One of my favorite video game series of all time is Boktai. Boktai is an action role-playing game series renowned for its solar sensor gimmick. However, out of the Boktai series, I only consider the original game Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand to be a classic. While I still enjoy the sequels, I believe they stray too far from the original to deliver a satisfying follow-up. More specifically, the sequels to Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand lack the stealth and replayability of the original.
As a brainchild of Hideo Kojima, it should not be surprising that Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand inherits its stealth mechanics from his most famous creation, Metal Gear. Some might even consider Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand a spiritual successor to Metal Gear Ghost Babel, another handheld stealth game created by many of the same staff. Just like Metal Gear, the goal of Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is to get through stages without getting noticed by enemies. Usually, you accomplish this by killing or stunning the undead from a safe vantage point with your signature weapon, the Gun Del Sol. Even without the Gun Del Sol, you can slip past enemies by sidling on walls and knocking on them to draw their attention away from your path. While getting found by enemies is more forgiving than in Metal Gear, the undead becoming aggressive makes completing dungeons harder. At the end of each dungeon, you are graded and rewarded based on how quickly, efficiently, and stealthily you completed it.
Hideo Kojima games are known for their attention to detail that lends themselves to unique playthroughs, and Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is no exception. Alongside the Immortal dungeons that every player must complete, there are optional Undead dungeons positioned on forks in the road. Since every Undead dungeon contains unique treasures, your choices are meaningful because they determine what you'll have access to at the Immortal dungeons. One of these Undead Dungeons is the Azure Sky Tower, a 99-floor dungeon that bestows each player randomly with one of four elemental Emblems that opens corresponding doors in the dungeon. There are even two Immortal Dungeons (Firetop Mountain and Permafrost) that you can complete in either order, with your choice affecting the difficulty of each. After completing Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand, you receive a password that can be entered into the official website, revealing artwork that embodies the overall results of your playthrough.
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. While Boktai 2 maintains the look and sound of the original, its game mechanics and structure are very different. Replacing the Gun Del Sol are three types of melee weapons that can only kill enemies. Attacking from behind no longer stuns enemies but instead increases the damage dealt. A new leveling system that 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, which makes the world of Boktai 2 feel smaller. The amount of Undead dungeons is also significantly lower and completely optional, severely limiting the replayability of Boktai 2. The only consolation for less stealth and Undead dungeons are missions that offer challenges in previous dungeons, some of which require stealth.
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. Shin Bokura no Taiyō is the only game in the Boktai series that never saw a release outside 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 introduced Trance, a powered-up form attained by dealing or receiving enough damage to fill a gauge. Undead dungeons are gone, and a motorcycle mini-game has replaced the foot travel from the hub area to Immortal dungeons. While this reduces exploration in Shin Bokura no Taiyō to nothing more than a glorified level selection, the distance between each dungeon makes the world feel more expansive than 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.
Lunar Knights, the fourth entry in the Boktai series, acts as both a soft reboot and the final game. At this point in the Boktai series, fast-paced action has completely replaced stealth. In Lunar Knights, you play as the swordsman Lucian wielding melee weapons and gunslinger Aaron wielding ranged weapons. The most significant difference in 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 with precise timing. The lack of Undead dungeons, Trance, and level select returns from Shin Bokura no Taiyō, albeit with no motorcycle segments. Missions also return as quests but no longer include stealth missions and lack the ranking system from Shin Bokura no Taiyō.
I have always held to the position that the Boktai series might have stayed the course if Hideo Kojima continued to be involved in the same capacity as the original. 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 continued, “In retrospect, I do realize that it was a very challenging project to place in the other peoples’ hands.” It also might be the case that the crossover between Boktai and Mega Man Battle Network that started after the release of Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand pressured Konami to keep the development cycle as short as its counterparts.