John Romero Makes Me His Bitch

By Alec Meer on February 4th, 2009 at 2:35 pm.

Two days ago, I built a mutant snow-panda. Whee! Sadly, I then suffered a phone call announcing that broadband installation in my new house, already long-delayed due to Virgin losing my application, had been pushed back a further eight days because of crystals of cold water on the road. Honestly, what a pathetic country this can be.

So I’ve spent the last week, and will spend the next one, on a miserable wi-fi tour through Burger Kings, friends’ lounges and the 10 square centimetre patch of my kitchen that can access an incredibly flaky paid hotspot. Worse, Steam’s reliably unreliable offline mode pulled a whiny fit, denying me access to all the games I’d cannily downloaded a couple of weeks back. With most of my boxed games in storage, my WSADing options have been strictly limited. In frustration, I pawed to the very bottom of dusty junk-boxes I’ve left unpacked for years. That’s when I saw it.

Daikatana.

Daikatana! I had no idea I owned it, and even less idea why it was lurking in a box containing photos of my trip to Australia in 1998, one of those horrific belt things that are supposed to make you lose weight by bombarding your stomach with electrical pulses and a broken toy TIE Fighter. John Romero’s infamous post-id Ozymandias moment was a beacon of ludicrousness in my offline darkness – a challenge I could not resist.

I’ve never played Daikatana: it arrived during my penniless student days, and the word of mouth was so bad that I steered well clear. Presumably I picked up this budget copy during my days working on PC Format. What I can say in its favour is that it installs and plays just fine on a modern PC running Windows 7. So there’s that. In every other respect, it lives up to its sour legend. For a 1996 game, it would have been fine. For a 2000 one, it’s entirely without note or merit.

From the clunky, ugly menus to the puerile, mocking quit messages and vaguely nauseating movement, it’s a game lost in time, with the sense that Romero and company had learned precisely nothing in the years since Quake. The interminable mumbo-jumbo exposition and adolescent posturing of the introduction certainly suggests Half-Life, two years old by this point, hadn’t crossed their radar.

Once it finally finishes jabbering on about mystical swords and corrupted timelines and allows play, it’s instantly about as forgettable as any no-budget FPS you care to name from the last decade. It is not a game of note, in either its quality or its awfulness. Except, of course, this is an FPS that enjoyed a vast moneypot and three years of development – we would not remember it otherwise. So the shock is not that Daikatana is so tiresome, but rather that it ever got released at all: there is surely no way that its creators were unconscious of it being such a failure.

No doubt it’s a spectre that hangs over 3D Realms with Duke Nukem Forever: the problem of living up to impossible levels of expectation and hype. No wonder it’s stalled so often: no-one would want to be another Daikatana. It’s oddly noble that 3DR have resisted just getting something out. The history of pop-culture has far too many examples of big projects so submerged in money and arrogance that their original purpose, ambition and invention is fatally confused: file Daiktana alongside Waterworld and Be Here Now.

That such a self-proclaimed messiah of first-person shooters would commence with an hour of shooting tiny frogs and flies along garish, bleary rock-corridors sets a precedent for its failure. There is simply no reason why such a particularly and deliberately pompous and silly game shouldn’t kick off with you attacking 12-foot deathbots with an electro-sword, escalating to attacking 120-foot deathbots in a star destroyer. For all the cyberpunk-meets-ancient-myths posturing, it’s a game desperately short on visual imagination.

While obviously Daikatana pre-dates the sort of endless playtesting and ludology that goes into the games of Valve and Bungie these days, that an FPS with its profile would opt to make its players feel so puny and wretched is an unforgivable mistake. It’s the one area in which Daikatana really does feel significantly worse than its turn-of-the-century peers, most of which were at least generous with the aliens or burly men from the off. Especially oily targeting means picking off these minute pests is irritating in the extreme, especially when it hurls waves of the little bastards at you at once. They’re not fun to fight, so why are they there?

John Romero wasn’t lying when he announced he’d make us his bitch: it’s just that really he meant he’d turn us into humiliated oafs desperately flailing at insects in the sky rather than that we’d fall at his feet in awe. The occasional insta-death turret makes it a game of cheerless trial and error rather than one of wits and reflex, exacerbated by the witless decision to employ infrequent ‘save crystals’ rather than the quicksave system such an unforgiving game demands. While there is an option/cheat to restore quicksave, it’s just a drop of logic in an ocean of screw-ups. Daikatana is a confusing, clumsy chore long before the legendarily braindead AI buddies arrive.

