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. SofS says:

    Coming back to this late: I think I meant “record” to stand for the first one, the one with “Waiting For My Man” on it (unless I’ve confused them, which is likely since I don’t have them around me). However hyperbolic critics have been about them, I think they’re right when they talk about how deeply they influenced their contemporaries and immediate successors, but I could easily be wrong when I think that their first album made the all-important initial impression.

  2. Die Drones Die says:

    What a douchebaggy article!, you are just another drone jumping on the politically correct opinion of the incredibly flawless uniform and spoiled gaming industry. Daikatana is not the best game on earth, that’s for sure, but spending the time to write an article about code that was released eons ago seems to me vicious and aimed to be another “hey, I am with you, I am one with the pack, like me, embrace me” kind of situation.

    What is this, high school?

    I never cared about what critics had to say (movies, games or anything I play or watch, etc); my parent’s priority was to raise me with a mind of my own and keep me from being another sheep, begging for acceptance.

    After going through most of the id Software, Raven, Carmack and Romero titles, I played Daikatana and thought it was fun and actually quite unique.

    I could blabber on about this topic for hours but find it pointless since I’ll for sure end up steamrolled by the army of fools who think the truth about anything gaming is waiting inside the mind of “geniuses” like the guys at Penny Arcade or even yourself. Who the hell are you, anyway?

  3. Oremor Njoh says:

    Suck it down!

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