A handheld console was even more conspicuous when people didn’t all have smartphones. An adult who stared at a little screen in public did so with nerd-heart on sleeve. In 2003, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand required you to take your Game Boy Advance out into the world and admit who you really were.
The sun is in your hand
What makes this game such a curiosity is the oversized cartridge’s clear plastic case, which protrudes from the GBA’s slot and gathers sun rays into a UV sensor — perfect for summer gaming.
There are ROM patches to fake the sunlight in an emulator, but this is definitely a game to be played on the original plastic. However, on the practical retrogamer's favourite AGS-101 (or any SP or the Micro) the bottom-sided cartridge might require a grip adjustment to keep your hands clear of the sensor. You might consider using a DS for its extra width, but it’s not worth subjecting yourself to the original GBA screen just to get the cartridge on top.
So about the game
Forget the sunlight sensor for now. What’s this actually about?
Boktai is an isometric vampire-hunting action-adventure with basic stealth elements. It was produced by Hideo Kojima, looks slick, and is not shy about borrowing from Metal Gear for the sneaking mechanics. The weapon upgrade system exemplifies the vaguely steam-punk aesthetic, which touches enough tropes to be fun, but tweaks them enough not to be clichéd.
The presentation is still fresh in 2014 — maybe fresher than in 2003, since pixel art is at the peak of yet another resurgence. You could easily imagine a Boktai iPhone port being successful today, maybe combining weather data and ambient light sensing to bodge the sunlight conditions. (Or maybe UV sensors will be the next big thing…) However, it would probably be ruined with a free-to-play model selling more sunlight instead of making you wait until morning.
Let’s not go there: 2003 was an innocent time.
What you actually do
The structure is as follows: go to a castle; sneak past undead creatures; shoot some undead creatures with your solar gun; find a vampire’s coffin; drag the occupied coffin outside; toast it with sunlight; repeat.
Stealth comes in because your gun’s solar power is a precious resource. You can scan the mazy levels within a screen of your character by holding L or R, then you can flatten against walls and tap your hand to distract enemies. It’s a simple hide-distract-move manoeuvre thoroughly QA’d by Solid Snake, and it’s fun.
In a further twist, you can’t run or shoot while you drag coffins, so your exit routes need careful observation and planning.
The sunlight mechanic
You have a weapon that fires sunlight. If your character’s standing outside or near a window, and if it’s sunny in the real world, then sunlight pours in on-screen and he can charge up. Sunlight is also stored in batteries located in the castles, where you can recharge a limited number of times when direct sunlight is unavailable. A few situations also require direct sunlight on top of what’s stored in your gun.
Also in the cartridge is a “real-time clock” (otherwise known as a “clock”, right?). Monsters are more active or less, depending on the time of day, and certain goals can only be achieved at the right times.
So when do we get to the boring conceptual analysis?
The effect of the UV sensor and clock mechanics is that you really are best off carrying your GBA around with you and finding time for gaming as you go about your life. Which is fun. There’s nothing clever-clever or meta about Boktai tying the real world into the game.
It’s a good, traditional game from a quality developer, which got good reviews in 2003 and easily holds up now. What’s more, Boktai assumes that you have your Game Boy with you at all times and are always willing to play. That’s an assumption that makes a nerd feel at home — even when you have to go outside.
So no theory today, just a recommendation for summer.