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How the 'Boktai' Series Lost Its Identity

by Yaw about a year ago in handheld
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A 'Boktai' Retrospective

One of my favorite video games of all time is Boktai for the Game Boy Advance. Now make no mistake, the Boktai I am referring to is the original game in the series Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand. While I still enjoy the sequels, I believe they stray too far from the original to deliver a satisfying follow-up. However, to explain where I feel the Boktai series went wrong, I must recount what changed with each iteration.

The True Origin

I cannot begin to analyze the Boktai series without mentioning that it is the brainchild of Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear series. An important fact to touch upon because the most significant influence for Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is Metal Gear. However, the Metal Gear game that shares its DNA with Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand the most is Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, a Game Boy Color title developed by Konami staff that served a crucial role in its development. Ikuya Nakamura, character designer for Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, reprises this role for Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand while also serving as the director and scenario writer. Hideo Kojima also reprises his role as original story writer and producer from Metal Gear: Ghost Babel, while Shinta Nojiri switched from director to planner and scriptwriter. Besides sharing staff, both are stealth games with similar game mechanics like sidling on walls and shooting. Also, much like the missions in Metal Gear: Ghost Babel at the end of each dungeon, the player is ranked based on how stealthily they completed the objective. I mention the common elements between Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand and Metal Gear: Ghost Babel because I believe the lack of these elements is what caused the series to lose its identity.

The Beginning

Even though Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand takes influence from Metal Gear, many elements make it different. Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is both a stealth game and an action RPG with a gimmick that allows the actual sun to interact with the in-game world. Instead of the large arsenal of weapons available in the Metal Gear series, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand instead opts for the Gun Del Sol, a customizable gun that can stun and kill enemies. Another distinction is the role of combat because while Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand rewards stealth, fighting is also a viable option. The most distinguishing factor between both games is how they balance combat and stealth. If Metal Gear is the most significant influence on the Boktai series, then another would be The Legend of Zelda. Much like The Legend of Zelda, dungeons in Boktai have locked rooms that only open after solving a puzzle or defeating a gauntlet of enemies. The Boktai series also has Otenko, a companion that assists the player much like Navi in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. What makes the dungeons in Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand different is the inclusion of Undead dungeons. Undead dungeons are smaller dungeons positioned on forks in the road allowing for non-linear progression.

The New Direction

Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django, the second entry in the Boktai series, is when the games first shed their Metal Gear lineage. This change comes as no surprise with Hideo Kojima having his role reduced significantly, with Shinta Nojiri being absent from the credits altogether. Ikuya Nakamura reprises his roles from Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand but is no longer solely responsible for the artwork and character designs. While Boktai 2 maintains the look and sound of the original, its game mechanics and structure are very different. Instead of the Gun Del Sol, there are three types of melee weapons that are only capable of killing enemies. Attacking from behind no longer stuns enemies but instead increases the damage dealt. A new leveling system that strengthens the player the more they fight, which rewards killing enemies rather than stealthily avoiding them. The absence of the ranking system was the final nail in the coffin for the stealth mechanics. A hub area that branches out to all the dungeons reduces travel making the world of Boktai 2 feel smaller. The amount of Undead dungeons is also significantly lower and completing them is optional, removing the non-linear element of progression. The only consolation for less stealth and Undead dungeons are missions that offer challenges in previous dungeons, some of which require stealth.

The Compromise

Shin Bokura no Taiyō: Gyakushū no Sabata, the third entry in the Boktai series, was the best attempt at reconciling the game mechanics of the previous two games. Ikuya Nakamura and Hideo Kojima both reprise their roles from Boktai 2. Shin Bokura no Taiyō stands as the only game in the Boktai series to never be released outside of Japan. The customizable Gun Del Sol is back along with the sword, but it can now perform the attacks of the other two melee weapons. Shin Bokura no Taiyō completely removes the Undead dungeons and, rather than travel by foot, the player rides a motorcycle from the hub area to the dungeons. While this does reduce exploration in Shin Bokura no Taiyō to nothing more than a glorified level select, the distance between each dungeon makes the world feel more expansive than it did in Boktai 2. The missions from Boktai 2 return in Shin Bokura no Taiyō, the one difference being a ranking system that grades the player based on their performance, similar to Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand.

The Reboot

Lunar Knights, the fourth entry in the Boktai series, acts as both a soft reboot and final game. Ikuya Nakamura and Hideo Kojima maintain their previous development roles from Shin Bokura no Taiyō. At this point in the Boktai series, fast-paced action has completely replaced stealth. There are two playable characters in Lunar Knights Lucian, a swordsman who wields melee weapons, and Aaron, a gunslinger who wields ranged weapons. The most significant difference to the combat is the quicker pace, exemplified by the flashy combos and rapid-fire weapons. Both characters have a dash, which allows them to close in on enemies faster, and a lock-on to avoid missing their target. Lunar Knights also introduced a shield that can parry enemies if the player blocks attacks at the right time. The lack of Undead dungeons and level select returns from Shin Bokura no Taiyō, albeit with no motorcycle segments. Missions also return in the form of quests but, they no longer include stealth missions and lack the ranking system from Shin Bokura no Taiyō.

Now can I be sure the Boktai series would have stayed the course after Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand if the previous staff that worked on Metal Gear: Ghost Babel had maintained their development roles? I can never know that for sure, but it is undeniable that the developers that work on a game series affect its direction. When asked about the Boktai series in a Nintendo Power interview, Hideo Kojima responded, “Boktai was … an idea that I had been fond of for many years. Ideally, I should have handled the game design, script, and direction myself,” After praising the development team, Kojima went on to say, “In retrospect, I do realize that it was a very challenging project to place in the other peoples’ hands.”

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About the author

Yaw

imposter syndrome

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