“Suck it Down” – A Short History of Daikatana
Long before Star Wars Battlefront II or Fallout 76 were courting controversy, there was one game that had the gaming press throwing their hands in the air out of frustration. That game was John Romero’s Daikatana (Ion Storm, 2000).
Depending on who you talked to, or what reviews you read, opinions of Daikatana ranged from somewhere between “disappointing,” and “should probably be a felony.” The game even holds a hallowed spot on the Wikipedia page, “List of video games notable for negative reception.”
There was a lot of rampant anger towards Daikatana, Ion Storm, and particularly John Romero. Romero was not afraid of hype, and many gamers and media outlets ran with it. After all, this was the mighty John Romero, the man behind id Software classics Wolfenstein 3D (1992), DOOM (1993) and Quake (1996).
To give you some context, it was claimed that working at Ion Storm was like living in a frat house at the top of a corporate tower. Everyday, young punks with their long hair and baggy clothes would give the status quo the middle finger as they made their way to the penthouse suite in one of Dallas’s more expensive office buildings. Workdays would end with pizza and a Quake deathmatch. This carefree swagger extended to Daikatana’s infamous marketing campaign as well, with the poorly-received, “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch” advertisement.
As incredibly awesome as this workplace sounds, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t some degree of impact on productivity. Daikatana had a troubled development, after all. Initially slated for a 1997 release, this “Quake-killer” wasn’t released until 2000. By that time, not only had Quake II been released (leading to Ion Storm changing to the Quake II engine mid-development), but the market had also welcomed Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, Unreal, Half-Life, Unreal Tournament and Quake III: Arena, among many others.
In the time it took for Daikatana‘s protracted development to finally come to an end, the first-person shooter genre had been transformed, and new benchmarks had been set for player experience.
Years of hype and claims that Daikatana would revolutionize first-person shooters eventually converged with the realities of release day. Daikatana was widely considered an unfocused, buggy mess, with outdated graphics and antiquated design philosophy.
The Austin branch of Ion Storm, led by Warren Spector, somewhat counteracted the veritable shitstorm created by Daikatana by releasing the absolutely incredible Deus Ex (2000).
Tom Hall’s cult-classic RPG Anachronox (2001) was another example of the incredible talent at Ion Storm, but the damage had been done. Hall and Romero left the company, and within a few years, Ion Storm was closed by parent company Eidos Interactive.
As I’ve already mentioned, Daikatana was absolutely shredded by the gaming press at the time, and given all the drama and poor decisions in development, perhaps deservedly so. But did many people actually play the game? Apparently not – Daikatana sales figures were, according to various sources, quite appalling. Perhaps if more people had played it, would it have received a little more recognition? As we know, reviews are one thing, but consumer opinion can often be another.
Well, I’ve decided to give Romero’s Daikatana a second chance….
How is it?
Fortunately, playing Daikatana today means you’ll be getting the benefits of all the post-release patches. Not only that, but some avid Daikatana fans (who would have thought?) have also updated the game with the 1.3 community patch, which can be found at the Daikatana Wiki (link). For authenticity’s sake, I played the game without the community patch, but as you will soon see, I seriously recommend giving the community patch a try.
The first thing that will strike you is the menu.
It is ugly.
However, as I honestly can’t think of many games from the late 90s with beautiful interfaces, I’m willing to let this one slide. After adjusting some options, I dove straight into a new game, and here is where the “fun” begins.
One of the major criticisms of Daikatana when it was released was the graphics. They were considered outdated, and disappointing for a game that was hailing itself as, “the next big thing.” There was a strange disconnect between model quality and texture quality, and it shows quite strongly with Daikatana. For someone who spent a lot of time with shooters back in the era of terrible graphics, this didn’t bother me. For some, Daikatana’s graphics might be too much of a leap back in time, but as with all retro gaming, graphics take a backseat to gameplay.
Moving on–Daikatana’s plot was never going to win any awards, but in 2000, this wasn’t expected from most shooters. You play as Hiro Miyamoto, a down-on-his-luck swordmaster living in the dystopian future of 2455 where Earth is ruled by the tyrannical Mishima Clan. Some old dude suffering from a plague of some sort appears at your door and proceeds to give you one hell of an infodump, bringing Hiro up to speed on about 1000 years of history, mentioning some all-powerful sword called the Daikatana, which was apparently made by one of Hiro’s ancestors.
Blah, blah, blah, bad guy changes history, and now Hiro is living in a run-down dojo where he can’t pay his rent. Supposedly, this is all the motivation Hiro needs to wage a one-man war against the Mishima Clan, and so begins Daikatana.
For what it’s worth, I kind of enjoyed the pulpy sci-fi/fantasy crossover. It feels like a daggy 1980s action movie starring Kurt Russell or something, with over-the-top characters, a ridiculous premise, and plenty of violence.
Over the course of the game, you travel from 2455 Japan to Ancient Greece, Dark Ages Norway, and 2030s San Francisco. Joining you on your quest are two companions–Mikiko Ebihara and Superfly Johnson. That overview should give you a relatively clear image of the sort of plot you can expect.
Player movement takes some getting used to, with the same sort of turbo-speed glidey-ness that could be found in Half-Life. Your weapons depend on the time period you are in, and are a mixed bag–Ion Storm found a way to take tried-and-true FPS classics like the shotgun and grenade launcher and make them incredibly annoying. Melee weapons lack the sensation of weight and punchiness that could be found in weapons like the Impact Hammer in Unreal Tournament. Though I commend Ion Storm for trying to mix things up, in many cases they missed the mark.
It won’t take long for you to discover why Daikatana was so despised.
Within the first half hour of play, I had encountered several crash-to-desktop bugs. The level design can be frustratingly opaque, with interactive items not always clear compared with regular props. But if there is one source of frustration beyond anything else, it is the AI companions. Superfly and Mikiko are constantly getting themselves killed or stuck behind objects, and I can’t count the number of times I died as one of my “friends” tried to shoot through me in order to take down an enemy. This alone tempted me to install the community patch, which completely removes the companions from the levels outside of cutscenes.
Daikatana has copped a lot of flak over the years, but I think some of it is undeserved. It is not the worst game ever made, but it is a frustrating game nonetheless.
Lots of great ideas and potential end up buried beneath frustrating bugs, AI pathfinding issues, boring level design, and irritating weapons. However, and it might just be the underdog factor, I can’t help but like the game. There is something charming about the kitschy plot and old-school design.
Would I recommend it? That depends. If you’re lacking in patience and enjoy the comforts of modern gaming, I’d say pass, or maybe watch a Let’s Play on YouTube. However, if you can bring yourself to overcome Daikatana’s frustrating shortcomings, you should definitely give it a shot. It’s an interesting glimpse of one of the games industry’s most infamous titles. Just wait for a sale on GOG or Steam, and you can pick it up for less than a cup of coffee. And I’ve had cups of coffee that were much worse than Daikatana.
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