If asked at the twilight of the last console generation what pairing of cinematic and video game storytelling would be least likely to make it to release, John Hughes and Grand Theft Auto would probably be at the top of your list. But that’s exactly what consumers got with Rockstar Vancouver’s ode to private school life in 2006’s Bully. Can the developer’s eye for character development and top-of-the-class storytelling surmount this oddest of theses? Is the recent re-release of the title as Bully: Scholarship Edition for the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360 an admittance of fault with the original? Or does even the mighty Rockstar fail at making school fun?
Bully (Playstation 2)
Jimmy Hopkins doesn’t play well with others. Fresh from his latest expulsion, the ne’er-do-well is dropped at the curb at the prestigiously grotesque Bullworth Academy, full to brim with clique cliché and backhanded educational tactics. Not deterred by the mess around him, Jimmy makes his way through the ranks of each clique, in an effort to rebrand the school in his own style of justice.
Rockstar enthusiasts will be immediately taken aback by the almost clean script, given the company’s knack for setting records for curse-laden scripts. But the lack of blunt crudeness means that Rockstar’s other strength, characterization, can take hold almost instantaneously. By the time the tutorial is over, players will have been introduced to a crew of motley ideals and immensely varied personality, with sharp and believable scripts making them more real in fifteen minutes than most games care to try in an entire franchise.
The result is a tangible world full of strong motivations and equally strong stereotype. While dividing the school into recognizable facets like jocks and nerds allows the foundation for Jimmy’s own tale to blossom, gamers will miss the depth and scope Rockstar normally gives even its smallest character. Despite this self-imposed limitation, the main crew of Bully shines as incredibly well-rounded individuals that will quickly grab empathy, or at least attention. I am putting on record that Gary is one of the strongest and most ridiculously awesome villains ever within a video game. You’ll understand by the third mission, I promise.
The meat of Bully is split between missions and classes, and guided by a lenient time schedule that has various classes open only for a few hours each day, missions only available at certain times, and each day ending with you having to go to bed eventually. At the onset, it may feel restrictive, but once the player gets used to it the day-cycle almost becomes the game’s greatest strength, shoe-horning Jimmy into classes and missions without feeling too forced. A majority of Bullworth’s courses are optional to attend, and if you attempt to do a series of them in one sitting you’ll quickly understand why. Each of the game’s subjects; English, Chemistry, Gym, Photography and Art; is controlled through a sometimes appropriate mini-game. English enthusiasts will try to unscramble a number of words from a letter-pile in a given time, and Art aficionados will battle bouncing scissors and erasers in an attempt to draw boxes of a painting to restore the full picture before class ends. Tedious if tackled all at once, discretion will prove these to be entertaining diversions, sure to please the casual mindset within most gamers. Classes aren’t just to flavor the gameplay, either, as each successful completion of a class (each subject has five) nets an in-game bonus relative to the subject: gym makes you more accurate with your weapons, chemistry allows you to create fancier torture devices like firecrackers from the chemistry set in your room, etc.
In between classes you can dodge authority (cops are replaced with equally vigilant prefects and later…cops) and attempt a couple of main or supplemental missions. Thankfully, even the least significant side missions have enough personality to merit their completion, most of them having to do with intricacies of each clique’s archetype (like collecting scattered “Grottos and Gremlins” character sheets for a corpulent nerd.) The main draw is the storied escapades, and their personality was understandably given the most time for it. As a result they ring with more humor and little details, their cutscenes overcoming the similar mission-structure as easily watchable vignettes. Both mission types eventually fall victim to routine goals, some even appearing unique on the on-set, only to contain several smaller routine mission-types in one. But all this repetitive structure is understandable considering the game’s open structure. The mission-based objective system leaves the story open and hanging for whenever the player wants to continue, freeing up their schedule for street races or games at the local carnival whenever the mood suits them. Tackling the game in one full stretch is almost against the point, as the mood feels designed for chunks of play spaced out over time. And, if tackled in such a way, Bully’s charms are difficult to resist.
However, it wouldn’t be a Rockstar game without violence. Although, Bully’s various brawls feel more like “Home Alone” than “Heat.” You spread marbles to trip your foes, stink bombs to blind them, firecrackers to damage them, and eggs to…egg them. There’s an indefinable charm to it all, a sense of harmless schaudenfreude that will greatly widen the prospective audience to the GTA formula. If all else fails though, you can always break out the fisticuffs for a more personal beating, with upgradeable moves available through side missions and Gym classes. It all controls reasonably well to, the reduced control scheme simplifying the process to almost button-mash quality. When it’s you against one or two foes, it feels simple and powerful, but when the screen fills with enemies (an occasional occurrence in story mode) it can become a hassle to flit between beat-down victims.
