Bokosuka Wars (NES) review
"Fear. Dread. BOKOSUKA. "
Fear. Dread. BOKOSUKA.
In some circles, The Worst Game Of All Time.
I'd heard rumours that to even whisper half of this game's title aloud would cause all gamers in a 30 mile radius to instantly drop dead from an acute dose of existential angst. There were even tests performed by the US military to see if the so-called 'Bokosuka Mention' could be used as a first-strike weapon against hackers.
The preternatural terrors of this Nintendo game have been documented in various arcane writings. The first of these was the disturbed testament of a man known as Pat Uhler. Uhler's work was later verified by a scholar inexplicably known as 'CheezMonky X'. Others queued in turn to describe the Bokosuka horrors which, like most Lovecraftian monsters, were apparently indescribable. And ultimately as a result of time spent becoming infatuated with these strange artifacts, the madness fevered my own brain as well. I just had to know the truth about Bokosuka Wars! I had to play it!
I tracked the game itself to a mouldering tomb in Japan and was surprised to find the desolate place unguarded. Well, not that surprised, given that %99 of gamers would apparently prefer to out themselves as Morris dancers than play Bokosuka Wars. Lara Croft was hired to retrieve the game as a formality, but unfortunately she died when she tried to squeeze her freak anatomy through a ten-inch wide crevasse. Thank goodness for infinite lives. She was right as rain again afterwards, but I did have to go and pull the darn game out of the tomb myself.
And now that I have finally played and, at times, enjoyed Bokosuka Wars, I must say this:
'Rumours of this game's atrociousness have been greatly exaggerated.'
''A violet by a mossy stone half hidden from the eye''
Wordsworth wasn't referring to that constantly dying Lucy woman in this line, he was actually telling us about Bokosuka Wars over a century before it existed!
Okay that's not true, and I probably insulted the memory of Wordsworth by bringing him into this review. But after putting a solid effort into working out how to play this game - and I believe that not knowing how it works is %70 of the cause of everyone's pain - I was surprised to find that the oft-maligned Bokosuka Wars is a solidly addictive strategy game and a major challenge... at least for one level. It's way too hard to be very replayable, but the goal of winning my first Bokosuka War proved engrossing in a way I've not encountered for quite awhile.
In the strange fantasy world of Bokosuka Wars, two forces are at war. Don't ask me who, how or why, and especially do not ask me what Bokosuka is or what it even means, because I don't know. What I do know is that we are in control of the forces of Good. I'm sure we're the good guys because our army consists of peasants and knights and is commanded by a white knight-come-bunny with a magic wand. The other side has very angry-looking warriors for starters (Check out the tension in those eyebrows. They could really use some relaxation tapes!) and slavering monsters in three flavours, who are all led by a blob of a king with a slobbery blue tongue. Disgusting!
The battlefield is viewed from an overhead perspective and terrain is laid out in grid fashion as per the Ultima games or numerous computer-based war and strategy games. Strips at the top and bottom of the screen are set aside for the display of status information regarding your forces. The distance to the heart of the enemy's castle is 600 metres or 600 grid squares as the crow flies from east to west. Believe me, this will be the hardest 600 metres you ever tried to walk.
Initially you have control of just one character. This is your hero, your commander, the leader of your army... though I'll just call him the 'hero' from now on, because I think of him more as a facilitator than as some crazy macho sergeant. In fact I think our character could almost be female, or at least in androgynous territory. There's a very peaceful vibe coming off our small white character graphic, a graphic which looks as though it would be right at home in a Miffy cartoon.
In any case, if your hero dies it's instantly Game Over and you lose the war, hence our desire to minimise the hero's personal involvement in combat. The challenge of the game is to cultivate and sustain an army which will protect your hero and fight for him as he tries to survive the hazardous journey of 600 metres to the enemy's castle. There, you must slay the enemy king to win the war.
Like many great wars before it, this one begins in a sparse forest. A two-voice song starts playing to get you in the Bokosuka Mood (TM). It's got some cute parallel chords and a 'ye olde medieval fair' style about it, and I can only hope that you will find it adorable because it loops forever during play. Oh, you want my opinion? Well personally I like it. It's succinct enough that it can be repeated 300 times without slaying me. As for you, it depends on where you stand on cutesy mantras.
Using the pad you can walk your hero around in the four main compass directions. There is no movement animation in this game. Characters constantly wiggle on the spot in 2-frame animations, but they just zip from square to square when moving about. I can see how gamers who mistakenly thought this was an action game might been appalled by this, but it's not really. It's a strategy and war game, and the no-frills treatment simply emphasises the positions of the characters on the grid, which is a good thing. Although the enemies can and do move constantly in real time, they can never actually attack your hero or any of your characters. This is THE major strategic consideration. All battles must be initiated by yourself, and battles can be entirely avoided by pinning enemies behind walls of your own men, thus creating a clear pathway for your hero to continue along the battlefield.
