Daikatana: John Romero’s “expert FPS.”

Sometimes I think a lot about what defines “the worst video games of all time.” There’s a lot of games in that category that I question if they deserve that distinction. After all, sometimes people get swept up into the zeitgeist of it all and hate a product without really thinking if it deserves it. While I’m thinking about this topic, there’s one game that comes up in that category.

So I’m on a Discord server where a random bad game is picked every month and people play it. This time around, the game chosen was John Romero’s Daikatana, a first-person shooter developed by Ion Storm and released in 2000 for PC and oddly, Nintendo 64.

Yep, this is how the game starts: Right in the Single Player menu. No splash screen, at least on this fan patch.

I’m not gonna go too deeply about the game’s history here. There’s lots of places that have documented the history of this infamous game and Ion Storm as a studio overall, and I kinda wanna make this something shorter than my usual fare. If anything, I just want to get past talking about that one ad where they proclaim that “John Romero is about to make you his bitch.” (You can thank Mike Wilson of later Devolver Digital fame for that one.)

Everybody loves a sewer.

I’m no stranger to Daikatana. I remember watching the Something Awful Lets Play by Proteus4994 and Suspicious, which was my first experience of seeing the game beyond cultural osmosis. Stuff like “Thanks, John” is permanently burned into my lexicon thanks to this LP. (I don’t think if it’s worth watching nowadays, there’s probably a lot of offensive language that makes it age like expired cottage cheese.)

I actually got to play it myself in 2016, and I don’t remember the experience all that well. The only thing that stuck in my memory was somehow getting Superfly Johnson stuck under a stairwell. Besides that, it was just shooting enemies in various time periods.

To this day I don’t know how this happened.

For this replay, I decided to send my NPC allies to the shadow realm, and Hiro Miyamoto would fight everything singlehandedly. From advice from a supporter of Daikatana – elbryan42 on Youtube – I turned on auto-aim, which made hitting a lot of the smaller enemies a lot less painful. I also decided to kick it up to Shogun difficulty, just for the extra challenge.

This was available three days early for Patreon subscribers. Wanna be one of those? No Daikatana needed, just head to my Patreon and chip in at least a buck and you’re already there!

Don’t try fighting these folks without auto-aim. It’s complete suffering.

The first episode that takes place in the 2200s is an absolutely terrible first start for a game. Lots of small enemies that are hard to hit and hard to see. Lots of green, showing off all that pretty colored lighting that Quake II popularized.

What was with FPSes of this time and using fruit as healing items?

And of course, fruit you can interact with to heal yourself. The later levels of Episode 1 throws so many enemies and very little health that there were a lot of moments where I’d finish a combat section, then make the long backtrack to the nearest health “Hosportal” to refill. It didn’t help the game gives weapons that will do damage to you if you’re not careful: Stuff like the C4 Vitzatergo and the Shockwave Cannon will do lots of damage to foes, but it’s easy to kill yourself with them than the enemies. Even stuff like the Shotcycler seem like an interesting idea in concept but realizing you’re gonna be wasting ammo by killing an enemy with a single shotgun blast.

Wild West Showdown: American Gladiators meets Mad Dog McCree.

Around 1989, a plucky little sports competition show debuted that captured the hearts and minds of Millennials everywhere: American Gladiators, a show where contenders fought against “gladiators,” men and women who had background in stunts, sports or otherwise. Its campy stadium-like presentation combined with the play-by-play commentary of hosts Mike Adamle and Larry Csonka – with a few other folks before and after – it seemed like peak weekend viewing, after the Saturday morning cartoons have ended and you want something else to watch in a pre-internet world. (As a funny coincidence, there’s been rumblings of a new version of AG casting as of this writing, which has me mildly optimistic. Can’t be any worse than the 2008 version where they thought letting Hulk Hogan host was a good idea.)

You can’t tell me kids weren’t trying to imitate this stuff.

