Too Long; Didn't Play: Rockstar's Bully

Sponsored by: Eleima

Time being assertive: 87 minutes

5th Grade Review

My favorite thing to do in this game is pretend that the main character grows up to be the main character from Grand Theft Auto 3, who later becomes the main character from Manhunt.

6th Grade Review

I don’t think it’s a huge reveal to say that I was bullied in school. I’ve had my hand slammed in locker doors, I’m no stranger to the odd chokehold, and I’ve only recently gotten over my fear of public restrooms, which at one point was so strong that I trained myself to go eight hours without relieving myself.

Ok, so maybe that was a bit of an overshare, but the point is: Yes, I know from bullies.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Rockstar’s seminal favorite, Bully. I’d heard good things, and it’s from that early era in Rockstar’s oeuvre that I enjoyed, before they started getting all dramatic and thinky with a series that also thinks it’s funny to have a sausage company called “Thick and Veiny." That subject matter had a lot of potential to go bad.

At just under ninety minutes in, I’m happy to report that it appears to be a bit of whimsical, kids-say-the-darndest-things look at school life from people who probably don’t actually remember it that well. You play as a troubled youth who looks very much like Bobby Hill, who finds himself enrolled in Bulworth Academy, a tough prep school for the scions of wealth. It has your standard domineering dean, overbearing teachers and a handful of rival cliques among the students.

Basically, it’s middle school as envisioned by the writing team behind Revenge of the Nerds. I’m okay with that.

The interesting thing about Bully is that you don’t actually play a bully. You play as a kid who gets into trouble for fighting bullies. As someone who had that particular impulse drilled out of me in the second grade by a teacher who thinks it’s only a fight if both participants are trying to win, I am agreeably surprised. Maybe this is a game that I can use to work out some personal demons. Or maybe it’s just a bit of a lark with some bad, risque jokes peppered throughout it. Either way, I’d call that a win.

Another agreeable surprise is that the game works. I’m running Windows 10, 64-bit, and judging by the Steam support forums, this game does not work on that operating system without some major system engineering. Well, I don’t know what I did right, but the game worked on the first load for me. It may be that there’s a game-breaking thing that happens later on, but by that point I’ll probably be done with it anyway.

For now, the framerate is smooth, and the controls are responsive, even if the game appears to have New Year’s Resolution, which is to say extremely fuzzy and not very consistent. As the owner of one of the few GTX970s that’s not being used for bitcoin mining, I was hoping that I could get some crisp rendering going, but no dice. The game looks like I’ve smeared vaseline on my monitor, and there are no modifiable settings readily available. Sure, I could go digging around INI files, but quite frankly the game is over ten years old, and Rockstar’s games don’t tend to be graphical powerhouses even when they’re new.

Fortunately, the gameplay can convince me to forget I’m playing a game that was designed for an era of CRT televisions and RCA cables. One of the weakest things about Rockstar’s games has always been the shooting, and Bully handles that by not having any guns in it. You get a slingshot at one point, but it auto-aims and as a weapon it’s only good for people you can’t walk to. The real combat system is a combination of melee and grappling that is deeper and better implemented than most wrestling games I’ve played. There are combinations to learn, and different grappling maneuvers to unlock. There are even finishing moves, in the forms of wet willies, noogies and those arm-twisty things that I only know to refer to by an unprintable name.

If the game were all fighting, though, it wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Fortunately, Bully offers an interesting context in which to do things. Bulworth Academy is run by the clock, and twice per day at specific times you have classes to attend. You can skip them, but then you have to play hide and seek with prefects who will chase you down and force you to class if you wander into their vision cones. Early on, however, you won’t want to skip classes, because doing well in class minigames unlocks additional abilities and perks. For example, chemistry class will unlock the ability to craft stink bombs and firecrackers, while gym class will unlock new combat moves.

When you’re not running to class, you’ll be running errands like any other Rockstar open-world game. There are six factions: Nerds, Bullies, Jocks, Preppies, Gear-heads (called something insensitive in the game, because Rockstar) and Townies, and they all have faction rep that you can grind. Naturally, I’m allying myself with the nerds, because if I can recreate Revenge of the Nerds in a video game, then I’m darn well going to.

The missions are standard stuff: Run to place, combat, run to another place, do a thing and maybe some more combat, run to a last place and receive reward. It’s not new, but it was nearer to it in 2006, and that’s the context you have to understand the game in. Frankly, I’m surprised it holds up as well as it does.

What you do, and to whom you do it, is largely up to you. Except for the story missions, which have you running errands for an obvious sociopath who, one hopes, will achieve some sort of comeuppance before the end of the final reel. I can appreciate that, and it’s fun to be reminded of why Rockstar was such a pioneer in the open-world genre.

So, well done. I can see why this game is so well regarded.

Study on?

I will probably spend some more time in Bully. There are some story threads emerging that I want to see the ends of, and the gameplay is as good as anything Rockstar’s ever done. Maybe better, if we’re counting Red Dead Redemption.

Is it the Dark Souls of study sessions?

Bully is nothing to write home about in the difficulty department, and the interface is quite informative and intuitive. You’re never at a loss for where to go or what your next objective is, even if you want to ignore objectives and just throw stink bombs at prefects.

Which I don’t recommend, because those guys are brutal.


I always thought this game really nailed the environments. Bullworth Academy (and the surrounding town) feels like a real place and it's awfully fun to explore.

I wouldn't be surprised if we see a sequel to this one eventually. It's become a bit of a cult classic.

This is one of those games I've always wanted to give a whirl. I imagine there's a lot of humor that will feel "quaint", but it seemed like one of those Rockstar side-projects that may not be as successful as their mainline GTA games, but had a lot more promise.

I, too, would like to see them revisit the subject with perhaps greater maturity and polish.

ccesarano wrote:

I imagine there's a lot of humor that will feel "quaint".

There was plenty of poor-taste humor when it was released (because it's Rockstar), but the last 12 years of social progress have not been kind to humor of that flavor. Expect the game to punch down frequently, and leave a correspondingly bad taste in your mouth.

More than "punch down" humor, when I replayed this recently, I remember being most put off by the rather unenlightened treatment of the girls. Which is arguably realistic for boys of the era, but it's still uncomfortable. (And they really didn't need the creepy borderline pedophile faculty member.)

As is so often the case with Rockstar games, though, there is a ton of good stuff to tempt you to put up with the bad. The fact that I played it to completion (with all trophies) when it was fairly new, then played it to completion again about ten years later, means they must have been doing something compelling...

This is one Rockstar's best games. And I really hope it gets a sequel one of these days, even if only in spirit. The scaled down setting really lent itself to immersion and enjoyment.

How well do you remember Revenge of the Nerds? Because there's a whoooole lot of sexual assault by the 'heroes' so I'm not sure you want to recreate that.

I've had this in my Steam library for a long time, but I'm hesitant to play because I generally don't like Rockstar games and graphically it looks like,...frankly.., butt.

So don't bother going back to the Wii version, as the controls were sh*t. However, I thought the style, less the content, held up since they seemed to make some deisgn decisions that made it a little more timeless, like Windwaker but not cell shaded.