are escorted to the Temple of Zuul, where you must sneak at least two of the three Ghostbusters past the Marshmallow Man into the skyscraper in order to beat the game.
If you have enough earnings at the end, you will be given a bank account number that can be entered on the title screen so that you can continue to monetize your ghost busting business.
Activision later released adaptations of the game for several gaming consoles, including the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1988. The Nintendo port was first published in Japan two years earlier by Tokuma Shoten. The game was developed by a company called Bits Laboratory, a.k.a. Workss, which also made the Nobuo Uematsu-composed King’s Knight for Square that same year.
A lot of the core gameplay was tweaked during the transition to the Nintendo, but the changes were not necessarily for the better.
An old friend of mine once eloquently described the Nintendo conversion’s graphics: “They look like something I would find on the bottom of my shoe.” Everything is smooshed flat and colorless–a world of gray amid a never-ending three-minute loop of Ray Parker, Jr. music.
The driving scenes are now populated not only with ghosts but swerving cars controlled by drivers seemingly wanting to test the limits of your car insurance. Colliding with them causes hundreds of dollars to drain from your account. In addition to the bumper cars, the Ghostbusters have to worry about keeping the Ecto-1 gassed up by running over red drums on the road, or else they will have to get out and literally push it to the nearest gas station and attempt the ride all over again. If they aren’t carrying enough cash to fill up, civilization will be doomed. Finally, a video game where the petroleum industry can shine.
The action sequences are also more frustrating, and feature four yellow smiley-faced demons that have a tendency to float just far enough out of range of your Proton Beam’s reach, even if you have ungraded your blaster to produce a longer stream. If that weren’t enough, you have precious little time during these scenarios, so if you wait a second too long for the phantoms to mosey on down, the green-suited Ghostbusters will simply pick up their Trap and head back to the car, empty-handed.
The Marshmallow Man will still randomly appear on the City Map, but all of the strategy from the original game is gone; Stay Puft now immediately stomps into a building, leaving you with nothing to do but watch $10,000 burn up like a s’more. If you do not have the funds to pay for the damage, the game ends.
These gripes do not come close to the punishing agony that is the Tower of Zuul. In arguably one of the most sadistic video game levels ever devised, the Ghostbusters now have to ascend a 23-flight staircase full of invincible, schizophrenic specters by button-mashing every deadly step of the way.
“When we get to 20, tell me. I’m going to throw up.” The spiral staircase in the film is the product of a little movie magic. An artist created a massive matte painting, measuring 38 x 80 inches, which was combined with live footage to make the Ghostbusters’ ascent up Dana’s apartment building seem as exhausting as it is in the video game. The original artwork was sold by Oscar-winning visual effects wizard Richard Edlund in July 2013 at an entertainment auction in Los Angeles for $2,750 (link). (Image source: Profiles in History)
The North American instruction manual not-so-subtly acknowledges how unfair this part of the game is by offering the following invaluable tip: “If your controller has a turbo feature, use the turbo buttons to quickly climb the stairs in Zuul.” When cheating becomes a legitimate method to win, you know that there’s something strange in your game. Who you gonna call? Clearly anyone but Bits Laboratory.
If you do own a turbo controller and somehow make it to the rooftop in one piece, then you have to face Gozer and the Terror Dogs, while dodging their spectral attacks, before the Marshmallow Man can scale the building. If you fail to blast Gozer out of this dimension by then, the game is over.
To again quote from that same friend: “It’s not playable, unless you’re into pain or something.”
(Image source: Yahoo! Japan Auctions)
In May 2014, when a Ghostbusters Family Computer prototype appeared on Yahoo! Japan Auctions from a seller named “ecoshop0,” I fit myself into my leather bondage gear and strapped a ball gag over my mouth. My safety word was “Ghostbusters!”
My main competition was not a collector living in Japan, but an overseas bidder using another deputy service, which, of course, resulted in my having to pay more in addition to forking over higher commission fees. Whoever this person was, he or she wound up winning a Family Computer sample of the puzzler Banana instead. I’d like to tell them where they can stick that Banana.
The seller auctioned off a number of other pre-release Japanese titles at the same time, including Space Hunter, Cosmo Genesis, Labyrinth, Ninja-kun, Ninja Hattori-kun, Hydlide Special, Bases Loaded, Ikki, and several Namco samples of games like Tower of Babel and The Adventure of Valkyrie.
“,” at the top of the label. translates to “Tokuma software,” while “,”at the bottom, means “sample.” “GTS-GB” in the middle is the cartridge ID. That was how I knew that the game must have been Ghostbusters since the seller did not actually test the cartridge. The game was said to have been old warehouse inventory that had long been kept in storage.
As for in-game changes, on the copyright screen, the prototype places a comma in “Activision, Inc.” Both the released Japanese and North American versions omit this punctuation.
The prototype shows one less exclamation mark (“Bad luck !!”) on the Game Over screen when you lose. Also, the words “City of New York” are not centered. In addition, the text goes on to read, “The predication has come true, our civilization has been destroyed.” The released Japanese and American versions contain this text instead: “The predication will come true. Gozer has overcome our civilization.”
The prototype supplies you with significantly more health during your rooftop battle with Gozer. The Ghostbusters will be able to withstand seven of Gozer’s charged attacks before succumbing to the evil ancient god, while in the released Japanese game, they can only survive three hits.
Just as in the Japanese retail version, when you defeat Gozer, the screen cuts to black without showing the infamous “Conglaturation” ending or rolling the credits. However, if you wait a few more moments in the released game, “” scrolls upward and then stops at the center of the screen. This is Japanese for “Lili.” In the prototype, this text does not appear on the screen at all. Instead, the game will eventually reset to the title screen. (The prototype’s ending exists in the code, though, and it is just as “grate” as the final Japanese game’s concealed conclusion.)