"A Game Even the SP Can't Shed Light On..."

Konami’s Hideo Kojima certainly deserves credit for trying; goodness knows Boktai must have required an extensive amount of planning, development, and testing to fine-tune its extremely innovative game play. In fact, the Gameboy console itself deserves a pat on the back as well for being the only console developers actually take a chance and experiment with in the first place; where else can you find cartridges with built in rumble features, infra-red data exchange, and now…sunlight detectors?! Bokura no Taiyou (or, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand, as it’s known in English) is definitely groundbreaking, to be sure; unfortunately however, as with most initial forays into the unknown, the finished product leaves quite a bit to be desired.

That Boktai is a fun, captivating, and deep game there is no question. Boktai manages to combine about three different game genres into one: action/adventure, RPG, and strategy. As with an action game, there is a great deal of stuff to do; as with an RPG, there are items to collect and new powers to achieve; as with strategy games, players must not only consider their actions before making them, but also take into account any number of outside factors which may come into play, mainly the sun. With all of these types of elements to go for it, Boktai is not your average cookie-cutter code. In fact, Hideo Kojima deserves an extra special thanks for adding in some very clever nods to the Metal Gear series to Boktai’s already complex game play. Boktai revolves around hunting vampires, a tradition not entirely foreign to the folks at Konami (a certain whip-slinging hero immediately comes to mind). The end of the world is at hand, and darkness begins to envelope the planet, killing off species and creating mayhem. Enter Django (first Dingo, now Django…indeed Konami has an odd kinship towards “D” names), the son of a well versed vampire hunter who has since died. Django is the inheritor of the Gun Del Sol (which, if it actually was a Spanish phrase, would mean “Sun Gun”) and thus the only one who can stop the impending darkness. By using this solar weapon, Django, along with the help of the Sun God, Otenko, can vaporize vampires and set things right with the world.

The experience is greatly heightened by the presence of cutting edge (for Gameboy standards at least) graphics and an even more impressive musical score. It is just amazing to see such detail on such small character sprites, and it truly shows just how talented Konami’s staff is to convey such expressions and emotions with such a limited amount of space to do so. The music is equally expressive, with tracks (such as the title screen’s) lingering in the player’s mind for quite some time after playing. (Heck, I’ve had the title screen’s song in my head since the Japanese release and indeed liked it so much, I immediately paid the fee and downloaded it off DoCoMo’s i-Mode service when the song became available. As a result, one can only guess what my phone ring tone is at the moment).

As alluded to earlier, Django has a wide variety of tactics to use against the undead. Borrowing a few moves from Solid Snake, he is able to flatten himself against walls, knock on them to draw attention, sneak, and do any other number of stealthy maneuvers to avoid being seen by his would be assailants. The assailants, a menagerie of monsters including the pre-requisite zombies, bats, and spiders are all looking for some fresh blood, and thus the ability to move without being seen can be quite useful. Should the monsters find our hero, is is able to use the Gun Del Sol to stun or kill them (more on that later) and possibly even collect items as a result. Should his trigger finger not be quick enough however, the monsters will emit sticky goo that will drain our brave hero’s life. There are, of course, upgrades to be found for the Sun Gun and thus an always present dirth of choices to use against the undead. Should the player ever loose their way, Otenko can always be turned to for some good advice and support. All this is topped off by dead-on controls which are as responsive to the player as they are well-mapped onto their buttons.

Boss encounters in Boktai are handled a bit different than in most games…instead of entering a chamber and attacking, Django must physically drag the given vampire’s coffin OUTSIDE of the castle, place it into a device called a “Pile Driver”, charge up two solar panels, and only then can the hellspawn be vaporized after a usually lengthy battle (hey, even undead monsters want to fight for their chance to live). This process, while indeed ingenious, becomes rather tiresome after a while. When the player isn’t dealing with a coffin seizure, they are still contending with the fact that the vampire box must be dragged outside the evil demon’s castle, a task that always spans many screens and therefore many monsters who would like anything but their master to be taken. But it doesn’t stop there; after the chore of lugging the vampire outside, players would think that would be enough and end the hassle altogether. Unfortunately the process of eliminating the vampire itself is even more of a nightmare: After placing the monster on the Pile Driver (basically a large crucifix with a coffin shape in the place of a cross), Django must then use his Gun Del Sol to energize the solar panels surrounding the coffin and only then will the evil vampire come out and thus be damaged. But, the process takes far longer than one would expect, as the angered antichrist will proceed to not only damage Django, but the solar panels as well. Thus, players must constantly re-energize the solar panels to keep their power (as the solar panels are what damages the vampire), and at the same time, contend with much kicking and punching to boot. But wait, that of course assumes it’s day time out; herein lies the largest flaw in Boktai’s otherwise great master plan.