To think that Deus Ex and Anachranox were being worked on in other arms of the Ion Storm studio at the same time is startling. While their graphical technology has aged no better than this, both retain an obvious desire to be something more than the norm, in both their mechanics and their visuals, and that lends them a certain timelessness. In its bizarre contentment to be so ordinary, there is no reason why Daikatana should be remembered past its week of release. I’m fully aware of the irony of my bringing it up again here, but hey – no broadband makes for desperate times.

I’d told myself I’d play Daiktana to the end, a self-torment I’d thought would be funny but, tragically, was indeed simply torment. Its ambition, imagination and quality are bewilderingly absent: it is an empty game, without purpose or charm. I didn’t get far into it: the sense of futility was oppressive. I’d hoped to find a curious document of a past era of game-making, one rammed with ideas and pride but unable to express itself clearly. I’d hoped, even, to find a way to celebrate the reviled.

So it’s been oddly deflating to find that, after all these years, that Daikatana, this great anti-legend of PC gaming, is no more than another boring 3D world with a cursor hovering over it and a meagre understanding of entertainment. It didn’t deserve Romero’s three years of public bombast, and it doesn’t even deserve its uncomfortable place in history. Daiktana is nothing, and we should treat it as such. Woosh! Forgotten.

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103 Comments »

  1. Jay says:

    All I have is a massive ‘haha’ at your expense

  2. Paul Moloney says:

    “Steam’s reliably unreliable offline mode pulled a whiny fit”

    Ugh. They really need to fix two things about Steam; that, and the requirements that after you download a game, you subsequently need to run it once before going offline in order to activate it. The activation step should just happen automatically at the end of the download.

    P.

  3. shinygerbil says:

    I bought Daikatana for a quid off a mate who had a whole box of them, while I was still in school. Played it for about 15 minutes.

  4. clive dunn says:

    My laptop blew up last week so i spent a day downloading all my Steam games onto my desktop computer in preparation for the two to three weeks i would have to wait for my laptop to be fixed. Anyway, those bastards at Dell sent an engineer to my house in LESS THAN 24 hours, laptop motherboard and heatsink replaced, all up and running. Unfortunatly i had gone way over my ISP download cap and i now i have a horribly throttled connection for the rest of the month. Can’t win sometimes.
    The longest i went without t’internet was three weeks. Truly horrible experience. I had to read sodding books!

  5. Senethro says:

    I potentially gleaned something useful from this article. Is Anachronox worth playing?

  6. Heliocentric says:

    Yes, but use cheats as the game wants you to grind, and the combat can get rather terrible. But its certainly noteworthy.

  7. GamerV says:

    I once thought the same, “yeah, I’ll just finish it” but I don’t think I made it further than 10 minutes in.

    “Daiktana is nothing, and we should treat it as such. Woosh! Forgotten.”

    Now now. Let’s not be too harsh. The Gameboy Color version of Daikatana was surprisingly good. I’d even call it cool! Of course, it had absolutely nothing to do with Romero and company, but still. Great game.

  8. Turin Turambar says:

    Yep. Annachronox is worth playing. Gameplay wise it didn’t advance anything from an already stale JRPG genre, but otherwise is gold.

  9. Heliocentric says:

    Virgin internet throttles you for 4 hours, at half speed. So, its not really that bad. Generally I’m perpetually throttled, but the mistreatment other ISP’s deal out is very confusing.

  10. Little Green Man says:

    And you didn’t see this coming?

  11. PHeMoX says:

    “No doubt it’s a spectre that hangs over 3D Realms with Duke Nukem Forever: the problem of living up to impossible levels of expectation and hype. No wonder it’s stalled so often: no-one would want to be another Daikatana.”

    Romero should have had the guts to just invest in a massive team getting things up to date and especially get rid of the Tekken machines in their HQ that obviously interfered with work. Having said that, I really don’t think Daikatana was that bad! The one thing I disliked was it’s art direction in that it sort of cloned the Quake-vibe.

