Last year, a new film with the title Ghostbusters opened at the box office to a surprisingly muted reception. Despite being Sony Pictures and Columbia’s major salvo into the summer 2016 box office bloodbath, as well as being based on a beloved brand from the 1980s, the picture grossed only $229 million in its global run. While that total shouldn’t have been too bad, it seemed that way when compared to the $144 million-price tag on the blockbuster (which wasn’t counting marketing costs). And in spite of a largely positive critical repcetion, its CinemaScore rating of a “B+” indicated a much less enthusiastic embrace from general audiences.
Still, one of the few things most seemed to agree upon about the reboot is that it is at least a step up from 1989’s Ghostbusters II. Then again that might be damning with faint praise since that film, despite having its fans, is still widely regarded as one of the definitive case studies for why comedy sequels are inevitably disappointing. Peculiarly, Ghostbusters has not had a legitimately beloved continuation of its brand in the 33 years since the 1984 comedy classic. At least not on film.
Yep, more than any Murray one-liner, the irony is rich within the thought that the most authentic continuation of the cinematic saga begotten by Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler walking into the New York Public Library has not occurred on the big screen, but on the few that were hooked up to PlayStation 3s or Xbox 360s in 2009. For that was the year that Ghostbusters: The Video Game debuted, proving once and for all that licensed video games can work very well, and that there was indeed much life left in the brand of four paranormal eliminators saving New York one devastated hotel ballroom at a time.
And now one remake and seven years later, a video game still remains the best follow-up in that groovy, Gozerian world.
Who You Gonna Call?
As one of the earlier third-person shooters (or should that be third-person catchers?) from the previous console generation, Ghostbusters: The Video Game came out during a period where game adaptations of classic films were even more of a hit-or-miss proposition than today. Electronic Arts’ redo of The Godfather made for a fun and even clever variation on Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto formula (particularly with the most violent use of the Wii-mote ever for the “Blackhand Edition”), but it was still a pale imitation of Mario Puzo’s iconic story and the Francis Ford Coppola film it inspired. Meanwhile, the less said about other tortured rethinks of classic franchises—like 007 Legends turning a half-dozen classic Bond films into Call of Duty clones—the better. Hence, there was plenty of apprehension when publisher Atari and developer Terminal Reality took on the “Ghostbusters” brand after 20 years of false starts for the elusive Ghostbusters 3.
Nevertheless, unlike just about any other licensed video game in history, the Ghostbusters game just wouldn’t be a brand tie-in via pixelation; it’s also the closest thing to realizing Dan Aykroyd’s dream of a third Ghostbusters movie, which came complete with Aykroyd and Harold Ramis providing the basic story for the game, as well as much of the often-hilarious dialogue in it. To be clear, Ghostbusters is a very fun video game, but it’s an even better sequel.
As a game, it’s a rather novel experience since Terminal Reality opted to create an environment that rewarded teamwork (even in the single-player, solo campaign) and altruism over violence and destruction. This is accomplished by the game suggesting you play the near-mute “intern” hired to lug around the iconic foursome’s most dangerous and experimental equipment. But as the literal unsung fifth member of the team, you are still required to constantly keep your teammates alive, lest you all fall down the slippery river of slime to hell.
And in online multiplayer, gamers are also strangely asked not to try to kill each other, but to compete in cooperative gameplay about who can bust the most ghosts via proton packs that are as much maddening tri-colored lassos as they are weapons of mass destruction (and, aye, the destruction is vast when you aim them at the explosive environments, complete with a dollar-sign counter tallying all the New York City property damage you incur).
But the real linchpin of the game’s success is that it brings back all of the classic talent from the 1984 film (sans Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, both of whom opted out of lending their voices to the game). Aykroyd and Ramis were also allowed to revisit the tone and tenor of the original film in a way that even the official 1989 sequel failed to do while exploring elements littered in a litany of abandoned Ghosbusters 3 scripts, including the origins of the first film’s spectral librarian and a trip to an alternate dimension.
Add in also the vocal talents of Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and the invaluable Bill Murray—who, even as he is practically phoning it in, offers a pitch perfect sardonic ambivalence to the supernatural shenanigans going on around him—and suddenly the appeal of the game’s license actually elevates the experience instead of just standing as an excuse to milk it.
