The Dark Steam Hunt Volume Six: John Romero’s Daikatana
Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the newest entry into the darkest parts of Steam and games as a whole. This time (as those who follow me will know) I am examining John Romero's infamous failure: Daikatana. It is one of the worst PC games ever made and is one of the biggest disappointments in the history of FPSs. We are talking on the level of Duke Nukem Forever and Aliens: Colonial Marines ladies and gentlemen. I hope that we can have some fun and maybe learn something.
A history lesson:
To say that the two Johns (John Romero and John Carmack) did influence the video game space in the 1990s would be an understatement. Romero and Carmack had co-created three of the biggest games in first-person shooters. These three would be Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, Doom in 1993, and Quake in 1996. All of these games would set the bedrock for the FPS genre and made the two men very wealthy in the process. While Carmack had the appearance of the timid nerd stereotype, Romero had become something of a rock star. The cool game dev who worked all day and rocked all night. The relatable nerd who defied societal expectations of gamers. But behind closed doors, the two Johns clashed over Quake, with Romero getting fired from Id Software in 1996 due to “not working hard enough.”
Because of his pedigree in the industry and wealth, John Romero was able to create his own company (Ion Storm) in the same year, bringing along Tom Hall (who worked with John back in the Soft Disk days and Doom) with him. Two Studios would be set up, one in Dallas Texas (Ion Storm Dallas in 1996), and one in Austen (Ion Storm Austen 1997). At E3 in 1997, John Romero would announce to an elated audience the company's first game: Daikatana, promising that it would be done within the year. And so the story begins…
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, one can easily see where things started to go wrong. Starting up a new company and promising your first game to be complete within seven months seems…unlikely. Now coupled with John Romero's dream of a game set over four time periods with four sets of unique weapons, alarm bells should start ringing. Originally planning to run on the original Quake engine, John Romero would, however, want to make the best looking game he could make. Resulting in a switch to the Quake 2 engine (also known as Id Tech 2) after the release of Quake 2 in 1997 (close to the original release date for Daikatana). This change forced the team to scrap everything they had made that far and to start over.
John Romero's dream of fun development and a lack of authority or superiors was a nice idea. But in reality (according to eyewitnesses) the fraternity atmosphere and no of a corporate structure saw a lack of communication and deadlines that would have pushed development forward. The ambitious plan to have two AI companions follow the player around and fight alongside you too bogged down the team. Because programming a competent (non-hostile) AI was quite difficult back then and it shows in the final product.
The versions of failure
The alternative versions too were taking up precious dev time, that could have been otherwise spent fine-tuning Daikatana. The Gameboy color and Nintendo 64 versions had to be completely redone from the ground up by the Japanese dev team Kemco. Daikatana 64 was a stripped-down shell of a product. With missing levels, no voice acting, slower combat, and little music. The Game Boy Color version was a top-down Zelda like a dungeon crawler, which was well-reviewed in contrast to the PC and 64 versions. While all of this was going on…a certain ad was on the horizon.
We all know that infamous ad, one of the many examples against the idea of all publicity is good publicity. As tone-deaf and juvenile as what was supposedly going on at Ion Storm Dallas. However, it is important to note that Romero was not responsible for the ad. But rather a marketing firm wanting to gain attention. It did, but not in the right way. Due to the increasingly hostile relationship between the public and the Ion Storm, it only damaged John Romero’s image and reputation “Up until that ad, I felt I had a great relationship with the gamer and the game development community and that ad changed everything … I regret it and I apologize for it.” He would later say in a Game source interview in 2010. By the time of release in 2000, people had gone from wanting the game to hating it.
Critics and gamers slammed Daikatana then and now, John Romero’s name had become a joke in the eyes of the public after being let down so badly. Ion Storm Dallas become an industry tale of hubris. A story of arrogance and ambition. The later release of Anachronox was well received but a commercial failure; Deus Ex was a fantastic game but failed to sell enough to prevent Ion Storm Dallas from closing in 2001. Ion Storm Austen would close in 2005, leaving the world with Thief 3 and Deus Ex Invisible War. John Romero would join company Midway to work on a failed Gauntlet remake. He would gradually rebuild his reputation through mobile game development, small studios, and now with the upcoming Empire of Sin.