The original American Gladiators went off the air in 1997, which lead to a slew of imitators like Battle Dome to take the space. But even during AG’s peak, there were shows taking the formula and putting it in different environments. Stuff like Knights and Warriors leaned more into American Gladiators original intent of being a competition with a bit of a Medieval Times-like theme to it. There was a kid-focused spinoff called Gladiators 2000 featuring a then-unknown Ryan Seacrest. Even Nickelodeon GUTS likely took inspiration from American Gladiators. But there was one of these shows that captivated not just the game show nut in me, but also my friends who weren’t even that big into game shows. That show was Wild West Showdown. Grab your cowboy hat and boots, y’all, we’re heading into the old wild west for this one.

Okay, this isn’t an amazing logo, but hear me out, it gets better.

Wild West Showdown was a short-lived, mostly forgotten American Gladiators clone that aired for one season in 1994. Produced by The Samuel Goldwyn Company and Four Point Entertainment – the same companies that produced American Gladiators – their approach was to take their formula and give it a new twist. While it might seem gauche to rip off your own show, it’s not uncommon: When Allan Sherman and Howard Merrill was pitching a show to Mark Goodson/Bill Todman Productions, I’ve Got a Secret, they pointed out it was basically a ripoff of their existing show What’s My Line?. To which Sherman reportedly said, “You might as well, because if you don’t start copying your shows, someone else will.” (This comes from a memoir from former Goodson/Todman staffer Gil Fates about the history of What’s My Line? and may not be 100% accurate.)

Taking place in the fictitious town of Broken Neck, the town is constantly harassed by outlaws – this show’s versions of the gladiators – and it’s up to three cowpokes to try to stop the outlaws and hopefully make off with a bit of money in the bank.

Wonder if he loved getting back into the saddle again.

Our host is “West,” played by the late, great Alex Cord, a veteran character actor. Most people will probably know him best as Archangel in Airwolf, a TV series I’ve never seen but cannot deny has quite the banging theme song. While I initially thought this was strange casting at first, it made more sense when I found out he’s been in a handful of western films, as well as bit parts of some notable western TV shows like Gunsmoke. So in essence, this was perfect casting. Cord gives off a storyteller style to the proceedings, talking about the town, its outlaws, and the game outcomes.

Dang, having a lady co-host years before AG did. Inclusivity!

Alongside West, the contestants are interviewed by the local town reporter, K.C. Clark, played by Lisa Coles. She tends to fill the co-host role like in American Gladiators, where she interviews contestants after the game, getting their thoughts on how they did, and telling them if they won or not. So even though the show leans a lot into the wild west theme, there’s still a tinge of the show’s inspiration there.

Partway through the run, they introduced a play-by-play announcer, Joe Fowler, who replaces Cord’s play-by-play while trying to be a part of the proceedings off-camera. This honestly was a grave mistake. While Wild West Showdown is inspired by American Gladiators, Fowler’s commentary feels incongruous to the rest of the show’s overall theme, and completely kills the style the show is going for.

The rules go a little something like this: Three cowpokes – usually two guys and one gal – compete.

This looks like something straight out of Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.

Each of the games varied from show to show, usually with one cowpoke against one of the outlaws in various events, such as climbing a water tower to grab the fuse out of a stick of dynamite, “Rawhide Drag,” where the cowpoke has to grab the harness off a lasso while being dragged by an outlaw in the fastest time, or “Runaway Stagecoach,” where they catch a runaway stagecoach the fastest. Each game is for $100 cash, with the last game being for $200.

PopStar Guitar: We have Guitar Hero at home.

For several years, it really felt like the mainstream rhythm games of the past, like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, had been thrown to the dustbin of the past. Mostly to be fondly remembered by those who played it. The diehard fans moved on to open-source versions of those games like Clone Hero and YARG, while challenging themselves with unique custom songs made by artists like Chaotrope and Exilelord. While Rock Band 4 was getting new songs regularly, it strictly was for those who bought in early. It seemed like if you wanted to get in, you should’ve gotten in 10 years ago or even earlier. Getting used guitars and adapters were being scalped for hundreds, sometimes thousands, more than getting an actual guitar would cost.

The king returns.

