Ghostbusters: The Video Game (Xbox 360)
"Ghostbusters" was an unlikely candidate for highest-grossing comedy of all time. Sure, the 1984 film starred several box-office home-run hitters. With all the star power of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Sigourney Weaver it's easy to forget that the movie was more than just a comedy. "Ghostbusters" was slathered with viscous coating of fantasy. The picture virtually dripped with science jokes, eldritch lore and harmless horror fun. So it was really no surprise that "Ghostbusters" was eventually unseated from its box-office throne by "Home Alone" -- a movie that aimed for the lowest common denominator and hit it square in the nuts with a can of paint.
Here is where the secret, subversive brilliance of "Ghostbusters" laid. It was a modern riff on H.P. Lovecraft, an (even more) comedic update of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and a love letter to anybody who loved watching "In Search of?" It was, essentially, a movie for geeks that snuck its way into the hearts and minds of millions, just like "Star Wars." And like Lucas' folly, "Ghostbusters" lived on in a handful of videogames, a regrettable movie sequel and a surprisingly good kids' cartoon. These spin-offs helped expand the series mythos and, in the case of the games, allowed fans to strap on a proton pack and kick spectral butt. Some 20 years later, Ghostbusters: The Video Game continues that admirable work.
With a script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, the single-player game picks up threads left dangling by the original film. Again the wicked work of mad architect Ivo Shandor wreaks havoc on the city of New York. Turns out the insane Gozer-worshiper did more than just build an antenna for talking to God -- he oversaw a series of unnecessary renovations all over the city as part of a master plan to again unleash "the Destructor" on our world. We join the paranormal investigators as a kind of intern -- a voiceless, personality-free schlub who gets to tag along.
At first, being saddled with this weak avatar feels like a drag. But there's a method to the game's madness. When players dig into the game's worthwhile online multiplayer, they can choose to bust spooks as any of the beloved characters. Until then, you're just fresh meat, and the Ghostbusters treat you as such. They never bother to ask your name. Instead they call you "Scooter" and a zillion other demeaning nicknames. Hazing has a purpose. Like Winston Zeddemore before, you're the new guy, and the new guy always has to pay dues.
Eventually those dues get paid and you're in. And that's part of the fun of Ghostbusters: The Video Game -- working alongside Drs. Pete Venkman, Ray Stantz and Egon Spengler. The act of zapping, roping and capturing a ghost is viscerally satisfying -- just as it was when we did it in Luigi's Mansion. The payoff comes, of course, when said parapsychologists notice and compliment you on your work. Because, after all, you're the real hero here. Those other characters may be voiced by millionaire actors, but they're really just dumb artificial-intelligence bots too stupid and slow to do much more than back you up. They'll need rescuing more often than not. When the PKE Meter goes off the scale, you'll find the whole lot of them incapacitated on their backs, proton packs spewing white sparks. Sometimes they'll come to your rescue when you're in trouble. But they'll likely die on the way, forcing you to attack the tricky scenario anew. Deep down, these virtual Ghostbusters know that. And every so often they'll throw you a kind word or a pat on the back.
If you're of a certain age or sensibility, hearing such niceties from Dan Aykroyd is something akin to going fishing with dad. For the rest of the world, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a valiant work of fan service -- one that hits a few too many familiar notes. A good part of the game is spent retreading old ground. In the early hours, a fight with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a tour through the New York Public Library to capture the Grey Lady, and two visits to the Hotel Sedgewick suggest that the entire affair will be spent rolling through the team's greatest hits. And those moments are fun, in a cosplay sort of way.
But the really neat part of Ghostbusters: The Video Game is the way it continues the proud tradition of Lovecraftian world-building. Not only are the occult intentions of Shandor and his Gozer-worshiping followers fleshed out, but the seeds of dozens of other paranormal mysteries are sewn. New ghosts, like a rotund opera singer or a spectral fisherman, come loaded with their own backgrounds. Items hidden around every level (all discoverable by keeping a close eye on the PKE Meter), too, have their own quirky ghost stories.
It's exactly this kind of thing that videogames are good at -- creating worlds and embedding them with Easter eggs of plot and character. They're also great at blowing a special-effects budget. Where a fiscally conscious movie producer might balk at the idea of flooding a hotel with sea water, constructing a massive steampunk island that rises out of the Hudson, or depicting a mind-bending library that exists in multiple dimensions at the same time, videogame makers are somewhat less constrained when it comes to realizing the fantastic.
What Ghostbusters: The Video Game isn't all that good at is being cinematic. Despite better-than-decent writing, spirited voice acting (even Bill Murray rediscovers a bit of his character's old charm) and the familiar strains of Elmer Bernstein's original score, the affair still struggles to find the sweet spot between the way that movies tell stories and the way games handle them. But despite an overabundance of cut scenes, a limp turn by Alyssa Milano as Murray's love interest, and poorly staged, game-halting chatter, there's a great deal to like here. Thanks to groundwork laid by Luigi's Mansion, Ghostbusters: The Video Game has the tools. And just looking at the credits, we know the talent is there. When the geeky ectoplasm of fandom and fantasy world-building manages to glue both together, it's a beautiful thing.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game purchased by the reviewer.