Promotional image for video game Boktai.
Enlarge / The sun is actually in the sky, not in your hand, which is key to playing Boktai.

The 2003 Game Boy Advance exclusive Boktai: The Sun Is in Your Hand! is a largely forgotten game, even among Hideo Kojima fans. The concept is as indulgent as a Kojima game could ever be: you play as young vampire hunter Django (named after a famed spaghetti Western hero) who fights immortals with a solar-powered gun. Like your namesake, you drag bosses into a solar pile driver in a coffin.

The game’s relative lack of popularity is probably due, in part, to its central conceit: a solar sensor embedded on the cartridge itself that affected in-game events. For players who lived in temperate regions or adults who lived on a strict schedule, this made playing Boktai a challenge. The vital sunlight needed to activate in-game events or defeat bosses meant you could only properly play this game if you had a very flexible schedule—or cheated the sensor with a blacklight.

Unless you were like me and lived on a tropical island.

Boktai.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/boktaihandheld-640×480.jpg” width=”640″ height=”480″ >
Enlarge / An emulator can’t recreate the experience of being forced to go out into the sunshine to play Boktai.

Flickr / x2l2

What first drew me to Boktai wasn’t the idea of taking full advantage of my native Puerto Rican sunshine. And it certainly wasn’t the Kojima name (although the connection to the man definitely upped the game’s reputation in my eyes years later). It was actually a random photo from a stray issue of a long-forgotten gaming magazine I had seen in a now-nonexistent chain of pharmacies in Puerto Rico.

Someone at that magazine had covered a Konami press event where a cut-out of Django was seen in a photo. In my hazy memories, I recalled Django looking tan-skinned, like myself, and I marveled that a game could do such a thing. When I had later read that Django was the star of a game called Boktai, my heart was set on playing it.

In later art, I noticed that Django was much paler than the magazine photo had made him out to be. But I was still obsessed with his red-scarfed, anime-cowboy look (no doubt inspired by Kamen Rider). Years later, when Kojima would explain Old Snake’s mustache in Metal Gear Solid V as a tribute to old spaghetti Westerns, I nodded knowingly; the Boktai series was already packed with references to classics like the Sabata series and The Wild Bunch.

Bathed in gallons of sunlight

actual sunlight.’ src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/boktaiscreen-640×360.jpg” width=”640″ height=”360″ >
Enlarge / Filling up that “sunlight” meter requires actual sunlight.

Living in the rural heartland of Puerto Rico generally made gaming harder; stores were distant, and a good Internet connection was a luxury. With long commutes from my rural home to my school several municipalities away, it was easier for me to enjoy games on my Game Boy Advance instead of a PlayStation 2.

While there were many GBA games I could commiserate with my peers over, I only ever met one other person who even dabbled in the Boktai series (and he only played the sequel). I was so completely alone in my experience with Boktai, it felt like I was the only person on the entire island who ever played the game.

It was just me, gallons of tropical sunlight, and the entire tiny world of Istrakan, all for me to discover.

It felt like no one else on the entire island of Puerto Rico even knew what a Solar Gun was!
Enlarge / It felt like no one else on the entire island of Puerto Rico even knew what a Solar Gun was!

And Boktai had plenty of hidden depths to discover, not unlike Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. Enemy behavior patterns, upgrade locations, and item combinations were incredibly important to consider. But there was also a wealth of secrets that could only be discovered by experimenting with the peculiarities of this particular cartridge.

Some indoor levels have skylights that let the light in, for instance, a feature you could only discover if sunlight was striking the cartridge’s solar sensor. By combining Metal Gear-style espionage and wall-sliding with a well-timed blocking of the solar sensor, you could trick in-game ghouls into unwittingly walking into a skylight, saving you precious ammo.

Some puzzles required you to track your position by the direction of Django’s shadow—which could only be seen under real-world sunlight. Others required you to bend the fourth wall by flipping your GBA upside-down to see through illusions. Some sections even required you to block sunlight from hitting the cartridge with your hand in order to deactivate traps or trick bosses.

