ON THE END OF ALL THINGS: Dark Souls on the GBA in 2003
IN A PLACE NOT TOO FAR FROM HERE AND NOW, THE END OF THE WORLD APPROACHES…
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I understood the concept of entropy from a very young age. The understanding that nothing was eternal, that the universe itself would find some kind of death, was arguably as formative for me as knowing I was queer or my utter disenchantment with my family’s faith. So it’s no surprise, then, that Dark Souls’ existential despair resonated with me deeply in some key ways. But adding to its weight was a pervasive sense of nostalgia that I only recently placed.
Maybe that’s because the game I want to talk about is shockingly different — in mechanics, themes, aesthetic presentation, and character archetypes. Still, despite all that, Dark Souls felt to me like the evolution of an old refrain. Like an old song, rewritten to provide a new perspective.
So, let’s talk about Boktai.
Boktai is a series bursting at the seams with life where everything is constantly on the verge of dying. It is a series where indomitable will meets existential horror. There are a lot of Big Anime Speeches About Fighting Even When It’s Hopeless, but it’s also never disputed that the will of the universe is inherently omnipotent, and the best you can hope to buy through endless battle and sacrifice is a short reprieve. You never actually meet “The will of the Galaxy Universe, Dark”, which is what the big bad is literally called. There’s never any hope it can be defeated or won over or stopped — only weathered.
On top of a bizarre premise, the series set itself apart from other games of its era in two other ways. The first is its unique hardware, since all the games of the series were sold on unique, transparent cartridges that held solar sensors. As the protagonist, Solar Boy Django, you could gather energy for your various attacks from sunlight. As in literal sunlight. The amount of UV light detected by the sensor translated into a Sun meter in game that affected a variety of systems, and the only way to cheat the system was with a black light.
These weren’t just novelty gimmicks: You could exploit the sunlight to have enemies kill themselves by going outside, you were noticeably stronger in direct sunlight and the lack of it would generally push you in a stealthier, more resource-driven style of play, your gun and other weapons could actually overheat from too much sun, managing the amount of sunlight fit directly into a variety of puzzles, and you literally couldn’t beat bosses without at least a little sun.
Boktai’s other claim to fame is more meta: While most people probably haven’t played this title, I’d be willing to bet most have been exposed to it somewhat through two much more popular series. The first of these is Metal Gear Solid. Kojima produced Boktai, so it’s no surprise there are links between the two. They’re neat, but not what we’re here for.
The other, much more interesting crossover this game has is with a series that is fully it’s polar opposite: Megaman Battle Network.
Science fantasy opposite Boktai’s mythological post-apocalypse, set in a world booming into life where Boktai’s was dying, these two series could not be more tonally or narratively distinct from each other.
MMBN’s protagonists use love and friendship to save everyone and bring back peace every time. Boktai’s protagonist is basically forced into a pattern of Murder One Beloved Family Member Per Game. Yet in the second game, the protagonists even meet, become friends, kill each other’s vampire nemeses, and trade weapons.
Why go into all this history? Well, because Boktai exploits its corporate weirdness to narratively sell one of my favorite ideas from Dark Souls: Mainly, that time and space themselves are falling apart. It’s a world so on the brink of nothingness that causality and relativity themselves have crumbled, allowing elements of impossibility to seep through the cracks.
Solaire tells us that the flow of time itself is convoluted in Lordran.
Otenko tells us this:
One game uses the idea to justify its innovative multiplayer design. The other uses it to fill in a little detail most other games would never think to address: respawning enemies and resetting dungeons. It’s such a silly piece of Video Game Convention to bother grounding that it convincingly sold the world to me a little more, and it could then sort of rely on that concept to fill in plot holes for any overzealous little kids who wonder how an internet being getting sucked into an internet warphole leads to that being’s actual, physical container ending up in another reality entirely.
The internet, like the apocalypse, is liminal by nature, due to the massive amount of context and information the characters miss by the nature of the setting. That becomes the thread connecting utterly opposite series.
And it’s that presentation of liminal space that attracted me to Dark Souls the most: The Abyss, the Ash Lake, the empty and resonant halls of Anor Londo, the encroaching Hollowing of everyone you knew — all foreshadowings of a great unknown, coming towards you, never here.
