Rule of Three: Ghostbusters II (1989)

In the case of Ghostbusters II, there’s no debating whether or not it’s better than the original. Of course it isn’t; Ghostbusters was a once-in-a-lifetime bolt of comic perfection. Whatever followed it up would have been at least a step down. The more salient question here is, is Ghostbusters II any good at all?

My answer to that is fairly complex.

At some point in college I began to reappraise the things I loved as a child. In many cases, what I loved held up, or seemed even better as an adult. For an example of that, see Ghostbusters. In other cases, of course, I felt disappointed or embarrassed by something I used to love. For an example of that, see Ghostbusters II.

As a child, I believed fully that Ghostbusters II was better than the original. Looking back, it’s fairly easy to see why. It’s sillier. There’s more action in it. There are more ghosts. My critical faculties weren’t developed at age eight, when I saw Ghostbusters II in theaters.

I loved it. I vividly remember coming home from the movie and spending the rest of that weekend drawing a comic book version, so that I could remember everything that happened. (I’m sure it was deeply inaccurate, and I wish I still had it.)

We got a copy of the VHS when that was released, and it was in constant rotation. Perhaps even moreso than the original. Then, of course, I grew up. Time passed. I read some great books. I wrote some bad ones. I began to see the difference between films that worked and films that didn’t quite. When I cycled my way back around to Ghostbusters II, it didn’t quite.

I had a similar experience with Back to the Future II. As a kid, it was unanimous among my friends that Back to the Future II was far superior to the original. (Nobody — repeat, nobody — liked Back to the Future III.) Again, it makes sense. It’s sillier. There are more special effects. And certainly more children dreamed of a thrilling, science fiction future than yearned for the quaint, small-town America of the 1950s.

The sequels to Ghostbusters and Back to the Future gave us more of what we wanted and, probably, gave our parents less of what they wanted. Therefore, they were better.

Rewatching Ghostbusters II as an adult was difficult. It was nowhere near as clever or interesting as the first film. It wasn’t as funny, though it had its moments. The big setpieces seemed cheap and obligatory as opposed to fresh and exciting. The improvisational feel of the original was replaced by performances that felt static and over-rehearsed.

I didn’t like it. I felt ashamed that I had ever liked it, and that I hadn’t recognized what an appalling drop in quality it represented when compared to the first.

So I filed that away, and didn’t watch Ghostbusters II again. Ever.

Until now, for this series, around 15 years later.

And, you know what? My opinion has changed again. It’s actually not a bad film. Not nearly. It’s certainly no Ghostbusters, but it’s also no Back to the Future III.

The fact that this film is so much weaker than the original isn’t easy to explain. All of the major characters return, played by the same actors. Director Ivan Reitman returns. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis wrote the script again. (Though, this time, Ramis is credited first.) Even editor Sheldon Kahn returned. The ingredients were all there, so why does it fall so obviously short?

Ultimately, I think it’s just the fact that a sequel wasn’t planned. There was no story to tell, and therefore no compelling desire to tell it.

In the years since Ghostbusters won over global audiences, the brand only continued to grow. We talked last time about the merchandise, the cartoon, the toys, the foodstuffs…Ghostbusters was making a lot of money for everyone who had a stake in it.

And so, inevitably, Columbia Pictures wanted more. Aykroyd, Ramis, and Reitman were reluctant. They evidently felt that the first film was self-contained and there was nowhere left to go from there. That surprises me, as Ghostbusters‘ ending just sort of happens without any real feeling of closure. Again, this suggests to me that the creative team felt that Gozer actually was the important thing about that film.

I’d disagree. The film was about the Ghostbusters — those specific characters, who they were, what they wanted — and you could theoretically do any number of films about them. Introduce a different threat each time to spice things up, get some talented folks in to dream up new ghost designs, invent some new gizmos for the boys to play with, and off you go. I’m not saying that that would have been a wise thing to do, but it was certainly possible, and to believe Ghostbusters was impossible to follow up…well, that’s very strange to me.

I don’t know precisely why the team decided to cave to Columbia’s wishes, or rather I don’t know how many zeroes the reason had. But, of course, they did. They didn’t make another film because they had an idea they were desperate to get on screen; they made another film because that would make all of them a lot more money.

And so they wrote a new script and made a new film, and while it’s unquestionably the lesser one, it’s also not half bad. This time I not only went in expecting to dislike it; I wanted to dislike it, so that I could write a bunch of catty jokes for myself in this review. Sadly, you’ll have to deal with me engaging with the film respectfully and with a moderate degree of intelligence.

The opening of Ghostbusters II works damned well as an immediate followup to the end of the first film. There’s a 5 YEARS LATER caption, which strikes me as unnecessary, but otherwise the point at which the film opens lands as its own kind of joke.

Toward the end of the first film, there was an incredibly funny juxtaposition. We see the Ghostbusters arriving at Dana’s building to eliminate the nefarious Gozer and rid New York City of supernatural infestation once and for all. The streets are filled with adoring fans who cheer them on, who throng against police barricades to get as close as possible, who scream and cry with love. Peter works the crowd. The boys are heroes. The music swells…

…then we cut immediately to four out-of-breath men climbing twenty-one flights of stairs. They’re groaning and sweating. Peter says he’s going to throw up.

It’s perfect. It’s an absolutely perfect joke told in the absolute perfect way.

Ghostbusters II represents the same kind of cut. The first film ends with universal Ghostbuster adoration…then we cut to four aging, washed up men who will do whatever they need to do to make a buck. The illusion is shattered. They may or may not be heroes, but they’re certainly human.

That joke lands, too. But, you know, with a five-year gap between films, it’s not going to feel nearly as punchy.

We catch up with the guys more or less individually. They no longer work together, thanks to a judicial restraining order that “strictly forbids them from performing services as paranormal investigators or eliminators.” According to Peter, the city also stiffed them on the bill for their services in the first film. Though the Ghostbusters keep in touch, they all work to stay afloat in their own ways.

Egon seems to be doing the best of them. He conducts experiments at the Institute for Advanced Theoretical Research, where he has a well-stocked lab, a capable staff, and sweet, sweet funding. Peter embraces his inner gameshow host by headlining World of the Psychic, an interview show that provides a platform for frauds and lunatics to promote their books. (We only see one scene from the show, but I have it on reliable authority that it’s just about as good as Bass Masters.)

Ray has an occult bookstore, which may or may not be keeping him in groceries as he also performs at birthday parties with Winston for whatever desperate parents are willing to pay. Winston ceases to exist when the camera is off him.

The birthday party sequence is one of my favorites, and I love how deliberately it misrepresents the actual popularity of the Ghostbusters. In the real world, Ghostbusters as a brand was still very popular five years after the initial film, with the cartoon spinoff and tie-in products keeping children interested. Parents may certainly have been tired of the Ghostbusters — everything between the first and second film was pitched directly at their kids — but youngsters weren’t.

This sequence shows us a surprising inverse of their popularity in our world, as the kids here can’t stand them. They aren’t interested in the Ghostbusters, and they call out for He-Man instead. (In fairness, He-Man was also riding high at the time in reality.) They roll their eyes when Ray and Winston try to get the kids to sing along to their theme song. Eventually they are ridiculed into shutting down their performance altogether.

Ramis and Aykroyd can’t have been ignorant of the fact that kids could not get enough of the Ghostbusters. (Peter’s desperate claim, “The kids love us!” in the first film was remarkably prescient.) And I have distinct memories of Ghostbuster impersonators showing up to my friends’ actual birthday parties. We thought it was great. Why wouldn’t we? We recognized the uniform and the props, and though the guy dancing around was only pretending to be a Ghostbuster, well, that’s all we ever did, so what was the problem?

The film plays with the franchise’s own popularity and mocks it. This isn’t a world that got sick of Ghostbusters impersonators and toys and cartoons; this is a world that got sick of the actual Ghostbusters. Even now, though, in my 30s, I have to admit I’m jealous of the kids in this scene. I can’t imagine how excited they must have been not only to meet at least two actual Ghostbusters — in full regalia! — but to appear in the sequel. They do a fine job pretending to hate every second of it, but clearly we know better.

In fact, Ghostbusters II butts up against the idea of serving as an elaborate meta joke throughout, and I wish they did more with it, whether turning it into a proper runner or working it somehow into the plot. We’ll talk more about it in a while, but since it doesn’t make sense for anyone in New York City to not believe in ghosts, maybe the plot should instead involve the city giving its attention to a different set of fraudulent ghost hunters. Ones who claim they can do the job better and for less money than our heroes. Maybe they’re younger and more attractive. Toward the end, the real Ghostbusters have to show up and bail everyone out of trouble.

Much of the film could even play out the same way. Instead of the mayor and company knowingly ignoring the signs of coming trouble, as they do here, they instead ignore the Ghostbusters and their warnings because they have a new group of specialists working on it. You could even have the kids at the party call out for them instead of the irrelevant He-Man.

The meta joke is far from sustained, but we do get some fun with the original film’s legacy and merchandising. In the latest incarnation of the Ghostbusters commercial, Egon hawks a Ghostbusters “hot beverage thermal mug, and free balloons for the kids.” The theme song by Ray Parker Jr. — a number-one Billboard hit in real life — is revealed to exist in this universe as well, presumably written in response to their Gozer-stomping exploits. Janine steps on the franchise’s tagline with a stilted, “Who are you going to call?”

It’s fun, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Instead, the film’s plot is an extraordinarily straightforward one. Vigo the Carpathian, a demonic sixteenth century ruler, wants a child so that he can be reincarnated. He convinces someone to help him get that child, and the Ghostbusters stop Vigo before he can reincarnate.

I’m not skipping plot points there. I’m glossing over details, but I’m not leaving anything major out. This represents a heck of a change from the complex, meandering backstory of the first film, which included important events across several centuries and a number of crucial characters we never meet or hear much about. Here, it really is as simple as I put it. A bad guy wants to be reborn and needs a baby. The Ghostbusters beat him and save the kid.

I like that. I don’t necessarily think it’s an improvement on the first film in itself, but I’m certainly a fan of plots that can actually be understood by a general audience. What you do with that plot is up to you, but there’s a definite appeal to a story that’s simple at its core. I do, however, think that’s another sign that this isn’t exactly a story the team was eager to tell. We’ve seen how deep and complicated a story like that would be. This is a story that gets whipped together out of necessity. Pick a bad guy, pick a motivation, and go beat him up.

As I said last week, though, I don’t care much about the plot. It’s not what keeps me watching or what resonates with me. It doesn’t even interest me. What I care about is the interaction between the characters. The dialogue. The writing and delivery.

And, honestly, that’s where Ghostbusters II is at its weakest. The original film had a shaggy, improvisational feel. From what I understand, Bill Murray actually did improvise a number of his lines and reactions, but the entire movie feels that way. The characters aren’t just saying what the script tells them to say; they’re saying what they should say in the moment. It makes them feel real. Their quips are clever, Peter’s especially, but they don’t feel like they’re coming from cue cards held by a production crew just out of frame.

Ghostbusters II feels exactly that way. Everybody does seem to be repeating lines they’ve memorized. They feel too rehearsed. Too practiced. Perhaps part of the reason for that is that Ghostbusters came together piece by piece, without anyone really knowing what the movie would look like or be like (or who it would even star) until they were making it. They really did have to fly by the seat of their pants, and that bled into the performances in a thrilling way. Ghostbusters II, by contrast, would have had all of those questions answered before it was even a concept. The template was laid down, and now it was just a matter of filling it in.

This film has a number of funny lines and moments, but nothing that even comes close to a throwaway in the first film like, “You’re right; no human being would stack books like this.” “You’re named after a hot dog, you poor man” is simply no substitute. In that movie, Peter said what came to mind. In this one, Murray says what Ramis and Aykroyd told him to say.

