Daikatana: The Little Game With A Big Sword

As a werewolf who plays video games, I feel it’s important to learn from history.

You rarely find more history crammed into a consumer product than Daikatana, and rarely do you find as much to learn from. This is a story that spans years and involves a bewildering array of subjects from 3D modeling and coding to advertising and architecture. It revolves around an eccentric visionary with an endless imagination and a fierce ambition, and also highlights the problems such people face.

This is a story about a man, a game studio and a Big Sword.

The Man

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Photo by Jason “Textfiles” Scott

To understand Daikatana, one must first understand John Romero.

John Romero was born in Colorado Springs in 1967, and in an interview with RetroGamer, he explains that his first experience with video game creation was at the age of 11, attempting to code a Colossal Cave Adventure clone on a local college’s HP 9000 mainframe. After dropping a bunch of his punch cards in a puddle on the way home, he decided he needed a machine of his own, and thereafter convinced his father to buy him an Apple II. He cites Namco’s 1980 hit Pac-Man as the game that first got him thinking about game design.

For the next few years, Romero experimented with programming games for the Apple II until, in November 1987, he landed a job with Origin Systems – a studio co-founded by Richard “Lord British” Garriott, another of game development’s notable eccentrics – but only stayed a brief time before co-founding a studio named Inside Out Software with a fellow employee. Inside Out didn’t have the finances to keep him on, however, so in 1989 he joined Softdisk, a disk-magazine outlet. It was during his work on Softdisk’s short-lived gaming publication¬†Gamer’s Edge that Romero first met John Carmack.

Carmack grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and just like Romero, had first experienced gaming through titles such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Having had an eventful adolescence (in a discussion on Slashdot, he discusses spending a year in a juvenile home after an evaluation by a psychologist “went very badly”), he subsisted on the income from freelance coding for a while before being employed by Softdisk.

While working on Gamer’s Edge, Carmack experimented with various software techniques in his spare time, and during one such exercise invented a technique for efficiently rendering side-scrolling graphics on PC. Having made this discovery, Carmack and colleague Tom Hall set about replicating the first level of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros 3 using stock graphics from Dangerous Dave, a title Romero had developed a couple of years earlier. Romero attempted to present the product to Nintendo but was rebuffed, the company stating they weren’t interested in porting Super Mario titles to PC.

However, the team were not deterred, and used their experience to develop the side-scrolling platform game Commander Keen, which released in 1990. Upon receiving their first royalty check for the game, Hall, Carmack and Romero decided to found their own video game studio along with co-worker Adrian Carmack (no relation). They named the company id Software, and in 1992 released the revolutionary Wolfenstein 3D, a game that codified the genre of first-person shooter.

Romero was heavily involved in the development of two subsequent games that would define id Software’s early history Doom (1993) and its sequel, Doom II: Hell on Earth (1994), writing many of the tools used in their development as well as having a significant hand in level design. In addition, he served as the executive producer for fellow game studio Raven Software’s games Heretic (1994) and Hexen (1995), which used Doom‘s graphics engine under licence. He is even credited as coming up with the term “deathmatch” to describe Doom‘s free-for-all multiplayer mode.

However, during the 1996 development of Quake, id Software’s first fully 3D game, Romero and Carmack began to have creative disagreements. Romero wanted Quake to incorporate RPG elements and third-person hand-to-hand combat, while Carmack favoured a design more akin to Doom in gameplay. Romero eventually conceded, but the game’s eventual release garnering financial and critical success did not resolve tensions. Quite soon, Romero felt compelled to resign.

The Game Studio

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Undettered, John Romero secured financing from British games publisher Eidos Interactive and tapped old friend and fellow id Software alumnus Tom Hall to co-found game studio Ion Storm in December 1996. The company’s motto, “Design is Law,” spoke of Romero’s ambitious and uncompromising vision, as did its lavish offices in the penthouse suite of the Chase Tower in Dallas. Romero spent $2 million on furnishing and interior decorating, even drafting Russ Berger Design Group, an interior design house known mostly for their work with recording studios, media centres and the occasional megachurch.