But Dark Souls’ denouement comes in destroying that experience of a world set on a threshold of reality. Either you destroy yourself and push the clock back into the life we already understood, or you destroy the world and complete your transition to some new status quo. Either way, the in-between world you experienced is gone.
Boktai doesn’t do this. It’s not about subverting or destroying liminality, but about the people who simply live within it. There are world destroying threats in each game, but defeating them doesn’t allow for the return of society or the ultimate vanquishing of darkness — it just allows a small band of survivors to continue living to fight another day.
It does, however, treat its characters with similar allusiveness.
Django is, for the most part, stoic and silent, with few lines that let us glimpse into his inner world. Zazie can read the stars to tell fortunes and erect great barriers to protect your city but is only an apprentice, and continually calls back to her past with an old master, the first “sunflower witch”, much more powerful than she. Otenko mostly explains mechanics to play the game but finds the time to speak of Django’s parents reverentially, making them sound like deities.
There’s always something larger in the background, whether it’s your own legacy, the Eternals resting in slumber, threatening to end the world if they wake, or dead civilizations of incredible power. The only difference is, that grandiosity is typically connected to your quest through conversation with characters connected to— and invested in — aspects of that larger lore.
Each character has a personal history, one that often connects them to that greater story in a poignant way.
In one example, you fight a boss named Land-Ruling Red Durathor. She is tiny, lethal, has red hair and is rose-themed, so there was no hope I wouldn’t love her. But in her appointed Evil Pre-Boss Speech, the writing uses four short lines to make her compelling and sympathetic:
I immediately wanted to know what her deal was, what her life was like before she became this. It invested me in her inner world like Dark Souls didn’t quite manage to accomplish with, say, Priscilla, who was too busy sounding Mysterious and Aloof to seem like a person.
Boktai does with concise dialogue what Dark Souls uses reams of item description to do. It’s compelling and vague enough to make me want to dig, to seek answers until I understand. There are ancient solar cities in the sky, a vampire castle/satellite in space, lunar cities on the moon sealing world-eating eldritch horrors. All of it, hosting ghosts.
And, to a greater degree than Dark Souls, Boktai gives you impressions of people you might WANT to know, if this was the world you lived in. It presents a world that was flawed and struggling, yes, but it’s still a world that seems likable. There were few things I mourned in Dark Souls. It’s not that it has bad writing — I love Lordran and its inhabitants. But it’s less intimate than Istrakan or San Miguel. It gives the impression of a world that was terrible enough to everyone that maybe it’s kind of a good thing that it’s gone.
Boktai, however, is full of sentimentality for what is lost. We join the plot in the fallout of crisis — just as Django escapes from an assault on his city, while his parents stay behind to ward off the attack. A product of mixing between two races, the Solar and Lunar children, He carries his father’s crimson scarf and spends the first game searching for his mother, the Moon Beauty, after she is taken hostage, and he never stops struggling, never stops hoping, no matter how much he’s forced to give up in the fight.
These thematic nuances are paralleled in, of all things, the game’s soundtracks — which can at times be eerily reminiscent of one another. Both games make use of an interesting mix of instrumental and vocals — a more impressive feat on Boktai’s end, for sure. But what really sets them apart is the moods their respective musical styles convey.
The contrast I think is exemplified most clearly in these two tracks:
Dark Souls’ music can be bombastic, but its mostly reserved and dispassionate. The instrumentals are either cool and distant or grandiose and mighty, as if they embody figures of mythology, the sounds of mythic epic — not mortals with feelings.
The vocals don’t suggest hope or a fight for life. By turns they’re mournful and full of sorrow, or dramatic and awesome — in the biblical sense of “terror and awe”.
Boktai is more reserved with it’s vocals, but uses them to great effect. In climactic battles, the music is hot and immediate. You can hear grunts, as if from a battle. The war is being fought, and it is personal. In it’s more melancholy moments, Boktai conveys a lot of the same nostalgia and loneliness of Dark Souls, but it sounds intense —the way that lonely, lost teenagers living in this world might feel.
Rather than an inevitable, beautiful progression of set pieces carried to the rhythm of entropy, Boktai presents a life and death struggle, and the conflict feels visceral and passionate for it’s characters.
Django spends the first two games in the shadow of his parents’ legacy, and it’s easy to relate to the terror and uncertainty of not knowing who’s still alive, where anyone else, whether you’re going to make it, as you seek out what’s left of your home so you can try to protect it.