In one clear parallel, there’s a line from Ray that appears in both films. In the first one, he finds Peter after the latter has been slimed in a hotel corridor. Ray exclaims, “That’s great!” Then, several moments later, he actually checks to see whether or not his friend is okay. In the second film, Ray exclaims, “That’s great!” again, this time when learning that Dana’s bathtub tried to eat her. He catches himself and explains what he means by that. Same line in the same context of the same basic joke. But the first feels natural and organic to the situation. The second feels manufactured. The seams are showing.

And, of course, the performances aren’t the only place we can see the seams. There’s also the basic premise of the film, which relies on a massive cheat only so that the template established by the original film could work again.

See, in that movie, the Ghostbusters performed their paranormal investigations, getting closer and closer to understanding an immediate and massive threat to humanity, centralized in New York City. Skeptical Peck, seemingly just for the sake of being an asshole, interferes with their work and has them arrested, which allows the danger to grow unchecked. The mayor, in the throes of desperation, frees the Ghostbusters and our heroes stomp out the threat.

That’s also exactly the way Ghostbusters II plays out. Just substitute Hardemeyer for Peck and “committed” for “arrested.” Again, fill in the blanks.

I’m not thrilled that they stole their own template for the sequel, but I can understand the appeal (or maybe even necessity) of doing so. What I can’t understand is why they didn’t seem to realize the massive logistical hole at the center.

See, here, five years after the close of the first film, disbelief in ghosts is no longer an option. There can be no skeptics. Folks have every right to doubt specific reports of sightings, or something, and to have their own theories about where ghosts come from or what they want, but people can’t outright reject the existence of ghosts as they were able to at the start of the first film.

Winston explains this in Ghostbusters. “I’ve only been with the company for a couple of weeks,” he said, “but I’ve got to tell you, these things are real. Since I joined these men, I’ve seen shit that’ll turn you white.” Seeing is believing. He joined the team for a paycheck, but once he sees ghosts with his own two eyes, he’s a convert.

By the end of that film, the entire City of New York — as well as the larger media, which we see has been following the Ghostbusters’ exploits — must also convert.

Period. End of story.

There may be some crackpots who conjure up a conspiracy theory instead, or somebody on a remote island without television service who refuses to believe written accounts, but, on the whole, the existence of ghosts has been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt.

There can no longer be skeptics. You don’t get to witness ghosts pouring through the city and interacting with people and objects and then go home and wonder if ghosts even exist. You don’t get to watch a 100-foot marshmallow man waddle through city streets, crushing buildings, climbing a skyscraper and leaving behind gallons of fluff and then question the existence of the supernatural. Everybody may have their own perspective on these events, but that perspective must necessarily include the existence of ghosts.

It would be like meeting Bigfoot. You have every right to not believe in him until the moment you meet him face to face. You see him. You interact with him. Maybe you fight him or become friends with him. It doesn’t matter, but the point is, you have a direct, first-hand account of the existence of Bigfoot.

What’s more, that encounter was witnessed by tens of thousands of spectators. It was covered extensively by the media. There is unquestionably video footage and photographs of the event. And, what’s more, if you went back to that site the next day, you’d find physical evidence everywhere. Mountains of Bigfoot hair, or maybe your initials and Bigfoot’s in a heart that you watched him carve into a tree.

You can’t have been dreaming. It’s impossible. There were too many witnesses and there’s too much evidence. You don’t get to say you don’t believe in Bigfoot. It would require so much in the way of mental gymnastics that, without trying to be offensive in the slightest, I believe continuing disbelief would qualify as mental illness.

Ghostbusters II, however, is full of skeptics. The most overt one is the judge who presides over the Ghostbusters’ case near the beginning of the film. He opens with this monologue: “The law does not recognize the existence of ghosts. I don’t believe in them either. I don’t want to hear a lot of malarkey about goblins and spooks and demons. We’re going to stick to the facts in this case and leave the ghost stories to the kiddies. Understood?”

And, frankly, he doesn’t get to do that. He was here for Gozer. We aren’t explicitly told how old the judge is, but I think it’s safe to say he’s older than five. It’s possible he moved to New York City within the past couple of years and wasn’t around for the fireworks, but surely he’s seen the stories in the press. Or he’s spoken to somebody who was there. Or he’s seen the repair work and cleanup crews.

Instead he, like many other characters in the film, doesn’t believe in ghosts. And that’s not okay. Anyone who expresses that opinion should clearly be confronted about it. They are wrong. Demonstrably, provably wrong.

It’s doubly frustrating in this scene, because the judge doesn’t have to be a supernatural skeptic to condemn the Ghostbusters. Ramis and Aykroyd rely on his disbelief in ghosts to get him fired up against the boys, but he already has a serious criminal charge to focus on: the Ghostbusters illegally drilled a hole in the middle of First Avenue and unintentionally cased a massive blackout. The judge can believe in ghosts — as he must — and still find the Ghostbusters guilty for the actual crime they committed. So why make him a skeptic?

It’s jarring and unnecessary. He has every right to be pissed at them for the crime they actually committed, but instead he gets upset because they believe in ghosts and he doesn’t. It makes no sense.

I’ve danced something a few times, but I might as well bring it up directly.

In the years since Ghostbusters II, New York City experienced an enormous, unexpected tragedy in the form of 9/11. As in Ghostbusters, the skyline was forever changed. As in Ghostbusters, throngs of spectators watched the carnage unfold. As in Ghostbusters, there was extensive press coverage that continued for years. In fact, the topic is still a common one, and understandably so.

I realize it might seem disrespectful to compare a real-life tragedy to the events of a sci-fi comedy. However, Ghostbusters II aims to show us the aftermath of New York tragedy, and reality has just so happened to show us exactly how it would go. In fact, if Ghostbusters II were released any time after 2001, with no changes whatsoever, and especially with its “come together in fellowship to defeat the negativity” ending, it would be impossible to read the film as anything except an allegory for 9/11.

And so you have fringe lunatics who may believe that 9/11 didn’t happen, sure, but they aren’t judges and assistants to the mayor. Can you even imagine someone holding public office in New York who was vocal about his belief that the tragedy at the World Trade Center never happened?

Those towers coming down affected everybody. There were those who were directly involved, whether as responders or victims. There were others who knew those involved, who panicked deeply because there was no way of knowing whether or not they were alive. There were others who were another degree removed…knowing somebody who knew somebody who was in the area. To this day we are screened more and more thoroughly in airports, to the point that a genuine argument can be made for the screening being invasive. (I have no criminal record whatsoever and have followed the rules at airports exactly the same way as I do everywhere else: to the letter. I’ve also been selected more than once to disrobe for a thorough search. I’ve had my genitals patted by gate agents. Why? They don’t have to tell me. And in my case, I can say for sure that it’s only because they decided to. If that is not invasive, I don’t know what is.)

Things changed. For a while, everything changed. For a while, it’s all anybody could talk about, and understandably so. For a while, it redefined the way we saw the world, our fears, our reactions to benign stimuli, such as the sound of a plane overhead.

That was 9/11. A real-life event committed by human beings.

Now imagine how much more it would be discussed, and for how much longer a period, if 9/11 were provably committed by ghosts. Think of how much more we would have to process the event. How much more would be thrown open to redefinition. How much more the world would have to change.

Ghostbusters II, coming long before 9/11, doesn’t realize this. It thinks that five years — or less — is plenty of time for an entire city to forget its common disaster. In the real world, we’re far from forgetting it seventeen years later.

The judge is also one of our first indications that the supporting characters no longer feel so gloriously real and human as they did in the first film. They’re cartoony here, and far less interesting and memorable for it. The judge pulls faces and rises up dramatically as he sentences the Ghostbusters. Janosz — played by Peter MacNicol, who we know can do much better work with cartoony characters than he does here — is too large a caricature to register as menacing, let alone interesting. Peter’s talk show guests are played explicitly for laughs and don’t feel anywhere near as real or relatable as his test subjects in the first film. All of this goes a long way toward making New York City in this film feel further removed from reality.

Even Janine becomes literally more of a cartoon, as she’s given a new appearance that’s closer to the Real Ghostbusters incarnation of the character. And, again, as a result she’s far less interesting and might as well be a different character altogether.

This is by no means a strike against Annie Potts, who is still very funny. It’s just that we got to know her as the type of crusty receptionist we might have to square off against at the DMV, and now, suddenly, she seems more like a naive art student. I’ll admit that this is truer to Potts’ actual age, but it’s strange seeing the same character played by the same actor in such a drastically different way. (I’ll be irrelevantly honest here, though, and say that Potts is cute as all hell in this incarnation.)

I will throw some props to the old man at the museum who is excited to meet Peter and expounds on his love of Bass Masters (“It’s a fishing show!”), because he feels very real to me, and he’s amusing enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with any supporting character from the first film.

Ghostbusters II is also chock full of solid ideas that don’t go anywhere, and moments that should feel inventive but instead feel empty and soulless. The slime blasters, for instance, are a nice way to avoid leaning on the first film’s proton packs, but they don’t really do anything. The boys spray them at some walls inside the Statue of Liberty, and then they hose down a prancing Janosz.

At one point Vigo seems to imprint upon Ray in the same way he imprints upon Janosz, which is genuinely unnerving and well-played by Aykroyd. But that also goes nowhere. Toward the end of the film it comes into play, admittedly, but only for a few seconds, and it doesn’t hinder the Ghostbusters taking down the villain in any way.

And the ghosts in general aren’t as interesting or creative as they were in the first film. There we encountered all kinds of ghosts that didn’t seem anything alike. Slimer, the librarian, the undead cabbie…they all felt very distinct in their design and their portrayal. Here, the equivalent ghosts wreaking equivalent havoc are just…there. The Scoleri brothers admittedly look pretty cool, but outside of them the ghosts are just differently colored and sized translucent blobs. It’s a massive failure of imagination.

And, hey, as long as we’re complaining: is Egon actually having sex with the slime? Or is that just some kind of brotherly ribbing I’m not privy to? He doesn’t say no, which concerns me. I can understand Peter joking about the possibility, but I can’t understand Egon sticking his dick into a bowl of ectoplasm.

But, hey, didn’t I say this movie was actually pretty good?

I did! And I stand by that, even if it is worth pointing out many of the reasons it has earned its dour reputation. It does falter. It is weaker. It is often absolutely stupid.

But it’s still a lot of fun. It’s not as funny or as interesting or as clever as the first one, but it’s a feel-good film. A comfort film. One you can turn on and be passively amused by without having to give it your full attention. As Father Crilly might put it, it’s chewing gum for the eyes.

And that’s okay. There’s nothing at all wrong with a movie that is only entertaining.

This time around, I went into Ghostbusters II expecting to enjoy one or two standout moments. Instead, I actually found a lot to like.

I like that Egon’s experiments about human emotions affecting the physical environment tie into the “mood slime” later. It makes his quick understanding of the slime feel like less of a contrivance. He’s already tested the theory; he’s primed to make the connection.

The slime itself is a great motif (and also seems to draw on the popularity of the cartoon series and the toys, which featured slime extensively), and it makes for some truly great visuals. I also like that it works as social commentary, with the New York City setting already being perfect for a plot about negative energy.

I like that we get more Winston, as he’s a member of the team from the start, and that Ernie Hudson gets more to do. I like the “Do-Re-Egon” bit because come on how can anybody not?

I really like the dancing toaster, which is one of film’s most memorable moments to me, and expertly turns plot exposition into visual spectacle. (It also inextricably linked “Higher and Higher” to this film for me, just as “Tequila” is permanently associated with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.)

I like Peter playing Dana’s cello as a bass guitar. I like his interactions with baby Oscar, which feel warm and genuine, and represent a believable evolution for the immature womanizer we met in the first film. I like that Janine zips Louis into Egon’s uniform, a great visual for the way he’s supplanted the previous object of her affections.

I adore Aykroyd’s childlike excitement when he finds Peter and Dana in the fancy restaurant, and his gesticulating launches slime onto another diner. It’s one of the few moments in which the character feels real again, and it works perfectly as both characterization and an unexpected visual gag.