Before even having started work on any projects, Romero hired fellow visionary designer Warren Spector to head up a second development team in Austin, offering him the promise of total freedom to produce his dream game free from the threat of executive meddling or creative constraints. Spector immediately got to work assembling a team for his project.

The majority of Ion Storm Dallas’ efforts were dedicated to Romero’s pet project, Daikatana. Initial design was completed in the first quarter of 1997 and, despite the immense amount of proposed content, called for a Christmas 1997 release date. It initially licensed id Software’s Quake engine – which Romero was intimately familiar with, having written parts of it – to produce the game in.

Tom Hall, meanwhile, started work on his own project, Anachronox, which also used the Quake engine. It was pitched as a complex RPG with rich characters and a deep, meaningful story, slated for a late 1998 release.

In August 1997, Romero and Ion Storm set to work on completing Dominion: Storm Over Gift 3, an awkwardly named, half-finished real-time strategy game sold to them by Eidos Interactive after its previous developer, 7th Level, had gone out of business. Along with it came Todd Porter, who had been lead designer on the project at its previous port of call, as well as several other refugees from 7th Level.

The development of Dominion was troubled. Porter’s team confidently predicted the game would take only a couple of months to finish at a cost of $3 million, but ran significantly late and over-budget. Ion Storm CEO Mike Wilson was ousted by Porter in a spat so vicious it eventually made local headlines. The game finally released in June 1998, the same day as Californian real-time strategy powerhouse Blizzard Entertainment released the long-awaited demo for Starcraft, and the comparisons were not favourable. The game was panned critically and sold only 24,000 copies – a far cry from Porter’s confident prediction of 500,000.

Daikatana, meanwhile, had missed its Christmas 1997 release target after a lacklustre showing earlier in the year at Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the largest video game industry show of the era. Christmas 1997 did, however, see the release of id Software’s Quake II, sporting a vastly improved graphics engine. Romero made the choice to migrate Daikatana to this engine, making the optimistic assumption that it wouldn’t take much work. Hall’s Anachronox underwent a similar migration.

Even aside from project delays and executive feuding, all was not well in the Dallas office. The overhead glass windows allowed sunlight in at all hours of the day, forcing employees to cover their cubicles. Someone at Ion Storm had made the bizarre choice to release a poster for Daikatana proclaiming “John Romero’s About To Make You His Bitch – Suck It Down.” Apparently, this was reference to Romero’s infamous smacktalk during multiplayer games, but it did not endear him to either the fans or the press.

1998 passed with no releases other than Dominion. Switching engines had drastically delayed both Daikatana and Anachronox, forcing the development teams to throw out months of work due to major differences between the source code of Quake and Quake II. Romero’s choice to hire his then girlfriend, professional gamer Stevie “Killcreek” Case, had rankled some members of the company sufficiently to prompt their resignations. Little had been heard from the Austin office, other than concept art and some vague mumbling about the Illuminati.

In 1999, another promised release date came and went. A multiplayer-only demo failed to impress fans, and after a disastrous showing at E3, Ion Storm’s financiers at Eidos Interactive stepped in and assumed majority ownership of the company, prompting the departure of Todd Porter. The company was in serious jeopardy.

But on April 21, 2000, Daikatana finally saw release.

The Big Sword

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So that’s the history that leads up to the game. Let’s talk about the game itself.

Stephen Fry, in his poetry-writing guide The Ode Less Travelled, said something I believe is deeply relevant to Daikatana:

It is a deep and important truth that humankind’s knowledge advances further when we look not at success but at failure: disease reveals more than health ever can.

In this context, I believe Daikatana may advance our knowledge very far indeed.

Daikatana is an epic science-fantasy quest spanning 3,600 years of time in four distinct time periods, combining Romero’s solid command of first-person shooter gameplay with more experimental action-RPG elements. It’s sprawling and ambitious. It’s also a clunky, buggy, often indecipherable mess.

Engine

The Quake II engine had been licensed at the end of 1997, about two and a half years before Daikatana‘s release. Towards the end of 1999, id Software had developed and marketed id Tech 3, which – as was typical of the company at the time – made vast strides in various areas of graphical rendering technology. In addition, rival company Epic MegaGames had developed the acclaimed Unreal engine in 1998, which allowed for vastly more complex geometry and lighting than Quake II. Rumour was that the development team in Austin had chosen it over id Software’s offerings for their project.