“This is a great Boktai day”

Even amid competition from other GBA greats like the third-gen Pokémon games, the endlessly addicting Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, or eternal favorite Astro Boy: Omega Factor, Boktai was the game I endeavored to have with me at all times. I was usually the first at my school at 7am, well before the first bell. I would shiver in the cool tropical mornings as I quickly tried traipsing dungeons before my first class. I’d be rewarded with rare Solar Gun accessories or in-game events found only during early hours. I tended to my in-game fruit gardens between classes and found my diligence rewarded by a rain of pink cherry blossoms on the Solar Tree.

Every time I turned on my GBA, Master Otenko’s voice would ring out with “This is a great Boktai day!” Barring rain, it almost always was.

The built-in solar sensor required a special translucent casing for the bulbous <em>Boktai</em> cartridge.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/boktaicart-640×494.jpeg” width=”640″ height=”494″><figcaption class=

The built-in solar sensor required a special translucent casing for the bulbous Boktai cartridge.

I never had to spend much time fretting over whether there’d be enough light to play Boktai; I just had to make sure it wasn’t nighttime. Being an otherwise lonely child whose only real exposure to the gaming world was through issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly, I only knew of Hideo Kojima’s esoteric brand of gaming on a second-hand basis. I’d never played Metal Gear Solid, so it was only through my sister’s then-boyfriend that I learned Boktai‘s focus on tapping and sliding along walls was a Metal Gear holdover.

I was on my own puzzling my way through endless dungeons without any reference points or guides. I was all-too happy to sit outside to both stockpile in-game sunlight and activate events. It got to the point where several of my teachers voiced their concerns to my parents about me sitting so long in full sunlight in 85° weather.

A neglected classic

Boktai sequel helpfully included the warning “Requires sunlight to play” prominently on the front of the box.’ src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/boktai2-300×300.jpg” width=”300″ height=”300″ >
Enlarge / The first Boktai sequel helpfully included the warning “Requires sunlight to play” prominently on the front of the box.

By the time the sequel to Boktai was announced, I was on pins and needles. I bought a copy several weeks in advance of my birthday—and didn’t touch it until that very day.

Still, there were precious few people I could share my love for this series with. Anyone who knew Kojima was focused instead on the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. Kojima’s GBA experiment was but a trifle in their eyes.

Surprisingly, long after release, it was fans of Mega Man Battle Network who would join me in their love of the game. That’s because MNBN4 featured Boktai-themed chips and even a cameo by Hideo Kojima himself. Battle Network 5 could also link up with Boktai 2.

When I finally made friends in high school and we bonded over Battle Network, I was the only one able to explain these Boktai references, which they had no context for. We could also enjoy a totally bonkers competitive mode in the sequel; I was so excited when I discovered this in my Boktai 2 save that I rushed into my best friend’s classroom in the middle of class one day to tell him. My Boktai 2 cartridge still has the old save with all the protectors I unlocked by playing against my friend. I never had the heart to restart the game, especially after the hours spent competing against him.

Much like the Metal Gear series, Boktai was ultimately a victim of Konami’s fickle nature. Years before Hideo Kojima’s name was scrubbed from The Phantom Pain, the third Boktai title was passed over for release in the United States. Boktai DS, meanwhile, was renamed Lunar Knights for North America, and all of the Boktai-related content was dummied out of Mega Man Battle Network 6. Outside of a Solar Gun appearing in Metal Gear Solid IV, Boktai hasn’t even seen a sly reference since.

When I look back at the game now, as an adult, it’s become a symbol of how you really can’t go home again. Having a job and living in the Pacific Northwest makes playing a solar-powered game extremely impractical, especially in the fall or winter. But developers also seem less willing to experiment in the ways that could potentially lead to another Boktai. The Switch Joy-Con and its powerful built-in infrared sensor puts Boktai‘s UV sensor to shame, but outside of Nintendo Labo, precious few titles have used it in any meaningful capacity.

Even if Hideo Kojima continues making bizarro games like Death Stranding for decades more, there will probably never be another game like Boktai. I probably miss Boktai more than I miss living in Puerto Rico. For me, it’s a game inextricably tied to fond memories of sun, warmth, and old friends I haven’t seen in years. In the most Hideo Kojima-esque twist possible, I probably won’t live to experience another game like that.