And so I end this review where I began it: conflicted.

I expected to unload on Ghostbusters II. I expected to break it down, paragraph by paragraph, explaining why almost nothing works. I expected to feel embarrassed all over again by the fact that I ever enjoyed it.

But all it did this time was convince me that it’s worth shutting your mind off every so often. When I rewatched this in college, I was so distracted by its bad decisions that I didn’t acknowledge its good ones. Now, expecting those bad decisions, I was able to shift my focus elsewhere. To the lines and moments that work. To the dancing toasters that remind you that it’s okay to just have fun sometimes. To the sheer, unavoidable joy of seeing the team back in uniform, even if their second outing is nowhere near as good as their first.

But that was also the last time we’d see them in uniform. We never got a Ghostbusters III, though Aykroyd evidently did have a concept for it. (This was cannibalized to some degree for a video game in 2009, which saw the cast reunite for voice acting duties.)

Of course, where there’s money to be made, there’s somebody interested in making it. Columbia Pictures didn’t make quite as much money on Ghostbusters II (it had a slightly larger budget and pulled in a bit less than the original) but the film was certainly a financial success. Columbia wanted a third.

In 2016, they got that third, with an all-new cast and creative team behind it.

Only this time, it starred some women.

Join me next week, when I’ll cover the most idiotic controversy in modern history.

Rule of Three: Ghostbusters (1984)

It’s interesting to note that just a couple of years ago, “I like Ghostbusters” would be about as benign (and common) a statement as one could possibly imagine. Now it’s fraught with inference, with baggage, and with controversy.

That’s because, until very recently, the word “Ghostbusters” meant a movie. Or maybe that movie and its sequel. Or maybe some toys. Or maybe a spinoff cartoon. With the release of a gender-swapped third film, however, the conversation shifted embarrassingly. This is to say nothing about that third film’s quality, or merits, or actual issues. It’s just to say that prior to that film’s release (or, I suppose, announcement), a conversation about Ghostbusters went one way. Now it inevitably goes another.

We’ll waddle into that whole minefield later, but I bring it up here because, at some point, the new film’s fallout seemed to taint the original’s reputation. Not in any substantial or successful way, but once the rebooted Ghostbusters started receiving mixed reviews and less-than-stellar box office returns, a number of its defenders deflected.

“It’s not like the original was all that great anyway,” they suggested. One film critic that I otherwise respect (and who I’m choosing not to link to, lest this be seen as a kind of bullying) even resorted to cheap snark to say that people were looking back far too fondly on a glorified toy commercial in which Dan Aykroyd gets fellated by a ghost. (In the frantic rush to be within the first fifty thousand people to make that observation, I guess, he managed to get every detail in it wrong.)

This was odd to me. Of course, I’m somebody who refuses to believe that a subpar sequel, remake, or adaptation dispels the magic of the original. Arrested Development season four was awful, but it doesn’t change the amount of respect I have for seasons one through three. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a thoroughly worthless re-adaptation of a classic, but the version starring Gene Wilder is no less available for its existence. And I have an entire series dedicated to celebrating both halves of the novel-into-film equation, however successful or not the process was.

I’m used to keeping my opinion of one thing separate from another, however closely those two things might be related. In fact, I don’t even find it that difficult. The prequels didn’t ruin the original trilogy; they just crammed a bunch of unwelcome shit into the lore. Big deal.

In this case, though, folks were actively trying to tarnish the original, and I don’t get it. Likely there was some element of bitterness there, and I can understand that, to some degree. When you enjoy something so many others vocally do not, it’s easy to feel alone. But to then try to tear down something that they enjoy…well, that’s not an especially admirable response.

Especially when it’s outright false. I watched Ghostbusters repeatedly as a child, and have seen it many times as an adult as well. I rewatched it this very afternoon so that I could write this article, and I can say that it’s an excellent movie. It’s funny. It’s clever. It’s profoundly well-acted. It was deservedly popular and massively influential. For my money, there hasn’t been another sci-fi comedy that holds a candle to this one. (Though Back to the Future is almost certainly the closest.)

Trying to sully the reputation of Ghostbusters is something that, quite simply, isn’t worth the effort. You’ll have no chance of succeeding, and you’ll only look foolish by trying to point at and mock something that’s actually damned good. Every one of us grew up loving something that by no means stands up to the scrutiny of adult eyes. Ghostbusters, though, isn’t one of those things.

It’s probably difficult to imagine just how big this movie was if you weren’t there to experience it. I was three when it was released, but Ghostbusters (or “Ghost Busters,” as it’s oddly spelled on the title screen and seemingly nowhere else) remained a huge presence throughout my entire childhood.

We played with the toys, watched the cartoon, drank the Hi-C. We played the terrible video games. We rewatched this movie and its sequel endlessly. We pretended we were the Ghostbusters on the school yard. I don’t remember what ghosts we thought we were busting, but I do remember that I was always Egon. If our friend Jen was around, she had to be Janine. We never had a Winston.

The fact that a film released in 1984 would retain its relevance and staying power through a good portion of the 90s isn’t unprecedented, but it is exceedingly rare. Ghostbusters took everybody by surprise, though. The movie about some goobers from Saturday Night Live saving the world from a Sumerian god was actually…good. Critics enjoyed it. The public loved it. It pulled in around ten times its $30 million budget.

Nobody knew what to expect of Ghostbusters, but once it caught on, there was no doubting its impact. As Peter Venkman put it, “The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams.”

In fact, much of the film seems to reflect its own history and reputation. Coincidentally, I’m sure, but Ghostbusters for long stretches works almost as an allegory for its own creation.

In the film, Ray Stantz puts a third mortgage on his house to get the Ghostbusters off the ground. Throughout the movie, money is an issue, with a take-out Chinese meal representing “the last of the petty cash.” But the team keeps plugging away at their dream, believing in themselves when literally nobody else will. By the end of the film, crowds of fans are chanting their names, crying out for their attention, and hawking bootleg Ghostbusters t-shirts. The seemingly foolish investment up front pays for itself (at least) ten times over.

Then there’s the team itself, which seems to come together out of happenstance. Peter, Ray, and Egon are academic colleagues who all find themselves suddenly without funding and unemployed. They don’t start the Ghostbusters because they want to, but because they have nothing else to do and might as well. They find a secretary, Janine, because she’s the only one who can put with them. They hire Winston Zeddemore because he needs a paycheck at exactly the same time they need another set of hands.

The way the team grows and expands out of necessity mirrors, just about, the way roles were originally written for other actors. John Belushi, John Candy, Paul Reubens, and, according to some sources, Eddie Murphy. Even the way they build themselves up as a brand –- with a firehouse headquarters that, according to Egon, “should be condemned” and a secondhand ambulance that barely runs –- reflects the way the Ghostbusters script was rewritten: a legend was born of budgetary constraints.

Aykroyd, who would go on to play Ray, wrote the original script on his own. At some point, Harold Ramis, who would go on to play Egon, made it clear that the script as written was far too ambitious and expensive for any studio to actually film. (Which makes Ramis seem, amusingly, like the same kind of cold logistician Egon is.) Together, Aykroyd and Ramis rewrote it. Aykroyd is an enormously talented and very funny man, but I think it’s safe to say that we only know and remember Ghostbusters today because Ramis got involved.

I don’t know if Aykroyd’s original script has ever surfaced, but it evidently involved the Ghostbusters traveling through time and around the world to battle some kind of massive paranormal force. Maybe it would have been great, but Ramis reined him in, restricting the entire plot to the city of New York, relegating the elaborate, centuries-spanning supernatural context to a few bits of spoken backstory, and spending time, instead, on the far-less-expensive interaction between characters.

Logistics are often a great curator. If you can’t actually film your original idea, you have to ask yourself what you can do instead, and what might actually work better. You’re essentially forced to come up with a stronger concept. Aykroyd and Ramis certainly did, and the final film balances the fantastic and the practical beautifully.

It also balances a humorous approach with a human one. There are jokes in the movies — and great ones — but not reality-breaking sight gags or slapstick. The jokes work in tandem with the narrative of the film, and the characterization, rather than serving as intermissions from it. Both aspects work together. It’s a comedy, and it’s a sci-fi film. It works either way, but neither half would work anywhere near as well without the other.

This succeeds, to be blunt about it, because the comedy stays where it belongs. The humor almost never comes from the otherworldly danger unfolding in the city. That is to say, the plot isn’t funny; the characters are. Ghostbusters knows better than to cross the streams.

That’s a wise move, because it means audiences can stay invested even while they’re laughing. It also means that the relatively long stretches between jokes don’t feel dull or out of place. They’re part of the movie. Ghostbusters is one of those rare comedies that’s so rightly confident in itself, it can afford to take its time between punchlines. (Which, I’d argue, makes the punchlines we eventually get feel even funnier.)

We can see this illustrated by the film’s very first scene, in which a librarian encounters a ghost in the stacks. Abnormally for a comedy, there are no jokes at all in the scene that introduces Ghostbusters to the world. Most comedies, understandably, would work hard to open with a strong or memorable comic setpiece. After all, shouldn’t audiences be laughing?

Ghostbusters replies, “Not necessarily.” Aykroyd and Ramis knew that if there were anything funny about our initial experience with the film’s central threat, it would become that much less threatening, and throw off the tonal balance. If the library ghost is a humorous figure, that makes it far harder to believe that Dana Barrett is in any danger when she’s seized and possessed by demons later in the film. Going for a cheap and easy laugh here must have been tempting, but it would have hamstrung many pivotal moments later on.

Instead, we watch the librarian as she goes about her work. Some books hover from one shelf to another. Cards are spewn from the drawers of a catalogue. Then, in a panic, she turns a corner and finds herself face to face with something so horrifying, she screams and collapses.

What a hilarious movie!

Of course, what this scene is really doing is setting up the comedy to come. The librarian’s encounter with the ghost isn’t played for laughs, because that’s being saved for when our heroes encounter the ghost. Again, it’s not the situation that’s funny; it’s the characters.

We see things first from a normal citizen’s perspective. We get a sense of why people would panic and call somebody like the Ghostbusters. (Technically they aren’t Ghostbusters yet, but you get the idea.) We understand why someone would be desperate to get this dealt with as quickly as possible, by whomever could possibly handle it. If this scene were played for laughs, we wouldn’t be able to identify with that feeling. When we return to the library with our heroes in tow, however, the comedy naturally opens up…at the same time we get to learn about the characters.

Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis feel immediately like associates who have known each other for a long time. They have an established dynamic. That’s why Peter can tease Ray or drop a book on the table to interfere with Egon’s readings. They know who he is, and they know that this is how he behaves.

By continuing to work with him they are making it clear that they’re okay with his behavior, which is why at no point in the film does anyone shout at him to back off. If his behavior were unwelcome, as it certainly is to other characters and in other contexts, it wouldn’t be as funny. Instead, this is a group of friends. They like him. We learn a lot about them from their interactions.

And, indeed, he plays an important role in the group, though it’s not one that’s immediately obvious. For the audience at home, Peter Venkman gets the lion’s share of the laughs, and that’s reason enough to keep him around. But what does he bring to the actual Ghostbusters?

Egon is quite clearly the brains of the operation. He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable, resourceful, and insightful. It’s easy to conclude that he’s the one who creates (or at least develops) their equipment, and while he lacks basic human social skill, he’s the most innately valuable member of the team.

Ray brings the enthusiasm…and the money. He’s the excitable boy who purchases the firehouse so he can slide down the pole, and who is so thrilled by his new job that when Peter is slimed by a ghost, he first expresses joy…and then asks, “Can you move?” Late in the film, Peter explicitly refers to Ray as “the heart of the Ghostbusters.”

What Peter brings is less obvious, but no less important. If Egon is the brain and Ray is the heart, Peter is the swagger. Dana becomes quickly aware of this, telling him as they investigate her apartment, “You don’t act like a scientist. You’re more like a gameshow host.”

