This is a story about heartbreak and betrayal.
Well, the game isn’t about either of these themes, just to be clear.
It is my story of heartbreak and betrayal at the hands of game developer John Romero and the Ion Storm Studio for their production of John Romero’s Daikatana (2000).
I was forewarned about the allure of hunky gamer, John Romero, and his overhyped and under-delivered game. But sometimes you just fall too hard and too fast to even recognize that your heart has been stolen by the wrong guy.
The game is about Hiro Miyamoto fulfilling the last wishes of a dying swordmaster to reclaim the mystical daikatana (or big sword) to restore balance to the planet. The antagonist, Kage Mishima, used the sword to travel back in time, steal a vaccine formula for a deadly plague circling the globe, destroy his enemies by preventing access to the vaccine, and build his global corporate empire from the ashes. The evil Mishima corporate empire must be stopped!
This is a first person shooter (FPS) that starts out in 25th century Japan with a cyberpunk vibe, but there also time travel to ancient Greece, Dark Age Norway, and then to near-future San Francisco.
It is difficult to know the artistic intention behind some of the design choices at the beginning of the game because it was an assault on all of my senses in the best way.
The sound design for the first level was unsettlingly good. The music was on point, with its relaxed industrial vibe. It could have been the soundtrack to The Matrix. The sound effects of the weapons, baddies, and the death rattles were all so visceral, the most distressing being the choking noise Hiro makes as he runs out of air from holding his breath underwater. Absolutely horrifying.
The colour palette of the first level was an excellent mix of predominantly dark tones with the odd flourish of colour, such as the vibrant green bog sludge. It is dingy and menacing as Hiro scuttles around the Mishima compound traversing disgusting bogs and sewers, and endless corridors, fighting all kinds of mechanical creatures.
I was drawn in. My heart open to this experience that John Romero himself had crafted just for me. I was falling in love with my very first story-driven FPS.
As I moved through the chapters of the first level, I was still brimming with excitement, until I had to rescue and adopt two characters who would follow me and be actively led by my guiding hand for the rest of the dang game.
I knew about the terrible reputation of the game and how poorly it had been received upon its much anticipated release, but I thought that those people just didn’t understand the game like I did. Sure, I was getting a little frustrated with the game, and yes, I found myself resenting John Romero at times, but this was my first FPS love and to me it was perfect.
I accepted my difficult childlike sidekicks, but the excitement that had been so strong at the beginning started to make way for frustration and anger as we progressed through the various levels.
The technical development of the sidekicks was a main feature and the worst aspect of the game. Having to control these characters made the game almost impossible to play, which is why so many have never completed an entire play through.
It should also be noted that the design choice for the Superfly Johnson character was absurd. He was developed as an amalgam of various Blaxploitation-era stereotypes, particularly from the 1972 movie Super Fly. He just feels like a character from a bad era to get a few more yucks at the expense of Black folks.
The degree of artistic design and technical development also quickly dropped off after the first level.
The signs and signals that developers give to gamers that teach you to do or not do something became inconsistent. There was also one point where I just followed my curiosity right into a fail state because the game had not been fully tested and I took a path that could not be corrected without cheating.
I had really tried to stand by my man throughout this ordeal, but I felt as though I had been misled, betrayed. I had fallen in love with John Romero’s idea of Daikatana and not the game itself.
It was at this point that I was introduced to “the console” and the “no clip”: a cheat that provides you with godlike omnipotence and the ability to move through any object on the map. This was a requirement as I needed to double back to a previous section of the level to retrieve a critical item to advance to the next stage of the game.
Why would superstar game developer and super hunk John Romero let such a thing happen in his game? How could he hurt me like this?
I turned to Gamezetera owner, Pierre Tessier, for answers to soothe my troubled mind and broken heart. He told me that in the late nineties and early aughts game developers were not only pushing boundaries with game design, they were also inventing new technology at a rapid pace. The game was announced in 1997 and set to be released at the end of 1998, but ended up coming out in 2000 as essentially an unfinished game.
While the release of new gaming breakthroughs were an aspect to the delays, there seems to have been an unshockingly toxic work environment at Ion Storm, Romero’s first solo studio after leaving id Software, that led to many staff turnovers. This is also not surprising for a company that had marketed this inaugural production with full page ads in magazines with text that read “John Romero is gonna make you his b***h”.
Look, I knew red flags were there. I had been warned about how bad the game was, but I just wanted to believe in love.
I did, however, learn a very valuable lesson from Daikatana that every gamer has to find out on their own: video games and their developers will disappoint you and break your heart, but only if you let them.