Genre: First-Person Shooter
Original Release: April 7, 2000 (Japan, Nintendo 64), May 22, 2000 (North America, PC), May 26, 2000 (EU, Nintendo 64), June 9, 2000 (EU, PC), June 30, 2000 (Japan, PC), July 31, 2000 (North America, Nintendo 64)
Developer: Ion Storm
Publishers: Eidos Interactive (PC), Kemco (Nintendo 64)
Platforms: PC (Disc, Steam, GOG), Nintendo 64
Played on: PC (GOG)
I know, I know, so many folks have talked about John Romero’s Daikatana and basically ripped it apart in one way or another. The graphics, the sidekick AI, the marketing, you name it and someone has covered it.
Here’s the thing: I was eight years old when Daikatana was released. I have no nostalgia for this game and aside from a couple of reviews, I’ve never heard much of anything about it. People call it one of the worst games of all time and that’s a little surprising, considering how much schlock has been released in the past two decades alone. Seriously, how many games have come out since 2000 that people have universally despised? Off the top of my head, I can name maybe two or three: Ride to Hell: Retribution, SimCity 2013 (at least at first, considering how many issues people had with EA’s Origin platform), and Dungeon Keeper 2014. And all of these were released by big-name publishers, two by EA, and all of them rife with all sorts of player-hostile decisions like forced online multiplayer in SimCity and psychological manipulation in Dungeon Keeper via “time-saving” microtransactions to speed up dungeon building. And yet Daikatana is worse than the three I named? Somehow I doubt that.
I’ve never met John Romero myself. Come to think of it, I don’t know that I’ve ever interacted with him even through Twitter. Well, this’ll be one hell of an introduction considering that I like to tag developers and other folks involved in a game’s development whenever one of these goes up. But that’s all beside the point. The point of this piece is to discuss Daikatana on its own merits and try to explain why I can or can’t recommend it. And honestly? It’s not nearly as bad as I’ve been told by so many sources. It has its issues and it’s not the game to lead us to the promised land, but I think it’s decent for what that’s worth.
Our story begins in Kyoto, Japan in the year 2455. Our protagonist, Hiro Miyamoto, is approached by an old man named Toshiro Ebihara. Toshiro explains that main antagonist Kage Mishima took over the world by stealing the Daikatana, a legendary blade forged by Hiro’s ancestor Usagi, and used its power to travel back to the year 2030 and steal the cure for a global plague. About to die, Toshiro begs Hiro to rescue his daughter Mikiko and reclaim the Daikatana in order to fix history and stop Mishima.
From there, Hiro sneaks into Mishima’s headquarters via the nearby swamp following an accident on the corpse wagon that he’s stowed away on. And that’s exactly where the game begins. You’ll fight your way through cyborg animals, large insects, and various security drones as you find a way inside. Fortunately, you’ve got a pretty sweet gun called an ion blaster just next to where everything fell after the accident!
That’s the first weapon of many that you’ll pick up along the way. Each episode has a unique set of six weapons (plus the Daikatana in Episode 2 onward), and each one has its own perks and drawbacks. The C4 launcher, for example, is incredibly handy for laying proximity bombs in the path of nearby enemies, provided you aren’t too close to them yourself. Splash damage is very real and I gibbed myself many a time trying to figure out how it worked. Similarly, using the ion blaster while swimming is a very easy way to hurt yourself with little to no personal gain. The list goes on, but it would feel like unnecessary padding to describe each of them. Instead, I’ll just leave it at this: Each of the weapons feels unique and I like that, though I only ended up cycling between two or three in each episode as ammo ran low in one or the situation called for another approach.
So one of the big selling points for Daikatana was the inclusion of AI sidekicks. These take the form of two characters: The aforementioned Mikiko Ebihara, and my personal favorite character of the trio, one Superfly Johnson. That is actually his name. He’s voiced by Marcus Mauldin (who some of you may know better as Brick in Borderlands) and he made a lot of my deaths so much more bearable with the hysterical sobbing that followed. I know it was supposed to be sad, or at least frustrating, but I couldn’t help but smile when Superfly regained his composure and immediately started calling dibs on Hiro’s possessions. And this carried into the loading screen! Other highlights include what I can only call his Arnold Schwarzenegger impression when you stand around for too long. For all I know it could be him clearing his throat a lot to try and get your attention, but some of these wander suspiciously close to “eaugh” territory for me to write it off that way.