Seriously, even Max von Sydow returns in a cameo as the voice of Vigo the Carpathian (now a permanent addition to the firehouse’s art collection).
The Same, But Actually Different
One of the fairest critiques about Ghostbusters II was how in spite of being an ostensible new adventure with the guys, it still elected to repeat most of the same storytelling beats from the 1984 progenitor. It even rather incredulously opens with the Ghostbusters being treated as frauds and smarmy opportunists by all of New York City—which other than Pete Venkman is totally unfair! And this is after an earthquake on the Upper West Side gave way to a 100-foot tall marshmallow man laying waste to Columbus Circle.
Still, the 2016 remake is no less guilty of falling into the trap of retreading familiar story beats to its own narrative’s detriment. As written about here, Paul Feig and his excellent cast of hilarious women could have charted their own story either as successors to the original film’s crew or simply as a new team that has always been the Ghostbusters for years. Unfortunately, the film opted to remake the basic plot of the 1984 laugher, complete with sequences of the team first meeting a ghost, being fired from Columbia University, getting summoned to the mayor’s office and arrested (though in a reverse order), and simply being disbelieved despite living in a Big Apple crawling with ghosts. Formula superseded logic to the film’s disadvantage.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game is also not devoid of repeating familiar notes, especially when the first act includes a revisit to the Sedgewick Hotel from the first film where the team met Slimer, and then another skyscraper battle with Gozer in the shape of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The team even returns to the New York Public Library for a spooky encounter with “The Gray Lady.” But video games have a luxury that movie sequels and remakes do not, because gamers want to relive key moments from a beloved story in the virtual format. Nostalgia is a virtue instead of a crutch. Also, just as much as the game begins from a place of repetition, it soon uses that as a to springboard in directions that no Ghostbusters movie has gone before or since.
For starters, the game builds on one of the niftier aspects of Ghostbusters II by expanding the arsenal. The proton packs in the game are retrofitted to also wield the slime cannons from the 1989 sequel, but they additionally incorporate new and rather clever supernatural eliminating gadgetry. Whereas Ghostbusters (2016) mostly just redoes the 1984 proton packs with extra neon lights, as well as straightforward additions like proton pistols, proton grenades, and a weapon that allows Melissa McCarthy to proton-punch ghosts, the video game finds fairly unique ways to upgrade the weapons.
The aforementioned slime cannon also now comes with the ability to shoot slimy, ropey tethers that can be used to leverage objects or swing heroes like a grappling hook. New weapons also include the “Bozon Dart,” which fires mini-missiles, not unlike the 2016 film’s grenades. But other scenes of ghostly apocalypse can also be thwarted in humorous ways. While the Ghostbusters of 2016 rather strangely seem to kill ghosts by shooting them—an oddity since they are already deceased—the game adds tech elements like a “Super Slammer” that allows the Ghostbusters to slam dozens of ghosts into a massive trap atop their nuclear powered super-hearse, the Ecto-1. It was likely created to give players a fun way of wrangling ghosts that differentiates the gameplay experience, but it also allows the ability to take on dozens of enemies without breaking the films’ own internal logic.
But more than all that nerdy stuff, the story to Ghostbusters: The Video Game just digs deeper into the universe. Ghostbusters II and the 2016 movie both essentially repeat the plot of the first film, but the game finally makes good on Aykroyd’s desire to see the Ghostbusters travel to another dimension.
Admittedly, Aykroyd’s original vision was to send the Ghostbusters to Hell, which would look like an even nastier version of Manhattan with Donald Trump as the Devil ruling over all of damnation—we may still yet get that last part soon enough—but sending the Ghostbusters to an ethereal plane where elements of Manhattan exist in a floating void of destruction catches the basic vision of that hellscape.
By allowing the Ghostbusters to dimension hop, the game finally showcases the eerie universe from which Gozer hails, as well as sees the boys fighting translucent gods in their own territory. Unlike any other Ghostbusters movie, the team not only crosses streams, but actual planes of existence, allowing for the kind of novelty that was desperately missing in 2016.
