A fantastic portable take on HAL’s cute Japan-only adaptation of the blockbuster film.

It is the year 1990, and the name “Activision” on a box does not at this point in time inspire one with confidence. The company has recently been graced with a new CEO who decided it would be more profitable to rebrand the company as Mediagenic and move into productivity applications. Activision, once known as the pioneer of third party gaming, whose logo was a rare guarantee of quality in the rocky days of collapse-era Atari 2600 software, doesn’t demonstrate an awful lot of discretion when it comes to publishing video games at this point in time. But even so, occasionally they still fall backwards into quality.

Such is the case with Ghostbusters II for Game Boy. 

It appears that Activision held the exclusive U.S. rights to games based on the recent Hollywood hit, so all U.S. releases of Ghostbusters II tie-ins on all platforms came from Activision. Those rights, however, must not have extended worldwide. In Japan, HAL Labs had the lock on Ghostbusters II for Famicom and Game Boy. This led to the tragic split release of Ghostbusters II for Nintendo’s 8-bit home consoles, which in Japan and Europe was a cute HAL-developed game and in America was… not. Rather, Ghostbusters II for NES was a Dan Kitchen-directed follow-up to David Crane’s widely acclaimed computer adaptation of the first movie. 

While beloved in its PC incarnations, Crane’s Ghostbusters did not fare well in its conversion to NES. In fact, it’s widely regarded as one of the worst things ever to happen to that system. Nevertheless, Activision went ahead and asked Kitchen and Crane’s company, Imagineering, to put together an NES sequel anyway. While the results were marginally less terrible than the first movie conversion, they certainly weren’t good. 

This meant American NES owners missed out on HAL’s greatly superior Famicom movie conversion, a top-down action game that carried forward some mechanics reminiscent of Crane’s work but involved vastly less frustrating design and controls. It wasn’t perfect, but the gulf in quality between the two releases left American gamers in the know feeling like they had totally missed out. Unsurprisingly, the Famicom import—New Ghostbusters II—has become coveted (and has risen considerably in price over the past few years) thanks to NES collectors who like Ghostbusters and hate bad games.

The thing is, though, Americans didn’t actually miss out altogether. We just had to look a little further afield for our HAL fix. HAL Labs seems an odd bedfellow for Activision, but they do share a tiny trivial link in common. Activision was the world’s first third party. Meanwhile, HAL was the first third-party publisher to release a title for Game Boy, way back in May 1989 with a conversion of… Activision’s Shanghai, in fact.

HAL was a studio with deep historic ties to Nintendo; this was, after all, the company that gave us future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Even when HAL was wandering off in the weeds, as we’ve seen with games like Hyperzone, you could count on their games to be competently crafted and unafraid to explore interesting ideas. When HAL’s name appears on Game Boy, you’re assured a pretty good time.

And so it is here, as Activision simply brought over HAL’s portable adaptation of New Ghostbusters II from Japan for their Game Boy film tie-in rather than downscaling Imagineering’s creation. Fans benefited. 

Ghostbusters II for Game Boy isn’t without its flaws. It suffers from some annoying companion character A.I., and it’s another one of those games whose designers sometimes padded out their brief adventure with some cheap gimmicks and occasional dips into genuine unfairness. It’s possible, especially in the later stages, to go from “optimal health” to “game over” in the space of seconds because the computer boxes in your A.I. companion. So there’s a little bit of frustration here, made worse by the limited continues available to the player. Still, even with these moments of inelegance and some extraordinarily grating music, on the whole HAL did a charming job of bringing Ghostbusters II to Game Boy. 

The game loosely follows the plot of the film, kicking off when an evil ghost swoops down and swipes Dana Barrett’s baby while she and Peter Venkman are out taking the kid for a stroll. Venkman shrugs, steps off the side of the screen to get a grip, puts his proton pack on his back, and he splits. 

You don’t necessarily have to play as Venkman, though. While you can select from all four of the Ghostbusters—yes, even poor mistreated Winston Zedmore—you can’t take all four into a stage at once. Still, despite Bobby Brown’s lamentations, you don’t have make it on your own, either. Instead, you actively control a single Ghostbuster, and he’s followed around by an computer-controlled companion. The playable ’Buster fires off a particle beam to freeze ghosts, while the companion snags stunned specters with a trap. You fire particle beams with the A button and cause your companion to throw traps with B; tossing traps is all the control you have over your ally. He tags along close behind you, which, again, leads to some of this game’s bigger frustrations. 

The trapper has a tendency to get trapped himself: He constantly becomes snagged on furniture, or caught behind doors. Coaxing him along can be a hassle, especially given the harsh time limits on some stages.  Worse, this leaves him vulnerable to ghosts.

Each Ghostbuster has his own independent health meter, and if either buster runs out of health, it’s game over. Unfortunately, the trapper’s somewhat rough pathfinding and tendency to wander leaves him pretty vulnerable to attack, and when your game ends suddenly, chances are pretty good it’s because the bozo in the rear ranks got himself trapped outside of your control.