But what about the sidekicks’ AI? How is it? Well, it’s…rough. You have five commands you can use to order them around: get, stay, come, attack, and back off. Get directs them to pick up or use whatever you have lined up in your reticle, stay and come basically speak for themselves, though come also works as a follow command, I never used attack personally, though I would assume that just orders them to attack your target if possible, and back off just has them step back to let you through. You can also just nudge them around if you’re like me, but they’ll be annoyed by it and let you know. But past these commands, their pathfinding is not great. There were a lot of instances where I would be moving in a more or less straight path and Mikiko or Superfly (or both) would get stuck on nothing at all, or on the map transition point, resulting in my needing to reload to an earlier save. See, in the levels and areas where your sidekicks are present, you can’t move to a new part of the level, solve a puzzle, or even end the level without both of them fairly close by. Hiro will even express that he can’t leave them behind if you try. And if one of them dies you’re starting over from your most recent save or map change.
Let me paint you a picture. In Episode 3, there’s a level called Dungeon. Mikiko is out of commission for story reasons, so Superfly has to carry her around, leaving him essentially defenseless. At one point you need to jump a lava-filled gap and lower a bridge for Superfly to cross, and he tells you as much, stating he won’t be able to make it while carrying Mikiko. This is fair, even the strongest folks might have trouble doing things while carrying someone. So I cross without issuing the stay command, figuring that it’ll work like any other time your sidekicks say they can’t follow or they’ll wait where they are and they’ll stay put themselves. I flip the bridge and turn around to make sure Superfly is able to cross and guess what? He’s gone. Right as I’m about to cross back over and see if he backed off down the stairs a little, it immediately cuts to him exploding in the lava that I can only assume is in the pit I just covered based on the rock outcroppings visible in the deathcam. You’d think I would be mad about this, and I was a little annoyed when it happened, but I laughed more than anything, and it reminded me to use the sidekick commands whenever possible.
This is probably going to sound a little harsh, but honestly Daikatana shines brightest when Hiro is own his own. Superfly and Mikiko don’t have a lot of health, so it’s very easy for them to get killed if you don’t clear out a room before bringing them in. You can give them armor to buy yourself some time (and there are health kits everywhere for them to use as needed), but if there’s more than one or two things on screen, they’re going to get destroyed really quickly. Fortunately, there are two ways around this if you want to play without them: You can either start a multiplayer game and play alone since that will put your companions in the hands of actual people if they join (I don’t even know if Daikatana’s multiplayer is functional anymore) at the cost of the cutscenes, or you can download the community-made 1.3 patch that adds in a few new options like being able to turn off the sidekicks by ticking a box at the bottom of the difficulty selection screen or allowing you to save without the use of save gems. I don’t know if it was something to do with my configuration or what, but installing this patch also made Superfly and Mikiko invulnerable. I followed a step-by-step instruction to reset their health to normal levels in an effort to preserve the vanilla experience, but I probably goofed somewhere along the line. Not that it mattered, I still died in a lot of silly ways.
So now that I’ve got my issues with the AI out, let me talk a little bit about what I like beyond Superfly Johnson and the weapon design. The game really picked up for me once I finished episode 1. Being transported to Ancient Greece circa 1200 BC was neat, but the first weapon I pick up being a discus that works like a boomerang? Heck yeah! And the skeletons even have eyes! I had no clue when I started this that there were skeletons with eyes, but I was so excited when I realized that.
I don’t know what it is, but the Ancient Greece levels, with one specific exception, are so cool and I felt hooked the whole time I was working my way through them. It just felt really fluid, even summoning Charon and Hiro puzzling out what Drachma was made me smile. It’s always nice when a game does that.