But they need that as well. Peter’s the one who giddily convinces Ray toward the beginning of the film to go into business for themselves. He’s the one who gives interviews to the press and works the crowd. He’s the one, surely, who gets them to produce a television commercial. It’s probably not correct to say that he craves attention, but he’s certainly the only one who knows what to do with it.

The characterization is wall-to-wall one of Ghostbusters’ strongest aspects. I’d argue that it’s stronger here than in almost any other comedy, and than most other films in general.

Every character, the moment he or she is introduced, is established firmly. This applies most obviously to the Ghostbusters themselves. Ray’s introduction is all oblivious giddiness. Egon’s reveals both his deep intelligence and his propensity to get lost in the experiment. (On the time he tried to drill a hole in his own head: “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.”) Winston’s sets him up as a hired gun; a day laborer who will do whatever needs doing without any strong feelings about it one way or the other.

Peter’s introduction is the most elaborate of them, and rightly so, as he’s the only one of the main four with a true character arc. The others essentially end where they start in terms of who they are, but Peter goes from repeatedly administering electric shocks to a volunteer just to flirt with another (if you haven’t seen the film, well…just watch it) to taking his work so seriously that he is willing to sacrifice his life to save others. (He’s the one who decides that they will cross the streams to defeat Gozer…something that reliable Egon promises will have “a very slim chance” of survival.)

But the characterization goes further than that. It extends to every other character as well, no matter how minor. There’s the beleaguered and stressed-out mayor of New York City, who is clearly in an unwinnable situation but genuinely wants to do well by his constituents. There’s Walter Peck, who steels himself behind his own presumed authority and immediately finds himself locked in eternal posturing with Peter.

There’s the stuffy hotel manager who is desperate to have our heroes clear out an infestation, but simultaneously desperate to keep his guests from knowing what’s going on. Hell, there’s the guy waiting for an elevator in that same hotel who doesn’t quite believe the Ghostbusters’ limp cover story that they’re exterminators. And there’s the maid who nearly becomes the first test subject for their proton packs, and who we can see in the background putting out the resulting fire with her squirt bottle.

Everybody feels real. Not one of these characters, however minor, however silly their scene, feels like a caricature. And because of that, they all feel as though they matter. Absolutely nothing in the film feels like padding, however tangential to the plot something is, or appears to be.

I honestly think my favorite moment in the entire film is when an unnamed coachman witnesses the early stages of Louis’ possession and sums it up with a simple, “What an asshole.”

It’s funny, but it’s not a punchline. It’s a very human response to a very extraordinary event, and that’s where Ghostbusters truly succeeds. It successfully funnels a vast supernatural catastrophe into a real-world setting, and shows us how real people would react to it…whether it’s those who fight back, those who dismiss the danger, or those who just watch it unfold.

The human focus isn’t accidental. (In fact, it could be a deliberate creative response to the time-hopping excess of the original script.) One of the biggest surprises rewatching the film as an adult is how little we see of the busting of ghosts. True to the title, the movie is actually about the Ghostbusters…not ghost busting.

There’s the library scene at the beginning, of course, but the only things that get busted are their egos. Later there’s the long hotel sequence during which they capture the ghost we’ll eventually know as Slimer. There’s a montage that includes some busting interspersed with press appearances. And finally they battle Gozer.

That’s not much, and it means that nearly everything else is human interaction. People being people. Colleagues being colleagues. Antagonists antagonizing. There’s actually very little in the way of plot, but a hell of a lot in the way of defining and exploring character.

Okay, well, it’s not entirely fair to say there’s little in the way of plot. There’s honestly quite a lot of it. It never feels that way, however, because of the way it’s parceled out.

Peter shares some of his notes with Dana outside Carnegie Hall. Egon gets a possessed Louis to open up about Gozer’s intentions. Ray pores over architectural blueprints in jail and explains his findings. Winston takes a quiet moment, driving at night, to connect what he’s seen and heard lately to a passage in Revelation.

These moments and a number of others occur throughout the film. Never once is a character tasked with delivering a long-winded monologue explaining what’s happening to the other characters or to the audience. Instead, the data points are scattered like breadcrumbs. If you care enough to follow them, you’ll come to a greater understanding of the specifics behind what, exactly, the Ghostbusters are beating back. (And, I’d wager, what we would have seen in Aykroyd’s original script.)

If you don’t, however, the film doesn’t feel any emptier. In fact, I’ve seen Ghostbusters several dozen times throughout the course of my life and I still couldn’t explain to you the supernatural backstory. What’s more, I don’t care. That’s not what the movie is to me.

I see a comedy about four misfits ultimately taking down a great and rising evil. Does it matter to me who Gozer specifically is? Or the role of Ivo Shandor, a completely unseen character, in bringing Gozer back? Or why lesser ghosts are able to terrorize New York City before Gozer is able to break through? Or why Dana and Louis are specifically chosen to host Zuul and Vinz Clortho, Gozer’s Gatekeeper and Keymaster? Or how, exactly, the two of them fucking brings Gozer back?

None of this matters to me. If it does to you, that’s great; you’ll have plenty to dig into and enjoy and think about after the film ends. But it all happens in the background. As in Her, or Shaun of the Dead, we see a potential collapse of civilization occur from an artfully, deliberately limited perspective. Bigger things are happening, but we can only see what our characters see. The rest is inference and assumption.

That limitation seems to have been Ramis’ most significant tweak, and it’s the reason those who care about the lore and those who don’t can enjoy the film equally. To paraphrase Winston, If I’m laughing I’ll believe anything you say.

So, okay, clearly I enjoy the acting, the dialogue, the way the characters interact. But I’d be lying if I said a big part of the appeal — both then and now, for myself and for audiences in general — weren’t the spectacle.

I don’t know that I was ever afraid of the ghosts, to any degree, as a kid. Which surprises me to think about now, as I was definitely a wimp when it came to scary things. The earliest nightmares I remember were brought on by Little Shop of Horrors and a commercial for Aliens. (Coincidentally starring the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper, respectively.) I think it’s safe to say I scared easily. But nothing in Ghostbusters actually registered as frightening at all.

Looking at the film now, though, there are a number of pretty chilling moments. Certainly the most effective is when Dana is grabbed from within a chair and dragged screaming into her bedroom, a sequence which plays as straight horror and is only indirectly undercut by comedy, when Louis is pursued by the same kind of creature in an expressly humorous way. Then there’s the undead taxi driver, who actually does look pretty scary…but he’s only on the screen for a few seconds and doesn’t do anything especially horrific.

Regardless, if I wasn’t afraid of anything in the film, it certainly wasn’t due to unconvincing effects. In fact, by and large they hold up pretty well today. That’s impressive for a silly comedy filled with sketch comedy stars.

Nearly all of it still looks fantastic. The proton streams maybe didn’t age that well, and certain things like the devil dog (as we called them then) crushing Louis’ table don’t seem to be properly integrated, but the stumbles are absolutely the exceptions. The ghosts still look great, with Slimer leaving ectoplasmic residue on the wall he flies through being a notable highlight. The librarian ghost at the beginning looks and behaves in an impressively frightening way.

And to this day, I don’t know they pulled off the effect of the eggs popping and cooking on Dana’s countertop. I’m sure it was a heated surface, but how did they get the eggs to explode the way they did so that their contents would land in the right place to be cooked? There are other objects on the countertop that aren’t being warped from the heat, so it must have been a fairly precise target.

It’s also interesting to me that the Ghostbusters really do just bust ghosts. They fight them, they capture them, they lock them away in what is essentially a prison cell. No thought is given at any point to why these ghosts are haunting these particular locations (though in at least a few cases, environmental details can help us piece together a story).

The boys give no thought to what the ghosts want, or to the fact that helping them resolve their earthly business might allow them to move on to peaceful rest. If memory serves, I do think the cartoon spinoff got into this a number of times, but here, I find it amusing that these guys find evidence of the paranormal and immediately set about beating the shit out of it. (It’s not for nothing that Peter’s triumphant gloating after catching Slimer is, “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” They didn’t outwit it; they ganged up on it.)

I could go on for another few thousand words about what makes Ghostbusters work as well as it does. I haven’t even really dug into the three major supporting characters yet.

There’s Dana, played by Sigourney Weaver (who we’ve seen here before). She’s given relatively little to do aside from play the straight man to Peter, and that’s a bit of a shame, but she does it well. (And, if memory serves, she’s given quite a bit more to do in the sequel. We’ll find out next week.) She also functions as an audience surrogate for a brief period, seeing the Ghostbusters’ commercial and being passively amused by what is clearly a scam, before having to rely on them when something inconceivable happens to her. (Their slogan — “We’re ready to believe you!” — turns out to be an accidental bit of marketing genius.)

I also very much enjoy the perfectly acted moment after she shares her story with Egon. His announcement — “She’s telling the truth. At least she thinks she is.” — understandably upsets her; she’s been through a traumatic situation. And yet it’s clearly the correct thing for Egon to assess first.

The fact that the gadgets she’s hooked up to are revealed to be little more than a homemade polygraph upsets her, and that’s a very human response. But Egon is not thinking of her feelings, or of the human element at all. He’s determining whether or not there’s anything to investigate in the first place.

The fact that he then turns to Peter and shines his headlamp into his colleague’s eyes, ignorant of Peter’s reaction, further illustrates how detached Egon really is. It’s a sight gag, but it’s also characterization.

Weaver is also incredible — and worrying — as the physical manifestation of Zuul…equal parts seductive and terrifying in her performance, pivoting in a moment from one to the other.

Then there’s Louis, played by the consistently delightful Rick Moranis. Louis is the humorous counterweight to the serious Dana. Everything she goes through, he experiences the comic version of.

She’s seized by demonic claws and dragged screaming into the clutches of gods-know-what; he gets chased through the streets of the city and eventually, in a panic, offers the creature a Milk-Bone. The moment of her possession is played strictly for horror, while his is played as physical comedy, with Louis sliding helplessly down the glass wall of a restaurant while witnesses refuse his cries of anguish and return to their meals. (That, by the way, is still one of the most perfectly, effortlessly cruel bits of dark comedy I’ve ever seen…and it’s perfectly in keeping with the thematic danger New York City finds itself in for the sequel.)

Even their possessed states are handled differently. Dana’s is actually scary and upsetting; Louis’ is jokey. He tries talking to a horse. He asks strangers if they’re the Gatekeeper. He imitates Egon’s words and gestures during testing not to be a pest, but because he’s like a child seeing these things for the first time.

We’re worried for Dana, but we’re laughing at Louis. That sounds wrong, but both sides of that coin are handled exactly right for what they are.

Then there’s Annie Potts, who may actually be the film’s secret MVP. As a kid I didn’t think much of her character, but as an adult she’s deeply relatable. Like Winston, she’s there because she needs a paycheck. But for her, it really is just a job…and she hates it as she would any job. She’s underpaid. She’s alternately underutilized and overworked. She doesn’t even especially seem to find the fact that her bosses are fighting actual ghosts interesting.

And that’s intrinsically funny!

Not as obviously funny as the gang wrecking up a grand ballroom, or a gigantic marshmallow stomping through the city, or Peter investigating Dana’s apartment. (Asked if he’s using his tools correctly, he hesitatingly replies, “I think so.”) And so her role in the comedy went right over my head as a boy. But now that I’ve worked a number of soul-destroying jobs, as well as jobs I should have liked but which sucked the life out of me because they’re still jobs…yeah. I get Janine.

Also, I love that she acts and dresses like she’s about 60 when Potts was only in her early 30s.

Mainly, though, I love that every single one of her lines plays like a perfectly delivered joke. Some of these are obvious, but others I’m not sure I picked up on before now. When a policeman arrives at the firehouse for instance, she asks, “Dropping off or picking up?” As a kid I just assumed Louis’ case wasn’t isolated; other possessed folks must have changed hands back and forth between the Ghostbusters and the police. Now, though, I see that she was asking if the Ghostbusters were being arrested, and making it clear that this would neither surprise nor disappoint her.

