• Boktai Review - Nintendo GBA (Bokura no Taiyo)

    There’s something about gimmicks that appeals to the inner child, or imbecile, in all of us. We clamor over every newly released console, limited edition, or MP3 player, even if the only difference between it and our existing hardware is little more than a fancy paint job, or superfluous new feature.

    Those who see themselves as more reasoned gamers might baulk at this magpie mentality, but they’d do well to take on board that sometimes a mere ‘gimmick’ can bring fresh ideas and potentially open new paths of gaming development.

    Hideo Kojima is a shrewd fellow, despite what critics of the Metal Gear Solid 2 plot might argue, and recognised that past cartridge peripherals for the Gameboy handhelds have been a mixed batch at best. Rumble packs, seen in games like Perfect Dark and Pokemon Pinball, were not only oversized but suffered from a distinct lack of power; the throaty rumblings of the Dualshock controller became a trill buzzing, like that of an angry wasp, which neither satisfied gamers nor added to the experience.

    Boktai’s solar sensor has an immediate advantage over past efforts, in that it is an unobtrusive new technology. The sensor itself makes the cartridge only slightly larger than normal titles and adds no weight, so far so good. The first, slight hiccup for would-be importers lies in localization, after asking you to set the date and time, Boktai questions you as to which U.S area you reside in. Such information is used to determine times of sunrise and sunset, but to U.K gamers presents an unusual problem.

    Settling on the reasonably neutral city of Washington, this reviewer found the times of sunrise and sunset out only by a matter of twenty minutes or so.

    Onto the game itself, then.

    Boktai’s story revolves around the son of a famous vampire hunter, and his inheritance of the ‘gun del sol’, a weapon which is charged by sunlight and used to repel undead minions. Set during the ‘age of darkness’, much of the landscape has been laid to waste and almost all of the inhabitants transformed into undead by meddling immortals, and it is against these immortal vampires that you must fight.

    Customisation of the gun del sol means that you will be able to use a certain lens or frame for any needed occasion, once they have been collected of course, and even secure a weapon which, while significantly weaker than the solar bullets, can be used at night.

    Gameplay is also helped along by Master Otenko, a spirit of the sun, who pops up during critical points in the game, and when you interact with certain panels, to offer guidance and advice. It’s a welcome feature, as at first various aspects of interacting with the sunlight can seem slightly overwhelming, but when you grow used to them Boktai can offer quite a unique gaming experience.

    The amount of sunlight the sensor is receiving is indicated by a bar eight blocks long, which rests beneath your weapon’s energy level. If playing inside you can expect to reach two bars maximum, which is certainly sufficient, but gaming with Boktai out in the open sunshine gives you more of a feel for what Kojima was trying to achieve. Your weapon can be recharged freely if you’re outside a building in game, but once your character becomes lost in the depths of dungeons and castles new elements come into play.

    Shafts of sunlight, beaming through windows, can be stepped into at certain points within the castle to not only recharge your weapon but provide limited protection from undead enemies. There are also a number of ‘solar stations’ scattered throughout these areas which can store and distribute solar energy, meaning that if you find yourself with a surplus of such energy you can store a set amount in these stations for later use.

    Such rationing of solar energy becomes a must if you intend to play Boktai at night, during which you will find yourself resorting to the game’s stealth elements in preference to firing a shot at all. In a sly nod to MGS, your character can flatten himself against walls, creep along them, and knock to gain the attention of nearby enemies. These cat and mouse tactics become necessary to elude the ghoul enemies that populate each castle, although other foes track purely through sound so the addition of metal surfaces to the castle and dungeon floors increases the tension later on.

    The number of mental puzzles provided is quite refreshing, and a welcome change from the usual ‘pull lever A to open point B’ obstacles. The majority of these are numerical brainteasers, meaning you must step on digits in a certain sequence or move numerical blocks to form a calculation. While none of these challenges are ever allowed to become frustrating, due mostly to Master Otenko offering advice when you repeatedly fail, they provide a welcome break from the action and constant dungeon crawling.

    The only thing which cannot be achieved at night is the total elimination of an end of level boss, as this requires the use of solar deflectors which require sunlight to operate. As every boss must be fought in two forms this means you can force them back into their coffin, which must be then dragged to the deflector device which is known as a ‘piledriver’, but you won’t be able to deliver a killing blow until the sun comes back up.

    When the offending vampire has been destroyed, gameplay reverts back to a world map, which, although it may sound like an inviting prospect, only really allows you to travel from dungeon to dungeon. There is a welcome depth, however, in the inclusion of the ‘solar tree’, at which you can plant various items and they will then grow, the speed of which is determined by how much sun they receive, into new supplies or entirely new devices depending on how you inter-breed them.

    Boktai could not be accused of being unable to survive without the solar sensor, although it does feel as though the focused clarity of Kojima’s goal might have prevented it from becoming a great game rather than a very accomplished one. An example in point is the world map, if a sprinkling of towns with beleaguered inhabitants, speaking of the nightmarish times and offering up some side quests, were added then it would have helped to alleviate the constant dungeon crawling and made the game itself more appealing to a wider audience.

    Such an admission is a shame, as otherwise Boktai presents a very tight package. It is graphically quite strong, rivaling the last and best of the SNES RPGs, with bright, vibrant colours and a number of nice effects. Similarly, sound is professionally done, with sparingly used samples of speech and stirring in-game music, but in the end the lack of variation does drag Boktai down despite how well it otherwise performs.

    There is much to enjoy here, and running out into the garden to gain enough extra sunlight to defeat a boss is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. However it’s impossible not to play without thinking of the potential for refinement, and, hopefully, a sequel which provides a broader range.

    Gimmick? Perhaps, but Boktai does enough, and achieves enough, to argue the point otherwise. Besides, sometimes it can just be enjoyable to give into that inner child, or imbecile, and embrace the novelty.

    The novelty being, in Boktai’s case, that it offers more than just a gimmick.

    Review by Ian Clements
    Score: 7/10
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Golgo's Avatar
      Golgo -
      Lovely game, this. Spent hours hanging waiting for the sun to come out, then squinting at the uselsss GBA screen when it did. Kojima mentalism at its best.
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