On top of that, you can see in the above screenshot that there are different abilities on the left that you can improve as you play and slaughter monsters in your way. Once you’ve killed a certain number of monsters, you’re able to level up and boost one of these five. Power increases your damage, attack raises your attack speed, speed lets you move faster, acro improves your jump height, and vitality provides you with an additional fifty health per point, from the starting value of 100. This is a really neat idea and, in spite or perhaps because of improved jumping coming with the Six Million Dollar Man “dununununu” sound effect, I wish more games did this. As weird as it might sound, it felt natural. Like it was logical for Hiro to grow and improve his existing skillset as he went on this adventure through time.
Once you hit episode 2, this growth gets a little more complicated. In order to power up the Daikatana, you need to slaughter monsters with it. The Daikatana will then feed on their power and, once it’s “eaten” enough of them, it will become stronger, which as far as I can tell just means that Hiro swings it faster and for a longer period of time. I could be wrong, I’ve never actually looked into it. What makes things complicated is that powering up the Daikatana deprives Hiro of that experience, meaning you now have a choice: improve your blade, or improve yourself. There are only so many enemies in the game, so you won’t be able to max out both. It’s a neat little balancing act. Like you don’t absolutely have to max out your stats in order to clear the game, but being able to jump higher or take more hits is really nice.
And that brings me to my explanation for the cheats visible in the above screenshot. When you reach Wyndrax Tower in Episode 3 (E3M4), saving on the second map of two causes the game to become unstable and more often than not crash when the titular Wyndrax tries to attack you. This is more commonly known as the Wyndrax Crash Bug and was what ultimately led to my downloading patch 1.3. Unfortunately, this also wiped out my save files, so basically I had to start from scratch. But since I really just wanted to get back to where I left off, I decided to jump back to E3M4. Then I learned that doing so reset all of your stats to their starting points, including the Daikatana’s strength. So I jumped back to E2M1 in order to start powering it up. I boosted my stats to where I had them prior to the crash so that I could just focus on powering up the Daikatana, but eventually I got impatient with that and just went back to E3M4, accepting that I probably wouldn’t see the full form of the Daikatana. It’s a shame, but at least the game didn’t crash this time!
So I think I’ve covered pretty much everything. The AI is rough, but I also acknowledge how difficult it can be to account for all sorts of situations, especially when your player is a gremlin like I am. Trust me, I’m trying to program one particular boss in my own game and for every one thing I nail down, six more issues crop up. I am not the person to condemn anyone else’s coding. Most other issues I have (including the use of save gems to limit how frequently the player can save) are things that are either fixed by the 1.3 patch or minor enough that they really aren’t worth mentioning.
If I had to say Daikatana was guilty of any one thing, I would say ambition. The game is ambitious, and maybe tries to do too much. Superfly and Mikiko are cool and I like them, but requiring them to be within maybe five to ten feet of Hiro in order to progress can be exasperating to say the least. There are so many amazing weapons and while I only stick with two or three per episode, I tried all of them out to see what I liked best. And so honestly, I feel okay making a recommendation, with the caveat that you either download and install patch 1.3 or go through Wyndrax’s Tower in one run without saving. Even the Daikatana wiki says not to do so as all save files made near Wyndrax get corrupted.
This is part of why I prefer saying whether or not I recommend a game over something like a score out of ten or a star system. A middling score doesn’t convey the struggles the reviewer might have, and everyone’s criteria for a certain number of stars can vary. Like for me a 2-star game is one I get bored with while 1-star ratings would be reserved for games with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Daikatana is very firmly in the 3 to 3.5 star range for me. It’s decent, but lacks polish, but I still had a good bit of fun with it. And it does one really awesome thing with the credits: everyone who worked on it gets their portrait shown with their name and their role.
You can easily pick up Daikatana on Steam or GOG if you’re so inclined. There’s also a Game Boy Color game, but that’s apparently radically different from the PC and N64 versions and was made by Kemco rather than Ion Storm. Maybe I’ll cover that someday if I can find a copy.
And if John himself is reading this, thank you for all the work you’ve done on video games over the years man. Like I said, I don’t know you personally, but I’ve played a lot of games influenced by your work either directly or indirectly over the years and more often than not I’ve had a good time with them. I didn’t realize just how many games you’ve worked on over the years until I started writing this out. Dang man, I hope to have half as many games under my belt one day. It’s inspiring.