    Whatever Duke Nukem Forever is going to be, I hope 3DRealms learned from Daikatana and doesn’t try to make it look like the next Doom. I don’t think hype will ruin Duke Nukem Forever…

  12. Heliocentric says:

    Somewhere the hairs on Romero’s neck stood up and he didnt know why.

  13. Tei says:

    In some ways, Quake is a horrible failure.

    The original concept of Quake was about a RPG-ish game, with a important mele weapon (a hammer) and hub levels, some free exploration.
    Everything was removed to make a simpler game. And the game was a giganteous sucess, because of this change of concept.

    Why Quake1 failed? is because a mele weapon is hard to make on a First Person Shotter. Even today most good games with mele weapons are Third Person Shotters. Is hard to notice if your weapon has hit. So you “scan” blindly with your weapon. It make the mele weapons feel lame. And you want your weapons to feel powerfull, letal, etc..

    Quake1 also failed because the technology was not ready to make a multilevel RPG. Part of the design was too limiting to make a RPG. Mostly the modeling animation thing. And bits of the QCVM. Is doable, FrikaC did a great RPG with Quake.

    All this thing started to work years before, with games like Deus Ex.

    QuakeWorld and Half-Life1 where also a failure. The original design for QuakeWorld was more like a Steam service or XBox Live service. With a worldwide roster, so you know you are the #441 better player of the world. Technology, time, money… not enough, was imposible. Years before the features where comming, in the form of Steam.

    In some ways, having good ideas mean nothing. John Carmack did commented the right ideas (basically XBox Live) in 1996, but he was unable to make then real. Even If you hare a genius, your ideas worth nothing. Is the code, time and money what mean something. If you can’t code your ideas, worth nothing.

    John Romero failed because was a “ideas guy”. And that is a lame thing to me. Everybody and my dog have really good ideas to make nice games. Is other stuff that is important, not ideas. You can have ideas, and be a genius (like John Carmack) and this mean nothing.

  14. dhex says:

    though i liked the writing, the combat in anachronox was bad enough to put me off playing it.

  15. FunkyB says:

    I like ‘Be Here Now’…

  16. Tei says:

    Ooops… I did again. I sould stop talking like talk. I sounds like a boring pedant old guy, or something.

  17. Radiant says:

    DON’T GET VIRGIN BROADBAND!
    Sweet jesus they are shocking.
    Yes you may have got it via your cable but BE broadband are much better and don’t throttle you.

  18. Radiant says:

    https://www.bethere.co.uk/
    Phone an dtech support are gorgeous too.

  19. Heliocentric says:

    Shocking.. Seriously?

    In what way? Sure not throttling you is fine, but the speeds are based on distance so unthrottled might be worse than virgins throttling.

  20. NotaFan says:

    I hope everyone noticed that massive failure of the much-vaunted Steam there… :P

    Anachronox is worth playing if you like JRPGs. Yes, the story is brilliant. Yes, the characters are fantastic, but the play mechanics – random battle after random battle after randohforgodsake – stopped me from completing it.

  21. Heliocentric says:

    NotaFan… Cheats! Win buttons!

  22. Mo says:

    I too tried playing Daikatana a couple of years ago to see how terrible it was. After spending (literally) half an hour patching it, I got through the first level and then it consistently crashed at the one spot. Blessing in disguise?

    @FunkyB: That isn’t possible.

  23. Feet says:

    I’ve been using Virgin Media for a few years for my TV, Phone and broadband, and I have no complaints what so ever, if anything I’ve been exceptionally pleased with the service. Once they have it installed I’m sure you’ll be fine.

  24. Gap Gen says:

    It’s worth completing Anachronox. You can watch the machinima they made by splicing together FMV, but you miss a lot of the in-game jokes and it’s not quite the same.

    It’s a massive shame that Ion Storm folded when they produced Deus Ex and Anachronox. Such is life, I guess.

  25. Bobsy says:

    Damn! That Quake bastard works fast!

  26. Mman says:

    I played Daikatana for curiousity purposes about a year ago and it really was about as terrible as I heard; quite possibly worse. There’s a few half-way interesting levels that preserved my sanity but mostly it’s either dull or outright bad, and pretty much every “innovotive” idea is half-baked at best (the RPG system really doesn’t add anything at all) or horribly implemented (do I even need to mention the “sidekicks”?). I at least found it a great crash course on how to fail at game design in almost every way possible.

