From the Bargain Bin

Daikatana: John Romero’s “expert FPS.”

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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.

For reference, here’s Quake‘s E1M1. Simple! Compact! Fun!

This made me think a bit about how the beginning of a game is incredibly important. A player’s first impression of a game needs to be solid, fun and enjoyable. Stuff like Doom and Quake had their first episode as shareware, and were some of the best darn levels the game had to offer. Hell, there’s probably some folks who only played that shareware episode and didn’t play the following episodes, which are still solid but feel a bit inferior in quality. The beginning is crucial to making the rest of the game fun: If it’s bad, it doesn’t matter if the rest of the game gets better, there’s gonna be some people put off by the frustrating start and never look back.

Now I just feel like I’m playing Serious Sam.

Once you get past the suffering of cyber frogs, cyber crocs, rats with rocket launchers and giant mech robots, the game actually lets up a little. Episode 2’s Ancient Greece is mostly melee enemies in large arenas that seem right out of Serious Sam. There’s still weapons that can harm you if you’re not careful – that pesky Venomous is one you gotta watch out for – but the rest of the game balances between practical, useful weapons and weapons that seem neat if you’re a fifth grader doodling in a notebook but are just annoying to use because you might hurt yourself a lot more than you should.

Alright, alright, single file, let’s get this over with.

Episode 3 leaned towards medieval wizards complete with a pinch of lycanthropy for flavor, which wasn’t that terrible outside of an annoying key and switch hunt. Even when talking to another friend on the same Discord server, the only tough piece to find was a piece in a frozen lake that required shooting it out and diving in to find. The fighting of the wizards to get their magic wands that could do damage to many foes was at least a bit of fun, but there a lot of danger except in areas where there were lots of enemies but little to no healing items.

By this point I’ve slogged through three episodes of bullshit, what’s one more for the pile?

Episode 4 feels like the worst of everything up to this point.. They do give you a futurized-looking Glock pistol, but the rest of the weapons are a mix of common FPS mainstays like shotguns and chainguns, with a lot more annoying hitscanners this time around. One of the later levels is literally taking slow lifts back and forth to hunt down keycards to unlock the next area… and then having to do that again, all while scrapping for health and armor and having a dozen of those bastards plink your health down to nothing. At least the final bosses were pushovers.

It didn’t take me long to finish Daikatana the second time. Lots of annoying sections, too many enemies and not enough health even with maximum Vitality, and a story that’s absolutely corny. By this time, games like Half-Life came out to show to folks that you can make a shooter with a compelling story, and it took a few years for everyone else to catch up to that level, so I can forgive the goofy plot.

You know a game is quality when you see a map’s developer blocks hidden around a corner.

Games like Daikatana are often thrown into the “worst game of all time” categories. Where games like Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog game, and Bad Rats: The Rats Revenge live. I disagree with this assessment. I’ve played much, much worse games than Daikatana. Hell, I’ve played even worst shooters than Daikatana: Stuff like Elite Forces WWII: Iwo Jima. Overkill 3. Terrorist Takedown. Those are games that deserve worst game status more than Daikatana does.

Daikatana is disappointingly bad: it’s a game that had some promise, but the execution was incredibly poor. And honestly that’s worse than a game that’s just absolutely frustrating and at times unplayable. If you haven’t played very many games, then I could see where the argument for Daikatana being considered the “worst game ever,” but after playing the most bargain bin trash, the kind of stuff that GameSpot would pawn off to Erik Wolpaw or Alex Navarro to write reviews of, Daikatana is tame in comparison.

Design is law, indeed.

To me, Daikatana showed that John Romero, a game designer that made some of the most genre-defining games, the rockstar game developer that people thought could do no wrong, turned out to be fallible just like everyone else. This is something you can see through a lot of his post-Daikatana work: A lot more smaller projects, not being credited as the star of the project, which inevitably lead to him coming back to the game that put him on the map: two custom episodes for Doom – Sigil and Sigil II – that were pretty damn good.

Unlike some game designers who make one major dud and keep on trying to chase those glory days again with failed project after failed project, Romero correctly understood to step back and rebuild. And it’s worked out pretty well for him so far.

I don’t see a gib pile here, sir, just one dead Hiro.

Is it really worth playing Daikatana in 2024? Not really, no. The first episode in and of itself is enough to turn people off, and while the rest of the game is slightly better, it’s not enough to salvage the game. It’s a boomer shooter that bit off more than it can chew. But if you want to properly understand the difference between a good game and a bad game, Daikatana isn’t a bad choice. Playing bad or average games makes it easier to critique games as a whole, and to truly know what constitutes a “bad game.” So thank you, John Romero, for making this absolute mess of a product.

One comment Daikatana: John Romero’s “expert FPS.”

Vague Rant says:

Have you ever played the Game Boy Color version that Kemco published alongside the N64 game? It’s really quite interesting, a top-down action puzzler in the style of classic Zelda. Apparently Romero himself requested that they design it in that style, but the game was developed by a Japanese studio, Will, and it seems like his direct involvement was limited. I’ve never played the “real” Daikatana, but I did play and complete the Game Boy Color version.

I will say, it suffers greatly from the comparison to Zelda. There’s already three excellent Zelda titles on the Game Boy/Color, plus several more titles in a similar vein that I’d place above Daikatana like The Frog for Whom the Bell Tolls (Japan-only; could you tell?) and Final Fantasy Adventure (a Secret of Mana prequel). But with all of that out of the way, Daikatana is pretty decent and probably more enjoyable than the game it’s supposed to be demaking. From what I can tell, you still get the same basic story, just from a wildly different perspective and genre.

I know I’m going to get spam filtered for this, but Romero even put up the GBC ROMs (USA and Europe versions) on his official web site back in 2004:

Sadly, they don’t appear to have migrated over to subsequent Romero web sites, so these archived captures are as close as you can get to downloading them directly from the source. If you want to get them quasi-officially in 2024, you’ll want to use the links in the sidebar at left, not the ones in the article text itself which are dead.

I think I’ll follow your advice and continue to not play Daikatana, but it’s possible I might break with that to replay the Game Boy Color version some day.

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