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. phuzz says:

    (Be now have a button marked “Gaming Mode” that you can activate. It did drop our speeds from 16/2.5 d/u down to 12/2 but the pings dropped from 60 something ms to less than 20 for a uk server. You makes your choice…)

  2. Premium User Badge

    Nero says:

    I have never played this game (but I remember reading about it when I was young) but I recently watched video playthrough of the entire game. It was coop play with 2-3 players every level. It was both fun and not fun to watch. The commentary in the video made it more exciting though. What a game.

  3. matte_k says:

    Would be fantastic for someone to do to Anachronox what they’re doing with Chronicles of Riddick: An upgrade to the first game, and the next game in one package. I seem to recall Anachronox had an ending that pretty much said “sequel”…

  4. eyemessiah says:

    BE are much, much better than Daikatana.

  5. Adam T says:

    Clearly, Daikatana deserves a sequel. If it were well done and fun to play it would be a satisfying in-joke. And think of all those people afterword, picking up the first one from a bargain bin! HAHAHA, SUCKERS!

    Oh, and I continue to rail against Steam. Friends and associates are bored of hearing my bitch about it. However, at times like this I take great pleasure in pointing out that my middle finger remains unfurled in its honor. F-U, STEAM!

  6. Sören Höglund says:

    Anachronox is well worth playing. Make sure to get the unofficial patches though, they fix a ton of bugs and add a fast-forward key that’s extremely useful. Makes the battles much snappier, and speeds up a ton of elevator rides.

  7. I am beginning to understand this comment system says:

    Not to defend Daikatana too much but most FPS games from that era have not held up well at all, especially in single player.

    I recently tried playing through Quake 2. Then I realized it was in no way shape or form fun anymore.

    Doom’s gameplay, on the other hand, never gets old for me.

  8. hydra9 says:

    I disagree. Quake 1 is really good. Also Kingpin. And what about Half-Life? Probably some others I’ve forgotten about as well…

  9. Taillefer says:

    “So, this three year gap in your CV…how do you explain that?”
    “Oh, uh D…Drugs.”

  10. Larington says:

    Anachronox is one of my favourite games, I mean top 10 material here alongside The Longest Journey: Dreamfall, Planetside, Baldurs Gate 1 & 2, Deus Ex 1, System Shock 2 and Half-Life – Thats some pretty good company. Sadly, the combat system, low poly/detail character models and relatively slow start put a lot of people off the game.

  11. Robin says:

    I always thought Daikatana looked quite good, in screenshots. (I hazard a guess that Ken Scott was working on the textures at some point?) A shame that it sounds like it’s too flawed to play even out of curiosity then.

    I would quite like to be on Be, but when I asked they seemed to be adamant that there was no room at the exchange. Still, at least I’m not on NewNet any more, whose business model (“1. Entice customers with promise of no throttling, 2. Introduce hard caps, 3. Charge extortionate fees for top-up bandwidth that doesn’t even roll over, 4. Twirl moustaches and cackle”) is perhaps the most shameless scam ever perpertrated by a UK ISP.

  12. undead dolphin hacker says:

    Anachronox would have been good, were it not for the godawful game attached to it.

    Just watch the machinima mashup.

  13. drewski says:

    I’ve finished both Requiem: Avenging Angel and Anchronox, which I went to the extent of ebaying from the UK to Australia to get a copy of.

    The first game I loved; the second I loved too but finishing it was a chore.

    There was nothing about Daikatana that ever attracted me, but I think it’s a watermark in game design nonetheless – a mark of what not to do when making games. What on earth is Romero doing now?

  14. Hypocee says:

    BTW, Tei, I think you mean the other John from id. ;) I wonder how much misaimed flak Carmack’s caught since Daikatana…

  15. Hypocee says:

    Oops, me wrong. Missed one of the switches in those last few sentences.

  16. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    First Kieron, now Alec. I’m being sent to the Wikipedia to pick up on the reference again.

    Though in your position, I would’ve mentioned Ishtar.

  17. Larington says:

    I never realised during my play throughs that the combat system in Anachronox was ‘bad’ could folks enlighten me as to how it was bad, and even better still how they think it could be improved?

    Oh, and its spelt Anachronox, An-ach-ron-ox. Hmm, I’m turning into a spelling elitist.

  18. Nick says:

    Constant random battles are bad. That’s about it.

  19. Cycle says:

    I loved Anachronox. I’m surprised to see the combat being ragged on so much. The battles were not random, since you could see enemies and avoid them, plus the combat was always so easy that it was never really a problem. Plus, for the most part, there is only combat in the “dungeon” areas. Half the gameplay is LucasArts-style adventuring and puzzling solving (without inventory item crap). I mean, the final battle was basically one big puzzle. FURTHERMORE, if you actually bothered using the crazy shell thing you’re given early in the game, it acts as yet another puzzle and once you’re good at it, it will help you plow through any enemies. If you ignore it, (which you can do as I did on my first play and still managed to get by fine apart from a few tough boss battles), then yeah, the combat is rather ordinary, but still.

