Back in 2003, Hideo Kojima helmed a new project; the first non-Metal Gear title since the release of Policenauts in 1994. It was a bizarre spin on the unique properties of a handheld console, taking advantage of its mobility by nestling a photometric light sensor in the game cartridge. It was called Boktai: The Sun Is In Your Hand, a GameBoy Advance title centered around a vampire hunter named Django. It blended the stealth-action many had come to expect from Kojima, but played it against an isometric angle and utilized actual, real-world sunlight as the source to recharge your weaponry.
This novel mechanical blend proved addictive for many and paved the way for a sequel the following year. Kojima, however, took on a producer role for the follow-ups, unlike the original which he wrote and directed. Sadly, Boktai 2: Solar Boy Django, sold so poorly that the third, Boktai 3: Sabata’s Counterattack, never found itself localized for Western markets. However, its cult following brought Konami back to the franchise when development for the DS began. Boktai DS in Japan, and Lunar Knights elsewhere showed that even without a solar sensor, Boktai’s world and gameplay could stand on their own (and players could even slot a Boktai game into the DS’s GBA slot to enhance their abilities using the sensor).
Unfortunately, this was the last time the series would ever see a major release. Occasionally, crossovers would crop up that would feature Django, such as a few of the Mega Man Battle Network games and a reference in 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4. In 2007, fans would reignite interest in the series by releasing a mostly-finished fan-translation of Boktai 3, but, beyond that: nothing. Most considered the franchise dead and gone, especially after the 2010s went by without a single murmur of resurrecting the series. Truly, the sun had set on the beloved franchise.
That was, until 2015, when developer ChickenHat (@Boktai3D) revealed that they had begun work on a fan-game taking place within the Boktai universe. Titled Kura5: Bonds of the Undying, it aims to be a distillation of the strengths present in Boktai and Lunar Knights, with a fresh cast of characters. Set several generations after the good ending of Boktai 3, vampire hunter Annie teams up with Emil, a vampire himself, to tackle a rogues gallery of Immortals threatening to snuff out the sun once and for all.
Playing very much like the originals, Kura5 translates the stealth-action alongside puzzle solving superbly. It also notably features a bevy of parts that can be used to modify the Gun Del Sol; Django’s, and now Annie’s, weapon of choice. The standard Solar Lens can be swapped with a Luna Lens that doesn’t use energy, making it useless against enemies but conserving ammo when hitting switches and the like.
On top of that, the player can swap between Annie and Emil on the fly (once Emil joins you in earnest). Emil wields a blade (similarly to Lucian of Lunar Knights) that can also slot in different Lenses to modify his weapon, for instance, a Dark Lens that freezes enemies when you attack them from behind. Combined with the ability to knock on walls to distract opponents, their two toolkits fuse into a solid set of options and possibilities for every encounter.
“But,” you ask, “what about the Solar Sensor?” Unlike Lunar Knights, which doesn’t rely on mechanics tied to the sensor for its core gameplay, Kura5 cements its balance between the two extremes of the series by utilizing online weather data tied to the region you’re currently in. Tracking time of day, cloudiness, and precipitation chance, it presents a varying experience based on when it’s played. Do you wait until morning to finish off a boss when you can have a steady supply of Solar Charge, or power through tonight and handle the greater challenge? It’s what made the Boktai games feel so special and is such a clever solution for overcoming the lack of a sensor.
Beyond the emulation of mechanics, however, Kura5 presents the player with an experience unique to it. While it employs a few catchphrases or references to characters from the originals, it doesn’t do what many fan-games do and simply recreate the experience by reusing assets ripped from other titles. Instead, it’s completely original, creating a standalone experience that doesn’t rely on the nostalgia of its forebears. The craftsmanship of the experience is superb: characters and monsters showcase charisma and energy despite their small demeanor; even its music (created by LiteralLapin) manages to channel the vibe of the series without relying on reusing soundtracks from the previous games.
Kura5 is a testament to the enthusiasm of fandom, a love for a forgotten franchise manifesting in a wholly new title. Naturally, the ever-present fear of receiving a Cease & Desist looms overhead for the developer. Thankfully, they’ve approached the project in a way that they could easily do exactly what formerly Mother 4, now Oddity, did recently. Pivoting away from the copywritten aspects of the Boktai series would be an easy task at this point, given their reliance on creating new graphical elements, music, and characters.
Regardless of what the future holds legally for the game, Kura5 is a brilliant extension of the Boktai franchise, and exactly what the series deserves. Even if you’ve never heard of Boktai, Kura5 serves as a wonderful place to fall in love with it.
Kura5: Bonds of the Undying is currently available on itch.io.
Catherine Brinegar is a trans game developer and filmmaker who explores the surreal and abstract in her work. Beyond her creative endeavors she enjoys losing herself inside other worlds, interactive and not. Finding inspiration in everything, Catherine aims to see all the world has to offer, through the continual conversation of art. You can keep up with her on twitter @cathroon.