  27. mrrobsa says:

    Poor Alec. Tell Virgin to get on their bikes, Be broadband is the shiznit, no download caps :D !
    And Valve really need to get Offline mode working properly, ALWAYS been a problem for me, couldn’t play many of my games at Uni! I’ve bloody paid for them! etc. *rants…*

  28. Radiant says:

    Helio not to get too into it but Virgin tech support wouldn’t know what the words ‘line attenuation’ even mean let alone how to tweak my line on their end to get me better connection and speeds.
    BE, based on the info my router was giving out, told me the speed I am capable of getting and actively worked to get me their.
    Even explaining how to adjust the wiring in my plug socket *fnar fnar*.
    Honestly I can’t recommend them enough.

  29. Radiant says:

    *there* obviously

  30. StalinsGhost says:

    Virgin? Good luck Alec! I’ve had nothing but trouble with them. I knew I should have taken control of the internet when we moved into this house instead of leaving it to my house mate again.

    And yes. I do always find it funny that Deus Ex and Arachnarox were made by the same development house. Mad.

  31. NotaFan says:

    @Helio: “Win buttons”? That seems to vaguely spring from the same silliness Anachronox reveled in, but then again my memory of this game is so bad you may just be making fun of me.

    Oh, and thx for the tip about Be, everyone. I work in the UK’s LLU industry and only know them as a pile of half-baked idiots who can’t place an order to save themselves – WE (meaning I) usually end up telling them how may cables they have on their own equpiment, Who knew their actual broadband service might actually be one of the best out there? Def’ worth looking into…

  32. Switch625 says:

    Another +1 for Be and a -1 for Virgin from me too, though it’s likely that Alec is so far along the ordering process now that we’re all just making him feel bad.
    Sorry Alec.

  33. Paul Moloney says:

    “The one thing I disliked was it’s art direction in that it sort of cloned the Quake-vibe. ”

    One amusing bit in the story of Daikatana over on Gamespot (http://www.gamespot.com/features/btg-daikatana/) is how the artists, from a comics background, weren’t used to working within the limitations of computer games; one, when asked to skin a small arrow in the game, produced a texture 1300 pixels wide.

    P.

  34. madTinkerer says:

    I remember buying Daikatana on launch day because “surely Romero wouldn’t screw up his magnum opus”. I returned it because of a glitch in the drivers that screwed up the gamma correction on my PC and couldn’t be fixed at the time. I used the store credit to get Diablo 2, which came out the following week, and instantly knew I had made the right choice.

  35. Radiant says:

    Did any of you guys ever play “Requiem: Avenging Angel” ?
    I seem to be the only person to play it but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    You play an Angel, complete with angelic powers, battling demons and other angels.
    A great game with a real sense of vision behind it.
    Although there are unintentionally comic moments where you are trying to get over a fence in the usual late 90′s FPS style and then you look around and realise all the NPCs are shitting themselves because you’re 8 feet tall with wings and a machine gun that’s literally from hell.

  36. Dominic White says:

    N’thing the sentiment that Anachronox had remarkably good writing, but while I DO like JRPGs, I found the combat that made up about 90% of Anachronox to be one of the most painful grinds I’ve ever encountered.

    It’s not that it didn’t improve on JRPG combat – it regressed, and ended up playing worse than most SNES-era offerings. People give it a free pass because of the writing, though, but the gameplay was pretty wretched.

    If only they’d copied a nice and snappy combat engine like Chrono Triggers.

    As for Daikatana, it actually gets slightly better after the first terrible world (Green Robo Frog Land), but then it somehow gets worse again. I think it was the Greek episode that gives you a melee weapon (a huge magic hammer) that kills YOU unless you jump while swinging it.

  37. Radiant says:

    “no no it’s all right, I’m just trying to get over this fence”

  38. hydra9 says:

    Daikatana really is bad, isn’t it? I bought it out of curiosity last year, almost certain that it would have some redeeming value, that it would at least be an average shooter… but no.

    The opening cutscene is dreadful (and goes on forever) and voice-acting makes use of the ancient ‘Japanese people talk funny!’ joke. In-game, textures are shamefully ugly and the opening levels in the swamp are about as bad as can be imagined. I actually laughed my ass off when I made it through the swamp and got to chapter 2 – ‘The Sewers!’

