Bokosuka Wars

Introduction

In 1977, businessman and personal computer pioneer Kazuhiko Nishi along with Keiichiro Tsukamoto founded a company they named ASCII. It started off as a publisher of a magazine with the same name before Mr. Nishi found an incredible opportunity: getting to speak with Bill Gates, who had co-founded Microsoft in 1975. These talks led to the creation of Microsoft’s first overseas sales office dubbed ASCII Microsoft in 1979. It was thanks to these valuable business propositions and Mr. Nishi’s role in marketing Microsoft Japan’s highly popular MSX home computer that his company became very successful.

In 1983, ASCII Entertainment held a “Software Contest” wherein other PC enthusiasts could enter their creations. A man named Kōji Sumii won the contest, and the name of his submission was Bokosuka Wars. Originally released for the X1, a home computer manufactured by Sharp Corporation, this title proved to be extremely popular in Japan. Such was the extent of the success of Bokosuka Wars that ASCII ported it to almost every home computer platform and gaming console available at the time. Despite its popularity, it never saw a release outside of its native homeland. As a result, many Western fans had no way of knowing that many masterpieces in the years to come owed at least part of their success to this game. With its silent legacy having been fully released by this point, how well has it stood the test of time?

Analyzing the Experience

 

Bokosuka Wars has you in command of King Sren as his forces clash with those of the evil King Ogores. The latter is in a heavily guarded fortress – the distance between the two kings is measured at the bottom of the screen. Depending on the version, either Sren begins the game with a full army or he must dispel a curse placed upon them before they can fight alongside him. Specifically, the curse has transformed them into rocks and trees. Undoing the curse is straightforward; all you must do is guide Sren to a rock or tree and press the control pad in the direction of the object.

Regardless of which version you’re playing, there are three types of units available to you. First and foremost is King Sren himself. He can hold his own in a fight and has the ability to break down barriers that appear at the 100-meter intervals. Next are the knife-wielding soldiers. They are noticeably weaker than Sren himself, though they tend to make up for this by being greater in number. Finally, there are the armored knights. They’re stronger than soldiers, but also relatively rare.

Nonetheless, it’s best to keep at least one alive at all times because along the journey, you will stumble across P.O.W. camps, and they can be sent in to break down the cells holding the soldiers captive. Though you will soon find yourself with a sizeable army, controlling their movements is simple enough. With the press of a button, you can switch between controlling all of your units at once, the king, the soldiers, and the knights.

It won’t take long before you run into Ogores’s army. His forces have a greater variety than yours. Despite this, the optimal strategy for fighting them is mostly the same; you usually want to start off with your soldiers and follow up with your knights if needed. Occasionally, you may have to resort to different tactics to fell your enemies. To wit, mages tend to easily defeat soldiers, so it’s typically a better idea to have your knights handle them instead. Furthermore, when you assault Ogores’s castle in the final one-hundred meters, you will encounter guards patrolling the structure. Battling with soldiers greatly reduces their strength, so while soldiers may seem useless from the onset, you’ll be thankful for their large numbers later.

Though enemies move on their own accord, only you can initiate combat. Enemies can get close to your units, but they can’t strike any stationary units down. Doing so requires you to move your active units into the square an enemy is occupying. If your unit is victorious, they gain more power. As one would expect, this increases their likelihood of surviving any given encounter. A unit’s exact power is quantified in numbers. Sren begins with 220 power, a solider begins with 30, and a knight begins with 150. A victorious unit will gain ten power. Though Sren gains power at a consistent rate, soldiers and knights will gain a massive boost upon achieving their third victory. This is reflected by their sprites turning a golden color. The maximum amount of power soldiers and knights can have is 310 while their liege’s is 320.

Without having any idea what to do, an uniformed person’s first attempt at playing Bokosuka Wars would likely only last a few minutes as they guide the king to his doom. I can imagine they wouldn’t fare any better in subsequent attempts. Not knowing about its history, this hypothetical person would quit the game in frustration and declare it one of the worst ever made. In fairness, considering how the average game in 1983 was easy to pick up and play, being handed a contemporary effort that requires relatively advanced strategies could easily blindside an unwitting enthusiast. On the other hand, reading into how Bokosuka Wars plays reveals it was an incredibly inventive game for its time. Nowadays, it would be classified as a real-time strategy title with RPG elements, but in 1983, it defied categorization.

The reason it won that contest and enjoyed the success it did was because nobody had seen anything like it. The 1983 computer RPG Ultima III: Exodus could be said to have formally introduced a tactical element to role-playing games, but it was still entirely turn-based. The idea that enemy units moved on their own while you had to fight them off in real time was unheard of. In a way, Bokosuka Wars could be considered a real-time version of chess in how all of your units serve unique purpose. The two games even have an identical parallel in how the fall of a king results in that side’s defeat. The only difference is that your king is constantly exposed to danger while his adversary is fortified in his castle.

Unfortunately, by that same token, the immense amount of frustration one would inevitably feel attempting to play this game is entirely understandable. The reason for this is because, when it comes down to it, Bokosuka Wars has aged very poorly. The first problem that plagues this game concerns its control scheme. It seems as though it would be easy to control characters in a game where one is only permitted to move in the four cardinal directions, actually playing it reveals this isn’t the case. Moving characters isn’t always a precise process; it’s common to accidently direct your king into an enemy you didn’t want him to fight or to engage one with the wrong unit.

Along those same lines, it is exceedingly difficult to direct your troops. This is primarily because when you select a certain unit, you’re forced into moving every single one of that type. As you can see in the above screenshot, navigating a large company of soldiers past walls and other natural barriers is extremely tedious. Because the screen only moves when Sren advances or retreats, it is very easy for your units to get stuck in empty P.O.W. camps or other narrow spaces. The only way you could discover this is to backtrack, and the second you try to direct the stragglers to reunite with the phalanx, you will inadvertently cause the troops at the enemy lines to advance as well. This could result in any of them getting into an otherwise avoidable battle as you’re simply trying to get back.