It’s subtle, it’s funny, and it’s perfect.

Honestly, I’m not sure how easy it would be to identify things in Ghostbusters that don’t work. I guess there’s the ghost blowjob bit, but that’s brief. What’s more, it’s a dream sequence, so all the folks who think Ray got fellated by a spirit need to learn to pay attention for more than a few frames of film. Otherwise, nothing really falls flat for me, and any joke that doesn’t get a laugh is either surrounded by good enough acting or followed quickly by something that does.

The ending, I’ll admit, feels abrupt to the point that it seems to come from another movie. Gozer is defeated and…that’s it. I adore Winston’s euphoric “I love this town!” but that’s really the end of the movie?

The film we watched, as we discussed, wasn’t actually about Gozer. It wasn’t about ghosts. It wasn’t about the end of the world. It was about people. It was about how these people relate to each other, and how they deal with an impossible fight against unknowable adversaries. It was about how people interact, how they see the world, and how the Ghostbusters find a place for themselves.

But the ending seems to suggest that the movie was about Gozer, and it thinks that once Gozer is stopped, there’s no story left to tell.

We confirm that all of the major characters are okay, Dana and Peter kiss, and the Ghostbusters drive off. I don’t know what kind of resolution I would have expected, but “Hey, that supernatural thing we never fully explained is gone forever now” wasn’t it.

It’s a small complaint, and it does absolutely nothing to interfere with how enjoyable the ride is, but it feels like it should be the ending to Aykroyd’s original script as opposed to Ramis’ rewrite.

I suppose we can read a bit of narrative closure into that ending. The Ghostbusters start the film losing their funding because nobody takes them seriously, and end it being celebrated by cheering strangers who recognize them as saviors. That’s fine. But the team’s journey toward acceptance wasn’t the focus of the film; it was one of many things that unfolded largely in the background. For the movie to end there, it feels…misjudged.

Again, though, that also feels like a reflection of Ghostbusters’ own creation and legacy. An idea that was doomed to go nowhere gradually finds acceptance. Gets a shot at a wide audience. Finds fans that tell their friends. Eventually sees itself heralded as important, as brilliant, as a part of the world that we can’t imagine going without.

Ghostbusters might be the clearest example of lightning in a bottle that I can point to in the film world. Everything comes together to work perfectly. The writing, the acting, the casting. The directing. The special effects, the soundtrack. The cinematography. The pacing, the editing, the set construction, the props…everything is exactly right. It may not be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen, but I’d unquestionably put it on my list of the best ones. No part of the film turned out as it was initially envisioned, but all of it was exactly as it should be.

In just over an hour and a half, Ghostbusters introduced so much instantly identifiable iconography to our cultural landscape. It wasn’t just a movie people liked, or which made money…it was a movie that mattered.

It gave us the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It gave us Slimer. The Ecto-1. The firehouse. The theme song. The logo. The uniforms, the proton packs, the ghost traps, the containment unit.

Ghostbusters gave us a world that intersected with our own and enriched it. It left us knowing who these characters were, what they wanted, and how they’d each go about getting it. It spun a tale too complex for most of its fans to understand, and yet made sure that that didn’t even matter.

It gave us a touchpoint. Something we’d all relate to. The reason we played Ghostbusters in the schoolyard wasn’t just because we liked the film, but because we knew everybody would understand it. It became instantly as recognizable as cowboys and Indians. And our parents were just as likely to find the film funny and entertaining as we were, even if we enjoyed different parts of it.

A sequel was more or less inevitable. In fact, it was practically obligatory. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon debuted in 1986, two years after this movie, and was immediately popular. It found a fanbase of its own and funneled those fans back to the original film. The cartoon was supported by an equally popular toyline. Tie-ins came in all media. The world wanted more Ghostbusters, and was willing to throw money at anything bearing the name.

In 1989, we finally got our second Ghostbusters film. I remember being overcome with excitement, and it was one of the first films I saw I theaters.

Next week, we’ll find out if it was worth waiting for. But even if it wasn’t, whatever dips and dives the franchise might take from here, the only important to thing to remember is that the original Ghostbusters still exists.

And it’s still fantastic.

That will never change.

Rule of Three returns April 1 with Ghostbusters

Well hello! I’ve been working for the past couple of weeks on the big, annual April feature, Rule of Three. That’s my series in which I take a look at three related comedy films, beginning on April Fool’s Day. The second and third entries will post on April 8 and April 15, giving each of them a solid week to breathe and be discussed.

This time around, I’ll be focusing on the three Ghostbusters films. I’ve even added the schedule to the Trilogy of Terror page. (I guess I really should give Rule of Three its own page soon, huh?) While there, you can check out the previous features on Muppet films and Pee-wee films. They’re great articles. I should know, because I wrote them.

We’ll get into Ghostbusters pretty extensively over the next few weeks, so I won’t say much now except that the first two films are quite important to me, and revisiting them through a critical lens was damned interesting. I’m glad I took the opportunity to do so.

The third film, obviously, is a minefield. I don’t know quite what to expect in terms of reaction to my article, but we’ll find out together, I guess. (When a friend of mine learned I was covering the Ghostbusters films, he just said, “Good luck.”) I do get the sense the controversy around that movie has died down to the point that adults are now allowed to discuss it, and I hope that’s the case, because it’s worth discussing. Just not for any of the reasons the film makers — or the film’s detractors — seem to think.

I do have a question regarding this type of feature, though: Do you like knowing ahead of time what I will cover?

In the past, I’ve kept those cards close to my chest. I work on these features in secret, and then blast them out without any prior indication of what they’ll be.

I’ve done this for a few reasons. For instance, I might think I want to cover something, and then realize I don’t have much to say and need to switch topics. Or posting about a topic in advance might stir up some conversation that will then affect the things I do or don’t write about, feeling the need to address what folks have already brought up as opposed to what I’d personally like to say.

Then again, letting readers know ahead of time what to expect means they can seek out the movies to watch for themselves, turning this into more of a communal event. And it gives them a chance to get their thoughts together ahead of time, so that they can leave comments and participate in the discussion without relying on hazy memory.

So, hey, you’ve got a week. Dig out your copy of Ghostbusters. It’s worth it.

This time around, I revealed the Rule of Three topic (or rather posted a very obvious hint) to the Noiseless Chatter Facebook page. Now I’m announcing it here, just shy of a week in advance. The world kept spinning, so I’m considering doing that for future features.

What do you think? Do you prefer the surprise of showing up on April 1 to find a new post on an unknown topic? Would you rather know in advance? Or do you literally have no opinion one way or the other? (UNTHINKABLE)

Let me know. I’m curious. This is one of those situations in which I don’t think I can come to the “best” answer on my own. I need to hear what you guys and gals prefer, and I can easily make my own arrangements from there.

Anyway, enjoy your week. I’m getting these three features edited and formatted, and I’ll see you here on Sunday, April 1, for the extensive writeup on 1984’s Ghostbusters.

It will be the only film in the series we’ll all agree on.

See you then.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 10, 2010)

In the years between when I stopped playing Mega Man games and his miraculous resurrection in Mega Man 9, there were plenty of games I enjoyed. Games I loved, in fact. Resident Evil, Metroid Prime, Pikmin…even the game that remains my all-time favorite, Majora’s Mask.

I still enjoyed games. The medium evolved and in many ways no longer felt like the one I grew up with, but if I sat down looking for a good time, there were more than enough games that would give it to me.

Then Mega Man 9 came along, and it didn’t just give me another good time. It reminded me of what games used to be like.

I don’t just mean that it reminded me what they used to look and sound like, though it certainly did those things. I mean that it reminded me of what games used to feel like. Of what gaming itself used to feel like.

As games through the generations grew larger, deeper, more complex, they almost uniformly lost the feeling of addictive simplicity that attracted me in the first place.

One of my earliest gaming memories is playing Outlaw on the Atari 2600 with my uncle Glenn. It was a two-player game that saw each of us controlling a cowboy, firing blocky projectiles at each other. I’d guess there was a single-player mode as well, but I’m not sure I ever actually touched that. Whenever a shot connected, the struck cowboy would fall onto his rear end, which always made the two of us laugh.

The game couldn’t have been less complex. Or, well, I suppose it could have, as every so often a stagecoach would drift through the center of the screen, absorbing shots. (And – what seemed a revelation at the time – sustaining visible damage if it did so.) Ultimately, though, it was a game perfectly suited to the one-button philosophy of Atari. The learning curve was practically non-existent. You could play the game with your younger brother and have just as much fun as you would with your uncle. It took no time to explain, and no time to learn. The game existed, and you innately understood everything there was to understand the moment you saw the game in action.

Fast forward a few generations, and that was almost never the case any longer. This, I believe, is why I fell away from gaming in my college years. With so little time to devote to anything other than school and work, it ended up being a rare occasion that I could sit down and puzzle out the complex controls and mechanics of any recent game. In a few cases, I took that time. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I didn’t.

I remember playing games with my friends in college, because it was still a great way to unwind. When we did so, however, it tended to be something from an older system. We’d grab some beers and see how far we could make it in Bubble Bobble. We’d load up Kirby’s Adventure because we knew we could plow through it in one long sitting, and what better way to kick off a weekend? We’d shout and howl through session after session of the first two Mario Kart games, feeling immediately as addicted as we were when they were new. And, speaking of addiction, I remember a friend in the journalism program who came very close to flunking a semester’s worth of classes because she couldn’t tear herself away from Dr. Mario.

Clearly I wasn’t the only one yearning for simplicity in my games, though I certainly wouldn’t have been able to articulate that feeling.

With Mega Man 9, I had exactly that simplicity in a brand-new game. I loved it. And, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t just play a new game and move along when I finished it or got bored of it…I played a new game over and over and over again. I finished it and started it over from scratch. I pushed myself to learn it more thoroughly and to get better at it. Defeating Dr. Wily wasn’t enough; I wanted to master the game. That was a desire I hadn’t felt since I was a child. Possibly since I’d played an earlier Mega Man game.

I didn’t speak about Mega Man 9‘s achievement system much in my last writeup, but I have to admit that it helped inspire me to dip back in as often as I did. Collecting 999 screws could have encouraged me to stand around and farm respawning enemies, but it really just provided a reason to dive back into a particular save file and enjoy the trip through Mega Man 9 all over again. Beating the game multiple times to unlock certain achievements gave me that much more of a push toward mastery. And completing the game quickly, or without dying…well, those things seemed tough, but I was certainly getting faster and dying less with each attempt, so maybe I could actually accomplish them.

Only one achievement seemed truly impossible, and it’s the one that cracked open the entire series for me once again, to enjoy as if they were brand new games I’d come to love in all new ways.

It was the Mr. Perfect achievement. That’s the one that requires you to complete Mega Man 9 – still one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played – without taking any damage whatsoever.

In a sense, this seemed doable. You were able to save after each level, so all you’d need to do is reload your save whenever you took damage, and you’d largely retain your progress. But that, of course, still required you to beat every level without taking damage. And what happened when you got to the Wily stages? Hell, what about the boss rematches toward the end, followed by each of Wily’s forms in immediate succession? You had to do all of that in a single stretch without taking damage even once?

How on Earth was that possible?

Way back in my review of the first Mega Man, I talked about how we’d gather around a friend who was good at some particular game, and watch him first-hand, demonstrating his skills for all of us to see. There were plenty of rumors about impossible things in video games, and rarely could we actively disprove them. But when it came to stuff we could prove, we did. Everything we knew, we knew from direct, personal experience.

By the time of Mega Man 9, I didn’t have a community like that anymore. I had friends that played games, but few that played them often enough to get truly good or to discover interesting things on their own. Certainly nobody would call me up and say, “Hey, I can beat Mega Man 9 without taking damage. Want to see?”