    Like Alec, I had every intention of finishing the game, but I didn’t get much further before I gave up. Then I checked out YouTube videos just to see how poor the ending was (How poor? Very).

    On a brighter note, I went back and played through Quake 1 (and all its expansion packs) and really enjoyed it. Back in the day, I found the single-player mode boring, but now I think it has a lot of variety and some surprisingly good level design. And to Mr. Romero’s credit, some of the best levels are his.

    Also: Yay for Anachronox! Play it, it’s fun!

  39. Jim Rossignol says:

    The early machinegun in Requiem remains one of the best weapons in any FPS.

  40. MartinX says:

    Daikatana.

    Nostalgia.

    I must have been one of the first Europeans to download the demo. I was totally suckered by the hype and all kinds of enthused as I refreshed the download page in the small hours of the morning. Then it went live, on schedule, and the slow download began.

    I kept vigil in the seldom used chat section of the old PCGamer Delphi forum page, if I recall correctly there was even a PCG UK staffer loitering out of interest, possibly Trevor Witt.

    When it finished downloading I installed it with the breathless energy of an eight year old approaching a pile of gifts on christmas morning, and jumped in … to a swarm of fucking robot mosquitos and unusually aggressive amphibians.

    “This…is…shit…, what the fuck have they been doing for the last three years?” I think I squeezed out in the chat channel.

    Daikatana marked an important milestone in my life, it was the death of hype. Never again have I allowed myself to care that much about an upcoming game. Probably for the best.

  41. NotaFan says:

    I played the demo of Requiem and thoroughly enjoyed it. Never did get around to getting the game, tho’. Perfect GOG-fodder, methinks. :P

  42. Jim Rossignol says:

    GoG-men, are you reading this?

  43. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    I guess how long people persevere with Anachronox depends on how much they’re willing to put up with the weak combat and repeated backtracking in order to enjoy the games manifold charms. I can’t say I blame the people who have given up on it, but it’s still a shame they haven’t seen all that the game has to offer as it’s crammed to the gills with neat little touches from start to finish.

  44. Markoff Chaney says:

    Daikatana was also the game that taught me a great lesson about hype. I was there Day 1 and very excited when it dropped. Load it up, fire it up, skip story crap, and immediately feel ripped off. I still have it somewhere, but I won’t do that to myself again. This game almost deserves a post in the “Games that Make me Cry” thread or what not.

    Also, what’s the hate with Ram Dass? I loved that book. Oh. You’re talking about the Oasis album. :)

  45. Hypocee says:

    Huh! I loved the Anachronox demo way back when, and had been meaning to play through it someday. What I remember of the combat is this sort of hybrid shooting-percentages VATS thing that I liked a lot… most be misremembering.

  46. Heliocentric says:

    @NotaFan

    I simply mean, play the game with cheats, its much more pleasent.

  47. Downloads_Plz says:

    The history of pop-culture has far too many examples of big projects so submerged in money and arrogance that their original purpose, ambition and invention is fatally confused: file Daiktana alongside Waterworld and Be Here Now.

    I still have yet to figure out why everyone seems to think this album was THAT bad. Not as good as their first two, granted, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

  48. matthew says:

    A little while after Daikatana came out I met someone who’d worked on it and, in my usual way, began to rib him a little, but he got very defensive. He claimed that the negative press had been wildly blown out of proportion and that at its core it was a rather decent game.

    When you invest a lot something and stake your reputation on it, it’s hard to accept it may not have worked out the way you wanted it to. Sometimes, denial is easier.

    That’s how games like Daikatana can be released with completely serious intent, and how, years later, at least one person on the team thought of the game as a victim of the media more than anything else.

  49. Pete says:

    I reviewed this back in the day and hit a show stopper bug on the fourth (and least shit) timezone.

    It was, to put it mildly, a relief.

  50. Hypocee says:

    Oh, and I do own a physical copy of Daikatana. My little brother’s friend had got a gaming PC but was not yet a ‘gamer’ at the time, and bought it at full price off the shelf because the box looked OK. Even at the time, I couldn’t believe he hadn’t heard about its history. It very rapidly passed from him to my brother and thence to my archive.