Nobody likes a bully. But a fair few people like Bully, the action-adventure title that rips Grand Theft Auto from the city and shoves it into Bullworth Academy, a boarding school full of stereotypes and parodies that you'd expect from a Rockstar game.
Can we survive a day as the new kid, or will we be calling our parents to come back and pick us up?
I've got the PlayStation 2 original, complete with its guide to Bullworth Academy instruction manual and a fold-out map of the town of Bullworth. Sadly it's not crammed full of nonsense like the Grand Theft Auto paperwork, but there is a GTA-lite feel to this game.
We are Jimmy Hopkins, whose mother and new step-father have just dropped off at the academy before going on their lengthy honeymoon. A quick-witted kid, we're no stranger to moving schools and have had to develop a thick skin to survive.
The principal is one Dr Crabblesnitch, a man who claims his calling is to turn these troubled kids into respectable members of society. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of him. No subtitles, sadly, so I forget what he was babbling on about. The voicework and animations aren't bad; again GTA-like, for obvious reasons, but there's nothing wrong with that.
Let's begin the first chapter of our new school life.
Most of our time will be spent in and around Bullworth Academy itself, but this isn't a prison. The map in Bully spreads out to the surrounding town, giving us a hint that if we stick with it, we'll be rewarded with much more than school life - at least, I hope so. The idea of the game didn't convince me it was worth a purchase back in the day.
We need to look the part, mostly because not wearing our school uniform will land us in hot water, and for that, we need to head to the Boy's Dorm, where a couple of guys seek to welcome us.
You can't call a game Bully and not including bullying. Its depiction may have caused some controversy (anything from Rockstar garners heat from someone), but it knuckles down to locking onto a target and then punching, grabbing, throwing, kicking or humiliating them until they give up.
It's actually one of the most comfortable melee systems Rockstar have developed. They usually suck, especially in more recent GTA titles. Here, it feels good to fight.
We're introduced to Gary Smith and Petey Kowalski, and by those names alone you can work out which one is which and how much of a dick they are relative to the other. The kids of Bully come in all shapes and sizes, belonging to distinct groups: nerds, jocks, you get the idea. How you interact with each group supposedly results in changes to how they see you, so making friends across the board is probably useful to you in the long run.
But before all of that, Gary is going to show us some of the school, and in turn, how Bully works. Everything from apologising to avoid a fight, breaking into students' lockers, hiding from the prefects... kids at this place have it tough.
After getting Eunice's chocolates back, it's time to actually get some schoolwork done. Bully has a clock, with windows of time dedicated to morning and afternoon lessons. If you're not in a class, you're going to be hunted down by Prefects - the cops, essentially.
If you are in class, though, you'll get some mini-games to complete. This chemistry class rewarded me with firecrackers that I could make back in my Dorm room with my chemistry set. It pays to pay attention in class, folks.
Taunted by a slingshot-wielding kid, we give chase to exact our own justice, no doubt getting rewarded with a slingshot in the process. Like GTA, mashing the sprint button is better than holding it, and it's not too much trouble to follow this guy through the school grounds. There are button prompts everywhere, so it's hard to forget what to press and when.
This gate was put here to force us to put people inside garbage bins, but you can mash triangle hard enough to ignore that, and it nearly worked on the garage door too. Eventually, though, I had to fend off my attackers before facing Davis directly.
I was prompted to pick up and chuck bricks at him, but armed with firecrackers from my first chemistry lesson, one of those did the trick. Lock-on with L1, throw with R1, watch the brief cutscene for the win.
Gary has a great idea for some slingshot practice, so we follow him to the football field and climb into our vantage point...
Even wearing helmets these guys didn't stand a chance. It's not too hard, and I seem to have infinite ammo and generous hitboxes to help. The only problem I've really had up to this point is that the emulation is far from rock steady, dropping down to half speed at its worst, and three quarters or so speed in busy areas.
After this, we get the choice of missions, a staple of GTA. The Library is closer to my current whereabouts, so it's time to help the nerds. For the low, low price of $5, we're going to safely escort Algernon here to his locker. Money changes hands a fair bit amongst kids if this game is anything to go by.
The clock turns red while I fight off these kids. It turns out Algernon's bladder is on the weak side, and before reaching his locker, we need to reach a lavatory. Unfortunately, time keeps moving and the main building is closed. We're trespassing, and the halls are patrolled by Prefects.
Not only that, but Algernon doesn't want any old loo, but a specific loo on the upper floor. It's an easy trip. Navigating around the Prefects isn't hard, and Algernon keeps up reasonably well.
Finally in the right loo, we've got to defend it from anyone who wants to walk through the door. A couple of kids need a beat-down, and that causes a nearby a Prefect to investigate.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can fight the Prefects. It's hard, but not impossible. Probably. I don't know, because I was taken down and busted for trespassing, harassment, violence...
I assume the mission ended there and then in failure, and I was plonked back in my room to think about my actions. There was still time in the day to do stuff, but I did say I was here to see if I survived a single day, and it looks like I did. More or less.
Bully looked more promising than I thought way back when, and I'm sure I'd be entertained should I stick with it. Sadly, while it is playable with my emulation setup, it's far from perfect. Annoyingly so. If I want to keep going, I might have to look into other releases.
Do I want to keep going, though? Eeehhhhh... that's a tough one.
It's not a bad game. It's certainly got a lot of stuff going on, and there's a whole town to explore outside of the school, but do I want to explore it? Do I want to work my way up the ranks of the various cliques? Do I want to play more minigames or risk being caught for truancy? What benefit do I get for collecting all 75 rubber bands, if I recall that correctly?
Bully sets out to cover a topic that isn't exactly a go-to setting in video gaming - though Skool Daze made the 1001 list, so it must have some potential. Is the boarding school enough of an attraction to keep players invested? Is Bullworth the town worth spending time in?
All of these questions would be answered with another hour or two of playing the game, but I am already shying away from doing so. I'm not in a rush to do so, at least.
I don't really know what's going on with the story. It seems to be a loosely connected string of tutorial missions at the moment, which is to be expected, but at the same time, it'd be nice to know what my overall goal is. Survive? Become the bully? Who knows. Maybe I'll know with another session.
I don't know enough to know how much I would recommend Bully, but it is worth a recommendation, even if only to see GTA in a new, unexpected environment. It won't be a setting that attracts a lot of attention, and may even be offputting to some players, but there is a game that offers plenty to do here, should you be interested in going back to school.
FILLING YOU IN
I really need to do an inventory of my games library, because it turns out I have Bully: Scholarship Edition for the PC. It plays an awful lot better than emulating the PS2 version, but it's not without fault. I've already had to install some patches and the sound mix is absolutely awful. I'm hoping a simple restart will cause those changes to take effect. (It didn't. Thankfully, this version has subtitles. They're very much essential.)
It's probably what I'll use to play the rest of Bully, though, unless it turns out to be more hassle than it's worth. Recommending it over the PS2 original is, from what I've read, going to be a tough sell. From my experience? Well, let me experience some of it first and I'll get back to you.
Every student in the game has a unique appearance. I'm now desperately trying to remember if that was the case. Hmm. Might have to play it some more just to see all these students...
Bully, developed by Rockstar Vancouver, first released in 2006.
Version played: Canis Canem Edit, PlayStation 2, 2006, via emulation.