Hiro Miyamoto is a swords master who is visited by a sick dying old man who explains (in a ten-minute long cut scene) that an evil multi-millionaire has used a magic sword (the Daikatana) to create a dystopian world where he is the ruler. Hiro then sets out to find the sword and make everything right. The story is mostly told in exposition dumps that just keep going, and going and going. Daikatana is not a well-written story by any stretch of the imagination, simply dumping paragraphs of exposition onto the player is about as engaging as a wet sponge on the floor.
It keeps going
Games are an interactive medium, which can often come into conflict with the story. Be it with Lara Croft going from a weak and scared civilian to murdering marksman within a single cut scene or the gameplay not fitting in with the story at all (Spec Ops: The Line). Daikatana was released at a time when video games were pretty light on the story (although the first Deus Ex would get released the same year as Daikatana in 2000).
At this point narratives were rare, and well-told narratives were even rarer. I do admire the ambition in attempting to tell a story through complex narrative devices (time travel) and the camera angles. However, when you are just watching two monotone actors droning on, and on for 10 or more minutes is not fun. I won’t lie, I have had to look a summery to remind me of the story. My eyes just glazed over after a couple of seconds because I was drowning in context-less gibberish with no reason to care.
It doesn't need one
Quake, Doom, and Wolfenstein all had very simple stories, barely-there to the point of non-existence. They are very simple games that focused on the raw gameplay with the thinnest of a story to justify the motivation. Granted things were changing by the end of the 1990s (System Shock 2 in 1999 and Deus Ex in 2000), but it was still growing, John Romero (at the time) was deeply seated in the Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein era.
The rules for storytelling in video games were still being laid out. I cannot find too much about the game’s writer Jorge Gonzalez, his only credit in the creative writing field was Daikatana (according to Moby Games). But I suspect that, much like Romero, he was simply out of his depth and over-ambitious. In a rather brave attempt to fly to the sun, Romero simply failed to get the appropriate talent that would have engagingly executed the story.
Daikatana is an FPS in the vein of Doom and Quake. That entails the usual elements: cool guns, vast maze-like levels, secrets, and fearsome monsters. Daikatana also has RPG mechanics similar to those found in System Shock 2. Just extremely dumbed down and crap. Daikatana fails on almost every single front and the gameplay is no exception. The RPG elements barely make any difference in the gameplay. They could have been removed for a tighter experience. It didn’t seem to matter which stat I chose because I had no idea how powerful I was getting. The only indicator of anything getting better was vitality. I at least knew I was getting stronger there.
The guns are plotting against you
You will die a lot in Daikatana, you will fail over and over again if you decide to play this mess. However, it was rarely ever enemies that killed me, but rather my weapons. The first gadget you pick up fires projectiles that can ricochet. Often back at you. Considering that friendly fire exists (for some reason) you might often find yourself getting injured thanks to your weapon. But in all honesty, the Ion blaster (a tragically ironically named weapon that backfires on the user) never seemed to hit me. The ricochet is very unreliable and could have been scrapped entirely for a better experience.
They continue plotting
The ion blaster is the best weapon in the arsenal. The rest are extremely awkward to use. You get three AOE guns with such a wide damage radius (in cramped linear environments) that damage is almost guaranteed. In the second episode, you get a snake staff that fires bouncing poison balls. You will get poisoned if you shoot too much (like this is some sort of 1990s FPS or something). The final gun of the first episode fires some sort of bouncing ball of AOE death that kills the player more times than I used it. Daikatana is an FPS filled with weapons that either kill the player or are awkward to use (sometimes both).
