In yesterday’s post, I alluded to an eBay auction I accidentally won, and that that auction was partially responsible for rekindling my desire to learn Japanese. This is that story.
Before continuing, I highly recommend throwing on the Boktai 2 soundtrack as a reading companion. It’ll become clear why later. Otherwise, read on…
In a literal sense, this story begins two weeks ago, in late January of 2021. In a narrative sense, it begins in the summer of 2003. Three important events occur in quick succession, changing my life forever, and leading me directly to an eBay auction in 2021.
First: After moving to a new town and a new school, I manage to keep in touch with my best friend Alex, who shows me his Game Boy Advance and Megaman Battle Network 2 for the first time at a sleepover. He lets me start a new file to try the game from the beginning if I promise not to save, as was best friend-ly etiquette in the early 2000s. I instantly fall in love with the game’s Whole Vibe.
Second: One of my new friends from my new school, Eric, in a fit of capitalistic money-making-ness, offers to sell me his old Game Boy Advance for twenty American dollars. Smelling a deal, I immediately accept and enter a fugue state, doing what I assume was everything in my power to obtain the necessary twenty dollars. I still have no idea where my ten-year-old self got twenty dollars. I return to school. I have the twenty dollars. He has the lightly used translucent Glacier Blue Game Boy Advance. We do the deal. The seller’s remorse washes over him like the hot air from a blast furnace. He asks for take-sy back-sies. I respond with whatever the ten-year-old version of “tough shit” was. Eric and I were those kinds of friends.
Third: With Game Boy Advance in hand, and fresh love for the Megaman Battle Network series in heart, I asked for and, incredibly, received my very own copy of Megaman Battle Network 2 for my birthday. This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, and I would go on to play most of the games in the Battle Network series, crucially leap-frogging Battle Network 3, and moving straight on to Battle Network 4 (specifically the Red Sun version), managing to score a used copy for a subsequent birthday.
With all the pieces in place, I was ready to receive my divine message from the cosmos. A few hours into Megaman Battle Network 4, your character and a friend go to an amusement park together. One of the attractions at this amusement park is a dark-room walkthrough themed after the story of ‘Solar Boy Django,’ a vampire hunter who fights the evil vampire Dracky with his trusty solar gun, Gun Del Sol, and Otenko, the spirit of the sun itself. I liked Solar Boy Django’s character design and thought, “Wow. I’d like to play that game.”
As the game progresses, you find that you’re able to collect a battle chip (a collectible attack power that you can deploy in battle encounters) of Django’s Gun Del Sol. And furthermore, there’s an entire sidequest featuring Django and Otenko later on. All of this adds up to the feeling that there might be something more going on here, and a quick search of GameFAQs confirms that this is, indeed, a crossover with an existing, separate video game series. That series is called Boktai.
Boktai, short for Bokura no Taiyou (Our Sun), the series’ name in Japan, follows the adventures of Solar Boy Django, vampire hunter and wielder of the Gun Del Sol. It is the game that those small interludes in Megaman Battle Network 4 made me hope existed. From a cynical point of view, that in-game commercial did its damn job. From my eleven-year-old point of view, I was psyched out of my damn mind. Because the more I learned about Boktai, beyond the fact that it was real and I could play it, the more my child brain salivated. And in actuality, the two game series (which are developed by two different video game juggernauts, Capcom and Konami) are connected not for purely cynical marketing reasons. It turns out that Boktai designer (and creator of the Metal Gear series) Hideo Kojima’s son was just a huge fan of Battle Network. So Kojima reached out to Capcom and Keiji Inafune, and they just had fun with it. So that’s actually a really nice story.
One day at my friend Alex’s house, shortly after learning that this Boktai video game maybe might possibly exist, I made first contact. See, the small group of friends I knew through Alex were also huge fans of Battle Network, and had also sussed out the Boktai tie-in. But they were a step ahead of me. Alex had found and bought the game for our friend Joey for his birthday. Joey was there that day, playing his new copy of ‘Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand’ by the sliding glass door that led out onto Alex’s house’s deck. It’s actually important that Joey was playing by the sliding glass door, and it’s at this point that I should give a proper introduction to just how weird and interesting the Boktai games were.
Boktai, Bokura no Taiyou in Japan, is a series of stealth action RPGs for the Game Boy Advance from Hideo Kojima and Konami. You play as Solar Boy Django, vampire hunter and wielder of the solar gun, Gun Del Sol. You traverse through dungeons, fighting monsters, leveling up, collecting gear and loot, and defeating vampire bosses known as ‘Immortals.’ Up to this point in the description, it plays like many other games, apart from some really cool stealth mechanics because it’s made by Hideo Kojima.