Unfortunately, the truncated design that went to the characters and story also went into the level design. The world of greater Bullworth is a multi-sectioned northeastern town divided much like the school: the upper-class preppy twit neighborhood, the industrial grimy Greaser locale, and the nerd-happy comic shops sprinkled in between. It’s much smaller than most 3-D GTA offerings, and players expecting anywhere close to the playtime of Bully’s infamous cousin series will be turned off by it’s 12-15 hour length. However, it’s still amusing to gun around the streets in your bicycle, moped, or – later – go-kart, despite the redundant buildings littering each respective section. There are no load times inside the world, however, the only time a screen will buffer the action is when Jimmy enters a building or starts a mission.
Anyone expecting an Ivy-League GTA will be rightfully put down when picking up Bully. It’s compact design is meant as an entrance exam to the Grand Theft Auto formula, and taken in that respect, it excels. Recommended play is definitely in short bursts, as the recurring mission-types and repetitive day schedule begin to drain after extended sessions. Even those gunning for the higher Rockstar products will find something to like in the story, with hysterical – if one-dimensional – side characters propping up a world we can all relate to, and a strong set of main characters to destroy it with. A definite buy for anyone who wasn’t the King of their high school. …Long live Gary.
Bully: Scholarship Edition (Xbox 360)
Two years after initial release, 360 owners get a chance to enroll in Bullworth Academy, with updated graphics and new missions and classes to explore. At face value it’s a fantastic deal, and at its bargain price it still holds up. However, if you already own the Playstation 2 version, not much incentive exists for anything more than a rental.
The most recognizable difference in this new version is the graphics upgrade. In gameplay the new engine looks beautiful, with a more vibrant spectrum of color and a much more advanced lighting set-up that only furthers Bullworth’s academic culture. In cutscenes however, the advancements actually deter what was started on the Playstation 2. While textures have been cleaned up and background details polished, the new look of the characters is ugly, with Jimmy looking particularly apish up close. It doesn’t help matters that, even after a patch release, the game is riddled with bugs belittling this generation, with NPCs caught dancing in corners and Jimmy spinning abruptly around as he sits in for class. It’s hard to believe that these hang-ups would exist, especially with the minimal changes elsewhere to the engine, but as it stands, Bully is better suited to grainy and gray than sharp and buggy.
Also included in Scholarship Edition is a handful of new missions and classes to undertake, and it easily becomes the most worthwhile upgrade on the disk. The game’s base structure allows for these new story and side missions to pop up with little discontinuity or irregularity, and in terms of adding new gameplay elements, more already fit into the hold of the existing mission-types or are tied to the new classes. Said courses include; Music, Biology, Geography and Math; the latter two destined to prove just how unintelligent you are when under pressure. With Chemistry already set-up as a button-pressing mini-game, the rhythm based trigger-pressing Music class feels tacked on and redundant, especially when the gameplay spills over into a story mission or two. Some classes can also be taken online in competitive multiplayer, but when their structure becomes tiresome within the breadth of the story mode, it’s difficult to find much use for them outside the most competitive leader-board junkies.
360 owners got the most dichotomous version of Bully, each change bringing with it new issues or further repetitiveness. While the graphical changes are pretty during play, their ugly seams almost deter from the game’s brilliant story, and the new classes either reuse existing gameplay routines or don’t bring enough new to the table to recommend a purchase. Even if you don’t own the original Bully, this Scholarship is only worth it to those suffering from leader-board withdrawal. For those rare gamers that own a 360 but not a PS2, suffer the loss. Otherwise, it’s back to the original grade on the PS2 for this one.
Bully: Scholarship Edition (Nintendo Wii)
If the 360 version isn’t worth it, how can the Nintendo Wii possibly hope for anything better? Well, one of the best third-party implementation of the motion controllers certainly helps. While nothing splendid in and of themselves, tipping and twisting the Wii-mote during fights helps bring more responsive and entertaining uses then most for the controller.
In addition, the new classes seem much more inclined to the nunchuck and Wii-mote, quick jabs in Music class quickly outrank anything the insulting Wii Music offered, and the gross cuts and peels of Biology’s dissecting are horribly putrid and equally fun. The simple and conservative moments are easier to repeat over time too, Bully does not requiring you to thrust and wave around the controls in wild masturbatory choreography to do the simplest task.
And while the Wii also received a visual upgrade, the changes are comparatively understated than in the 360 version. No real tweaks to the character or background textures are readily apparent, but a brightened lighting design and crisper filter have the same effect in both cutscenes and open-world gameplay that the 360 version also enjoyed, without the bugs and up-close-and-ugly drawbacks.
A pleasant surprise to be sure, Bully: Scholarship Edition proves to be the ideal iteration of Rockstar’s ode to school justice. Properly understated and minute movements of the wii-mote make even the larger playground brawls more amusing, and the classes shine with near spot-on dissections and note-playing, without any hint of Wii-Motionplus need. Even if your Playstation 2 already took you to Bullworth Academy, a summer school session – especially at bargain price – is definitely worth the application cost to expand the dusty shelf you have set-up for good third-party Wii games.