Monday, June 29, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #37


I was late to the party on everything, it seems. I didn't become hip to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air until 8th grade, when I got tired of having to pretend to understand my classmates' show-related references ("Oh, yeah--she's a 'brick house.' F-funny!"). I didn't catch a single episode of Saved by the Bell until I started my first year of college in 1998--five years after the series had ended its run (I'd watch the show's reruns every morning on TBS while getting ready). I failed to view both the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back all the way through until the mid-late 90s, well after their cultural relevance had peaked. And I couldn't even claim to have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, predecessor to two of my favorite movies of all time, until the turn of the century.

It was the same deal with Ghostbusters, whose quintessential 80s sensibilities somehow escaped my consciousness until 1996. 

As of now, I'm quite familiar with Ghostbusters, since I've seen it dozens of times in the last 15 years (mostly on cable); though, there was a long period prior to that first viewing when I could only conceive of the movie's tone and subject-matter through the lens of the Saturday morning cartoon, which I watched every week. If the cartoon was at all indicative of its big-screen counterpart, I thought, then Ghostbusters had to be a serious movie, since its material was far removed from what you'd see in, say, an adult-themed comedy. So the younger me wouldn't have even considered the possibility that Ghostbusters was in fact a comedy or that it starred comic personalities like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, who I couldn't imagine fitting the roles of the earnest-minded Ray Stantz and Peter Venkman I knew from the cartoon.

That was me--the tardy kid who always managed to miss the parade. The strange child who neglected to watch so many of the era's most popular films but for some reason thought to desire the merchandize attached to them.

In the case of Ghostbusters, I watched the cartoon, I bought all of the toys (including the ones where you pull the legs to make the Ghostbusters' faces contort), and I exposed myself to one of the most questionable creations in the history of mankind.

I always want to start these negatively toned flashbacks by stating "I don't know why I bought this game," but that's never the truth. I know full well why I came into possession of so many sub-par games, like Ghostbusters, in my first year of NES ownership: I had entered into a copy-cat phase wherein I just couldn't restrain myself. If one of my friends or cousins had a game, then I had to have it. It didn't matter if the game was complete junk; my compulsion was that video games existed for the sake of being collected (I must have picked up this behavior from my brother, who was chiefly responsible for our 2600, Commodore 64 and NES collections totaling over 100 games apiece).

With Ghostbusters, I knew what I was getting into. I remembered playing it at my friend Mike's house a few months prior and not knowing what to make of it. Most purported action games featured characters whose function was to trek about side-scrolling or overhead worlds and take down hordes of enemies, but this one put us in control of the Ghostusters' logo, of all things, and had us negotiating around the framework of a grid--a city map whose ghost population was funneling its way toward a building labeled "Zuul," whoever that was.

We could freeze their movement by running over them, but doing so seemed like a pointless distraction. I mean, so what if the resultant PK Energy overload would result in the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man showing up and destroying an entire city block? That was just one less location to have to worry about visiting (you know--priorities and all that)! In fact, a Stay Puft appearance, from what we could tell, was the most interesting thing that could happen in this game.

Otherwise, we could visit a shop after enduring a long, boring vehicle sequence that was surely crafted for the express purpose of draining both our cash-total and our will to live. We could bust some ghosts if we managed to buy the correct equipment, reach a flashing building in time, and survive more sequences where the city's increasingly erratic drivers were trying to murder us. And we could continue wandering about the map waiting for something--anything--to denote actual progress, if such a thing actually existed in this game. 

Though, there was indeed an endgame--the Zuul building, which we could only enter after a seemingly arbitrary goal had been met (we didn't know if it had anything to do with the PK Energy meter or our dollar-total; unless we missed something, the manual provided no indication). And what awaited us inside was one of the most maddening sequences we'd ever encountered in a game: A series of staircases leading up to what we assumed was a final boss. 

"Oh, is that all?" you question, ye of untainted heart. "What's the problem there?"

Well, let me tell you: See--some total jackass of a game designer decided that the Ghostbusters should only be allowed to move via continued button-mashing. We might have been OK with this had the sequence been straightforward--a mere exercise in dexterity--but it wasn't because the same designer had also placed four persistent, indomitable ghosts within the stairwell, each capable of hovering through surfaces and colliding with us whenever it felt like it. Having to react to their unpredictable movement and suddenly accelerate, which required finger-speed beyond which we were capable, was both mentally taxing and physically exhausting. Compounding the frustration was that the ghosts' hit-boxes extended far beyond their actual sprites and the Ghostbusters could only absorb a limited amount of hits; three falls and it was Game Over.