Ultimately this meant that Daikatana released with three-year-old graphics in a time when astoundingly rapid progress was being made in the field’s software and hardware. Textures were low-resolution and grainy, models were simple with few details, and the lighting and graphical effects couldn’t compete.

Storytelling

The story is in some places thin and insufficiently detailed, and in others rich but preposterous. In Feudal Japan, upon the behest of the Mishima clan, a legendary swordsmith Usagi Miyamoto forged a sword so sharp it could cut holes in time itself: the titular¬†Daikatana. But upon learning of the Mishima’s intent for the sword, Usagi instead gave it to the Ebihara clan, the Mishima’s rivals. Upon the end of the war, it was cast into a volcano at the end of the war, as we must presume is the way with all artifacts of immense and terrible power.

This tale is told to sword fighting tutor Hiro Miyamoto in the dark future of 2455 AD by a crazy old man named Dr. Toshiro Ebihara, who suggests that the future is dark because a descendant of the Mishima clan discovered the sword and used it to change history (rather than, say, global warming or the continued election of idiots to positions of political power). Toshiro requests that Hiro, having nothing better to do with his life, retrieve the sword and rescue his daughter, Mikiko, and then has the good sense to promptly get murdered by ninjas, saving him from further involvement in the plot.

In his adventures into the heart of the Mishima Corporation, Hiro befriends exceptionally stereotypical African-American brawler Superfly Johnson and rescues Mikiko, who in typical 1990s female supporting cast fashion is abrasive and sarcastically unappreciative of Hiro’s efforts. They confront Kage Mishima, the exceptionally generic villain of the story, and then have a duel in which it is revealed that if two different iterations of the Daikatana from different points on the timeline touch, the entire universe will explode.

Mishima then strands the three of them in Ancient Greece, in which all Greek legends are real while actual Greek citizenry of any kind are inexplicably not. An effort to return to the 2400s instead strands them in 6th century Norway, where wizards, zombies and magic are also real. Finally, they reach 2030s San Francisco, where shadowy corporations rule the world, the ocean has risen to claim many parts of the city and the US government has collapsed into militarised fascism.

I mean, what sort of gullible fantasists do they take us for?

This story is told through a series of cutscenes which involve only very basic bodily animation and absolutely static faces, with the quality of the writing varying between middling and atrocious and the voice acting ranging anywhere from surprisingly reasonable to laughably hammy. Compared to other games released the same year such as Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, which brought the TV show’s actors and writers on board, the story’s delivery has an awkward, stilted quality.

Characters seem to blithely accept the concept of a time-travelling sword, demon-summoning magicians and Greek gods without complaint, and loudly proclaim their thoughts to no-one in particular. For a game aiming to have an engaging story, the characters don’t feel remotely real.

Gameplay

The game’s four episodes each play out in one of the time periods, with its own selection of weaponry and enemies and its own level design theme (although, this being the Quake II engine, brown is always much in evidence). This gives the gameplay a quirky and somewhat charming sense of diversity, but it also makes it impossible to get particularly comfortable with any of the weapons aside from the sword – which you don’t get until the closing moments of the first episode in any case.

Weapon design is always unique and interesting, but unfortunately, a lot of the weapon designs had more imagination than sense: a shotgun-revolver that fires six shots in rapid succession, often making aiming impossible. A magic wand that summons angry ball lightning that randomly decides what to attack. A staff that summons a demon that will destroy the nearest living thing instantly – even if that happens to be you. Using these weapons is often a liability, meaning it’s safer to use the more conventional – but less interesting – elements of each episode’s arsenal.

Daikatana provides a very basic skill system, wherein killing enemies will reward experience that eventually allow points to be assigned to various attributes, boosting the player’s speed, damage or health. Using the Daikatana itself to kill enemies doesn’t reward experience to you, but instead to the sword, which slowly becomes more powerful. This system doesn’t really add much to core gameplay other than an extra level of complexity.

