Well, well, well, look what showed up today on the Playstation Store! Rockstar’s Bully is now available for $15. The text implies it’s a direct port of the Playstation 2 version, which was available as part of the classics catalog for the PS3. I’m not sure how it might compare to the sketchy remastered edition for the Xbox 360, but surely Sony and Rockstar took the time to do right by the best game of 2006.
Okay, now let’s get Red Dead Redemption playable on my PS4.
After the jump, is Bully really the best game of 2006?
Who knows whether it was the best game of 2006. But it was my favorite game of 2006. Here’s the review I wrote at the time.
(The following article is reprinted without permission from the longdead website where it originally appeared.)
It’s a bit of a shame that Bully has been upstaged by its own controversy, particularly since it’s not a particularly controversial game. There is nothing here that merits raised eyebrows, much less anti-violence crusader Jack Thompson’s scrutiny. Yeah, kids are running around punching each other, and I suppose someone could lose an eye what with all the bottle rocket launchers and spud guns that eventually come into play. There is kissing, but since when is getting to first base controversial?
And okay, the adults in the game aren’t exactly role models. In fact, grown-ups are the source of Bully’s worst peccadilloes: the English teacher is a drunk, the coach is a pervert, and the cafeteria lady isn’t above slipping her date some roofies. But as far as T-rated games go, Bully is tame. It’s free of blood, malice, and the profanity that you wouldn’t hear on prime time network television. And more importantly, it’s a powerfully good game that deserves attention, not for how shocking it’s supposed to be, but for its quality, inventiveness, and humor.
The premise of Bully is, quite simply, Grand Theft Auto set in and around a prep school. Who better to do a Grand Theft Auto clone than Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar? However, Bully is the work of Rockstar’s Vancouver studio. These guys were formerly known as Barking Dog and their previous work consists mainly of real time strategy games set in space. But you’d never guess from their work on Bully that they aren’t right at home making free-roaming living worlds.
Compared to, say, San Andreas or Saints Row, Bully is surprisingly linear. You are always free to do various subtasks, but they will only get you so far. Most of them will earn you money and costume bits, neither of which is very useful (in fact, it seems the main use of money is to buy clothes, which serves little function other than to make you less likely to draw aggro from certain cliques). But the main through-line is the missions. Two or three missions are usually available, and further missions unlock only after you’ve finished these. You will be able to break out of the confines of the prep school’s grounds fairly quickly, but even then, Bully takes its time doling out bits of the surrounding areas. Once you’ve finished Bully, your path is going to be very much like mine.
The narrative storyline, setting, characters, events is one of the great strengths of Bully. There is a solid lead character in the form of Jimmy Hopkins, whose shaved head and squat build make him look positively fascist (a quick visit to the local barber can fix that). As he’s written in Bully, Hopkins is quite the little thug, although the plot has him doing all sorts of noble deeds. He defends geeks, redeems shamed cheerleaders, and even covers for adult misdeeds. He rarely demands little more than a few bucks in return.
Among the missions, you’ll find a lot of familiar trappings, including escort missions, sniper missions, races, “hold-the-line-against-a-bunch-of-attackers”, and even “shoot-the-gun-while-someone-else-drives”. But before you roll your eyes, understand that even when Bully resorts to game cliches, they’re used in a simple and lighthearted way, made for a quick shot of entertainment rather than an obstacle.
The storyline is divided into chapters that proceed as you might expect. First an intro, then a chapter in which Jimmy takes on each clique and ultimately beats its boss, and then a big showdown finale before being turned loose to gather leftover collectibles. As you’re playing, you attend classes, which mark time and also unlock rewards as you progress. Your classes are cleverly represented as minigames, ranging from a Qix clone for art class to a dodge ball match in gym to button pressing challenges for shop and chemistry.
But the real strength of Bully isn’t its structure, or even its engaging storyline. Its real strength is how it folds its gameplay into the world of the Bullworth Academy and environs. Classwork, kissing, yearbook photos, sweet bikes, curfews, jocks, prefects and teachers, your dorm, skateboarding. They’re here and they matter in this game world. And even things that aren’t major parts of the gameplay are present and accounted for: petty jealousies, tree climbing, wedgies, the sexy art teacher, food fights, and so on. The result is one of the most vividly created worlds you will ever visit in a videogame. Never mind that Rockstar has had to stretch the technical limitation of the Playstation to the breaking point. The frame rate regularly hitches and the limitations of the draw distance are particularly painful if you’ve been playing anything next-gen. And the load times! Waiting for levels to load will really test your fondness for Bully.
But Rockstar Vancouver has made the most of what they have. Although the character models are rough and cartoony, they are superbly drawn and animated. Instead of simply repeating a few dozen models, Bullworth is inhabited by fifty or so unique students, each with his or her own name and attitude. You’ll get to know them over the course of the school year. It helps that the soundscape is packed with comments, consistently entertaining and often funny. From a cop in hot pursuit: “I always get my man! Wait, does that sound gay?” From a random student passing by: “What is absinthe anyway?” From the shop teacher: “Okay kids, I’m in a crap mood today, so just sit down and shut up.” The very next class: “Okay kids, I’m in a good mood today, so just sit down and shut up.” The music works well also. Whereas Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto game relied heavily on licensed songs, Bully’s music is a backdrop of bass plucking and the occasional xylophone, equal parts mischief and innocence, like the game itself.
But it’s not just the location that makes Bully so great. Bullworth Academy is merely the setting; the subject is childhood. This is a game about how the world looks when you’re growing up; when adults are inept at best and malicious at worst; when your room is your sanctuary; when you’re free to do whatever you feel like doing until some chore or class comes up; when time is there to be frittered; when it’s almost holy to wake up in the morning and see snow on the ground; when all the girls are taller than you; when a kiss is an end unto itself instead of a prelude; when forts and popularity and Halloween and humiliation mean different things than they do now. The real genius of Bully isn’t that it’s just a solid Grand Theft Auto clone; the real genius is that it’s a funny, insightful, saccharine-free, and sometimes downright magical game about being a kid.