Kōji Sumii’s Bokosuka Wars proved to be a revolutionary game upon its 1983 debut on the Sharp X1. By commanding the forces of King Suren, players needed to smart tactics to defeat the evil King Ogereth. Having won a Software Contest held by ASCII Entertainment, Bokosuka Wars laid the building blocks for both real-time strategy and tactical role-playing games. Even now, it is considered one of most notable releases of the early 1980s in Japan. However, its reception in the West was far more mixed. Because it never saw an international release, it remains a practical nonentity among Western gamers. The few that are aware of its existence dismiss it as a half-formed action-adventure game due to primarily being exposed to its Famicom port, which significantly downplayed the strategy elements. Nonetheless, its impact on the medium is very real, and those who enjoy series such as Fire Emblem or Shining Force have Bokosuka Wars to thank for blazing the trail in the first place.
It seemed that the game would enjoy its status as an obscure, standalone, if highly influential title. However, in the year 2016, something unexpected happened. A sequel, simply entitled Bokosuka Wars II was released for various platforms, including the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. In the thirty-three-year interim between entries, the medium had changed quite a bit. While the original Bokosuka Wars was in a class of its own, people now had names for the genres it invented. In light of the incredible amount of evolution that took place between 1983 and 2016, what does Bokosuka Wars II have to offer?
Analyzing the Experience
Bokosuka Wars II harks back to gaming’s formative years by having an eight-bit presentation that wouldn’t have felt out of place on popular computers at the time. It can be changed to a presentation that reflects the game’s distinct art style at any time with the press of a button. Regardless, as the game is intended to be a throwback, the plot is similarly simple. King Ogereth of the Basamu Empire is plotting to conquer the world, invading the peaceful Suren Kingdom to see this plan through. The empire easily crushes the Suren Kingdom, and its ruler is quickly captured. As his public execution draws near, King Suren uses his great strength to fell the stone wall imprisoning him. With his armor and sword to hand, King Suren marches out of the fortress accompanied by his remaining troops. One well-conceived attack could end the Battle of Bokosuka in King Suren’s favor right here and now.
By default, you control the entirety of King Suren’s vanguard. By pressing a button, you can change which of three different factions of troops you can control. King Suren himself is no stranger to combat and has the invaluable ability to not only dispel curses placed on his soldiers, but also break down the barriers blocking the 100-meter intervals. Aiding him are the knife-wielding soldiers. Although they are weaker than King Suren, their great numbers can overwhelm any enemy they happen upon. Finally, there are the armored knights. These fighters are the muscle of the group, being stronger than soldiers, but also relatively rare. Still, it’s good to have more than a few around because they are capable of breaking down barriers that imprison King Suren’s troops.
Due to the premise of the game, conflict is inevitable. The narrative was not exaggerating about the Basamu Empire’s military might, for their troops are greater in both number and diversity. It’s important to know that only the player may initiate combat. Enemy troops can get close to your units, but they otherwise can’t do anything but impede your progress. How combat works is straightforward enough; you must simply move your troops into a square the enemy occupies. If your troops emerge victorious, they will become a little bit stronger. King Suren gains power at a consistent rate whereas his troops will gain a significant amount of power after winning a certain number of battles. This increase in power is indicated by their sprites transforming – usually into a golden color.
Anyone who read my review of the original Bokosuka Wars might be getting a sense of déjà vu by this point. This too is no coincidence, as Bokosuka Wars II features gameplay nigh-identical to that of its predecessor. Although I can imagine fans of older games being appreciative of such a design choice, this aspect forms the fatal flaw of Bokosuka Wars II: it is completely oblivious of the improvements made to the medium since 1983. Everything that made the original Bokosuka Wars tedious to play through can be found in this game as well. Did you find it annoying how easily your troops could get caught on set pieces? Were you angry when one measly mistake resulted in the death of King Suren, thus invalidating your progress? Were you willing to put up with these bad design choices only to be slowly driven to the brink of insanity by the less-than-stellar music? All of those problems and more have been retained for this game.
If anything, many of the problems plaguing the original are far worse this time around for one simple reason: you must traverse 1,000 meters as opposed to 500. If you direct your king into an enemy he cannot vanquish, which is very easy to do by accident, you must start over from the beginning. It doesn’t matter if he died shortly after escaping the fortress or inches away from cutting down King Ogereth himself – the result is exactly the same.