So I turned to the modern equivalent of those play sessions: YouTube. I wanted to see somebody, somewhere, unlocking that Mr. Perfect achievement that I still didn’t believe was possible. And not only did I find that; I found videos of people playing through every Mega Man game, stage by stage, without taking damage once.

My childhood reeled with disbelief. It was hard enough just to finish those games…now I’m learning that it was actually possible to pound them out without ever getting hit?

And so I watched those videos. I studied them. They were fascinating. Little Mega Man could do almost nothing other than jump and shoot, but that was enough to get him through literally any level unscathed. My mind was blown. And, sure enough, I wanted to dig back through the old Mega Man games to try it for myself.

I succeeded. Level by level, I learned to beat every Robot Master stage without taking damage. I did this – and uploaded my own results to YouTube – for most of the games in the series: Mega Man through Mega Man 7, with a detour through Mega Man V for the Game Boy, which had unique stages and bosses. I would have done Mega Man 8 and Mega Man 9 as well, but I didn’t have the equipment necessary to record my playthroughs.

Mega Man 9 didn’t just give me a new game to love; it gave me a reason to rediscover my love of the games that preceded it. And all it had to do was suggest to me that it was possible to play them in a way I never, ever would have thought to try.

In short, Mega Man 9‘s legacy was, to me, more than that of a great game. It reminded me of why the series was important, why I’d spent so many hours with those games as a kid, why they sparked my imagination and determination in equal measure.

What’s more, it wasn’t just a tease. It didn’t remind us all of how great those simple, NES-era games once were…it left us with the promise of another sequel. By the time I lifted my head from those old games I’d nearly forgotten, a new one was already on the horizon. Mega Man 10 was coming. Mega Man 9 wasn’t just a late-game sequel; it was a series relaunch.

I was thrilled.

And then it released. At which point…I was disappointed.

But let’s come back to that.

I sat down to re-play Mega Man 10 as I did with every other game for this review series: as an official release. No emulators, no save states, no cheats. If I had easy access to the original hardware and physical copies, I would certainly have used those. Instead I played the more recent digital releases.

Mega Man through Mega Man 7 were played on either my 3DS or WiiU, and Mega Man 8 through Mega Man 10 were played on my PS4. I didn’t prepare for these games in any way, working from memory to make it through and letting the games themselves teach me again whatever I’d forgotten. I didn’t make any special efforts to play the games in a certain way – no speedruns or no-damage runs or anything like that – except that I did pick up all optional items. (Barring Mega Man 8, which, as discussed, does not allow for 100% completion.)

In a word, I played them now with much the mindset I would have had as a child. It was a game, I was going to fumble my way through it, and I was going to play as intended.

Then came Mega Man 10, and I remembered something.

After Mega Man 9 had shown me – directly and indirectly – how versatile the series had always been, I set a goal for myself with Mega Man 10, one I never actually saw through. The goal was to do a no-Buster run of the entire game.

The Mega Buster, stretching all the way back to Mega Man’s first adventure, is the default weapon in each of the games. It does not consume any weapon energy, and it allows for a fairly-generous total of three projectiles on the screen at once. It’s fast, it’s easy to use, and its shots travel as far as the screen will allow. In short, it’s a pretty great weapon, with many of the Robot Master weapons in later games paling in comparison.

In Mega Man 10, though, there was a unique opportunity to never use it. This was due to a set of downloadable extra stages that rewarded you with weapons you could carry over to the main game. Start a game with those in your inventory and, theoretically, you’ll never actually have to use the Buster.

I hadn’t heard anybody else talk about playing the game that way, and there was no achievement for doing so, so there was a decent chance it wouldn’t work. I’d be going into uncharted territory. I’d be giving myself a handicap by stripping away the easiest weapon to use and burdening myself with ammo concerns that no other player would have.

It sounded fun!

But I never did it. I don’t know why. Revisiting the game for this series, though, I figured I’d finally change that. I’d do my no-Buster run of Mega Man 10.

Why? Well, I might as well say this here and now: while you are going to hear me say a huge amount of good things about Mega Man 10…I don’t actually like it very much. A no-Buster run, I’d hoped, would provide me with a new avenue to experience the game, and possibly enjoy it much more.

The biggest obstacle Mega Man 10 has to face is that it has very little in the way of new ideas. Mega Man 9 did nearly everything Mega Man 10 does, and it did all of it better. Mega Man 10, therefore, is in the position where being very good makes it feel like a disappointment. Worse, Mega Man 10 only sometimes rises to the level of “very good.”

The story this time around is that a computer virus (amusingly referred to in identifiably human terms as Roboenza) is infecting robots on a massive scale, causing them to do exactly what they’ve done for nine previous games and seemingly infinite amounts of ports and spinoffs.

I’m being wry, but I’m not complaining. Mega Man has never given us a truly compelling reason to go out and shoot robots; all it ever needed to do was make it fun to go out and shoot robots. I am fine with that. Also nice is the thematic tie to the Mega Man X series, which sees its own versions of Robot Masters driven to madness and violence by the Maverick virus. There’s no evidence that Roboenza becomes or is related to that later virus, but it’s a nice, quiet parallel between series.

Dr. Wily is, of course, still the villain. (Sorry for what can only be considered a spoiler if this is your first Mega Man game.) This time, though, it makes a reasonable amount of sense that the good guys would choose to work with him. Wily is brilliant. He understands robotics probably better than even Dr. Light does. Yes, he’s tricked them more times than you’ve had hot dinners, but Roboenza represents a legitimate crisis. They can either choose to work with Wily on the chance that he’ll actually help them develop a cure, or they can sit back and watch civilization as they know it crumble.

So they work with him and he turns out to be the bad guy. Fine. What isn’t fine is the ending sequence, during which all is resolved through a line of text and a still image of some medicine Dr. Wily left behind.

It might seem odd to speak about the ending so early in this review, but I think it’s one of the clearest illustrations of the gap in quality between Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10.

In Mega Man 9, the game ended with a glorious meta joke about how many times our hero has forgiven a contrite Dr. Wily, followed by an extremely good bit of credits music and a slideshow of what each of that game’s Robot Masters (and heroes) is getting up to now that peace has returned. It’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s positively bursting with charm and creativity.

Mega Man 10 gives you white text on a black screen and a static image with no characters in it.

I’ll leave the comparing and contrasting to you.

The fact is that Mega Man 10 simply doesn’t seem to have had the same level of creative energy invested in it. In a way, this makes sense. Mega Man 9 had to be a glorious return. It couldn’t just be another Mega Man game way too late for anyone to care…it had to be great. Incredibly, it actually was.

Mega Man 10 does get to be just another sequel, but it seems like returning developer IntiCreates was all too eager to use that as an excuse to do less than their best. The game, understandably, suffers for it. What’s worse, Mega Man 10 ends up illustrating all too clearly what originally killed the series, by being a less interesting sequel that doesn’t give fans much of a reason to come back. The law of diminishing returns reasserted itself immediately.

But I do believe that Mega Man 10 does a lot of things very well.

For starters, there are the Robot Masters themselves. Well, maybe not them particularly, but the way their stages are themed.

Mega Man 9’s stages had some fairly basic themes. Fire, water, space, garden…it was fine, but you wouldn’t really point to that aspect of the game as a bastion of creativity.

Here, though, the stages feel distinct. You wouldn’t be able to confuse them with stages from previous games, on the whole. Sheep Man’s stage is in cyberspace. Nitro Man’s is a futuristic highway. Strike Man’s is the locker room, storage area, and field of a gigantic stadium.

They also play like recognizable Mega Man stages, which I mean as a compliment. Their gimmicks aren’t too distracting or complex – something that crippled Mega Man 8 – and are instead just a welcome, inventive dash of variety. Specific design choices from screen to screen aside, these stages feel at home in the series, and I admire them for that, considering how unique they are.

Even the stage themes we’ve seen before feel a bit different here. Magma Man just sat in a stage full of fire, but Solar Man’s stage feels like a trip through a smelting plant. Splash Woman occupied a basic water stage, but Pump Man’s stage takes us through the entire process of wastewater treatment. Commando Man’s desert looks a lot like Pharaoh Man’s, but its blinding sandstorms make it feel and play completely differently…not to mention the fact that it’s war-themed as opposed to Egyptian themed.

The remaining stages are a bit less impressive. Blade Man’s castle doesn’t feel all that much different from Knight Man’s, but it’s still a rare enough theme that it’s welcome. Chill Man’s stage is easily the weakest in terms of inventiveness, as it begins as the standard ice stage we’ve seen many times already, and doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go from there.

Sadly, the designs of the Robot Masters themselves are a bit lacking. The only truly interesting one is Nitro Man, who looks and jets around his room like a motorcycle. I’ll admit that I also have a soft spot for Commando Man, as it’s nice to see an explosion-based Robot Master who also qualifies as a bruiser, but that’s really it in terms of boss design.

Strike Man is Blizzard Man with stitching. Sheep Man is a sheep. Blade Man is a blade made out of blades and when he blades he blades blades at you. Hooray.

Fortunately, the Robot Masters are, as ever, more than just bosses. They also represent weapons and music, and the game shines far more in those areas.

The music, on the whole, is pretty great. Mega Man 10 also suffers here in comparison to Mega Man 9, but only in comparison. On its own merits, Mega Man 10 has an incredible soundtrack with some excellent standouts.

My favorite tune is probably Nitro Man’s, with its driving electric rhythm that feels perfectly matched to the theme and feel of his stage. Divorced from its context it’s still fantastic, but hopping onto and off of speeding robot trucks while his pulsing music underscores the action is absolutely perfect.

A close runner up for me is Commando Man’s tune, which sounds vaguely Arabic, conjures up the feel of oppressive desert heat, and keeps you engaged even when all you’re doing is waiting patiently for a sandstorm (Desert Storm?) to die down. Then there’s the absolutely pounding rampage of Solar Man’s song, which is so good it borders on being distracting.

Strike Man’s track may actually be the most interesting and the biggest surprise, as it feels appropriately sporty and contains a genuine stadium rave up, complete with the sounds of an 8-bit crowd clapping and stomping in the bleachers. It’s a damned fine treat, and it really helps that stage to stand out as the highlight it certainly is.

The rest of the Robot Master tunes are fairly forgettable, though certainly not bad. (Aside from Chill Man’s, of course, because everything about Chill Man is pants.) The Dr. Wily stages have some of the best music they’ve ever had, with some experimentally atmospheric ones bookending the experience, first in a short section outside of his fortress and then again when you finally track him down into outer space.

It’s a good soundtrack, and its quality is more or less matched by this batch of weapons. It’s again outdone by Mega Man 9, but this game at least learned a valuable lesson from that one. In Mega Man 9, the weapons could also be thought of as utilities. That seemed to be their overarching theme; you could both pelt your enemies with them and use them to navigate stages more easily. Mega Man 10 similarly ascribes a theme to its weapons: splash damage.

Here, for the first significant time ever, you shouldn’t just pelt your enemies with your weapons. You should think about how the weapons work, and use them wisely to inflict greater damage.

The most obvious example of this is probably the Thunder Wool. Like any other weapon, you can hit enemies with it. It will deal damage and disappear. However, the wiser thing to do is miss enemies with it, and have the lightning it discharges hit them instead. That will both deal far more damage and linger on the screen, potentially hitting multiple enemies, or hitting the same enemy multiple times.

This means that you can’t – or at least shouldn’t – fire mindlessly at things. You have to think about where your projectile will go and where your enemy will be, but you also have to think about how the splash damage will work, as that’s the only way you’ll get true mileage out of the weapons.

This largely carries through the entire set. You can hit enemies with the controllable Commando Bomb, but it’s better to miss them, because the blast it sets off is far more powerful than a direct hit would be. The Solar Blaze will split, potentially mowing down enemies on both sides of the screen. The Chill Spike can either hit an enemy and freeze it, or create a dangerous patch on the ground that will injure or destroy an enemy that walks over it.

