It's said that Activision Blizzard passed on Ghostbusters - as it was rummaging through the contents of Sierra's drawers, post-merger - because it didn't see the potential to develop this vintage, one-off film licence into an annual series, the way it can with, say, James Bond. It's probably for the best: the callous super-spy and the wise-cracking paranormal investigators are very different kinds of icons.
Bond is pure high-concept, and has already survived countless incarnations and decades of heedless prostitution because he boils down to something so simple and inviolable - man drives, shoots, beds, wears suit - that it might always work next time. You churn out the films and the games and the novels for kids and the novels for grown-ups because the next one might always be another Live And Let Die, or GoldenEye 64, or Casino Royale (and this year's Bizarre-made Bond racer just might make that grade). And if it's not, it doesn't matter, because people will forget it instantly.
The Ghostbusters, on the other hand, are more mercurial. Their appeal is about the car and the getup and the theme tune and the logo too, for sure. But it's also about the chemistry between four comedy actors now in late middle-age, a certain style of writing, a particular city in a particular era, a dose of nostalgia, a pinch of PG-rated naughtiness. The fact the legend has been left virtually untouched since the dawn of the 1990s in any form (we don't talk about Extreme Ghostbusters) is telling, and daunting. This one needs handling with extreme care.
That said, the reborn Atari certainly wasn't about to look a gift ghoul in the mouth as it hustled its way back into the game. So we still get Ghostbusters, and developer Terminal Reality gets an extra six months to make sure it lives up to the burden of the "true sequel" hype heaped on its shoulders (and only slightly lifted by the announcement that a third film script is in the works). Just as well; on the evidence of a viewing late last year, the basics were right, but the presentation had some way to go.
Set two years after Ghostbusters II, in 1991, the game casts the player as a nameless and somewhat faceless fifth Ghostbuster drafted in as an experimental weapons technician - a guinea pig for Ray and Egon's latest gadgets, in other words. Things have moved on; the spectral investigators now operate with the authority of the city of New York, and stuffy bureaucratic foil Walter Peck has ended up their overseer, resulting in a neat running gag where he gets the bill for your collateral damage (which will be copious and encouraged, thanks to Terminal Reality's in-house physics tech).
The Peck set-up is a perfect example of how Ghostbusters: The Video Game is getting it right. So is the focus on the equipment, with the PKE meter a perfect all-in-one device for hints and exposition, the streams serving up the rhythmic push-pull combat - you need to slam ghosts into the environment to weaken them enough to trap - and the new inventions seeming to avoid rote ectoplasmic makeovers of standard videogame weaponry. We liked the Slime Tether, a retractable elastic harpoon you can use to manipulate objects and restrain enemies. Equipment upgrades can be bought with money earned for trapping ghosts, or unlocked as you move through the game.
Half an hour with PS3 code takes us through one third of the Library mission (the full game length is estimated about 10-12 hours "at a good pace") and showcases the game's action side; bizarre equipment and combat mechanics aside, this is very much your third-person buddy shooter, with two or three AI (i.e. famous) Ghostbusters accompanying you and needing to be revived if they take a fall (and vice versa). Golems are summoned from the environment - books, coal - and can be often be defeated by using what conveniently comes to hand (barrels of water for the flaming coal golems, for example).
At the end, there's a mini-boss encounter with the librarian ghost familiar from the film, and an eyeful of the parallel dimension previously only glimpsed in Sigourney Weaver's fridge. Terminal Reality clearly isn't going to miss any opportunities to evoke the films - the first one in particular, naturally.
We're promised more varied interactions, puzzles and environmental business across the sweep of the game; we wouldn't expect any of it to be any more or less standard, middle-of-the-road action-adventure fodder than the combat we see. But that's okay. Ghostbusters doesn't need to be a mechanically revolutionary videogame; it needs to be Ghostbusters.
It's all about the periphery, the storytelling, the touches, and as we've said, some are note-perfect - but some fall flat. The bland player-character, for one, sits uncomfortably with this famed gallery of eccentrics. Retaining the original cast to voice the game is a big plus, but the banter, in-game instructions and cut-scenes we saw were halting, lumpy and not at all reassuring.
You might just get away with Harold Ramis' monotone performance on character grounds - especially with Dan Aykroyd enthusiastically covering for him - but Murray's voice work has, worryingly, yet to be heard. At least Terminal Reality knows and admits that the facial animations, sound mix and pacing need attention (they really do), and that's what it's spending most of the Atari extension working on.
We're shown the Wii version of the game separately - it's being made by Mushroom Men developer Red Fly, and ported to PS2 to flesh out a full-frontal format attack. Although it shares the script, story and voice work of the lead version, it's a fairly different game, with clean, attractive cartoon graphics (thankfully a little more faithful than the Real Ghostbusters - Egon isn't blonde) that are arguably easier on the eye than the extremely hard detail of the 360, PS3 and PC game. There certainly aren't any trips into the uncanny valley for these toons, anyway.
It's still a third-person action romp with AI squad mates, but the level and enemy designs have been re-drawn around the Wii's capabilities. With an over-the-shoulder view, the pointer is used to move the camera, aim and lock, and flicks of the remote to slam ghosts around in the streamer battles; a natural fit, and the Slimer encounter we see looks spectacular and seems to work well. Throwing traps with a toss of the nunchuk is a bit more of a needless novelty, but overall, this is just as solid a prospect as its big brother.
In fact, in one respect it's better; a split-screen co-op option covering the entire campaign is offered on this version, but not on Terminal Reality's game. In its place is a currently mysterious co-operative/competitive multiplayer mode that will consist of short scenarios and play out, Terminal Reality says, something like the montages in the film. Finally, a DS game with the resource-management aspects of the original 8-bit spin-off is also mentioned, but we don't get to see it.
There's nothing to suggest that Ghostbusters will be bad videogame in any of its forms, even if there's nothing to suggest that it will be a particularly distinguished one, either. But the only thing that matters - not just to Atari and Terminal Reality and the fans, but quite possibly to the chances of that third movie getting made, since you can be sure that Columbia will be watching this game like a hawk - is whether or not it's good Ghostbusters. On that, we're not quite convinced - yet.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game is due out for PS3, 360, PC, Wii, PS2 and DS on 19th June.