When I first heard about Daikatana, it was this mythical game that was almost entirely overshadowed by its infamy. It was as much of a running joke among FPS gamers as Duke Nukem Forever at one point.
The incredibly mismanaged development, the tone-deaf marketing campaign promising John Romero would make you his b***, the hype about Daikatana being from the mastermind that brought us Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Daikatana stood in a league of its own at how universally hated it was.
As a gamer and as a game reviewer, I’ve always held on to a firm belief that I will never hold any opinion that is not entirely my own. If a game is hated, I will still give it a chance to see for myself if it is as bad as people claim it to be. Because I want my opinion to be my own, and I can not truly have an opinion until I’ve experienced something for myself.
So I played Daikatana. And while I can see where people are coming from, it is kind of mindblowing how a game that had so much ambition and works put into it could end up becoming so hated. Because I didn’t just play Daikatana. I completed it… And I enjoyed it.
A New Studio
The development of Daikatana began in the late ’90s when John Romero left id Software shortly after the release of Quake. He had some good reasons for leaving, largely citing a lack of willingness to experiment more. Romero wanted to do other games than just FPS’s. Or, at least do FPS’s that involved more than basic shooting and pushing switches.
Tom Hall had similar feelings about id Software’s direction in the ’90s. After his original design document for Doom was shot down by John Carmack in favor of making the game a pure action game. He left id shortly after development on Doom was completed. He joined Apogee for a while, working with the Developers Of Incredible Power on the cult classic FPS Rise Of The Triad.
Tom Hall was one of the first people that later joined John Romero at Ion Storm. With both sharing the sentiment that id Software had become more focused on making Doom over and over again, they wanted to focus on games that would offer a more nuanced experience.
Together with legendary game designer Warren Spector on board, they set on to make the highly regarded Deus Ex. Tom Hall even lent his voice to one of the prominent characters in the game. Though, pretty much simultaneously with the development of Deus Ex, John Romero was assembling a team to work on his vision.
This vision was Daikatana. It was what John Romero had always wanted to make. Daikatana would be what Quake wasn’t.
A Troubled Development
However, things didn’t go as well with Daikatana. Romero’s ideas for the game would prove hard to implement into the original Quake engine that the team licensed from id Software. Romero wanted an episodic approach to the game. He also wanted partners in the game alongside RPG mechanics. Some of these elements were implemented well. Others… were not.
The development did not go smoothly. The team Romero had assembled was largely made up of modders. The lack of skill made development far more lengthy than needed and required Romero to constantly hire new people to work on the game.
He also demanded a switch to the Quake 2 engine to make the game more competitive. The original Quake engine at that point was starting to look antiquated. The development was further stalled when eight members of his staff left Ion Storm in 1998 to form their own company, Third Law Interactive.
When the game finally released on April 14th of 2000, the reception was so negative that Daikatana immediately was crowned as the most disappointing game of the decade. All the hype surrounding the game no doubt contributed to this. Most of it centered around John Romero himself and how his legendary status as a developer ensured Daikatana would be an amazing experience.
An Overly Ambitious Game
This has not been a new experience for me. I enjoy a lot of critically panned games. Most people who know me already know I am a big fan of Duke Nukem Forever. I’ve even enjoyed the meme-worthy Mass Effect Andromeda so in general, I seem to have an ability to enjoy games that most people consider trash.
What I realized about Daikatana however is just what it actually tried to accomplish back in the late ’90s. And, in a way, that may have contributed to its many issues, as it was a rather overambitious title. It just tried too many things that were admittedly groundbreaking, but overall poorly implemented.
I mean, follower AI was rather problematic at the time. Not even the critically loved Half-Life was without its follower bugs. Meanwhile, Fallout -which released much earlier- had numerous pathfinding bugs. Daikatana tried to mitigate this by adding follower commands and using these are actually required to make the follower AI function as intended. Relying solely on the AI will just result in a lot of frustration.
The game also features several RPG mechanics, with upgradeable stats affecting your character’s behavior. This isn’t surprising given Ion Storm were also working on the critically praised Deus Ex around the same time, a FPS famous for its RPG mechanics.
Not to mention the game’s four episodes each have their own distinct time periods and themes. This not only affects the graphics, with each episode having entirely new textures and models. But it also affects the weapons available. Each episode has its own unique set of weapons available to the player.
This kept Daikatana from becoming overly repetitious to me and made it a far more interesting experience than id Software’s Quake 2, which ironically provided the game engine Daikatana runs on.
How To Play Daikatana
A few helpful tips to enjoying Daikatana is to make good use of the follower commands. A recent fan patch largely improves the follower AI. It’s not perfect but it does improve it significantly over the initial version of the game. Learning the follower hotkeys and learning to use them efficiently can greatly improve your experience.
Also, know that the weapons CAN hurt you. A prime example is how the Ion Blaster, one of the first weapons you get in the game. It shoots ricocheting projectiles. However, these can hit you as well. So, generally being careful with how you shoot can be important.
Furthermore, be aware that the game does change how many followers are with you per episode. Not only that, but you only have a maximum of two followers at a time. So during certain sections, you may only have one or the other, or even none of them.
Conclusion – Not as Bad as it Seems
Despite the poor reputation surrounding Daikatana, I highly recommend trying it for yourself. There is a lot to enjoy in the game, and as an old school FPS, it can be a welcome change of pace. Especially for those who are tired of games where the experience is largely done solo.
As much as the execution is a bit sloppy, Daikatana is a fun and engaging game if you allow yourself to get into it. Learning the mechanics and quirks of the game helps a lot with this. Because while co-op shooters with RPG elements are common nowadays, back in the late ’90s this was absolutely groundbreaking.
And I would rather remember Daikatana this way than how most people paint it to be. If you look past the hype and the marketing, Daikatana is a highly memorable experience.
I do not, however, recommend seeking out the N64 console port of the game. It was heavily cut down, removed followers entirely from the gameplay and had way worse controls. So if you want a truly bad FPS experience, that’s where you’ll find it.