It’s somewhat ironic that the very thing which gives Botaki its character is that which also ruins the game in the end. Utilizing one of the oddest forms of “real world” interaction-normally stopping with a real time clock-Boktai’s cartridge has a built in solar sensor that actually measures sunlight, real sunlight though, lamps and lights won’t cut it. Sunlight accomplishes many things of course, and in the game there is no exception. When the sun is out, players are able to-when outside of a castle-charge up the Gun Del Sol with natural light instead of using the limited number of recharges available inside the dungeons. Furthermore, the more powerful the sunlight, the more powerful the gun becomes. The catch, however, is that dealing with the vampires (and thus progression itself) can ONLY occur during the day, when the sun is out. What does this mean? Well, essentially Boktai is only playable for a specific portion of the day, and that assumes there is no form of precipitation or any other given weather condition which may obscure the sun’s rays. Furthermore, even if the sun is out the player may not be able to play the game: should the sun be too bright, it becomes quite difficult to see the Gameboy screen, thus the player might have to go into a shady place. This of course, creates an entirely new problem in that there might not be enough sunlight in the shade to do the desired in-game task. The manual suggests playing the game next to a window (assuming it doesn’t absorb UV rays, of course) and that such will be all the light necessary to enjoy the game. Well, that doesn’t exactly work as well as the PR spinners would make their customers believe, and thus Boktai-with all its amazing ideas and innovations-becomes nothing more than a gigantic chore rather than an entertaining experience. In Japan, at least the game comes with a solar card that players can literally hold out in the sun and watch as the card changes color indicating the power of the sun. For whatever reason, Konami failed to include this for the domestic release and thus players must rely solely on the game itself to decide how much sun exists.

Sure the player is still able to drag the vampire onto the Pile Driver during the night, but who even wants to play the game during the dark as the game places so many handicaps on the player? (Monsters, for example, can only be stunned, not killed; as mentioned earlier the sun gun can ONLY be charged at a specific place in the dungeon, etc). Furthermore, what about those gamers, such as myself, who really don’t have time to play videogames during the day? I am stuck in classes for a majority of my days, and then when I get out the sun is already down. Even when I don’t have classes though, I really don’t feel like playing a videogame on my free time. I will generally play games at night, and thus Boktai is rendered almost useless according to my habits. During this past summer break when I played the import, I would often venture to the roof of my apartment smack in the middle of Tokyo’s unbearably hot sun and attempt to play the game, only to find the exact problem alluded to earlier: the sun was SO bright I could not even make out what was occurring on screen. And let’s all be a bit honest here, unless you’re in grade school and have time during recess, does anyone truly want to spend a good portion of their day sitting under the hot sun just to play a videogame?

Boktai has a wide variety of features and offerings to make it a true winner, but the dynamic of the sun-mandated game play truly puts a fast cap on the fun. It is quite difficult to say how this issue could have been avoided, as should the game accept artificial sunlight, there would be no reason to even have a night time mode, though it could still exist if the game used an accelerated version of the real-time clock (similar to that used in Natsume’s Harvest Moon series perhaps). Then again, it would remain to be seen how the backlighting from the Gameboy Advance SP would play into that situation…Perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for the advent of solar gaming, though as any tan-less gamer can attest to, being forced to enjoy their habit in the sun might not be such a bad thing after all. Thus, the only real accomplishment Konami has vested into Boktai’s release is to increase the world-wide cases of skin cancer, something that really isn’t really fun at all…

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 09/18/03, Updated 09/18/03

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