Dogs and Cats Living Together
Ultimately, however, the greatest strength of the video game adaptation is that it finally ghost-traps the element that has eluded all other descendants in Ghostbusters media: it successfully emulates the tone of the original 1984 movie to marvelous effect.
It should be noted that the 2016 movie is wise to not attempt copying the rather singular alchemy inherent in Ivan Reitman’s direction, Harold Ramis’ ear for dialogue, and Bill Murray’s malevolently mellow improvisation. Still, the fact that it is a remake means it woefully suffers in contrast, with Paul Feig’s affable humor in direct competition with Murray’s peak acerbic prowess (well at least, outside of Groundhog Day). The game, meanwhile, was free to embrace that long-missed sharpness that happens when Ramis and Murray collaborate. For Gozer’s sake, the game even enjoys the major benefit of using Elmer Bernstein’s ever underrated score. Indeed, how many other composers would use the Theremin as part of a love ballad?
In that vein, much of the appeal of any franchise is reprising its previous glories. Ghostbusters II, for whatever its overlooked qualities, failed miserably at emulating the original’s tenor. Presumably, this occurred in large part because the 1984 film was first and foremost intended for adults. But upon realizing that children loved Ghostbusters (and enjoyed The Real Ghostbusters cartoon in the interim), the creators of the sequel elected a more cartoonish, and consequently diminished, style of buffoonery.
The game, by comparison, is neither obligated to attempt a new aesthetic like the 2016 film (or even The Real Ghostbusters cartoon), nor is it trying to water down the appeal of the original film. Instead, you have Murray being Murray, er, Venkman, when he not so subtly hits on Alyssa Milano’s Illysa, a demonically-chased scientist who also has to handle Peter’s not too subtle pick-ups. After telling him to get lost on their first encounter, Murray perfectly walks that tightrope between amusing and creepy that hung above so many of his most beloved misanthropic douchebags of yore: “Heh heh, that approach rarely works on me. I’ll show you why later.”
Certainly not playing a hero for the 21st century—the game itself is set in 1991, two years after Ghostbusters II—this display of a smarmy protagonist embraces the fact that these guys were schumucks in the ’84 film, a feat much harder to sell in modern blockbusters, lest your hero is played by Robert Downey Jr. The game embraces that element, however, celebrating the banter and chemistry these characters have, such as when Aykroyd’s Ray and Murray’s Peter watch the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man fall off a skyscraper.
“Hey Ray,” dings Venkman. “Say three guys, the size of your finger, knocked you off the side of a 30-story building, and you had to climb all the way back up to tear them apart. How mad would you be at those three little dinky tikes?”
And in his patented, flat deadpan, Aykroyd responds, “I’d go with mighty pissed.”
Similarly, the game marks Harold Ramis’ last performance before his sad passing, and both in voice and in script, his acute sense of humor echoes through the pixels. Indeed, even his bemusement for very New York-centric laughs is inescapable. Granted, this was one aspect that Ghostbusters II also had in spades since the entire film was centered on breaking through the barrier of there being “three million miserable assholes in the Tri-State area.” But likewise, the game takes the idea of ghosts being based on New York culture to a new extreme with homeless panhandling phantoms assaulting Ecto-1 (Murray muses, “Do they not have soap in the afterlife?”), or the spirits of singing theatre stars who died when Hindenburg: The Musical went up in literal smoke on Broadway rise again for an encore. It certainly is more striking than just a generic CGI dragon.
Even specific character beats that only work if you know your Manhattan history occur, such as when the always nebbish and childlike Ray Stantz revels in the Disney-fied Times Square that occurred after “Giuliani Time” abolished the Midtown of previous Ghostbusters movies. “Times Square post-urban renewal, all shiny and clean. I love it!”
Of course you would, Ray. Of course you would.
In many ways, the game is the only Ghostbusters product post-1984 to embrace the adult, and sometimes smug, aspects of these characters and their world. And the better the rapport of these actors who were finally allowed to collaborate again, if only vocally, the more enjoyable the experience is than any other media borne from that shockingly perfect comedy of so many decades ago. It is probably the best one can hope for in a Ghostbusters sequel, even if it is only experienced with DualShock controls.
***This article was originally published on July 18, 2016.