HOWEVER. In addition to the usual action RPG trappings, there is some uniqueness to the way you use your solar gun, solve puzzles, and interact with the world. See, Boktai isn’t just a game about fighting with sunlight. Boktai requires sunlight to play.
Look at that weird ass cartridge. That little black square on the back? That’s a solar sensor. Not a light sensor. It cannot be tricked with one of Edison’s bedeviled lamps. It only detects the rays of the pure, shining sun. This is how you charge up your solar gun’s battery (basically your mana, in video game terms, and in practice in future Boktai installments), and interact with the game in myriad other ways. You don’t need to constantly be soaked in sunlight in order to play, you can play inside and at night, but certain puzzles and activities need sunlight. If you play for long enough without any sunlight, it even starts raining in-game. It’s weird and gimmicky and, frankly, in my opinion, cool as shit.
Not only was it weird and different, but watching Joey play through a small section that day at Alex’s house, it seemed like a very good game that I would like to play. The environments looked cool, the music was enticing, and you could customize the solar gun with different parts that you found around the world, each one clicking into place as you selected it with a soul-satisfying snap. My hunger grew. I must play this video game.
After begging for it for my next birthday, my prayers were answered. I just want to take a moment here to recognize what a herculean task I set for my parents. Find your son a weird, obscure Japanese video game that hardly anyone has ever even heard of, much less seen, in suburban Illinois, and also you don’t know anything about video games. I have no idea how many game stores, both Stop and Crazy, they must have called. Why couldn’t I have been a normal kid who wanted a Mario or a Zelda or a Madden? My parents managed to track down a copy at a GameStop somewhere, but not of the original Boktai I had watched Joey play, only of its sequel, ‘Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django.’ “Is that okay,” my parents asked. I thought to myself, “There’s two of these things? Sick!”
When the day arrived, and I held the strangely shaped cartridge in my hand at last, I eagerly popped it into my GBA, drank in the startup screen, and started a new file. After a cutscene and a brief tutorial section, tragedy struck. Mild spoilers for Boktai 2 here: one of the very first things to happen in this game is losing the Gun Del Sol. I looked on helplessly as the solar gun, the very crux of the first game, which I had assumed would be a series staple, and which looked like so much fun to play with, was stolen away by a mysterious figure. The Gun Del Sol, as it is seen in the first Boktai, does not feature in the second. You spend the entirety of the game fighting instead with swords, spears, and hammers. I will admit to a brief moment of disappointment.
Luckily, beyond that moment lay hours upon hours of well-implemented stealth-action-puzzle gameplay, incredible music, lovable characters, an interesting story, a quaint little town, magic, vampires, and the end of the world. I fell completely in love. From Saturday mornings spent pressed against my bedroom window, trying to get just one more bar of sun, to afternoons following the sunlight around our yard, and those cloudy midwestern winters when the game just got harder. I devoured it.
Funnily enough, a similar pattern would play out later, while asking for KOTOR for my birthday, but only being able to track down KOTOR 2. Sometimes the sequel is just better.
Eventually, probably for my next birthday or so, I would get my hands on the first game, and finally got to experience the solar gun-having game I lusted after to begin with. The two games are different in plenty of other ways, but I fell in love with the first just about as hard as I had the second. I have many fond memories of making my way through the final dungeon over the course of a sick day at home.
Having completed the two current games in the series, and having heard rumblings online about a third in Japan, I was eager to see what came next. The third Boktai game, ‘Shin Bokura no Taiyou: Gyakushuu no Sabata,’ was released in Japan on 28 July 2005. Django looked older in the marketing materials, maybe even TEENaged. You played with both the solar gun and swords. You could ride a motorcycle that was also a casket. Surely it was only a matter of time until it, like its brethren, was localized. So I waited. And I waited. But it was not to be. Boktai’s popularity and sales outside Japan were not high enough for Konami to consider localizing it in English and releasing it stateside. It seemed my story with Solar Boy Django would remain incomplete.
In 2006, Konami released Lunar Knights in North America on the Nintendo DS, a localization of Boktai DS, which was more a reboot/spiritual successor than a direct sequel. I eagerly bought it (I was making lawn mowing money at this point), and played through the whole thing, but it never felt quite the same. I liked the game’s jazzy soundtrack, but it never matched the height of its predecessor’s Spaghetti Western-inspired score. The localized names of Aaron and Lucian instead of Django and Sabata, and the characters yelling “Sunlight!” and “Darkness!” instead of “Taiyoh!” and “Ankoku!” just felt off. I liked it well enough, and certainly played it to completion, but it wasn’t the same. And learning that the game’s crossover in Japan with Megaman Star Force, the DS successor to Battle Network, had been removed in the English version, despite Megaman Star Force being released in North America, didn’t feel right either.
