By request of lothis
Boktai may be the world’s most optimistic game. Turn on your Game Boy Advance while sitting in sunlight and at the title screen you’ll hear your faithful companion Otenko exclaim, “Today is a great Boktai day!”
But then, there’s a lot that was unique about Boktai. Too unique, perhaps. It offered a rare intersection between game and technology in a truly meaningful way, revolving around a fascinating metagame that lent a brilliant twist to the already tired (back in 2003!) themes of zombies and vampires. A special sensor built into the cartridge itself could detect sunlight — not light, sunlight — and the presence of solar illumination in the real world translated into purifying solar power in the game world. Play at night and the game would become vastly more difficult; play outdoors and you’d never lack for strategic options.
Boktai was Hideo Kojima doing what he does best, minus all the things that sometimes make Hideo Kojima games kind of gross. There was no weird, misogynistic sexuality to Boktai, no tortured cinematic cutscenes that strained patience and suspension of disbelief. It stripped the idea of stealth action to its essence, then added a clever technological element that also had a practical real-world application. Development on Boktai began before the Game Boy Advance SP launched, back when you practically did need to step out into the sun if you wanted to see what you were playing. So why not embrace the GBA’s glaring limitation and build game mechanics around them?
The action of Boktai sprawled across a strange, post-apocalyptic world ruled by vampires who had figured out how to enshroud the planet and make sunlight a rare commodity. The setting blended science fiction, spaghetti westerns (the protagonist was named Django, because Kojima loves his movies), and Norse mythology into a fascinatingly unique whole. Django toted a solar-powered pistol, its ammunition limited not by what you could scavenge from arsenal rooms but rather from the actual sun, holding your system aloft.
Boktai could only have existed on a portable system; who could take a console outdoors? It could only have existed on a system that worked off cartridges. In fact, in hindsight it reads like a love letter to the possibilities inherent in physical media. Digital distribution is cheap and convenient, but you can’t download a solar sensor attachment from the eShop. Auxiliary integrated chipsets fell out of fashion after the Super NES era, so Boktai (and, later, WarioWare Twisted! and Drill Dozer) gave us a small, brief window back to that halcyon era when games could exceed the finite boundaries of their host hardware.
Look, we all know the sunlight mechanic wasn’t perfect. For those of us who worked during the daytime and reserved our playtime for the evening — basically anyone beyond college age — Boktai posed a nearly impossible dilemma: How do you complete a game that requires you to be in daylight if you can only play at night? (Unless you have a black light, but let’s not distract ourselves with meaningless digressions.) For those who live in the Arctic Circle, when the sun barely rises above the horizon for many days out of the year, the required resource doesn’t even exist. And who wants to go sit outside to play a video game in the Arctic Circle anyway?
Yet Boktai‘s ambition trumped its logistical frustrations. The sun sensor transformed a great adventure into a a great, unique adventure. How you played, and when, became nearly as important as what you did when you played. You needed to consider the timing of your boss encounters, since Boktai‘s bosses couldn’t be fully defeated in absence of sunlight. Not only that, but if you quit the game after using Django to drag a boss’ coffin (no, seriously, Kojima loves movies) to the point where Otenko had erected the solar-powered weapon capable of completely destroying that foe then returned the next day, the boss’ boxed-up corpse will have dragged itself back toward its lair in the interim. So it was better to plan boss lair expeditions during daylight hours, when you’d be properly armed to finish that target off once and for all.
An unreasonable expectation? Consider this: MMO fanatics don’t have any trouble scheduling raids. FPS nuts are cool with timing their matches with their clanmates’ availability. Sure, Boktai lacks the social multiplayer component involved with those genres, but the concept of making an effort to play a game at a particular time isn’t that alien.
And it’s worth making that effort. The Boktai games were the last true expression of Hideo Kojima’s original concept of stealth action, more refined and sophisticated than the 2D Metal Gear games yet lacking the excess and complexity that characterize his contemporary work. Boktai was the last of a dying breed in many ways, and it’s worth experiencing even now. If I could justify making this one of our USgamer Club selections without inciting a riot, I totally would. As it is, the simple act of writing this post prompted me to unpack my Game Boy Advance library and plug the Boktai cart into my DS Lite. Just in case the mood strikes me to wander over to the park across the street sometime. Tomorrow looks like it’s going to be a great Boktai day.