Ghostbusters for the Nintendo DS has everything you'd expect from a great Ghostbusters adventure: the Ecto-1's iconic siren, a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man rampage, plenty of smarmy Peter Venkman one-liners, and more scientific spectral lingo than you can shake a proton beam at. Unfortunately, many of the gameplay elements tying these things together are about as solid as the ghosts you spend your time busting. While this action role-playing hybrid certainly improves on the series' poor video game track record, these Ghostbusters probably shouldn't be first on your call list.
Set not long after the second movie, Ghostbusters follows the famous ghoul-trapping pack of entrepreneurs on a new adventure through a haunted New York. The story, penned by the films' writers, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, contains a few memorable moments and chuckle-worthy lines, but it pales in comparison to the first two films. The return of some of the enemies, characters, and locations from the movies feels less like fan service and more like laziness in most cases.
Unlike the console versions, the DS game has you controlling the four original Ghostbusters instead of a nameless new guy. You move your team with the D pad, zap ghosts and whittle down their energy by holding the stylus on them, and then slide out traps with the left shoulder button. Most of the game is played from a top-down perspective, like in the action RPG games Baldur's Gate or Diablo. Ghostbusters borrows more than the camera angle of those games, though: the gameplay and overall structure should be familiar to anyone with hack-and-slash RPG experience. You pick up quests from the station, upgrade your weapons and characters, grab loot from some downed enemies, and even solve a few puzzles. It's a perfect genre for the Ghostbusters, but the execution is flawed.
Most missions are straight out of the action RPG playbook, but instead of killing rats in cellars with a rusty axe, you're zapping ghosts in sewers with a proton beam. These diversions serve as filler between main story missions, which are offered every few in-game days. Tackling these boring tasks is optional, but ignoring them costs you reputation points. If you lose too many reputation points, you lose the game, so you'll have to take on at least a couple of "go there, shoot this" jobs in between the more interesting story missions. The story missions feature more dramatic set pieces, a few simple puzzles, and a bunch of witty banter from the busters. Though they offer more entertainment, the story missions aren't without problems. Some of them require you to split up your ghost-busting team using simple commands (stop or follow), which leaves your allies to rely on their equally simple AI. It can be a pain to switch between your team members to make sure they continue to do what you need them to, especially when their courage meter--an arbitrary bar that measures their bravery--is low, which sends them running around out of control for a few seconds.
Each Ghostbuster has several abilities and skills to upgrade and develop, but you're rarely prompted to do so. To make matters worse, neglecting your level-up duties has little impact on the missions until the last few. Even if you do spring for some extra abilities, activating them requires you to switch to the appropriate team member and press the B button. That sounds easy, but during hectic battles when your team is spread thin and you're scribbling away on the screen, it's far from convenient. You can also have new weapons and gadgets researched and developed using the money and slime earned from missions, but again, you're rarely encouraged to. You could easily finish a number of missions in a row without ever exploring these extra bits (all are accessible by visiting different areas in the station, your main hub), which is a shame because they add some much-needed variety to the game.
Getting to missions involves taking a spin in the Ecto-1 through the dark streets of New York. You're given a small chunk of the city to cruise through, with a map on the top screen showing your target. Occasionally you'll come across a stray ghost you can zap with your mounted turret or a haunted building you can take care of by parking and going inside. The Ecto-1 controls like a radio-controlled car, spinning on a dime and thudding to a halt at the slightest obstacle. You can free-ride it through the streets between missions, but it costs reputation (because you'll be missing missions to do it), and the draw distance is so abysmal that you'll feel like you're driving through dense fog with your lights off. It's best to drive the Ecto-1 only when you have to.
Things can get hectic in a haunted museum, and when they do, you'll find yourself wishing for controls that could keep up. The basic movement and ghost-zapping/trapping controls work well enough, but things start to fall apart when you need to tap on team member's portraits to switch between them. The portraits also have the stop and follow commands on them, and sometimes tapping a portrait switches commands instead of characters. Other times you won't switch characters when you tap but will fire a random burst of protons in their direction.
Adding to the frustration of the picky controls is the top-down view, which does a great job of keeping your team in the center of the screen, but little else. You're constantly bombarded by offscreen ghouls while you frantically trace the outer rims of the touch screen in hopes that you hit something. Making matters worse is an obnoxiously long falling animation. By the time your Ghostbuster gets himself off the ground, he's ready to get hit again. It's extremely frustrating to die without ever getting a chance to move your team out of the line of fire.
If only the gameplay was as good as the graphics. The famous squad has the same stylized look as in the Wii version and looks good here. Aside from the shabby exterior scenery during the Ecto-1 bits, the environments look clean and detailed. There aren't many of them, but the interiors you visit have nice lighting and even have a fair number of destructible objects for you to zap. The effects from your various ghost-snagging weapons are spot-on representations from the films. The twisting streams from the proton packs and the light beams emitting from ghost traps both look great.
The sounds are also quite authentic, from the sizzle of a captured ghost to the mind-numbing Ecto-1 siren. The music, on the other hand, is bland and repetitive, with only a handful of tracks, one of those being the Ghostbusters theme song. At first it's fun to cruise the streets as the song (complete with "Who ya gonna call?" lyrics) blares through the speakers, but it quickly gets old. Have you ever gotten out of the car listening to a song on the radio and come back later to find that same song playing again? That's what it's like to drive the Ecto-1. Every single time you drive the car you'll be treated to another round of "Ghostbusters!" Mercifully, the developers seemed to know this would get annoying, because you can turn off the song by hitting the select button.
Ghostbusters has some fun moments--zapping and trapping ghosts is a blast when it works right--but those moments are few and far between. Compared to the Ghostbusters games that came out around the same time as the movie, this game is great, but so is a burned steak compared to rotten meat. There are some great concepts and interesting mechanics here, but you have to chew through a lot of gristle to find them.