Years passed. I played other games. I returned to my Boktai cartridges occasionally, and continued to hold them in high regard, as I am a deeply sentimental and nostalgic person, but there remained a hole. I had been denied closure. And what was I going to do? Import a video game from a foreign country? I didn’t know how to do that, and I likely didn’t have the money. I was thirteen.
I’d found ROMs of Shinbok, as Boktai 3 came to be colloquially known, and there were even solar sensor patches being developed so that you could play the game on an emulator without the need for actual sunlight, and English translation patches were being worked on, so that English-speaking fans could finally enjoy the game they missed out on. I tried playing this way once or twice, but never made it further than the first dungeon. Emulators just aren’t the same. Sometimes they’re glitchy, sometimes they lose your save data, and they certainly ain’t no translucent Arctic Blue Game Boy Advance.
Time took its tragic toll. The years marched ever onward. I graduated high school. I left my home, and graduated college. I left my city, my state, I got a job, I fell in love, I paid bills, I traveled internationally. I had a life. I am twenty-seven years old as I sit here having written that sentence, so no, under no circumstances should you take me seriously. But I did do all those things.
Then one day, I’m me. I’m browsing eBay for a Valentine’s Day gift for my girlfriend. For whatever reason, out of the clear blue, I decide to search “Boktai.” I get results. Used cartridges, new cartridges, Complete-In-Box games, Japanese guidebooks, and even custom cartridges that fans have made with solar sensor patches baked in.
This is the part we’ve been building towards for 2,200 words. The point of the whole thing. The part where I also see, on eBay dot com, listings for ‘Shin Bokura no Taiyou: Gyakushuu no Sabata.’ Shinbok. Boktai 3. Some of them are expensive. Some of them are not. 2021 Mike has a different idea of expensive than 2006 Mike. 2021 Mike has money. 2021 Mike remembers what it felt like to be 2006 Mike. It is almost 2021 Mike’s birthday. So I roll the dice, thinking, “It’s Boktai 3, and it’s that cheap. Someone will outbid me and that will be that.” I was drawing on lessons learned from bidding on an item that I wanted to get for my girlfriend. I had still failed to learn the lesson that brought me to this moment in the first place: I am possibly the only living human who cares this much about Boktai. That, it turned out, would not be that.
Twenty-four hours later, I was still the leading bid. And the next day. And the next. It started to sink in that, barring some 11th-hour, swoop-in bid from a Boktai superfan, I was going to win this auction. I started to feel guilty, especially after failing to secure the item I had been bidding on for my girlfriend. Here I was accidentally buying something for myself! But then I thought back. Back to everything you just read, all of which I have lived. And thinking of it as an early birthday present to myself, it seemed plenty reasonable. I continued watching the auction with muted excitement as the deadline crept closer.
On February 2nd, at 2:49 AM, fate smiled on me. The auction had ended. And my bid, the only bid, had won. The cold fact that had kept Shinbok from me all those years ago, that had kept it from coming stateside, that simply not enough people were interested, had allowed me to finally acquire it for myself.
Two short days later (SOMEHOW – this thing came from Japan), I held it in my hands. A complete-in-box edition of Shin Bokura no Taiyou. Original box, manual, and cartridge. Each in extremely good condition. The long journey that started at the very roots of my personal handheld gaming history could finally end. I popped it into my Game Boy Advance, the same translucent Arctic Blue Game Boy Advance I bought off of Eric, on which I first played many of my favorite games of all time, including both previous Boktai games, and heard that beautiful sound:
Not only is everything in great condition, it works. The game works. And I can play it. It’s mine.
We’ve reached the end now. There isn’t much more to tell. I’m having a great time slowly playing through the game. There’s a New Game+ mode awaiting my first completion, and items and unlockables only obtainable on multiple playthroughs of the game, so I’m going to be happily occupied with this thing for some time. The only “drawback” is, of course, that the game is in Japanese, hence my renewed effort to learn. On that front, things are going slowly, naturally, but well. I’m remembering some things I learned in high school, and I’m able to read some words in-game.
In truth, Boktai 3 isn’t the only thing that made me want to learn Japanese again, I’ve been conspiring to do that for a few months now. But I’ve heard that having a video game, or some piece of media, to experience entirely in Japanese helps in learning the language. I’m starting to see some of that already, as I learn to recognize Hiragana and Katakana from words in menus and dialogue boxes. These games already mean so much to me, and if they help me learn another language as well, it’ll be that much more special.
In closing: Chase your dreams. Check eBay. Your dreams might be on eBay. Just know your limit going in. Your eBay dreams are not a good reason to lose your house. But they are a great way to rekindle a childhood love, it turns out. I did not mean to actually win this eBay auction, but I do not regret it one iota. I cannot believe I have this object. And I’m so, so happy with it.