Then in December 2023, things started brewing again. Epic Games alongside Harmonix – the studio best known for bringing Guitar Hero and Rock Band to the world, also an Epic Games Studio released Fortnite Festival, a spiritual successor to that rhythm game formula: A rhythm game with a highway where you tap notes in time to the instrument you’re playing as. While it strictly supported only gamepads and keyboard controls to start, just a few days ago they released Season 3, which had rudimentary support for Rock Band 4-era plastic guitars and the forthcoming RIFFMASTER guitar, with support for other instruments coming hopefully in the near future.

Thanks to Festival, I’ve been on quite a rhythm game kick lately. I rekindled my love for classic rhythm games, and really dug into the spiritual successors that people have been making like the aforementioned Clone Hero, YARG, and even fanmade mods for existing games like Guitar Hero II Deluxe.

Though, with the good we also have to take the bad. I started looking into the mostly forgotten, fairly busted games that tried to capitalize on the white-hot popularity that Guitar Hero and Rock Band had in the late 2000s. Though, in my case, it wasn’t the usual punching bags in the rhythm game community like Rock Revolution or PowerGIG: Rise of the SixString. Oh, no, I wanted to go deeper. Into the more crustier, mostly forgotten knockoffs. I ended up finding one that felt like I was playing the AliExpress of rhythm games, and that game is PopStar Guitar.

“Help, the guitars are trapping us!!”

Released in late 2008, this wannabe rhythm game was published by XS Games in the US, a noted publisher of mostly forgotten shovelware, and developed by Broadsword Interactive, makers of similar knockoff software of rhythm and racing games, including most infamously, Spirit of Speed 1937, a notoriously bad racing game released on the Dreamcast. (Side note: I recommend Cassidy’s Bad Game Hall of Fame article for more information on that game, it’s a doozy to read.) So, knowing the pedigree of these companies, I was already going in with low expectations.

Peak shovelware, right here.

PopStar Guitar had released on both the Wii and PS2, as expected for a lot of games from this period. You might’ve even heard about the Wii version and how infamous it is, being one of those games that required a lot of waggle motions to play. It even came with the AirG, a plastic shell over the Wiimote that could be used to make it easier to hit each of the buttons on screen. From what I’ve seen, it seems the Wii version is an absolutely insufferable experience to play because of that, so I went for the PS2 version instead, which supports conventional five-button Guitar Hero controllers just fine. Though, if you want me to suffer playing the Wii version, you could contribute to my Patreon and request it, perhaps? I’ll even buy the bundle with the plastic shell for maximum suffering!

A question for the ages: Can beats storm?

There isn’t a whole lot of story to be had. You make a band, create a name, customize all your band members, and start your way from being a bunch of nobodies playing at high school gymnasiums to being the true PopStar. It’s like Rock Band, where you Start a Band, Rock The World, but with only one instrument.

As expected, it’s a completely vertical highway. Blame Harmonix for owning the patents on that.

If you’re familiar with most rhythm games and especially Guitar Hero, it doesn’t take much to get started. Notes come down the screen, hold the button that matches that note, strum it with the strumbar when it hits the strike line, get score. Hit more notes than you miss and you’ll pass the song, gaining a score and some fans. Fairly common stuff for the genre.

WRATH: Aeon of Ruin – Revisiting an early access boomer shooter.

Have you ever written a critique about something, then come back to it years later to see if it still holds up? I have that feeling with a lot of things I’ve played. Since I try to improve myself as a person, sometimes I have to reassess my opinions on something or if I’ve changed. With how games change from day one to day 365 thanks to the wonders of patches and Early Access, it has me occasionally revisiting stuff to see if it’s gotten better. And in this case, it’s going back roughly 4 ½ years ago… when the boomer shooter craze wasn’t at a fever pitch. I’m gonna look back at WRATH: Aeon of Ruin.

Developed between small indie studio KillPixel Games and slightly larger studio Slipgate Ironworks, and published by 3D Realms – the new one ran by Fredrik Schrieber, not the old one that gave us Duke Nukem Forever – the game initially came out in Steam early access in November 2019, the game went through a dormant dry spell before finally being released in February of 2024, nearly five years later.