To be fair, Bokosuka Wars II does have a plethora of new features. Most notably, there are three new troops to command: heroes, generals, and bishops. Heroes are commoners who have rebelled against the empire. This game has a cooperative multiplayer mode, which allows the second person to take direct control of heroes. Generals are the result of soldiers and knights who have gained enough experience. Naturally, they are some of the strongest units in the game. Finally, Bishops are capable of converting enemy soldiers and knights in a manner similar to recruiting new units in Fire Emblem.
The problem is that none of these improvements make up for the long-outdated gameplay. It’s true that stronger units have a significantly greater chance of survival, but at the end of the day, this is still a game you can lose simply because the random-number generator produced an undesirable result. To add insult to injury, you can’t even direct heroes or bishops individually, making it easy for them to get caught up on an obstacle. Otherwise, this is a real-time strategy game in which you can’t view the entire map, direct troops properly, or win through tactics more advanced than throwing them into the enemies and hoping for the best. Although these ideas were incredibly forward-looking in 1983, seeing them again in a practically unaltered state highlights just how far behind the times it is.
Drawing a Conclusion
In the 2010s, there was no shortage of retro throwbacks. While many AAA releases continued to improve upon their presentations, those working with smaller budgets created works that wouldn’t have felt out place in the third or fourth console generations. Although a select few of them were transparently cynical attempts to cash in on nostalgia, I would be far more likely to compare the movement to a film being shot in black-and-white after the advent of color. To wit, with a simple presentation and taking up a mere 155 megabytes of space, Toby Fox’s Undertale managed to push the medium forward in terms of storytelling just one year prior to the release of Bokosuka Wars II. In other words, after a certain point, these simplistic presentations were used not to appeal to older enthusiasts, but rather to capture the best aspects of a bygone era – the kind that the Western AAA industry was quick to abandon once they started taking cues from Hollywood.
It’s also not impossible to revive a long-dormant franchise; inXile Entertainment did just that with Wasteland 2 in 2014 – its predecessor having been released twenty-six years prior. However, a successful retro throwback is one typically made by a creator who chooses not to romanticize the past. Although the 1980s was arguably the single most important decade in gaming history, it must be said that more than a few of the era’s design choices simply do not hold up. It was common for games back then to depend heavily on chance – as though you’re rolling dice in a Dungeons & Dragons session. That aspect was fair for its day, and even showcased a level of ingenuity on the programmer’s part – being able to program a random-number generator. Conversely, the idea that you can do everything right and still lose would cause modern gamers to turn up their collective noses and walk away – and they’re entirely in the right for doing so.
The original Bokosuka Wars is, by today’s standards, a rather dismal game. Regardless, it has its place in history because in 1983, there was no other game like it. Even if revisiting it is a tricky proposition, it is indirectly responsible for the creation of some of the greatest games ever made. Without it, the strategy RPG as we know it wouldn’t exist. Bokosuka Wars II, on the other hand, has absolutely no excuse for how poorly it turned out. It was a game made by people who outright ignored the evolution the medium underwent in thirty-three years. The result is a mess that, while not exactly the worst thing ever coded, was wildly out of place in 2016. Had it been released a few years after the original, I could’ve accepted that. Sure, it would lack its predecessor’s level of innovation, but it was how sequels were made back then. It had absolutely no business being released in 2016 – the same year that Fire Emblem Fates saw the light of day in the West. For that matter, it had no business being released in the wake of countless other real-time strategy or strategy role-playing games – a pool to which both sides of the world contributed significantly whether you’re talking about StarCraft, Age of Empires, Disgaea, or, again, Fire Emblem.
Ultimately though, I feel the biggest reason Bokosuka Wars II fails is because, like many bad works, it doesn’t have an audience. Whereas Japanese fans knew of its importance to the medium, the only thing their Western counterparts saw when they finally got ahold of it was an outdated, incoherent mess. Its only claim to fame was the infamous screen proclaiming “WOW! YOU LOSE!” in the event of the player’s defeat. Despite coming across prime meme fodder, even this aspect failed to give the game any kind of lasting notoriety in the West. Because it didn’t take long for the tactical role-playing game to evolve with the inaugural Fire Emblem installment having been released in 1990, I couldn’t imagine Japanese fans clamoring for a sequel to Bokosuka Wars all these years later either. Only the people who grew up with it could possibly appreciate a sequel that – for good and for ill – so thoroughly captures the essence of the original. That is an incredibly small audience, and I’m willing to bet a majority of them either latched onto other series or stopped gaming entirely by 2016. In the end, Bokosuka Wars II really is one of the worst things any creative work can be. If your work lacks an audience, you may as well have created nothing at all.
Final Score: 1/10