Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand – Review

I can do without a lot of the pseudo-religious preachiness that certain games inflict on the player in the form of hefty non-interactive dialogue. While a game can spout out socially relevant and morally suggestive dialogue all it wants, it's just as easy for gamers to impatiently scroll through the text while letting their eyes wander around the room and not paying any attention to the message that the game is so painstakingly trying to convey.

Until now.

Boktai is a concept—I refuse to use the word gimmick—that exploits interactivity from a new angle by taking advantage of the Game Boy Advance (GBA)'s portability through decidedly unorthodox means. By way of a solar panel built in to the game cartridge, players are required to harness sunlight and then use it in the game to power the hero's weapon and destroy undead enemies. The sun also affects how the game looks, and an internal clock keeps track of the time of day so that the in-game environment will mimic that of the "real world."

The key here is that the GBA is used to physically reinforce the deliberate social and spiritual messages that the game contains. Boktai's producer, Hideo Kojima, is well-known for his philosophy that videogames should be more than just things to kill time with. His games have been critically admired for the social issues they raise, if not always for having tip-top gameplay. The theme put forward in Boktai is that the sun represents life and all the good things that come with it, in contrast with the decay and darkness of the immortals and undead. The immortals exist forever in an unaltered state, while beings of the sun live and die, wake and sleep, in the cycle of night and day that the sun provides. It's healthier to observe the cycle of the sun, the game asserts, than to exist statically as an immortal. It's healthier for the hero, and it's healthier for the gamer, too.

If you aren't interested in the message Boktai is pushing, too bad. You will be by the time you finish the game. Tuning out dialogue is one thing, but it's quite another matter when the player finds him or herself required to physically act out (and thereby reinforce) the game's message. During the course of Boktai, the player is literally forced to go outside and stand in the sun to fill the in-game light meter via the solar panel, not only to charge up the hero's gun, but to win boss battles that require exposing the creatures to sunlight. The player has no choice but to become more aware, if he or she wasn't already, of the daily cycle of the sun: when it rises, when it's at its most powerful, and when it sets.

Playing Boktai therefore resembles a kind of ritualistic, primitive form of sun worship, and it's no coincidence that it's the same religion that the game's characters practice and preach as being correct. I was conditioned to rejoice, on some sort of level anyway, each time the sun broke through a cloud and its rays pumped up the game's light-meter. I also learned to fear the setting sun, knowing that the impending darkness would render me powerless against my foes (and signal the end of the gaming session until the next sunrise.)

Far from being a commuter's time-waster, Boktai deliberately makes life less convenient. It interrupts and influences my daily schedule, forcing me into spaces I might not normally go, such as out of my chair into the chilly Canadian autumn to huddle on the porch and fight that boss as my fingers slowly numb from the cold, or forcing me to postpone boss battles as my bus arrives, since the solar panel doesn't detect artificial light and wouldn't even catch the sun coming through the window (despite what I've heard to the contrary, I could never get it to work).

Shortly after getting Boktai, my area was hit by the aftermath of hurricane Isabel, and play-time was spotty for days due to the rain and clouds. The GBA suddenly became a chore instead of the pick-up-and-play convenience that I was used to. I began taking a back-up game for those frequent times when Boktai would have to be set aside because environmental conditions made it impossible to continue. In short: the game is manipulative, and by being so ties in directly to Kojima's vision. I didn't use Boktai to kill time with; rather, Boktai allowed itself to be accessed when the pre-set conditions it had laid down were favorable.

Boktaiis obviously Kojima's baby, and the fact that such a daring (and therefore financially risky) product can get released is a testament to the fact that name-recognition is slowly becoming more of an influence in videogame publication. The front of Boktai's box actually says "Produced by Hideo Kojima," right there alongside the Nintendo Seal of Quality and the Konami logo. However the packaging still also falls back on marketable catch-phrases like "Solar Powered Fun!" to try and sell the product.

The duality on the box between whether to push a fun game or a man's artistic vision is the same struggle I had trying to attach a score to such a game. As games go, Boktai is a pretty standard isometric adventure where the hero, a boy named Django, must explore dungeons and purify them of immortal creatures by harnessing the power of the sun just like his father before him (in true RPG tradition).

Django's gun can be fitted with various lenses and filters to alter its attack characteristics. Head-on fighting is rare; instead, the game takes cues from Metal Gear Solidby giving Django the ability to flatten himself against a wall, tap on it to draw the enemy's attention, and then sneak out of danger.

The dungeons where Django spends the majority of the game are unfortunately quite bland. There is very little to set one apart from the next, except that some of them use gimmicky fire and ice themes (I'll use the word in this context whole-heartedly), complete with lava barriers and slippery surfaces. Because I found no motivation to explore some of the optional dungeons for this reason, the game clocked in at just over 10 hours.

What it comes down to is the sad fact that I can count on both hands, with fingers left over, the number of original GBA games there are (excluding ports, sequels and licensed franchises). That's why it's impossible to ignore the significance of Boktai. It exposes what a chronically under-explored medium portable gaming really is, and demonstrates the potential that exists when a creator is given some space to indulge his vision. Sure, it's unbalanced and at times inconvenient, but I'll take Boktai and games like it over Super Nintendo Entertainment System ports any day. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.