He learns he has an older sibling, a rival and anti-hero counterpart named Sabata. Sabata has what is probably the most complete arc of the series, and is easily the strongest reason Dark Souls felt eerily familiar.
Dark Sun Gwyndolin and Sabata the Moon Beauty have a lot in common, but to be honest I like Sabata’s narrative treatment more. Sabata is a character easily readable as a transwoman who is undoubtedly on The Good Side.
The games use male pronouns for her, but I won’t. I just want it clear this is me reading between the lines to find something compelling in a context of transmisogyny, much as we do with Gwyndolin. The better to give me deja vu with, I guess.
While Django takes after the Sun part of his blood, Sabata takes after the Moon and carries her Mother’s Moonlight Scarf. While the Solar and Lunar people are distinct races and thus presumably both had a variety of genders, their presentations to us are nonetheless pretty gendered, with the Sun being a source of constant references to Ringo (Dad’s) legacy and the Moon a source of references to Mani’s(Mom).
But this is complicated by Sabata’s past- she was kidnapped as a baby, infused with the Dark, and raised as a ruthless killer — “The Dark Boy”. Sabata is deeply disconnected from her Lunar legacy, family, and ability to handle affection. Affection, by the way, is a concept explicitly linked to the Moon in this world — we’ll come back to that.
Still, during that time, she makes a friend or a girlfriend in Carmilla. Sabata deliberately sacrifices her in her deluded efforts to live up to the expectation she’s grown up with of being the “Dark Boy” (or maybe in a confused effort to stop Dark, the story seems confused about this) despite their mutual sense of kinship. When you finally beat Sabata, she talks mournfully about Carmilla, and says that they were both victims of darkness.
After that you team up to take down the final boss but your mom dies in the process. You and Sabata go your separate ways and that ends the first game. But victory is bittersweet.
Django fails at achieving the emotional core of his quest— we don’t even get to see the mother he set out for. Here, for the first time, Boktai brings down the hammer of loss and sorrow that it’s protagonists strive against.
The second game tasks you with rebuilding and protecting the City of the Sun, San Miguel, which is actually more like a Small Block of the Sun. A lot of stuff happens that I’m not going to get into, but Sabata’s arc includes us discovering she wants to find a way to save her dead girlfriend, whoms’ soul she’s been like, hosting inside her body or whatever? Gay and moon powers are interwoven in San Miguel, I guess, so that’s nice.
What I do want to talk about in the second game is a moment that both fulfills Sabata’s trans girl arc and illustrates what I mean when I say the plot’s writing always works to allude to a grander backdrop. Near the end we get a big tower dungeon, but the writing again uses a couple of lines to cast some questions with deep implications:
Namely, the tower was built by a collaboration of Solar and Lunar peoples with Immortals. Sabata asks for us: what could drive two existentially opposed enemies to collaborate like this?
We get an answer soon enough, but the question still gets a chance to seep in like a drug, leading to so many others. What did this collaboration look like? Under what circumstance did it begin? What stories could have existed in it’s historical context?
But if I go on I’ll lose myself. So it turns out that because of Sabata’s nature as someone with lunar powers, she can open the magic plot door. And so the plot contrives to give us this beautiful little moment:
Yes, Sabata loudly and proudly claims femininity for herself as a source of power, gendering herself in traditionally female terms as she grows towards rejecting the nihilism inherent to her worldview at the beginning of the series.That’s pretty much it for that particular arc, though in the third game Sabata again refers to herself as Moon Beauty on at least one occasion.
Regardless, she’s always been one of my favorite characters, and Boktai one of my favorite series — to the point that when I think about comparisons, it’s Dark Souls that has big shoes to fill, not the other way around.
Alas, the Boktai series is super ultra dead. Konami is what Konami is right now, and I never knew how much Kojima was involved in the games besides production. Prospects for a revival are grim. Still, there’s really nothing else quite like these games.
It’s one of the very few series outside of Souls to effectively convey the feeling of traveling through a dying world, of standing on the precipice of the end of all things. I have no idea how much money or work would be involved in trying to get functional physical cartridges, but if you can get your hands on these games, they’re worth checking out.
But even if you can’t, no matter what…
Keep the sun always in your heart!