The sidekicks and AI
The AI is awful. There is nothing more concise or constructive I can say, except that the AI is truly terrible in every sense of the world. I played on the most recent fan patch, which fixed the AI as much as possible. I cannot grasp just how terrible the AI must have been, because the AI is bloody sh*t. The monster AI simply runs up to you and tries to nibble/shoot you. There is very little if any skill in combat because most monsters die within a single hit and can be outmanoeuvred by walking backward. You know those "Two highly trained sidekicks to watch your back"? Well, they are as well trained and as intelligent as lobotomized lab rats. They might follow or defend you some of the time. But more often than not, you will find them running into walls or each other.
They will sometimes just run away when under fire like they are in some sort of shooter or something. The patch made them invincible, a change that I cannot praise enough. Because if I had to not only babysit the dummies but also being forced to restart if one of those lab rats died…I wouldn't have lasted as long as I did. But there is a simple fact in that game prevents me from continuing unless I have both crew mates. Forcing me lumber back trough the level, only to find follower Superfly stuck in an air duct or running around in circles. Daikatana started to test my patience in those insistences. The game did not need AI companions and would have been better without it.
The silence of the design
Daikatana does a really bad job of explaining practically anything. This problem was exacerbated in the Greece episode, there is no way to tell what is interactable and what is part of the scenery. There is no way to tell that the plaque was supposed to be clicked on. Later you have to navigate through a sequence of rooms that have locked doors. You have to get your dumb sidekick to stand on a particular stone (which is never explained). Standing on it yourself simply shows the locked door doing nothing. As informative as a untranslated Chinese instruction manual.
Art style and graphics:
I will not talk about the graphical elements here. They are the level one would expect of a game from the 1990s and early 2000s. The problems are not with the graphical aspects of the game. But rather an art style and color scheme.
The enemy designs
When you think of Doom, Wolfenstein, and the original Quake, you think of the great monster designs and environments. The Baron of Hell from Doom, Hitler, and his SS offers from Wolfenstein 3d and the Ogre from Quake are all very distinct and memorable. They helped keep these three games in the public perception and kept them timeless until the present day. Daikatana however opened with some extremely underwhelming designs. In the first world you get: Robotic frogs, mosquitoes, robots and lastly dudes in amour.
The second episode does offer an interesting mix of enemies (like the griffins and the animated statues) but they are surprisingly rare and unremarkable, they only stand out because of the abundance of skeletons and spiders. Daikatana suffers from too many generic enemies that are not difficult to fight or encounter. It also doesn’t help that (in the first episode) you have to look down or up awkwardly. Daikatana offers a terrible first impression and sadly doesn't recover.
Overall visual design
The first episode is also hampered by a dark, grimy, and brown color scheme that even at the time wasn't particularly good. It is very difficult to see foes because the color scheme is the same for the enemies. So not only does the player have to walk through a world that simply ugly, but you also has to struggle with seeing the thing that can kill you. Foes blur into the environment, making the traversal all the more annoying. The Greece chapter however is better, with more color and light. I wish we had gotten something like the Greece chapter instead of the sewer level as the first impression.
The game ran badly on launch day, however (maybe thanks to the fanpatches) that was not the case for the most part. I did however run into persistent stuttering and frame rate problems. I shudder to think of how Daikatana might have run without the patches on launch. It is an annoying problem that I suspect might not be fixable. I also ran into a problem where a door for some reason refused to open or move even though I had combed through the level and consulted a guide. I think a glitch prevented the door from opening, which then stopped me from getting to the Boss room.
Thankfully John Romero has not suffered any long term damage to his reputation and appears to be doing well. He is one of the designers behind the promising Empire of Sin; he is still taking interviews and has a sense of humor about the entire fiasco. Daikatana might be a bad game but it was a learning experience for the man. I am glad that he is still in the industry making games. He might have made one of the worst games in history, but he also co-created Doom and Quake. Romero's talent shouldn't be discarded because of a bad mistake. He is only human after all.
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Edit-2020/09/19: Fixed minor gramma and formatting.