    Requiem: Avenging Angel was mostly medicore. They really didn’t take advantage of their unique concept and it ended up coming off as pretty much any other sci-fi shooter at the time. It was fun turning people into pillars of salt, though.

  20. Larington says:

    The battles didn’t seem random to me, I’m going to try digging deeper, what do you mean by random?

  21. drewski says:

    Most of the time you couldn’t avoid combat in Anachronox, unless you sat at the edge of the aggro zone which triggered the battle and sulked.

    I only found one boss particularly difficult though, and he wasn’t compulsory. Still, any enemy that has a power that instantly kills your entire party is no way to design a game.

    The combat was boring, which I think is a greater error.

  22. Larington says:

    “I only found one boss particularly difficult though, and he wasn’t compulsory. Still, any enemy that has a power that instantly kills your entire party is no way to design a game.”
    Don’t remember that ever happening to me.

    I would agree the pacing of the combat seems a tad off, its too slow and takes away the players ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently but it didn’t make the game unplayable for me.

  23. Larington says:

    Well, except for the super hero villian and thats a plot device, so I let that one slide.

  24. jaguth says:

    I remember when I bought Daikatana for $5. I played through half of the first level, and the it crashed with a DirectX error. I downloaded and ran a huge patch, and the patch froze; i had to kill the processes. The README file said its normal for the patch to freeze, and just let it sit. I tried again and let it sit for 2 hours, and it still did nothing. I eventually gave up. Felt bad paying for broken software. Worst $5 I ever spent.

  25. Tomo says:

    I never got round to playing Daikatana. It sits in the history books, recently joined by Haze in the section designated: “Crimes against FPS games.” Games built up so much that their spectacular fall is something that really needs to be experienced to be understood.

  26. Tom Camfield says:

    That was neat.

  27. Phil H says:

    I saw (a new copy of) Daikatana at Gamestop once for $5, thought about it for half a second, and realized that no, you’d have to pay me at least that much to take it off your hands.

  28. MetalCircus says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Anachronox, Alec, it reamins a faveourite of mine. Ion Storm were really not a bad company, it’s just a shame about Daikatana really.

    Oh blast, you’ve got me all teary eyed and reminiscent over Anarchonox now. Guys; if any of you haven’t played it, you owe it to yourself to do so. Great acting, a well thought out, believable setting, loveable characters, and just plain funny. What a great game.

    *weeps gently*

  29. Max says:

    I tried out Daikatana a few years back. I figured that since I’d missed out on all of the hype and had literally no expectations of the game, I couldn’t be let down. Boy was I wrong.
    I don’t think I even finished the first level. The enemies were plain irritating, the game lacked any purpose or motivation, the art design was hideous, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t enjoy it. What a cock up.

  30. Idle Threats & Bad Poetry says:

    Great news Anachronox fans! Especially those who don’t have time to play or mess around with combat:

    Jake Strider Hughes (the game’s cinematic director and producer) independently spliced together the game’s cutscenes into an award-winning machinima movie.”

    Machinima.com had to say about the film: “Anachronox: The Movie is a tour-de-force, one of the finest Machinima films produced to date, and probably the most accomplished Machinima feature to date. Hell, it managed to hold two over-worked jury members in a room for two and a half hours before the MFF 2002 – what more can we say?”.

    http://www.archive.org/details/JakeHughesAnachronoxTheMovie

    I’m elated! I remember the demo and I really dug it, especially the dramatic opening with the David Bowie music. I never played the full game, and I don’t really have time, but there’s always time for a movie! \o/

  31. Idle Threats & Bad Poetry says:

    Correction: The sentence starting “Jack Strider Hughes” should be part of the quote, which I tried to cite as from Wikipedia.

  32. Rath says:

    Thank you Meer, I am now listening to Be Here Now, which I had completely forgotten I owned, and am finding it a refreshing break from my usual playlist of nihilism.

  33. Michael says:

    Makes me wonder why GOG doesn’t sell this… wait, it’s not good.

  34. Oak says:

    D’You Know What I Mean is a great song, though.

  35. Erlam says:

    “So, this three year gap in your CV…how do you explain that?”
    “Oh, uh D…Drugs.”

    This made me laugh way more than is likely healthy.

    I tried playing Daikatana a few years ago, and got about 2 levels in. I just.. it was so ugly! When I cheated or something to get to the greek stage, I just stopped playing. I recall a hole, and either me or the NPC ‘sidekick’ stuck in it, and being unable to proceed.

    These vague memories do not remind me of good times.

  36. Kevin says:

    Whenever I heard “Diakatana” mentioned among the PC nerds, I didn’t know what to think. If anything this work serves as an excellent (and funny) history lesson to all the young guns out there.