Perhaps most interesting is the Rebound Striker, which can be fired in six directions and which becomes more powerful each time it bounces off of a surface. This means that you can either strike an enemy directly for a decent amount of damage, or deliberately miss them so that it bounces around the room like a billiard ball and hits them later with a much harder strike. It’s not the easiest weapon to use effectively, but once you get a sense of how to understand a room’s geometry, it can be downright devastating. It’s Mega Man 8’s Mega Ball done exactly right.

Even the seemingly “simple” weapons have nuances worth understanding. The Wheel Cutter can be spat forward as you’d expect, but you can also hold down the fire button to keep it spinning at the end of your arm like a sawblade. Additionally, you can use this exact functionality to rocket you up vertical surfaces. I won’t pretend there’s much call to do so, but like Mega Man 4’s Wire Adapter, the fact that it’s fun to use is reason enough to play with it.

Then there’s the Water Shield, which is a fairly basic shield weapon, but with components that can be destroyed if they suffer damage. When you fire it, the remaining components spiral away from you either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending upon which side of the screen you’re facing. Again, not a very useful feature, but at least one you’ll need to put thought into to use effectively.

The Triple Blade is…well…three blades. They’ll fire upward if you’re standing on the ground and downward if you’re in the air, which is one thing to consider, but their power is also determined by your distance from the target. If you’re far away, only one blade can conceivably hit the enemy. Close in, though, and you can hit them with all three at once, dealing three times the damage.

Mega Man 9 will always have my favorite batch of weapons, but Mega Man 10’s may well be the most interesting, and I’m impressed at how much thought must have gone into their design and the ways in which they could be employed.

But there’s a problem, and you may have picked up on it even if you haven’t played the game: don’t these weapons sound kinda difficult to use?

The appeal of the weapons earlier in the series was not just that they were fun to use, but that they were easy to use. Cumbersome weapons like the Atomic Fire, Top Spin, and Charge Kick tend, on the whole, to sit quietly in players’ inventories for the duration of the game. If they’re unwieldly, why wield them? If something else is quicker and easier to use, why wrestle with the stubborn ones?

I wouldn’t call any of Mega Man 10’s weapons stubborn. And they’re certainly better weapons than the examples I provided in the previous paragraph. But they’re also not easy to use well. And if it comes down to trying to launch a cloud precisely above an enemy’s head in the hopes that they’ll still be there in a few moments when it actually discharges lightning…well, why not just use the Buster?

That’s not entirely Mega Man 10’s fault. That’s a problem that arises strictly because of what series this is, and the fact that Mega Man always has his trusty arm cannon by default. Which is easy to use. And fast. And predictable. And which consumes no ammo.

When your option is to either mash the fire button a few times to kill an enemy or open your inventory, select the Rebound Striker, figure out the precise angle to toss it so that it bounces correctly off of the floors, walls, and ceilings, wasting ammo and time whenever you get it wrong…well, most players are going to stick with the Buster. That doesn’t make the special weapons worse, but it does make them far less likely to be used and appreciated.

Which is also part of why I wanted to do a no-Buster run. I like the special weapons in this game, but, well, I have to admit that I solved most of Mega Man’s problems with some quick blasts from the weapon he was born holding. Maybe stripping myself of that solution would lead to more interesting gameplay.

As I mentioned, a no-Buster run is only possible here due to some DLC stages. These pay homage to and borrow heavily from the Game Boy games, three of which featured bosses called the Mega Man Killers. The first Game Boy game introduced us to Enker, and defeating him gave us the Mirror Buster, which serves as a shield that reflects projectiles back at the enemies that fired them. The third Game Boy game featured Punk, who gave us the Screw Crusher, a projectile that arcs high in the air before falling back down, tracing a path something like an upside-down U. The fourth Game Boy game brought us Ballade, who had the Ballade Cracker, a slow explosive that could be fired in six directions.

The DLC stages in Mega Man 10 are reimagined versions of stages from the Killers’ respective Game Boy games, with remixed versions of the old music to boot. In those games, beating the Mega Man Killers would indeed give you their weapons, but by that point you were so far along that you wouldn’t have much more than a stage left to play with them. In Mega Man 10, beating the DLC stages gives you those weapons any time you start a new game, meaning you can finally enjoy them like you would any Robot Master weapon.

Choosing a replacement for the Buster was actually pretty easy. The Ballade Cracker is powerful, but it uses a lot of weapon energy, meaning you don’t get many shots and I’d have to rely on enemies dropping a lot of ammo. The Mirror Buster counts on enemies to fire at you first, which not all of them do, and it requires them to remain on Mega Man’s horizontal plane to be hit when the projectile bounces back at them. It’s fun to use, and a great idea, but not something that works in every context.

That left the Screw Crusher, and I was fine with that. It’s fast, it doesn’t seem to be any less powerful than the Buster, and it makes very efficient use of weapon energy. The only real downside is its awkward arc, but all that did was help me choose my first stage that much more easily: Sheep Man, who spends much of his time in the air above Mega Man’s head. That sharp upward arc would actually be a benefit.

And it was. The stage had enough enemies above me that the Screw Crusher worked very well. Even the lightbulb miniboss was easier to hit now that I didn’t have to jump as high to get to him. Sheep Man himself took a while to fight, but it wasn’t any more difficult outside of staying focused for a longer period of time. Each time he turned into a set of clouds, I just shredded through them and brought him crashing back down. It worked out well, and then I had another weapon: the Thunder Wool.

As soon as I got it, I realized this wouldn’t actually make things much easier for me. The Thunder Wool is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

Even so, I took on Pump Man next. He’s weak to the Thunder Wool, so that boss fight wouldn’t be any different. The stage was fine. Again, there were enough enemies above that I got my mileage out of the Screw Crusher, and in other cases I could just walk right up to them and mash away. Hitting the little slug Mets that spew slippery slime at you wasn’t easy, but the Ballade Cracker, with some careful timing, took them out easily.

And that was it. Pump Man’s fight was the same as it ever was, only running out of Thunder Wool meant I pelted him with Screw Crushers instead of Buster shots.

Then it was on to Solar Man, who was weak to the Water Shield. Of course, the Water Shield is also very inefficient in terms of weapon energy, and it’s difficult to use. Even if you could reliably use it against enemies, it absolutely would not last you through an entire stage, which meant the Screw Crusher was still my sidearm.

I think you see where this is going. The boss fights were exactly the same as they were in a standard run, and for the most part so were the stages.

I swapped one weapon out for another, and that was it. I didn’t have to change my tactics or behavior, and if I wanted to rely on another Robot Master weapon, I really couldn’t; they weren’t versatile or efficient enough. I’d use them situationally, as I always had. By the time I got the Triple Blade – which conceivably could have served as an alternate Buster – I was already used to how the Screw Crusher handled, so I stuck with that. I can count on one hand the number of moments that changed significantly from a standard run, and usually those were made easier.

I tried adding another restriction, not allowing myself to use either E-tanks (to restore my health) or W-tanks (to restore my weapon energy). But that didn’t really make it any harder, as I’d racked up enough extra lives that dying was never much of a setback. I did have to continue once, before the final Wily fight. That was it.

Mega Man 10 had originally disappointed me, and my attempt at spicing things up disappointed me again.

Playing through the game again, though, did remind me how difficult it is to articulate just what I don’t like about it. So much of it is good. Some of it is great. Hell, it has the Weapons Archive, which digitally resurrects Robot Masters from Mega Man through Mega Man 9, and which is clearly the greatest fortress boss in the series’ history.

But when I play it, I don’t feel engaged. I go through the motions. Even now that I actively tried not to go through the motions, I ended up going through the motions.

Mega Man 10 feels like a game on autopilot. It’s chock full of solid ideas, but it doesn’t push any of them far enough.

Playing through it this time – my first time in a few years – I realized that even the highlights I remembered weren’t all that great. Commando Man’s sandstorms, now that I know how to deal with them, don’t require me to do anything but hold down a single button. Nitro Man’s traffic segments occupy just a few screens, and they don’t ask anything more from you than a handful of decently timed hops. The reverse-gravity Wily stage does absolutely nothing with its gimmick; literally anything you could think to do with an upside-down stage would be better than what we actually get here.

It feels half baked. It’s a great concept that doesn’t quite go anywhere. And that’s Mega Man 10 in a nutshell. There’s so much I love about it, but so little that lives up to its potential.

Mega Man 9 was nearly perfect because IntiCreates clearly took the time it needed to make it perfect. Mega Man 10 is another story. It feels like the team came up with good ideas, but didn’t take the time to truly refine them. It was enough for them to create an upside-down stage; they didn’t see the need to figure out what might be done with that. It was enough for them to come up with interesting weapons; they didn’t see the need to give players a reason to use them. It was enough for them to come up with a fun story; they didn’t see the need to actually show us that story’s own ending.

It seemed like a lesser shadow of what immediately preceded it, mixed with the lack of care and inspiration that plagued the weakest games in the series.

It was still good, it just wasn’t great. And that represents a big step down when Mega Man 9’s entire thesis was that the series could still be great.

There are reasons enough to tool around with it. The soundtrack. The interesting approach to weapon design. The returning endless mode, which isn’t quite as good as Mega Man 9’s but is still a nice time waster. The difficulty selection, which doesn’t just alter damage dealt and taken – as it did in Mega Man 2 – but actually changes enemy types, boss attacks, and certain obstacles. The ability to play as both Proto Man and Bass.

But there aren’t enough reasons to come back to it frequently. When I played Mega Man 9, I fell in love the same way I did way back when I played Mega Man 2. I wanted to get better at it. I wanted to experiment with it. I wanted to master it.

With Mega Man 10, I just want to like it. And for everything that I do enjoy – again, I enjoy a lot of it – there are two or three things I don’t. Or which feel undercooked. Or which I don’t think were entirely thought through.

And then…that was it. Rumors circulated about a Mega Man 11 for a while, and I’d be shocked if that wasn’t at least considered by IntiCreates. Rumors also circulated about a Mega Man X9 in the style of the SNES games. That might have been wishful thinking, but I’d still wager IntiCreates batted the idea around to some degree.

Then, in October 2010, seven months after Mega Man 10’s release, Keiji Inafune left Capcom. Inafune is often considered the father of Mega Man, and though the character was designed before he joined the development team for the first game, Inafune had a strong hand and important role in guiding the series from there. He did not create it, but he doubtlessly helped define it, and for nearly all of the Blue Bomber’s life, Inafune was at the helm.

His departure from Capcom did not seem at all to have been on good terms, and that seemed to suggest the death of the series. Inafune no longer had the rights to create Mega Man games. Capcom could certainly have continued making them without him, but they wasted little time in proving that they didn’t intend to.

The year after Mega Man 10 was released, Capcom cancelled the two high-profile Mega Man games they had in the pipeline: Mega Man Legends 3, and Mega Man Universe, which was a game creation tool that seemed like it would be very similar to the approach later taken by Super Mario Maker.

And that wasn’t all. An odd, little-discussed game called Mega Man Online was officially cancelled in 2013, though rumors of its death began circulating long before that. Eventually we even learned that Capcom had also cancelled a first-person shooter set in the Mega Man X timeline called Maverick Hunter. It was cancelled the same year Inafune left the company, and by all accounts he was the one who got development on that project started in the first place.

Capcom, perhaps out of spite, was killing everything with the Mega Man name on it. Their only true release was Street Fighter x Mega Man, and that was just a free download of a fan game that Capcom released through official channels. It was extraordinarily poor.

That was it. Mega Man made a truly welcome addition to the Super Smash Bros. roster in 2014, but a fighting game – however good it is – will never scratch the side-scrolling, platforming, robot-smashing itch the series was known for.

Time passed. Capcom, Inafune, and IntiCreates all moved on to different projects. Some of them drew clear inspiration from Mega Man, and most of them did not. Capcom released a few dolls, eyeglasses, and tissue boxes over the years to periodically cash in on the recognition of a brand they had no interest in resuscitating a second time.

