Boktai is not a game that makes itself easy to love.
Its problems begin at first glance: Unlike most GBA games, Boktai came encased in an oversized transparent plastic shell that bulged from the GBA’s cart slot in an ungainly fashion. This isn’t simply a odd visual gimmick, like Donkey Kong 64’s banana-colored cartridge. No, the Boktai bulge is integral to the game experience. That is to say, the entire game is structured around its unconventional cart. This also serves as the source of Boktai’s brilliance, but unfortunately the game’s merits are often lost in the glare of its more obvious role: namely, an able demonstration of just how thin the dividing line between genius and insanity can be.
That prominent physical protuberance is often written off as a mere gimmick, a flimsy shock tactic to catch attention and stand out from a glutted market, but such a callow assessment is giving Boktai short shrift. Few games have ever been as thoughtfully constructed around such an unconventional attribute, and of those, few have been as cleverly designed as Boktai.
The big idea behind Boktai is that it’s basically Metal Gear with vampires. Real vampires, not the silly Romanian transsexuals with a nanomachine-fueled thirst for blood like you get in the actual Metal Gear games. This in itself isn’t a shabby start for a game design, especially given the involvement of director Shinta Nojiri (which effectively makes the game a follow-up to Ghost Babel, all the way down to the heads-up display and post-mission rankings). But no, where Boktai crosses the line between goodness and greatness -- or goodness and unplayability, depending on your perspective -- is in the way its premise in integral to the experience not only on the gameplay level but also in a transcendent, physical form.
Boktai’s cumbersome add-on takes the form of a photovoltaic sensor, a built-in “eye” that reacts to the sun. Step into direct sunlight and the sensor fills an in-game sun gauge; play in the shade (or indoors) and the gauge empties.
The application here should be obvious: Boktai’s hero Django is battling a legion of vampires and zombies; sunlight destroys the undead; ergo, playing the game outdoors in the sun greatly empowers the player. It’s a truly inventive application of the concept of portable gaming; well before wireless-capable handhelds and GPS-enabled gaming phones came along, Boktai played with the concept of location-based design. There had been plenty of other portable games that took advantage of their mobility, of course. Pokémon’s core appeal was the ability to link up with other players’ carts in a way that would have been impossible with a standard console, and the motion sensitivity of Kirby Tilt ‘N Tumble was distinctly shaped around play on a self-contained device. But Boktai went a step further, adding an element of environmental awareness, interacting (however limited its extent) with its surroundings.
The sun’s presence -- and lack thereof, of course -- thus becomes a key factor in the game. The game employs a real-time clock cycle that causes the undead to grow in power at night. It’s an obvious mechanic, yet it becomes far more profound when you realize that it factors in the actual time of sunrise and sunset for your current location and time of year. When dusk approaches in Boktai, it’s not simply a mandate of the game’s cycle. It’s a genuine fact, and in-game night becomes far more ominous when it coincides with real night; you become cut off from the essential power of sunlight, and suddenly those mindless zombies become more of a real threat as you’re forced to conserve your resources until dawn arrives once again.
The sun is a limited and precious resource in Boktai. Django is armed with a weapon called the Gun Del Sol, a solar-powered blaster capable of shredding the undead. The trouble with the Gun Del Sol is that it has limited battery life, and naturally that battery is charged by spending time in actual sunlight: The sun gauge steadily charges the weapon as you play. Remove the sun and you’re forced to dip into Django’s precious reserves. There are pockets of energy scattered across dungeons, but for the most part the time of day and availability of real sunlight are the most essential factors to play.
This has obvious and crippling drawbacks, of course. Boktai is a game that demands to be played during daytime, outdoors, in the sun. This is a frankly counterintuitive approach to gaming; most people prefer to play indoors with the lights low, and quite often at night. And it presumes gamers have access to sunlight, or temperate weather, or free time during daylight hours. None of these things are a given. In fact, I find that living and working in San Francisco, it’s pretty rare for me to have any of these things. And it’s not simply enough to have light, because the cart’s sensor looks for portions of the solar spectrum not covered by standard incandescents or fluorescent lights... which means that you can’t simply play indoors at night, or even in a shaft of sunlight streaming through the window (since those wavelengths are filtered out by most modern windows). Live in Alaska? Don’t expect to play Boktai for half the year.
It’s kind of a chicken-or-egg question, but one can reasoably speculate that the solar sensor was designed as an answer to the fact that the original Game Boy Advance hardware practically required sunlight to be visible. The system’s considerable portable power was rendered somewhat moot by the dimness of the screen, and the ideal condition for playing GBA games really was to sit in direct sun. You can easily visualize someone at Kojima Productions -- maybe even Hideo Kojima himself, given his love of both meta-textual design and hostile inconvenience directed toward players -- excitedly putting two and two together to come up with a game that literally demanded players spend time in the sun. Not only would it enrich the content of the game, it would also allow Boktai’s designers to create richer, darker graphics without fear that players would see it all reduced to a muddy, indistinct mess.