The developers seem to have recognized this and made a modest effort to compensate to a certain degree. You’ll frequently run into your nerdy pal Louis throughout the stages, who will dispense power-ups and life boosts to one of your characters. Usually those boosts go to the trapper, even if the buster could desperately use the help, which is probably a tacit acknowledgement of the trapper’s unpredictable fragility. Even better, boss battles render the trapper completely invulnerable, allowing you to focus on the buster during what amounts to shoot-em-up battles full of projectiles and hazards. So already, HAL’s game shows a lot more consideration for the player’s time and blood pressure than any of Imagineering’s releases.

The trapper can be the source of minor frustration in one final way, too. Many ghosts have the ability to pass through walls, and the particle beam can pass through walls to freeze them… but the trap can’t. So you might be able to stun enemies but not capture them, forcing you to take the long way around to snag the spectre.

None of this is game-breaking, but it does make the game a little harder than it need be at times, and collectively it reduces Ghostbusters II from “extremely great” to “pretty great.” That being said: It’s still great regardless! Despite its flaws, Ghostbusters II for Game Boy is a lot of fun. Certainly more so than its NES counterparts.

The game plays out across about a dozen timed stages. The top-down view is a bit Zelda-esque with its forced, three-quarters perspective. You can wander freely within a level in order to find the ghosts you need to trap, many of which don’t manifest until you walk near their hiding places. Once you’ve captured your quota for a stage, you move along to the next. At the end of a section of stages, you fight a boss, ultimately ending with a showdown against Vigo the Carpathian. After boss fights, you get to see little cut scenes that riff on key moments of the film, such as a haunted Statue of Liberty on the march.

It’s a pretty simple game, but the tag-team ghost-capture element turns it into something more involving than a free-roaming Commando clone. Sure, it’s annoying when your trapper gets hung up on stage geometry or something—but on the plus side, it’s great that the stages have enough of interest within each stage to even make this an issue. They could simply be big, boring boxes, but instead they’re crammed with details and fairly involved map layouts.

While the second set of levels, the sewers, is a bit on the sparse side, the first and third worlds take place in a courthouse and a museum, respectively. There, you have to deal with clutter like desks and toppled bookshelves. Navigating each level doesn’t take too long, but you often need to backtrack in order to cause ghosts to appear in spaces you’ve already covered. You’ll find allies throughout each stage. Besides Louis, you also sometimes meet Dana, too—making this perhaps the only video game ever to include Sigourney Weaver as a power-up.

The inactive Ghostbusters also hang around at different spots in each stage, and you can tag-team them into rotation by bumping into them. So far as I can tell, there’s no actual difference in abilities or strength between the different team members; swapping out is strictly a cosmetic choice. However, it’s worth tagging a newcomer in when you find them, because they’ll often provide you with a power-up. These boosts tend to be short-lived, but they can be incredibly valuable.

For example, one item reveals and stuns all ghosts in the level for a brief period, meaning your active character becomes a trapper who can snag any ghost without his companion’s help. Other boosts give you invincibility, a cone-shaped beam that disintegrates ghosts, and even a pickax that can break through walls.

Since boss encounters play as shooter stages rather than as roaming quests, they include a few power-ups unique to those scenes. Boss fights are the only place you’ll encounter heart capsules that restore health, and the only place you’ll encounter W capsules that temporarily allow your trapper to go on the offensive.

The enemies that appear throughout the stages vary in appearance and tactics. Some of them are quite familiar, like the Slimers that pass through walls and lazily drift toward players. Others give a sense of the designers saying “sure, whatever flies is fine,” like the horrible little clowns balancing on balls that have a tendency to pop up in groups and hem players in. These guys tend to not to appear until you’re literally on top of them in later stages, which feels a little unfair—you really have to memorize where ghosts manifest in order to survive.

Especially vexing are the various ghosts that spin around the screen, which include strange cyclopean blobs and haunted dolls. Apparitions can’t be stunned as they spin, so you have to wait for them to come to a halt in order to trap them… which can often take a while, burning up precious time on the clock. 

All in all, though, it’s a charming and mostly fun take on Ghostbusters II. Again, it handily outshines any of the other Ghostbusters movie adaptations to have appeared on Nintendo platforms back in the day, despite some rough spots. The super-deformed versions of Ray, Peter, Egon, and Winston all do a remarkable job of capturing the actors’ likenesses in a few pixels, and the stun-and-trap play mechanics keep things more engrossing than a simple shooter would. Really, the one thing dragging Ghostbusters II down from perfection is the uncertainty of the partner system, which can often be more trouble than it’s worth. It has you constantly thinking, “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to take control.” But then the computer’s like, “I don’t need permission to make my own decisions.” This world is a trip.