One of Sega's odd habits in the late 80s and early 90s was that of the pseudo-port, the non-port, the ceci n'est pas une conversion. Several of their arcade titles were brought to the Master System and Mega Drive, but not quite as you remembered them- games such as Alien Storm were essentially the same but with different levels, while others like the Mega Drive versions of E-SWAT and Shadow Dancer were very different from their arcade counterparts, with new stages, mechanics and graphics entirely... While a lot of these non-ports are actually better than the original versions, at least if you ask me (Alien Storm in particular benefits from much fairer shooting stages and the removal of the obnoxious third phase of the transforming boss) it's odd that Sega decided to make these often-radical changes rather than bring the arcade games home, warts and all. Still, at least they were basically the same game, right?
Well... Not Laser Ghost.
Released on Sega's System-18 hardware (which also hosted Michael Jackson's Moonwalker and, uh, Bloxeed) in 1990, the arcade version of Laser Ghost is Ghostbusters: The Lightgun Game (even more so when you look at this possible-proto shot from the Japanese flyer that isn't used in the US/World versions- note the goggles!) with Bill (P1), Max (P2) and Carol (P3) fighting off legions of ghouls to rescue a young girl kidnapped by the fiends. Mechanics-wise, it's a pretty standard light-gun shooter, and while I'd usually call it an Operation Wolf/Thunderbolt clone, it's actually closer to SNK's grisly Beast Busters, albeit highly sanitised. That's mostly because the game supports three players, which BB had too, but it's also because BB itself is a massive Wolf/Thunderbolt clone. While there's a few differences between them (Laser Ghost gives you infinite gun ammo and a super-bomb that murders everything on-screen) the most important distinction is Laser Ghost's cabinet (image 'borrowed' from Richie Knucklez Arcade)- a proper beast of a thing, with stools for Players 1 and 3 (no luck for Player 2) and little laser imaging devices on top of the guns to give the illusion of shooting lasers whenever you fire. Other than that, it looks nice enough, and has some interesting battles (like the cinema advert that comes to life and the haunted cooked chickens) but it's a bit dull, and has a tendency to throw way too many projectiles at you at once.
The Master System game of the same name has absolutely nothing to do with this arcade game.
Not a ruddy thing.
Instead, Laser Ghost on the Master System- as well as being one of only thirteen Light Phaser compatible games and a European exclusive- is one of those rare 'lightgun protection' games- a seldom-utilised genre that includes the likes of Rescue Mission (also on the Master System), Gumshoe (NES) and Rescue Shot (Playstation), where as an unseen marksman, you have to protect a computer-controlled character from various enemies and obstacles by shooting the crap out of them. In Laser Ghost's case, you're protecting Catherine (Katherine in the manual), a ten-year-old girl with a bit of a paranormal problem. Every thirteen years, Ghost City reappears. A city nestled in the border between life and death, its denizens are always looking for a nice and tasty human soul to use to create more demons. This time, they've taken Catherine's soul and thrown her into the basement of White Manor. With some help from her mysterious trigger-happy helper (that's you, idiot) she has to make her way through seven chapters to wind up on the thirteenth floor (groan) of Beyond Horror Hotel in Ghost City to get her soul back.
The basic mechanics are pretty simple- Catherine totters along each chapter (which sometimes scrolls left, and sometimes scrolls right, oh my!) while being attacked by tons of ghouls which you have to fend off so she doesn't die. Sometimes chapters end with boss fights, but not always- just make sure Catherine survives until the end. She usually heads the right way of her own accord, but sometimes gets disorientated by getting hit- eventually she'll stop, look around, and start heading in the right direction again. Most importantly, she has a health meter in the form of hearts in the status bar. There's six hearts, although losing one depends on what hits you- bats and smaller enemies chip away at a heart slowly (one heart can take two hits) while bigger monsters can take a whole heart away at once (and, hilariously, send Catherine catapulting across the screen) so you'd better shoot everything in sight so the poor little waif makes it to the end alive... Of course, you can also shoot Catherine herself, but she's not as battle-hardened as Dr. Don/Dr, Dan from Point Blank- you can hurt her with your bullets. If you're careful, you can shoot her to get her out of even worse danger and get through each chapter slightly faster, but it's risky, especially since you only have three lives (well, credits) to get through the entire game.
The only other notable wrinkle in the mechanics is probably the strangest- while the game is playable with both the standard controller (but seriously, why would you even bother) and the Light Phaser, playing with the gun requires you to use the controller as well. As well as your standard shots, you have a limited supply of Special Shots (get more by shooting
craftily-hidden painfully obvious item caches) that kill everything on-screen, activated by pressing either button on the controller (for dangerous players, we suggest pressing it with your foot, like Time Crisis). Although it seems like a minor thing, you'll need to use your Special Shots carefully- they're best saved for encounters with multiple mobile enemies at once rather than squandered against bigger single foes. The game teaches you to use the Special Shots pretty much from the off, as we will see.
Fortunately for us, Laser Ghost is not the longest game in the world- I'd tie it with Momoko 120% as the shortest game we've given a full play through to- but it can be difficult in certain places if you don't know what to do (and, in one instance, it is almost completely impossible unless you're totally on-point). Still, there's plenty of interesting stuff going on therein, so it more than qualifies for a nice and meaty article. In the interests of disclosure, we'd just like to point out that we have actually played the game on the original hardware with the Light Phaser- not a terribly easy thing to do nowadays, as the gun will only work on old CRT TVs and not an LCD one- but obviously, for the purposes of taking screenshots, we used an emulator with the mouse acting as the gun. It doesn't make the game any easier (in fact, except in one specific instance it makes it harder) but just bear it in mind, yeah?
So, does bustin' make you feel good? If so, let's play Laser Ghost!
In the basement of White Manor, Catherine begins her quest to get her soul back!