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How the Boktai Series Lost Its Identity

A Boktai Retrospective

One of my favorite video games of all time is Boktai for the Game Boy Advance. Now make no mistake when I say "Boktai," I'm only referring to the original game in the series Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand. While I still think the sequels to Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand are enjoyable games, I believe they stray too far from the original to deliver a satisfying follow-up. So, in order to highlight where the Boktai series went wrong, I'll need to break down what changed over the course of the series.

Metal Gear: Ghost Babel

Metal Gear: Ghost Babel

We can't begin to break down the Boktai series without mentioning that it is the brainchild of Hideo Kojima the creator of the Metal Gear series. This is an important fact to touch upon because the biggest influence for Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is the Metal Gear series. 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 that was worked on by three developers that played a key role in the development of Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand

Ikuya Nakamura who did the artwork and character design for Metal Gear: Ghost Babel reprises this role for Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand, but also serves as the director and scenario writer. Hideo Kojima also reprises his role as original story writer/producer from Metal Gear: Ghost Babel  while Shinta Nojiri changes roles from director to planner/scriptwriter. Besides sharing staff credits, Metal Gear: Ghost Babel and Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand are also both stealth games that have similar game mechanics like sidling on walls, a hint system, and shooting. The reason why I'm bringing up the common elements between Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand and Metal Gear: Ghost Babel is because I believe the lack of these elements is what caused the series to lose its way.

Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand

Even though Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is undoubtedly influenced by the Metal Gear series there are also many elements that make it different. Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand isn't just a stealth game, but it also is 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 one gun that can be customized with different parts to stun and kill enemies. Another distinction between Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand and the Metal Gear series is the role of combat because while stealth is rewarded in Boktai the player isn't harshly punished for fighting. The way each game in the Boktai series balances action and stealth is probably the biggest distinguishing factor between them.

If the Metal Gear series is the biggest influence on the Boktai series then another influence albeit smaller would be The Legend of Zelda series. The Boktai series not only has dungeons with locked rooms that can only be open after completing a puzzle or defeating a gauntlet of enemies, but it also has a companion that assists the player much like Navi in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. What makes Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand different from The Legend of Zelda is the inclusion of several smaller dungeons. These smaller dungeons don't contribute to the plot but because many of them are optional and are positioned on forks in the road they allow the player to choose how to progress. Also, much like the missions in Metal Gear: Ghost Babel at the end of each dungeon players are graded based on how stealthily they completed the objective.

Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django

Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django

Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django the sequel to Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand is when the series first shed its Metal Gear: Ghost Babel lineage. This comes as no surprise with Hideo Kojima having his role reduced significantly, only being credited for the original idea and as a producer, with Shinta Nojiri being absent from the credits altogether. Ikuya Nakamura reprises his role as director and scenario writer but is no longer solely responsible for the artwork and characters designs with Nobuyoshi Nishimura and Juntaro Saito taking over the respective roles. While Boktai 2 maintains the look and sound of the original game its game mechanics and structure are very different. 

The customizable gun from Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand has been replaced by three types of weapons (swords, spears, and clubs) that are only capable of killing enemies. This not only removed the option to spare enemies, but also discouraged players from using the stealth in favor of action. Attacking from behind no longer stuns enemies, but instead increases the damage dealt. This, along with the leveling system that raises the player's strength the more they fight, encourages the player to kill enemies rather than stealthily avoiding them. The absence of the ranking system that graded the player based on their performance was the final nail in the coffin for the stealth mechanics. Aside from the combat most of the traveling from the original Boktai has been replaced with a hub area that branches out to all the dungeons in the game making the world of Boktai 2 feel smaller. The number of smaller dungeons has also been reduced greatly and completing them has been made entirely optional effectively removing the non-linear element of progression. The only consolation for less stealth and small dungeons are missions that offer challenges in previous dungeons some of which require stealth.

Boktai 3: Sabata's Counterattack

Boktai 3: Sabata's Counterattack

Boktai 3: Sabata's Counterattack the sequel to Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django is, I believe, the Boktai series' best attempt to reconcile the game mechanics of the previous two games. Ikuya Nakamura returns as director, scenario writer, and character designer while Hideo Kojima maintains the smaller role he played in the development of Boktai 2, picking up the same original idea and producer credits. 

Boktai 3 marks the return of the customizable gun from Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand and, instead of having three different melee weapons, the sword can now perform the attacks of the other two weapons. This change in weaponry makes the combat less repetitive and more dynamic than Boktai 2, giving the player more options to consider during battle. Boktai 3 completely removes the smaller dungeons and, rather than travel by foot, the player rides a motorcycle from the hub area to dungeons. While this does reduce exploration in Boktai 3 to nothing more than a glorified level select, the distance between each dungeon makes the world feel bigger than it did in Boktai 2. The missions from Boktai 2 return in Boktai 3, the one difference being that this time there is a ranking system that grades the player based on how well they completed the objective, similar to Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand.  

Lunar Knights

Lunar Knights

Lunar Knights, the sequel to Boktai 3: Sabata's Counterattack, acts as both a soft reboot and the final game in the Boktai series. Ikuya Nakamura and Hideo Kojima maintain their previous development roles from Boktai 3. At this point in the Boktai series stealth has been completely abandoned in favor of fast-paced action.

In Lunar Knights there are two playable characters the swordsman Lucian who wields three different melee weapons, and the gunslinger Aaron who wields several different ranged weapons. While Lunar Knights deviates the most from the original Boktai, I actually enjoy it more than Boktai 2 because it has new assets and mechanics that were specifically designed for action. The biggest difference to the combat is the quicker pace, exemplified by the flashy combos Lucian can perform and how rapidly Aaron can fire some of his weapons. Each playable character can also dash, which allows them to move faster while running and lock-on to enemies so they don't miss their target. These were both good additions, even though the dash doesn't transition well into combat and the lock-on at times can be a little finicky. Lunar Knights also introduced a shield that can be used to parry enemies if the player blocks attacks at the right time. The lack of smaller dungeons returns from Boktai 3 as well as the level select but players no longer need to ride a motorcycle to travel to dungeons. Missions also return in the form of quests but they no longer include stealth missions and lack the ranking system from Boktai 3.

Now, can I be sure that the Boktai series would have stayed the course after Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand if the previous Metal Gear: Ghost Babel staff had maintained their development roles? I can never know that for sure, but the staff that works on a video game series undeniably has an effect on 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, Hideo 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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