Now here comes the first charming touch in this game. Your army is partly amassed by transforming the scenery into friendly characters. You start the game with 50 charges in your magic wand. By bumping against isolated features in the scenery - trees, shrubs, rocks, cacti, walls - you can check them for hidden units. If you're lucky, the scenic feature disappears, a charge is expended and your friend is revealed, ready to aid you in this Bokosuka War. The downside is that after multiple games of Bokosuka Wars, you'll find constantly having to bump into all of the scenery very tedious.
There are two kinds of friends you might unleash: peasants and knights. Peasants are numerous and weak, but make up for this by waving their arms up and down patriotically, and also by having cute little bubble heads. Knights are rare, quite strong in battle and have the ability to open the peasant-filled prison cells you'll find as you make for the enemy stronghold.
Every character in the game, including your hero and all of the enemies, has a Kill Strength. Well I'M going to call it Kill Strength, or KS, because the symbol onscreen is a letter 'K', and because I can! When you steer any of your units into a bad guy, a fight commences between the two. 'Biff' and 'Wham' styled icons flash on the square for about 3 seconds, alternating with a letter 'B' (B for Battle? B for Bokosuka?) as swirly noises are heard. Invisible dice are rolled RPG-style, the two units' KSes are figured in and a winner is determined. The loser is immediately vaporised off the map. If the winner was a friendly unit, its KS increases by 10! Thus battle experience makes your units tougher. And after winning several battles, a unit will evolve, providing a dramatic jump in its KS and a visual transformation. Peasants turn into meaner yellow peasants with dangerously wide heads (like Lara Croft, they won't be squeezing through any crevasses soon) and blue-purple knights turn into cool yellow knights.
Your hero has an initial KS of 220 which is weaker than a yellow knight, but you can train him up to 320 which makes him tougher than any other unit in the game. This doesn't make him invincible, just less likely to die. Whenever your hero gets involved in a fight, you'll grind your teeth and pray that this time is not THE time... Knowing that any fight involving your hero could potentially end the game produces uncommon amounts of stress, and really, this scheme is just too unfair. They should have figured in some feature like having your men be able to take killing blows for you when they're adjacent to the hero. You have to play really skilfully to survive, but it's a fact that at certain points it will prove impossible to squeeze through the enemy ranks without having your hero involved in at least one to three fights. Thus your entire fate is decided upon several occasions in each game by luck alone. Yuck.
And if ever there was incredible motivation not to get killed in a game, Bokosuka Wars provides it. That motivation is the infamous death screen which pronounces 'WOW, YOU LOSE!' in towering red letters. While you gape at this declaration, a maudlin but unforgettable bassy little song begins to play and you are forced to watch the enemy king of slobbery blue tongue fame chase your crying routed army back across the screen from west to east, knowing that they just lost ALL PROGRESS THEY HAD MADE ON THOSE 600 METRES.
Nobody was kidding about this. This is the meanest and most hysterical 'Game Over' screen I've ever seen. I'll treasure it until I die.
Forcing that insult from my memory again... It's now time to talk about the otherwise quite impressive strategic elements of Bokosuka Wars.
You can toggle which section of your forces you're steering with the pad at any time by tapping a button. Control possibilities are:
-- Your whole army: Hero, peasants and knights
-- Just your hero
-- Just the peasants
-- Just the knights
The onscreen battlefield always scrolls to follow your hero, but your other units can be steered out of sight range where they can and will continue to fight enemies they meet! Understand that when you steer any group of units, all units of a kind respond at once. Thus, steering large groups of characters around obstacles is a curious and distinctive skill which can seem galvanising at times (when it's part of your battle strategy) and a complete chore at others (when it's not). Frequently you know precisely where you want them all to go, and that they can be gotten there, but actually having to make it happen by guiding them around each other and all the snags in the terrain is really laborious. Your peasants are especially hard to manage because there are just so many of them, prompting cries of 'The peasants are revolting!' With knights, you'll tend to only have one or two with you at a time which makes them excellent for subtle positioning to block monsters.
So this game is a weird discipline. Managing an army large enough to buffer your hero through very hectic areas of the battlefield requires a lot of patience and hard slog. To just rush through heedlessly is so tempting, and in fact, the phenomenon I call Bokosuka Madness has afflicted me more than once. This is where your patience breaks and you figure, 'Okay, I'm going have to test my luck at one point anyway, so why not just test it CONSTANTLY? If I'm really lucky with every fight, I can save 10 minutes here, forget my army and break right through to the enemy castle in a mad Rambo-esque dash!'
You too will rue such a mad decision when you are smacked to the floor again with 'WOW, YOU LOSE!'