  37. thefanciestofpants says:

    John Romero’s infamous post-id Ozymandias moment

    THIS

  38. SofS says:

    The link in my name is to the Scratchware Manifesto. About halfway through, the writer starts going off about the development of Daikatana. It’s funny and sad to think of the sweat and blood and by-all-rights-illegal working conditions that went into creating such a monumentally terrible game.

  39. Freakoftheuniverse says:

    If anyone has the sudden urge to destroy themselves, utterly, they can always watch a video playthrough (with commentary) of the aforementioned horror.
    Enjoy?

  40. Mo says:

    The original article the Scratchware Manifesto quotes from:
    http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/03/07/romero/index.html
    It’s a good read. Written by David Kushner, the guy who wrote “Masters of Doom”, which by the way, is also a really good read.

  41. monchberter says:

    Steam release?

    Surely this is the qunitessential dl and play once game, and then have it haunt your games list for all eternity. ;)

  42. Bobsy says:

    I bought Daikatana for a quid once, just for the hell of it. I intended to do some sort of live-blogging playthrough, but a couple of minutes in I just gave up in disgust. About an hour later I stopped playing altogether. It wasn’t even bad in a funny way, it was just dreary old wank.

  43. Premium User Badge

    solipsistnation says:

    Ah, Daikatana. It was SO SO BROKEN. I finally turned on god mode just so the damn AI buddies wouldn’t constantly kill me by shooting me in the back with the ancient-Greek-era poison staff thing. As it turned out, there were other nasty instant-death traps later. Yes, it would have been a pretty decent game in 1996, but to release it in 2000 implied that Romero and co. had really no idea what was going on outside their offices.

    Anachronox was decent and is worth playing, but there are some places where combat gets tedious. The rest of the game is worth it, though. At least combat gets pretty fast after a while… It’s kind of silly, though, in that you have to talk to EVERYONE IN THE CITY before you can leave town. Every single NPC has something you need in order to leave.

  44. Pod says:

    “Virgin are rubbish”

    You’ll be saying that a lot. I really, really recommend you to ditch their service within the 30-day money-back period. Give it a try. I bet it’s shit and you’ll think “oh, it’ll get better”.

    IT WON’T. DITCH THEM NOW.

  45. Hypocee says:

    BTW,

    …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.

    It does. I just checked on four games, two I’d downloaded long ago but not yet played and two that I downloaded immediately before going offline.

  46. Robin says:

    Oh god, the Scratchware Manifesto. Greg Costikyan wasn’t it? I’d rather have clever people subverting the fantastic opportunities and resources that “the system” offers than have them fritter away their talent for the sake of not “selling out”. An artistically pure game that nobody plays is a failure.

  47. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    @ Idle Threats & Bad Poetry: It’s worth reiterating that, as Gap Gen typed way up the comment thread, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the jokes if you just watch the machinima. Still, if you haven’t got the time (I think Anachronox clocks in around 30+ hours) then fair enough.

    Re Anachronox combat: It’s less that it’s horrendously bad/broken, which it isn’t, more that it isn’t really fun or compelling. As much as they’ve tried to enliven it with swanky particle effects (which remain rather pretty, albeit less so after you’ve seen them for the fiftieth time) and a swooping camera it does become a grind to push through, particularly in areas where it isn’t broken up with puzzles or dialogue. There are some neat ideas with regards to positioning and experimenting with Mystech, but in practice the former amounts to ensuring your combatants are in range of their targets, have line of sight and little else while the latter doesn’t do enough to redeem the combat.

  48. SofS says:

    Robin: Appropriately enough, they have a bit in there about failure and how it should be embraced as a learning experience when it happens.

    This is a non-PC reference, but consider: a team at Sony makes Ico. It is well-received, but sells poorly. Normally, this would mean that Fumito Ueda would have ended up heading up Crash Team Explosive Bicycle Derby or something. Instead, they got to make another, more expensive game, Sony actually marketed it this time, and Shadow of the Colossus did well critically and financially. Did “nobody playing” Ico at the beginning doom it to irrelevance? Should that “failure” have scuttled the team’s chances at further ambitious projects? If you think not, consider then how many bright minds haven’t been as fortunate as Ueda and his crew and how many people have managed to successfully trade those frustrations for a set more of their liking by working on their own. It is no longer “big company or fail” these days.

    I say an artistic success that isn’t widely-played is still a success. Few people bought the Velvet Underground’s record when it first came out, but everybody ended up hearing bits of it when those that did buy it used it as inspiration. I think it’s just fine for something to have advancing its field as its ambition, and it’s far easier to do that when it’s just you and a few others with money that you’ve already budgeted. Relying on the system to allow itself to be subverted isn’t the greatest thing to bet on.

  49. Bret says:

    Record, singular?

    I have two CDs with the Velvet underground right on the label. Both of which, the internet informs me, were records first. And there are at least three I don’t have.

    Or did you mean records, and am I just being obnoxiously pedantic?

  50. Alarik says:

    I finished Daikatana and liked it :)