Bully, called Canis Canem Edit in UK thanks to one Jack Thompson (remember him?), is, put simply, my favourite game of all time. Since I first got it in 2006, I’ve now played it in various forms and on various formats four times: twice as Canis Canem Edit on PS2, once as Bully: Scholarship Edition (now taking the Bully name in UK thanks to Thompson having lost his job by then) on Xbox 360, and once also as Bully: Scholarship Edition on PC – that was the first playthrough of the game I 100%ed it.
Now I’m most of the way through playing it again, once again as Canis Canem Edit but as an enhanced PS2 classic on PS4. Here are my thoughts on the game as it currently stands, where it’s aged in the decade it’s been around, how the PS4 port is, and what I miss and don’t miss from the enhanced Scholarship Edition.
And I’m calling it Bully from now on. As visually pleasing as the UK alternative name – Latin for “Dog Eat Dog” – is, Bully is more concise.
Goddamn I still love this game. I genuinely believe that Bully is the purest, most condensed Rockstar game out there. I adore Rockstar, but I can find fault in the Grand Theft Auto series, the Red Deads, the LA Noires etc because of how much downtime there can be in them at times, how the mission formats can become a tad stagnant, etc. It’s not a problem in anything Rockstar does in my eyes, but there is room to distill and refine them – with Bully, there’s barely any of that.
The mission variety is exceptional, and missions are very unique. Bully is a Rockstar game without any characters dying – it has classroom hijinks, petty crimes. As a result, Bully doesn’t contain one too many shootouts, or one too many of anything. In one mission, you’re in a scrapyard trying to guide your friend towards an electromagnet to attract a clique leader’s bicycle as he smacks you with a plank. The next, you’re fighting the Bullworth Bull in an empty swimming pool. Then you’re sneaking through the girls’ dormitory, stealing their knickers to sell to the perverted PE teacher. You might be breaking into an insane asylum to sneak out the alcoholic English teacher, or taking covert pictures of the people stealing the preps’ boxing trophies, or guiding a pair of incontinent nerds through a Fun House at the carnival, triggering obstacles to knock out the jocks pursuing them…
I honestly have to stop myself reeling off more examples, because I’ve only touched the surface of the missions contained in the game. You can take almost any mission from Bully and have an experience incomparable to any other mission from the game… and often incomparable to any other mission from ANY other game.
Alongside missions, the game offers classes, which are all, except Shop, great fun too. English is a minigame where you get six letters and must make as many valid words as you can from them, Chemistry is a rhythm game-esque button-to-the-beat minigame, PE is a mixture of wrestling and dodgeball minigames, Photography is as you’d imagine and Art is a fill-in-the-picture game I’ve seen before but don’t know the original name for. Shop is the only duff one – you either have to rotate your left analogue stick in the indicated direction or repeatedly tap the indicated button, doing this eight times. The game seems very quirky on how it registers these – especially a problem for stick rotation, because the game shows the stick rotating slowly, but if you do it anything but VERY fast, it will fail you. There are five of each class, and every single one grants you a small but useful perk, such as health bonuses for kissing people, access to faster BMXes, free prank items and weapons, new fighting moves, and more.
And speaking of classes, Bully is, in general, a better experience than Scholarship Edition. On top of some glitches in the enhanced version (including a savage one that can stop you reaching 100% by stopping errands from appearing, which I got in my playthrough), to put it bluntly, all of the classes in the new one were bad. Maths was an easy multiple choice minigame, Music was a drumming minigame that seemed to have a very odd opinion on what constituted a successful or failed strike, Biology’s a dissection minigame that is hellish to play on a controller but probably easy with a mouse on PC (it’s like join-the-dots with a strict time limit), and Geography literally just relied on you knowing the exact locations of countries and US states on a map – if you don’t, you’d better have an atlas to hand. Bar Geography (which I’ll get to later), the other three had really bad new perks too, since there was nothing else the game could really offer. But this is a review of the original Bully, so you don’t have to suffer any of that!
Side missions in Bully, for the most part, are cracking. Delivering papers is remarkably fun, BMX and go-kart racing are excellent, and errands offer yet more variety in stuff to do, such as taking a picture on someone’s cheating spouse, catching a corrupt police officer breaking the law, and dressing up as a box of french fries (you heard me) to deliver hot food to customers. You have a carnival which is entirely interactable, from the minigame stalls to the arcade cabinets to the rideable rollercoasters and ferris wheel – in 2006, it was so nice to have a game with a funfair that teased you with amusements before making it clear that it was all just for show. Heck, even games as new as Grand Theft Auto V gave you a pier with flashing lights, shops and amusements, and then let you interact with the drinks machines and f*** all else.