"But there couldn't have been that many floors, right?" you naively counter.

We couldn't tell you because we were incapable of making it past, oh, floor four. There might have been 20 or maybe 50 floors, but you'd be insane to think that we had a realistic chance of ever finding out for sure. Now, we could have prepared better by taking the time to earn some additional funds and buying us some "ghost food," which functioned to distract the stairwell's ghostly inhabitants, but its effect was entirely short-lived; and most galling was that the ghost food would scroll up with us, dragging along a feasting horde that would continue act as an obstacle--more so if we shortsightedly aligned the food with an upcoming stairway's base--and inflict damage all the same.

"What's going on here?" was all I could wonder during our successive attempts. "What does any of this have to do with the cartoon? Why aren't the Ghostbusters flaunting their trademarked personalities? Why is it that there are only two of them at the start but three of them in the stairwell, none of the approximations resembling the actual Ghostbusters characters? Where's Winston? Where's Slimer? Hell--where's anything?"

I mean, it's not like I hadn't encountered a game like Ghostbusters before. Really, its bizarre presentation reminded a lot of those old Commodore 64 games that I'd suffer through on a daily basis--the kind that were simultaneously so esoteric and so super-difficult that my only sense was that I wasn't meant to beat them. Ghostbusters felt like a game that would feel more at home on a computer system, where mechanicalized simulation games made more sense. Whether that was true or not, our question remained, "Why did Activision think that this was a viable formula for an NES game?"

"So why, again, did you buy it for yourself?" you ask.

I don't know. Maybe I liked the theme music.

Refusing to adhere to common sense, I kept trying to conquer it anyway. The ghost-busting and driving sequences were trivial matters; the real challenge was that final stairwell, which continued to torture me for months in following. Even on my best day, I could make it no further than floors 8 or 9, and even then I had no sense that I was anywhere close to the end. 

If I returned to Ghostbusters years later, it was only because I'd come into a possession of a Game Genie, whose extra-money and invincibility codes were surely the key to my long-due victory. And you know what? The trauma of it all has warped my memories so much that I still don't believe I actually finished it (the invincibility effect might not have extended to the bullet-hell final boss).

And yet I argue that Mike might have been a bigger masochist than me, since he also owned the Master System version! Well, honestly, it wasn't quite as bad as its NES counterpart; it featured much-superior sound design (better music and a comprehensible "Ghostbusters!" sound sample, mainly), prettier graphics, a nifty item system, manageable driving sequences, directional stairwell control, and a memorable extra sequence where you had to race beneath a leaping Stay Puft to gain access to the Zuul building. At the least, it was easy to see that NES owners got the short end of the stick.

Our strategy was to sidle up against the building's left side and dash toward the doorway the instant he began his rightward leap. I didn't have much trouble successfully executing this plan when I ran through the game for the purpose of snapping screenshots, so I don't know why Mike and I had such a high failure-rate. And it's not that we did any better once inside; no--we still couldn't finish Ghostbusters even with directional control.

I didn't realize it until after I'd purchased Ghostbusters for NES, but we already owned the Commodore 64 version! I recall loading it up and exiting almost immediately, since it looked like more of the same (it's purported to be the definitive version--a claim I'll investigate another time). If I returned to it in following, it was only because I wanted to listen to its version of the main theme, which featured by far the best instrumentation (that horn, baby).

I can't say that it was the progenitor of such, but Ghostbusters' was a case of a licensed game maintaining its unearned popularity simply due to how bad it was (other offenders include Predator, Back to the Future and The Karate Kid). That's the ugly side of nostalgia at work. Now, I don't absolve myself of blame, because it's hard for me not to feel sentimental about Ghostbusters considering how prolific it was and how much time we spent trying to make heads or tails out of it. Call it Stockholm Syndrome if you'd like, but thinking about it makes me smile.

I don't begrudge David Crane, its creator, for being experimental and not bending to convention--for eschewing the standard practice of retrofitting licensed material over generic, pre-made platforming engines. His only thought was to create something unique. Something that could enrich our childhood experiences. Something that could never, ever damage the reputation of computer gaming or the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game.

Nice thinkin', Crane.

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