Jimmy Hopkins is not your standard video game hero. In Bully: Scholarship Edition, he breaks a drunken schoolteacher out of an asylum, helps the lunch lady drug her date, steals panties from the girls’ dorm, and takes pictures of snotty kids sitting on a homeless Santa’s lap. But this is not your typical game, and 15 months after its release on the PlayStation 2, Bully’s gameplay stands tall and proud. On its own, the original was already an embarrassment of pleasures, but additional features have been added to this enhanced version, including some local two-player minigames, new missions, new classes, and other less-noticeable goodies. If you haven’t yet played Bully, now is the time to catch up with one of the better gaming experiences in recent years. However, Xbox 360 owners should stand warned: though Rockstar Games has promised that a patch is in the works, we experienced major bugs on that platform on multiple machines.
Provided that you play on the Wii or escape the wrath of the Xbox 360 version’s bounteous bugs, you’ll find an insanely entertaining experience that overcomes its small gameplay frustrations with heavy doses of humor and attitude. As new-kid-on-the-block Jimmy, you find your sneering self dumped at Bullworth Academy, a private school populated by the usual cliques we all came to know and hate in our own adolescences. By fulfilling missions, you’ll progress from one chapter to the next, alternately gaining sway over one social circle while alienating another. One of Bully’s many brilliant aspects is the variety it throws into these tasks. At one point, you’ll man a potato-spewing turret to defend arm-flailing, bedwetting nerds from invading jocks; at another, a professor instructs you to infiltrate the preppies’ dorm and kill a prized Venus flytrap. In fact, some of the most amusing missions were created specifically for the Scholarship Edition and revolve around a Kriss Kringle gone bad.
The story at the heart of Bully is incredibly involving, and Jimmy is both charming and exasperatingly cocky. He’s also believable, and likely to remind you of at least one person you know or knew in your younger years. The enormous surrounding cast of goofball nerds and slick-haired greasers deserves equal praise, from the obese and enuretic Algie to Mandy, the head cheerleader with a surprising streak of insecurity. The success here is twofold. Firstly, you have an incredible script bursting with both cringe-inducing realism and snort-out-loud one-liners. A romantic interest says “I’m such a player” after flowers and a kiss; cafeteria cook Edna tells you that hawking a loogie into the mystery stew gives it flavor. At first glance, these moments seem to play to stereotype, but each character transcends labels and comes across as remarkably individual. Secondly, the voice acting is utterly spectacular, from the main cast to the hysterical quips from minor characters you overhear in your travels.
You’re hardly stuck moving in a straight march from one mission to the next. As you play, more and more of the academy and its surrounding community open up, giving you plenty of leeway to explore Bully’s many unique nooks and crannies. If you choose to stay on campus, you can attend class in the morning or afternoon. Standbys such as gym (dodgeball time!) and chemistry are still here, but four new classes have been added, and they are arguably more entertaining than the holdovers. In biology class, you must carve open a specimen and remove its vital organs in an allotted amount of time–and it’s much tougher than it sounds. In geography, you must place the appropriate flag on its corresponding country. Math takes a Brain Age approach by asking you to quickly solve simple math problems, whereas music class involves a rhythm-based minigame. Passing your lesson means gaining a new reward, whether it be new clothing, new melee combos, or better aim with your slingshot.
Of course, you can skip class entirely (and risk being seen by the keen eyes of prefects and police officers) and tool around on your own. Here, you can bully other kids to your heart’s content, or save the meeker students from their own bullies by beating up the aggressors. Close combat is on the simple side, especially after you unlock various combinations. However, there are times when you’ll need to handle multiple enemies at once, which makes for a greater challenge. If you choose to explore your inner intimidator, there are plenty of ways to do it outside of fisticuffs, though. You can shoot bottle rockets at fellow students, give wedgies, stuff them into lockers or garbage cans, or taunt them once you’ve sufficiently whittled down their health bars. If you’d rather follow the straight (mostly) and narrow, you can romance the ladies (and a few gents) by giving them flowers–or chocolates, in the case of the big-boned gals–which usually merits a sloppy-sounding kiss. Alternately, you can run quick errands for townspeople, mow lawns for extra cash, participate in bike races, drop some quarters into arcade machines and gun for a high score, egg cars, take yearbook photos, or head to the local carnival and lounge with the little people. You could probably sprint through the main quest in 10 hours or so, but could easily spend four times that number if you wanted to see everything Bully has to offer.
If you want to extend the value even further, you can try out the local two-player minigames that are exclusive to this edition of Bully. These games take classes and arcade games from the single-player experience and transform them into competitive minitournaments. There are 10 of these events in total, ranging from photography and geography to English and Consumo. These minigames are good for some quick entertainment, though they don’t add a lot to the overall package. But given that they tie in nicely with the game proper and use all four of the new classes, they serve as more than just contrived add-ons.
As you move from one task to the next, you will discover some of Bully’s idiosyncrasies. This is a game that does a lot, though mechanically speaking, not every aspect of the game works as well as every other. Triggering an event or opening a door can sometimes be a pain because, for whatever reason, even standing right on top of the marker won’t always generate the prompt; bicycle and skateboard controls can be loose, which in turn leads to some frustration on certain missions; and some targeting foibles can make it a pain to punch or aim, among other small peculiarities. Some of these quirks are specific to the Wii version. Motion controls are used in place of standard button pressing for such activities as punching, aiming ranged weapons, throwing off tackles, and more. In some cases, such as with the biology minigame or standard scuffles, these work out really well. In other cases, such as a series of boxing missions, they are repetitive and annoying. Overall, however, the addition of the Wii Remote is neither an improvement nor a liability.
On the other side of things, the Xbox 360 version lacks the stability of the Wii release. During our testing period, we experienced multiple crashes and system freezes. Additionally, we saw bugs that caused Jimmy to get stuck in place in the middle of the street for no apparent reason, twice had mission NPCs freeze while running (which forced us to reset the task), and encountered countless examples of blinking geometry, three- or four-second freezes, and sound hiccups. Similar reports are widespread, so if you are considering a purchase, you may want to wait for the announced patch to be released, or better yet, grab the Wii iteration, which exhibited a few small glitches but nothing to the extent of the Xbox 360 version.
Of course, the high-definition capabilities of the Xbox 360 make it easier to see the visual hiccups, and in general, Bully: Scholarship Edition doesn’t live up to current-day standards from a visual point of view. However, there’s something to be said for seeing every bursting pustule on Edna’s face. Bullworth is rendered with incredible skill and style, from restrooms dingy enough to make you wrinkle your nose to a beautifully designed carnival funhouse that hits all the right notes. On the Wii, you won’t get an equally crisp presentation, but the hardware’s performance capabilities make Bully a more comfortable fit on the Wii and better hide the awkward animations and pixelated shadows that are obvious on the Xbox 360. Both versions have an occasionally erratic frame rate, though the Xbox 360 version seems to be harder hit in this regard. Regardless of the platform, you’ll get an equally amazing sonic experience. As previously mentioned, the voice acting is outstanding, and everything from ambient sound effects to the eccentric minimalist soundtrack strikes just the right chord.
If you’ve played Bully already on the PlayStation 2, the extras in the Scholarship Edition may amuse you, but they don’t justify purchasing the game all over again. On the other hand, if you skipped it the first time around, this is a great excuse to catch up on what you missed. Bully offers plenty of memorable moments and crafts an adolescent world that is both surreal and painfully truthful, so don’t be surprised if it causes you to relive portions of your own painful youth. Xbox 360 technical issues and other peculiarities aside, this is a fun and boisterous game that will ring true for anyone who has endured the unique adventures of student life.