Each kind of enemy moves in a particular way, which is the key to understanding how to fence them off or evade them, and to minimising the amount of combat for your forces. The weak red enemy knights appear in swarms but jiggle about randomly. Careful steering or feeding in some peasants as cannon fodder will get you through. Purple warriors (with triangular heads?) tend to beeline for you, but occasionally wander away in the horizontal dimension. Ergo: you exploit the vertical. Blue jailor demons lurk in front of the cells you will periodically find. Knowing that the demons have eyes for your hero only, you can open up the cells with a knight before luring the jailors away with said hero and clearing the way for the peasant rabble to bust out.
The level design is terrific, with the terrain broken up into stretches presenting very specific strategic challenges. In the woods your hero can clear a path through the trees but your army cannot. In the mountains there are a series of sentinel posts which release beelining purple guardians as your hero passes them. The trick here is to lay out your army in a pattern which will block the guardians at the moment they appear. Things get exceptionally difficult in the last 200 or so metres. First, there's an unpleasant onslaught of tough yellow knights who constantly try to align themselves with you in both the vertical and horizontal, whichever is physically possible. Their collective Achilles' heel is their unwillingness to turn corners to find a path to you, and this can be exploited to trap them. Nevertheless, at least one wretched fight involving your hero is inevitable here.
The castle is the most exciting and clever part of the game, assuming you made it here with at least some of your army intact. With winding corridors that are only one space wide in places and those 'homing' yellow knights lurking about, you have to play chess with the bad guys. (If you have no army, you'll be playing that other popular game, 'Russian Roulette'.) With myriad configurations of corridors - wide, narrow, dead-ended and looping - this is an all-consuming strategy festival. I spent minutes at a time pondering which moves to make here, and it paid off because ultimately with a team of about 6 peasants (which was hacked down to 3) and one knight (who survived all the way), I was able to shepherd my hero right through the castle to the enemy king's chamber for the first time, and without getting him into a single fight en route.
When I hit the victory screen proclaiming in familiar big red letters, 'BRAVO! YOU WIN!' I experienced that supernatural feeling of triumph and completion, of the letting down of adrenaline that you as a fellow videogamer must surely know. The feeling that only comes when you beat a game knowing that it was bloody hard, nay, unreasonable, and that you fought it with absolutely everything you had. My pupils dilated at this moment to drink in all possible information, and to immortalise this moment when I first survived to the end of a battlefield in Bokosuka Wars!
Then level 2 started. Immediately I spotted something new on the ground. A skull and crossbones! Like a lovestruck eight year-old girl I skipped happily towards it.
ZZZZAP. I died. For a moment, I had kidded myself that the frying skeleton I was looking at represented something other than my death - perhaps I'd collected a power-up. Nope, I was dead. I savoured the irony that the electrocution scene was probably the most impressive graphical moment in the whole of Bokosuka Wars. But I really didn't care that I was now dead, BECAUSE I HAD CLEARED LEVEL ONE! And after such a very hard slog, I'd guess in retrospect that my subconscious was trying to relieve me of further stress with that suicidal manoeuvre.
Bokosuka Wars - Fact VS Myth VS Opinion
With my journey completed, I now understand how this fabled game could have acquired such an aura of crapulence. Some of it was undoubtedly just due to plain old 'not understanding how the game worked'. But as for the rest... love it or hate it, you will probably not forget it.
I think Bokosuka Wars COULD have been a classic. Its basic concepts - that combination of exacting navigational and army formation strategies, and the tricks attached to each stretch of terrain - are indeed like Chess, Minesweeper or Tetris: Easy to learn and addictive, but hard to master. But the guy who made this (I think it's just one guy) screwed up terribly in some crucial areas. The way that your hero can die so easily, ending the whole war in a second. The appallingly lumpy control method which forces you to try to steer all units of a kind at once. And the tedious requirement of bumping all lone obstacles to uncover allies for 600 METRES. Combined, these problems will have a ruinous effect on your nerves and patience, resulting in breakouts of Bokosuka Madness (I CAN WIN THE WHOLE GAME ON MY OWN FROM 500 METRES!) and in frequent brain-popping encounters with the 'WOW, YOU LOSE!' screen.
Relatively speaking I'm the biggest fan of this game I've seen, and even I'd never advocate seriously trying to beat multiple levels. Here's my advice: Work at level 1, explore and master the strategies (oh, and be lucky when it counts, I can't emphasise that enough), experience a true gaming high when you survive to puzzle your way through the castle, cap it all off with 'BRAVO! YOU WIN!' - then quickly disengage. The random death factor attached to your hero means it's just not worthwhile persisting. The highest points I had experienced by this time were very high and definitely out of all proportion to what I had expected, which is why I drag my final score up one whole point from what it would have been. But the lows are VERY low, and pretty much end replayability.
'WOW, YOU LOSE!' may suck intensely, and yet... ARGH! I cannot resist its insane appeal!
-- Bokosuka Wars -- 6/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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