A friend had gifted me the game back during that early access period, and I was… pretty darn harsh on the game. To quote my now out of date Steam review from that time:

This game, on the other hand, has problems. Lots of questionable design decisions that don’t make sense. Enemies that take too much damage, on arenas where circlestrafing is not an option. An unwieldy inventory system which is counter-intuitive to the style of gameplay this wants to emulate. And whoever thought that reviving the “save gem” concept from Daikatana was a good idea needs to be smacked in the head with a baseball bat […] I cannot recommend the game in the current state it’s in. It needs some balancing adjustments to be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned retro FPS throwbacks.

This game definitely didn’t have it’s balance set correctly in 2019. (Taken from the Early Access period.)

Basically I lauded the look and style of the game, while also feeling the gameplay needed some improvement. By 2019, the concept of a retro FPS/boomer shooter requires a type of finesse to make it stand out from the others. A lot of New Blood’s work, like DUSK or Amid Evil, is a good example of this. This is more important 2024, when we’re in peak Boomer Shooter Heaven, where everybody’s getting in on the craze. So let’s see how KillPixel and Slipgate Ironworks did to improve from their early access version.

I feel like I’m crossing the River Styx.

A quick story primer: You play as the Outlander, an unknown figure who meets with The Shepherd of Wayward Souls, where one must find the sigils of an area before fighting a big boss at the end of three episodes. The Outlander transports to levels and defeats any monsters in their way to get the sigil at the end. Basically a little bit HeXen, a little bit Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, with a pinch of Blood and Quake for flavor. (Fitting, since WRATH is made on DarkPlaces, a source port of Quake’s engine.)

Sharp. Pointy. Zoomy.

Much like other boomer shooters, the Outlander has a myriad of weapons at their disposal. First is the Blade of Ruination, a good go-to melee that also has an alternate fire where you lunge forward, which is great for getting past gaps and doing massive damage to certain foes. Then there’s your usual FPS arsenal of a handgun, a double-barrel shotgun, a “Fang Spitter,” which amounts to the game’s rapid-fire automatic weapon, an acid-spitting launcher and even a railgun equivalent. There’s other weapons too, but most of these are in those early episodes. All the weapons have an alternate fire that can be useful in sticky situations.

Celeste and my frustration with puzzle platformers.

You know, there’s a kind of genre I don’t quite get why people like it: The puzzle platformer. I’ve tried playing some of the ones so highly recommended to me, only to leave with frustration and disappointment. A lot of puzzle platformers get me so frustrated that it soured the overall experience for me. But there’s one I played recently that got me rethinking my outlook on this genre, transgender memes notwithstanding.

Celeste. The puzzle platformer from EXOK Games that came out on 2018 that has become a transgender allegory in recent years, due to some of the plot relating a lot to trans folk. Lead designer Maddy Thorson realizing her own trans journey through the game after the release probably helped a bit too. We always need more queer game designers, after all.

I’m not gonna get too much into the non-gameplay elements here. The art style’s cool by using pixel art in a way that’s unique without feeling too much like deliberate retro bait, Lena Raine’s soundtrack is tense yet touching at the right moments (and I never got to play any of the B-sides which also sound like a bunch of bangers), and the story is rather touching and something I can relate to as someone who struggles through life. But I wanna talk about this game further cementing my belief on puzzle platformers.

This part from Blood of the Werewolf still haunts me to this day.

When I mention I get frustrated by these kind of games, I’m not kidding. When I think about some of the action/puzzle platformers I played for the blog last year, like Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit and Blood of the Werewolf, I leave those games with frustration and anger. How one mistake will usually result in death, with little chance to redeem yourself. Some parts of these games are so malicious to the player that requires so much perfect timing that I’m surprised I haven’t thrown my controller into my computer screen after some of the bullshit I had to go through to beat it.

This is apparently the only screenshot of VVVVVV I took. Rather fitting, really.

But it doesn’t just apply to those mostly-forgotten niche platformers. It applies to the more popular ones as well. For example, I never finished the critically acclaimed VVVVVV. The gravity-shifting puzzle platformer with a pseudo-DOS art style and catchy chiptune music was an absolute chore to play at spots. A lot of hazards and pixel-perfect precision to make it across made it maddeningly to play, so much so that I only got about halfway through it before giving up on it.