And truth be told, most of the dismay leveled toward Boktai and its sun sensor are moot. For the most part, you can play just fine without sunlight. The random pockets of free energy scattered about are enough to keep the Gun Del Sol slightly charged. And, after all, this is a game with Metal Gear in its DNA. If you’re playing it right, you’re sneaking past foes rather than running around guns akimbo.
Approached as a stealth game, Boktai is fantastic. In fact, it’s probably the ultimate 2D expression of the Metal Gear dynamic. The sequels expanded Django’s arsenal to include melee weapons that didn’t require sunlight, making the scarcity of solar energy less of an issue throughout most of the game. But here, Boktai is predominantly a stealth adventure meant to be played silently; while the sun is Django’s greatest weapon, it’s meant to be hard to come by. The premise of the story is that vampires have conquered the earth and shrouded the world with twilight, and by that measure the difficulty of collecting solar power is deliberate.
Django is grossly outnumbered and outmatched, but he has any number of tricks up his sleeve. A personal favorite is the use of misdirection and subterfuge: While he can knock on the wall to draw enemies to a spot, he can also change the abilities of the Gun Del Sol by equipping different frames that switch its attributes. The Bemani frame (obviously) generates noise, which means it can be used to lure enemies into traps or otherwise distract them. With patient, tactical, silent play, it’s entirely possible to slip through most of the game without worrying about the sun’s availability. For the most part, I played Boktai in the dead of night and did just fine.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to complete Boktai without spending some time in the sun, which means all those complaints about its demands have a degree of validity to them. Easily the worst and most frustrating part of the game comes after each boss fight: Django is forced to drag the “dead” boss’ coffin back through the dungeon to a station questionably known as the Solar Pile. After all, the undead can’t be killed unless you put some effort into it, and the Solar Pile channels sunlight to burn away a defeated foe once and for all. Backtracking through the dungeon at half-speed is an iffy enough design choice. The fact that the coffin slowly creeps away to escape back to its lair if you let go of it makes it worse. But to activate the Solar Pile, you need actual honest-to-god sunlight. Without direct sun, bosses simply can’t be destroyed.
Much as I love the game, this element frustrated even me. My late-night Boktai sessions would usually run an hour or two until I fought a boss, at which point I’d have to put away the system until the next day -- or possibly the following weekend. It’s an artificial barrier, and one for which there is simply no workaround. (Well, OK, the solar cell does respond to blacklights....) You can’t even GameShark yourself an infinite sunlight code, because a full sun gauge will burn out the Gun Del Sol after a few minutes. Kojima is such a bastard.
And yet, despite the fact that Boktai is deliberately designed around something so limiting and oftentimes frustrating, it succeeds in more ways than it fails. In some ways, it’s my favorite Metal Gear game despite not actually being labeled as such; it bears all the earmarks of the franchise, from compelling stealth to film references to high-concept metatextual gimmicks, yet it neatly sidesteps Metal Gear’s most frustrating element, its verbal diarrhea. Boktai has a story to be sure, but it’s presented in brief and mercifully efficient dialogue sequences without excessive monologuing or pretension. The real focus of the game is the action and stealth and exploration, all of which is presented like a more refined, higher-tech version of Ghost Babel. And no colored conveyer belt puzzles!
Even the game’s core gimmick isn’t a bad thing. Being forced to go outdoors to play Boktai actually caused the game to make a lasting impression on me; not only do I remember those late night stealth sessions, but also exploring different parts of my new home, San Francisco, trying to find the most comfortable and advantageous place for Boktai sessions. (Japantown’s Peace Plaza was nice; Yerba Buena Gardens was nicer; Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park was nicest.) When I think of Boktai, I remember those sessions of real-life exploration and relaxation in the afternoon sun.
And I remember the intensity of the game’s final battle, one of the tensest fights of my gaming career: I reached the goddess Hel late on a Sunday afternoon. By the time the battle began, the sky was growing red and the sun was beginning to dip beneath the building across the street. I sat at my apartment’s west-facing window, dashing desperately to defeat Hel before the sun vanished. There was no time to relocate to a better vantage point, and no time to get the battle wrong; I simply had to win or else the game would lay incomplete for at least a day. Determined not to let myself feel rushed and play sloppily as a result, I calmed my nerves and fought... and dealt the final blow moments before the last ray of sunlight disappeared. Relieved, I walked to the back room of the apartment to watch the ending play out... which of course meant that I didn’t have access to the sun for the final cutscene, netting me an imperfect ending. But that was OK -- it simply fueled my enthusiasm to play the game again.
I’m rarely willing to jump through hoops just to be able to play a game. Boktai, though, is something special. It’s a rare masterpiece of both game design and play design. I can hardly blame others for not appreciating its merits. But those who do can enjoy Boktai’s incredible achievement: transforming a crippling shortcoming into a brilliant enhancement.
Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand
Developer: Kojima Productions
Based on: Metal Gear, vampirism, Norse mythology, and the cleverest way to make the most of lousy hardware design.