In the middle of July, Xbox One gamers the world over got a wonderful summer surprise when the system’s backwards compatibility program released one of the most beloved games of the previous generation: Rockstar Game’s Western magnum opus Red Dead Redemption. The 36-million people who opted to go with Sony’s PlayStation 4, however, didn’t get the same deal — but they do have Rockstar’s Bully, which is still great.
In October of 2006, the company released Bully amid a firestorm of controversy. Drowned in erroneous claims that the game was a “public nuisance”, the title’s unique charm has flown largely under the radar, especially in the wake of Rockstar’s endless string of classics. And that’s too bad, because Bully is possessed of all of the technical and storytelling prowess that makes Rockstar’s western so beloved.
You Are Not the Bully
The game’s star, Jimmy Hopkins, is a tiny, but tough kid who’s dumped at a run-down boarding school when his mom takes off for Europe with her new husband. Entrenched in an old school system that fosters unfettered aggression, the students have split into hostile factions of every grade school archetype (nerds, jocks, greasers, rich kids, and townies). It’s Jimmy’s task to navigate this hive of scum and villainy in the hopes of finding a place where he can get some peace.
Jimmy also happens to be a little shit who’s got a very good reason to sport the chip on his shoulder. He’s also wickedly fun to control, whether skating around the campus, biking around the small New England town, or throwing down with one of the various groups of asshole teenagers littering the map.
The Worthwhile Villain
Driving the vast majority of Jimmy’s troubles is his one-time friend Gary, a borderline sociopath with grandiose plans to “take over the school.” Of course, that mostly involves telling various members of the faculty that Jimmy is spreading rumors involving them and farm animals. Like Othello’s grand villain, Iago, Gary is motivated by pure hatred, sprung from some place that even he can’t coherently explain.
He’s the extreme result of teenage fierceness, the fiery, hormonal id run amok. And it’s so satisfying to punch him in his dumb face.
Because Kids Can’t Go Around Shooting Each Other …
All of the combat in Bully is non-lethal. The core combat system is a well-executed hand-to-hand mechanic that operates like a simplistic fighting game. If you’ve thrilled to the bone-crunching combat in Sleeping Dogs, that title shares some of the same DNA as Rockstar’s brawler. In addition to the punching and kicking, Bully also throws in a variety of low-grade weapons like the slingshot, firecrackers, and (eventually) a potato gun. Of course, where the title’s arsenal really distinguishes itself is the ability to make mischief by setting off a variety of pranks.
Everything from marbles to itching powder to stink bombs are available to inject a little chaos into the hum drum day-to-day of life at a private school.
Best. Score. Ever.
Composer Shawn Lee set Jimmy’s New England odyssey to one of the most audibly delicious scores in video game history.
In turns haunting, charming, and action-packed, Lee’s score is reason enough to shell out fifteen bucks for Bully. The artist makes expert use of a wide variety of instruments to create an infectious, cohesive whole that works perfectly no matter what order you hear it in.
A Love Note to People Who Hated High School
In essence, Jimmy Hopkins is kind of a walking revenge fantasy. He’s disrespectful to the authority figures who underestimate him, and he’s got the wit to back it up. He doesn’t take shit from the kids who’d push him around, and he’s got the muscle to back it up. Even the classes you’re forced to attend via mini-games are immediately rewarding in a way no real class ever was. Best of all, Dan Houser and Jacob Krarup’s script is more than equipped to juggle the main character’s aggressive tone with a cartoon-like adherence to innocence.
Rockstar’s traditional satirical jabs are in full effect here, only they’ve been lowered to an appropriately juvenile level. If it makes you feel better, think of it as Grand Theft Auto: Prep School.
Being a Kid, But Better
Remember how high school was the absolute worst?
Bully takes those torturous four years and plops you right back in the middle of the action, only this time you have the muscle and the tools to fight back. A smart story in sophomoric clothing is more than enough reason to check out Bully, but the fully realized small town, the unforgettable array of characters, and the satisfying, yet PG-13 combat elevate Bully to the level of classic.