This is a major problem because you want to pick your battles carefully. When you engage in a fight, you don’t have a lot of control over how your units fare in combat. To put it another way, whether your unit wins or perishes on the battlefield boils down to luck. Sren is more powerful than his subordinates to begin with, but it’s still entirely possible for him to fall to the very first enemy you see.

Fun fact: A lot of people have seen this screen within their first minute of gameplay.

Amassing enough power can significantly increase his chances of winning, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re risking losing the game every single time he engages in combat. There’s no trick either; the only way to gain more power is for your units to prevail in combat, which amounts to attacking headfirst and hoping for the best.

This issue is only made worse when you consider that you only have one chance to clear the entire game. It doesn’t matter whether Sren died in the first battle or inches away from King Ogores himself; if he dies, all of your progress is forfeit. This is the kind of game that begs to have a life system and checkpoints, because though it may not be particularly long, asking players to clear it in a single perfect run is a tall order. Fewer things are more frustrating than making significant progress only for an accidental press of the directional pad to ruin your entire playthrough, and the phrasing on the Famicom version’s game over screen only rubs salt on the wound.

If you had any hope that the ending would supply players with a satisfying payoff, prepare to be disappointed.

Admittedly, this animation is satisfying to see after having to watch the one associated with the “WOW! YOU LOSE!” screen hundreds of times in a row, but the creators had to do one tiny thing to ruin that goodwill; send players back to the beginning for a second quest. That’s right – the creators of this game implemented such a concept a few years before Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda even had a chance to materialize.

To be fair, unlike in Super Mario Bros., there is a noticeable difference between playthroughs. In the new game plus, you have to deal with death traps, which are depicted as skulls on the map. If the king or your knights wander onto those tiles, they are killed instantly. However, soldiers can remove these traps without any trouble. Then again, very few people playing this game would have the desire to see it through to the end once, let alone want to conduct a second run immediately thereafter. Better yet, if Sren dies in this playthrough, you’re kicked back to the first round. This means to successfully clear the new game plus, luck must be on your side for two whole runs. Most players would turn off the game never to play it again after clearing it a single time, and I think those people have the right idea.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Very innovative for its time
Cons:

  • Terrible controls
  • Incredibly difficult to direct troops
  • Relies too heavily on random chance
  • Annoying music
  • Only one chance
  • Inability to save
  • Unrelentingly difficult

Regardless of the medium, it should go without saying that innovators are vitally important. Bokosuka Wars deserves credit for laying the groundwork for the strategy genre as a whole and the various subgenres that comprise it. There’s a good chance that without this game, the Wars and Fire Emblem franchises wouldn’t exist, and considering the extent of their influence on strategy titles in Japan, many other classic games would never have been conceived. Not only that, but in 1983, designers had even more of a tendency to follow the leader than they do today. With limited technology available to artists compounded with the lower amount of established genres to work with, Bokosuka Wars went completely against the grain of what constituted a game back then.

Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take long for Bokosuka Wars to become overshadowed by the games it inspired. Though we should always give credit to trailblazers, Bokosuka Wars is, at the end of the day, a game that was too ahead of its time. This was an attempt at creating a real-time strategy game before most home computers even had mice. Consequently, a lot of the genre’s sensibilities the average enthusiast takes for granted now weren’t feasible to implement on most platforms, yet their absence makes revisiting this game a tricky proposition. The only possible reason I can think of for anyone to play Bokosuka Wars in a post-eighties world is to experience an important part of gaming history to which a majority of Western enthusiasts are not privy. Otherwise, it’s enough to know the gaming landscape would look much different had it not been for Mr. Sumii’s pioneering work.

Final Score: 2/10

12 thoughts on “Bokosuka Wars

    • Yeah, I wish game designers these days would put more effort into their cover art. It would certainly have a better chance at getting their audience’s attention than the default (what I like to call the Generic Wannabe Film Poster). For that matter, it’s kind of a shame that filmmakers don’t put a lot of effort into making distinctive posters anymore either.

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  1. Games from this era can be difficult to go back to with all the advancements in game design and technology. Developers were just beginning to figure out the rules of game design. Even still, it’s definitely worth taking a look at these old games. It can give you an appreciation of game design.

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    • Indeed. I remember playing through Ultima IV some time back and having a difficult time getting through it because it had aged poorly despite its novel premise. It is cool in a weird way to revisit these games though because it does, as you say, give you more of an appreciation for how the medium has evolved since then.

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  2. There is definitely something to be said for the ideas behind it. It does seem to be a much more complicated game than you generally saw in the era, and has some really innovative features for the early eighties. There really is something to respect about being a trailblazer.

    But yeah, that experience sounds intensely frustrating. Having success or failure being reliant on the flip of a coin, even if it is weighted, rarely ever leads to a great experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was indeed an ambitious effort for 1983, but it’s a little like Metal Gear in that the technology needed to catch up to this forward-looking idea before it could have a chance to shine. Even in the X1 and MSX versions where you start off with a full army, you could still lose even if you did everything right simply due to bad luck. It doubtlessly made for an innovative title back then, but nowadays, I would have trouble seeing anyone liking this game outside of an ironic context. Never is a game worth playing when it’s this reliant on randomness and probability. Despite all of this, it does have its place in history, and nothing can take that away.

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    • Interestingly, I looked up footage of the X1 version when doing research on this game. I also wanted to see if it said “WOW! YOU LOSE!” in that version. Instead what it says translates to something like “You died. What a pity.” I can imagine seeing either message several times in a row would get grating after a while, though.

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