We lost Mega Man all over again. The long-abandoned fans that had finally seen their favorite series reborn with a great game followed by a good one were robbed of it once more. Mega Man came back just long enough for his departure to sting. Now fans had two more games they could reflect on with longing, but that was small comfort. Mega Man was rebuilt just to be lost to whatever bitterness existed between his lead designer and the company that once treated him so well.

Dr. Wily, finally, stopped coming back.

That’s where the series ended.

And that’s where I expected Fight, Megaman! to end as well. Maybe it still will.

But, shockingly, between my review of Mega Man 8 and now, Capcom announced an Inafune-less Mega Man 11. As of this writing, they’ve released nothing but a brief trailer. Eight years after Mega Man seemed to shut down for good, we get the promise of another game. Another chance. Another revival.

Perhaps for real this time.

We don’t know much about it. We know it won’t be in the 8-bit NES style. We know it will have a different lead designer. We know we want it.

And so I’d love to leave you with some kind of closure. With some kind of ultimate conclusion. With some grand reflection on a series that – when I started this series – I was convinced was gone for good.

But I can’t.

Because there’s something on the horizon.

For Mega Man fans, that’s all it takes to get our hearts racing. To get our imaginations spinning out of control. To get us excited.

I don’t know if the game will be very good. Statistically speaking, it won’t. I don’t know if I’ll like the things the game will clearly do differently. Statistically speaking, I won’t. I don’t know if it can make anywhere near the same impact Mega Man’s previous resurrection made. Frankly speaking, it can’t.

But Mega Man fans have something to look forward to. That’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time. And as Inafune proved with Mighty No. 9 – his own off-brand Mega Man successor – in 2016, he might not have been the true creative genius in the room after all.

Maybe Capcom still has the magic.

Maybe Mega Man 11 will evolve the series in a direction that actually works.

Maybe I’ll spend 7,000 words in a year or so gushing about everything it does exactly, perfectly, incredibly right.

All I know for sure is that I’ll play it on day one, and I’ll do so as I’ve done with every single previous Mega Man release: like an excited child, just glad to see his old friend again.

Best Robot Master: Commando Man
Best Stage: Nitro Man
Best Weapon: Triple Blade
Best Theme: Nitro Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 9 > 7 > 5 > 4 > 10 > 3 > 1 > 6 > 8

Review: Third Editions’ new English translations

Note: Third Editions provided me with exactly one physical copy of each book in exchange for a review. No other compensation was offered, asked for, or delivered. The opinions you read here, as always, reflect my honest feelings as fully as the limitations of the English language will allow.

I’m a fan of Boss Fight Books. From the publication of their very first batch of titles, I’ve been following them closely, as excited about each new wave of announcements as I once was on Christmas morning. Sometimes they write about something I know well, and I look forward to the gift of experiencing a game through somebody else’s eyes. Other times it’s about a title I don’t know well at all, and I get to learn about the experience the game offers from afar, whether or not I end up particularly interested in playing it myself.

It’s a great series of books, and while there are a number of them that didn’t really resonate with me or work for me, I’m sure that those same titles are ones that hit other readers in genuinely profound ways. I don’t know how much agreement there is about which books are best and which are weakest, because they’re all so decidedly different. So unique. They’re like the people who write them; you’re going to immediately click with some, and you may never click with others.

I’m not complaining. I think that’s a selling point, especially if you dive in and grab a bunch of titles at once. The ones you end up enjoying the most could well be the ones you least suspected.

I mention Boss Fight Books for two reasons. Firstly, because the myriad different approaches demonstrated within that series – emotional, analytical, autobiographical, snarky, reverent – are appropriate for the still-young field of games scholarship. As a relatively new medium, and an interactive one, there is not yet an established, accepted method of writing about them seriously. Boss Fight Books represents the excitement at that new frontier, the giddy experimentation of holding up a game that may never have been given serious artistic consideration before, and creating, from nothing, the very discussion that will keep that game alive.

If I’m romanticizing that, so be it. I’m a romantic. I love art. I love discussing art, dissecting art, and sharing in somebody else’s passion. Boss Fight Books is a publisher that certainly does not lack for passion.

The other reason I mention them is that when Third Editions approached me for a review, Boss Fight Books was the very first point of comparison that crossed my mind.

On a very superficial level, I expected them to be quite similar. In fact, I wondered if this series could be theoretically absorbed into the other, and, if so, how well it would fit in.

I think that’s something Boss Fight Books should take as a compliment; they established a standard for games scholarship that anyone else who strolls into that area will have to live up to.

Third Editions does live up to it, but it also does so much differently that it almost doesn’t matter. The two series don’t – and shouldn’t – jostle for direct shelf space. Their intentions might seem similar, but their executions are very different. And they both work very well.

Full disclosure: I’ve pitched ideas to Boss Fight Books in the past, which is part of the reason I haven’t featured them directly on this site. I wouldn’t want there to appear to be any kind of conflict of interest should something work out between me and them in the future. I’d like to think my readers believe in my sense of integrity and that I wouldn’t ever dream of giving someone a good review in the hopes that I’ll get something out of it later, but mainly I wouldn’t want my words to seem retroactively hollow should one of my pitches actually pan out. (“Of course he likes them…they published his 750,000 word manifesto on Bubble Bobble.”)

Third Editions, though, is new to me. I don’t know any of the authors involved, I don’t know the publisher, and I know nothing of their plans for future books. In short, there’s nothing between them and me that anyone should even be able to misconstrue as a conflict, and I was free to approach the three books they sent me as a reader and a critic.

I’m glad I had that opportunity, because they were great.

The titles they sent me were Zelda: The History of a Legendary Saga, The Legend of Final Fantasy VII, and Dark Souls: Beyond the Grave. (Two other titles, covering Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid, are also currently available.)

In the case of Final Fantasy VII, the book is almost entirely about that individual game. The other two books, though, are about the series in general. This is in contrast to the Boss Fight Books releases, which almost exclusively focus on a single game each.

Each of these books is attributed to two authors. How closely the pairs worked together, I can’t personally say. But I will say that the books certainly read as cohesive works, and I didn’t notice any issues in terms of a shifting of authorial voice. They read well, they’re written clearly, and section breaks are meted out generously enough that no topic overstays its welcome.

That would be the whole of my general feedback if not for this fact:

These books are gorgeous.

As strong as the writing is – and we’ll discuss that momentarily – there’s no denying the books’ sheer physical appeal. These are some absolutely beautiful publications, and for fans of the covered games, I’d say they’d make for incredible gifts for that reason alone. These have value simply as collectibles, and I think it’s worth pointing that out. They’re lovely, and the photos I’ve taken do not do them justice.

Furthering their value as physical gift pieces, they’re all printed on impressively thick paper, which was a pleasant surprise. They each also have a color-coordinated ribbon for holding your place: gold for Zelda, white for Final Fantasy VII, and black for Dark Souls. I’m assuming this qualifies as a bonus, but I have to admit I’ve always found these ribbons difficult to use; I keep worrying that I’ll close the book on them wrong and crease them. That’s obviously just one of my many neuroses, but I’d be curious to hear if anyone out there has strong feelings about them either way.

Visually and physically, the books are great. It is, however, worth noting that they don’t contain any art assets. No illustrations, maps, or anything along those lines. That’s fitting for the approach the authors take, and their absence wasn’t felt to me as a reader, but if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s good to know in advance.

In my position –- reading all three books in fairly quick succession –- I will say that the font size for Final Fantasy VII took a moment to get used to. Zelda and Dark Souls use a large, easy-to-read font, but Final Fantasy VII uses one that’s noticeably smaller. I don’t think it’s anything that should be a deal breaker for somebody interested in that book alone, and I will emphasize that it’s not difficult to read, but it was rather jarring coming off of the easier fonts of the other two. As first I thought this was done so that the books could be kept of a relatively equal number of pages, but Zelda has 221 numbered pages, Dark Souls has 303, and Final Fantasy VII has 199, so I’d guess it could have afforded a larger font after all.

But, well, what of the actual content?

I have to admit, it’s a bit difficult to review that.

See, the approach of the Third Editions authors is largely clinical. It’s fact-based, with little in the way of personality or conversation. That’s not a problem at all, but it does make reviewing them difficult.

Typically, I’m used to novels. Fiction. Which allows me to discuss (and judge) things like style, pacing, creativity. Non-fiction is a lot different. I can judge a work of non-fiction on how much I learned and whether or not it kept me engaged, but beyond that, I’d struggle for much to say. And, of course, I’d prefer not to simply regurgitate the information the books provide. (That’s, y’know, what the books are for.)

This is also another area in which a comparison to Boss Fight Books might be helpful. Those books weave (to varying degrees) the information they provide into and within more personal narratives. Those do provide an element of creative expression, even while relaying relatively dry facts and histories.

So, hey, bear with me as I feel my way through this, and learn to review something in a way that’s pretty new to me.

I will say that the writing is solid. The chapters are clearly delineated, with very little overlap in subject matter, which means that you can either read them straight through (as I did), or hop around to the particular subjects that interest you. Reading straight through won’t bury you in redundant information, and hopping around won’t strand you without context. That’s nice.

It’s also worth pointing out that these three books are English translations from French originals. I can’t speak much to the actual translation process, but I can say that if I didn’t know they were originally written in another language, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. The English versions don’t come across as clunky or confusing at any point, and I’d guess their translator has done impressive work in that regard.

Ultimately, I think I can also vouch for the value of these books as informative texts. I personally know quite a lot about the Zelda series, a decent amount about Final Fantasy VII, and very little about the Dark Souls games. In each case, however, I learned a lot. This was especially surprising to me in the Zelda book, as I was more or less convinced I’d read everything I’d ever have to read about that series. It was a great surprise to me that there was still a lot for me to learn in terms of the design of those games, their development, and their larger inspirations.

For that reason alone, I’m confident in saying that these books go well beyond what you would find in the standard wikis and retrospectives you’re likely to read online. And that’s important, I feel, because with so much information available in so many formats at our fingertips, it may be difficult to justify spending money on what may turn out to be little more than a printed version of some small fragment of that information.

Third Editions does actually bring new (or at least uncommon) information to the table, though, and I certainly enjoyed the professional, clean approach taken with the material here far more than I enjoy the amateur writeups I usually find online. The quality of the writing and presentation here justifies the purchase price for fans of these games, and you’d be hard pressed to find better ways of learning about them.

In fact, these titles read almost like textbooks at times, and I mean that as a compliment. They successfully present themselves as definitive sources, and it’s easy to imagine them being used in the college lectures on video games that are certain to become more commonplace in the future. They serve as reference materials and study guides at once, providing relatively little in the way of interpretation but giving readers all of the tools they’ll need to interpret these games and series themselves. It lays the groundwork, in other words, for designers and gamers to reach the next level of understanding. As odd as it may sound in regards to books about video games, these are genuinely educational.

And, frankly, they’re pretty great. I was given these books in exchange for a review, but I’ve also placed an order for the Bioshock book, as I think that is a series that will lend itself very well to the Third Editions approach. I didn’t just read these and enjoy them…I read them and wanted more.

For fans of any of these games, especially fans who are interested in studying them, it’s hard to go wrong with Third Editions. They’re well-written, surprisingly informative, and deeply comprehensive. They look and feel great, and they’d make a great gift for gamers and scholars alike.

Whether or not the more clinical, detached approach will appeal to you is something I can’t answer. If the kind of video game chat you enjoy is held with good friends over a long night of drinking, then Boss Fight Books is probably a better fit for you. But if you’d prefer video games to get the exhaustive, thorough, scholarly treatment films and music have been getting for decades, give Third Editions a spin.

Personally, I enjoy them both for different reasons. But I look forward to seeing what Third Editions covers next. It will be interesting to see if it achieves the staying power Boss Fight Books has. I certainly wish them luck, and I hope they find the exposure they deserve.

You can view and purchase the books available from Third Editions right here.

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