I’ve mentioned games’ “feel” before, and Bully has that in spades. The aesthetic of Bullworth Academy and the town it resides in, the ambient soundtrack with its catchy, undeniably “schoolish” tunes, and the variety of schoolmates (all of which are named and unique) really do add so much to it. You can get lost and immersed in the world of Bullworth, and you can feel part of it. The way the game threatens to confine you to the school itself but then, at the head of Chapter 2, show the school gates slowly opening and offering you to explore further, and then how unique and interesting all the other parts of Bullworth are as well – the residential areas, the carnival, and later on the dilapidated New Coventry area and the grim factories and trailer parks of the perfectly-titled Blue Skies.
Bully has aged. Although it’s visually aged, that’s not much of a problem. But there are areas in the game where we’ve since evolved as game developers and learnt better how to do things, and I imagine these are things that would irk people coming to Bully for the first time in 2016 or later.
For one, to save the game you must find a registration book. Initially, there’s one in your dorm and one in the headteacher’s reception area. You unlock more as the game progresses, both within and beyond the school’s walls. It’s an irritating, archaic way of doing saving, and annoying to have to keep turfing back to the nearest book to save when you’re used to autosaving and quicksaving being ubiquitous in modern games.
Another one, a PS2-era Rockstar favourite, is that dying or being arrested in a mission will fail it entirely, forcing you not only to do everything again – even if you were 15 or 20 minutes into one – but also to getting to the marker to trigger the mission in the first place, which can be the other side of the game world in some cases.
One other area it has aged, actually something fixed in Scholarship Edition, is that to 100% the game you have to collect a bunch of different things. And some of them are very hard to find – not GTA hard, but still, when you’re on 74 of 75 rubber bands and the game hasn’t given you a single hint on where the last one is, it can get irritating to then scour the internet for a map of one and check every single location until you find it. This was fixed in Scholarship Edition as completing the new Geography classes unlocks markers for them on your map.
The arcade machines can honestly go and do one. If you’re looking to complete the game’s main story and nothing else, you don’t have to encounter them at all. If you want to complete all of the missions but not necessarily 100% the game, you have to beat one of the nerd’s highscores on Consumo. And to 100% the game, you have to be #1 on Nut Shots and Monkey Fling.
Monkey Fling sees you eat bananas and throw the consequent poo at spiders, which take one of your three lives if they land or crawl onto you. It’s the closest of the three minigames to being playable, but doesn’t manage it – if you get the highscore first try, you’ll already never want to see the game again. It gets worse from here. Consumo has a ridiculously high highscore set on it (so much so that I dare you to resist knocking the bastard that set it out afterwards) and is an ultra-simple game in which you have four-directional movement and must touch some things that float across and down the screen but not others. For about 20 minutes. And that’s if you win it first time. It’s the slowest 20 minutes ever.
The worst minigame by far is Nut Shots, which is difficult AND tedious. It’s a side scrolling shooter. Shoot 10 bees, you encounter a bat. Shoot 3 spawned bats, you encounter an eagle. Rinse and repeat. Three lives lost, you’re dead. You have to go through at least 7 eagles to pass the highscore, which means you also have to go through 21 bats and 210 bees. The bees shoot at you, with their bullets being difficult to spot thanks to the dazzling, ugly background, and the bats fire a massive wave of sonar that becomes very difficult to dodge if you’re really far to the left (since it grows as it moves). I absolutely hate Nut Shots with a vengeance, and it’s mandatory to get 100%, as well as a trophy on PS4. I’ll bundle this in too – the PS4 also has a trophy for destroying 300 bottles at the carnival’s shooting gallery. The shooting gallery is janky, unpleasant, and tiresome – expect to hit about 5 bottles total in each of your first several 2 minute tries at the minigame, before your body oddly adapts to the crapitude of the chore that is the shooting gallery.
I know the Frowning section is quite big for a game I consider my all-time favourite, but it’s such a small portion of what is, besides that, an absolutely incredible experience. I don’t know if I can ever put into words what exactly, at the end of the day, brings it from being a great game to my personal slice of interactive heaven, but to me, Bully just has it – the X factor, the je ne sais quoi, the intangible quality that, while flawed, and possibly now aged enough to detract new players, makes it my favourite game of all time.
I would kill for Rockstar to release a Bully 2, but if it ever occurred, I would be scared of it. Scared that, despite modernisation (which believe me, I am not against), it might lose whatever it is that makes the original what it is in my eyes. I desperately want it, but at the same time, I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving Bully. And I’m happy that the PS4 trophies have given me a reason to play it again.