The game also introduces two AI sidekicks in the form of Superfly and Mikiko, and these may just be the game’s biggest innovation. They are also unquestionably the worst aspect of the game.

The pathfinding and combat AI of your companions is very basic, to put it politely, meaning they will often get stuck trying to go through doors or navigate environmental hazards. There is a system for giving them orders, but they will usually ignore them. If either of them dies, it’s an instant game over. This splits gameplay between its core shooting element and wrangling your moronic partners. Even the game appears to understand how bad they are, since you spend large stretches of the first, second and third episodes missing one or both sidekicks.

Ultimately, Daikatana brought very little to the genre that was new, and what was new more often hindered enjoyment than helped it.

The Conclusion

Is Daikatana a great game? No.

Is Daikatana a good game? No.

Is Daikatana a fun game? Yes. Most assuredly.

The fun of playing Daikatana is the fun of watching a bad B-movie. It’s the amusement of reading a pretentious novel. It’s the morbid fascination of watching a high-society party crash and burn. I thoroughly enjoy the game, despite its many flaws, not only because it’s a fascinating piece of video game history but because it’s clearly tried, even if it failed. It wanted to be something incredible, and it didn’t quite get there.

It’s a remarkably instructive lesson about game design, mostly due to its mistakes. For example, it highlights the issues that arise when AI companions are vital to game progression but also very stupid. It demonstrates the irritation of unskippable cutscenes and arbitrary limitations on save games. It shows the problems with designing weapons on cool ideas rather than what the tactical requirements of the player are in a given situation.

Eighteen years on, the first-person shooter market is currently saturated with clones of Call of Duty; gritty, “realistic” games set in the modern world’s recent or impending conflicts, with little individuality to distinguish them. Against that backdrop, a game like Daikatana – set in a fantastic universe, spread out over four time periods, revolving around a magic sword – would seem like a breath of fresh air. I’d prefer video games to aspire to new and interesting things even if they fail rather than rehash the themes of commercially successful products. I know the latter makes economic sense, but it doesn’t exactly inspire.

Even as lacklustre as it was, I remember Daikatana, and a lot of gamers of my generation remember it too. People know the name, even if it has negative connotations. It was the passion project of an eccentric man with big ideas, built by a studio whose watchwords were ambition and ego. It warns of how important it is to have realistic expectations as well as lofty goals. John Romero wished for a place where no-one would constrain him, and learnt the danger of getting it. The fallout from Ion Storm and Daikatana basically ended his career as a big-name developer in the video games industry.

Tom Hall’s Anachronox released in 2001, a year after Daikatana, and although it received critical praise, it failed commercially. In July of that year, Romero and Hall left the company, and shortly thereafter Ion Storm Dallas was shuttered by Eidos Interactive.

But that still wasn’t quite the end of Ion Storm’s story. Remember Warren Spector’s second development team in Austin?

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On June 17, 2000, they released Deus Ex, one of the most influential and critically acclaimed video game titles in history. Eighteen years later, it still regularly occupies the #1 spot on the Top 100 games lists of video game publications the world over. Benefiting from the creative freedom of Ion Storm but free from the troubles of the Dallas office, Spector’s team had produced a genre-defining cult classic.¬†Deus Ex was a first-person action-RPG whose gameplay blended action, stealth and social maneuvering and whose story drew from a rich well of contemporary conspiracy theories and paranoia.

In many respects, Deus Ex was remarkably similar to Daikatana. It was the passion project of a man who found himself creatively stifled at previous companies. It set incredibly lofty goals for the era in which it was released. It missed its originally planned completion date more than once. It used a dated graphics engine that was two years out of date at the game’s release. When all was said and done, Deus Ex succeeded in all the ways Daikatana failed, but without John Romero, Ion Storm Dallas and Daikatana, Warren Spector would never have assembled Ion Storm Austin and produced Deus Ex.

In previous eras, artistic works that weren’t successful in some way didn’t usually survive for future generations to see. The fact that Greek or Roman plays endured at all is fairly impressive. The works of Renaissance masters like Da Vinci and Michelangelo have been slavishly well-preserved, but they weren’t the only talented artists of their time. It’s quite probable that there were a lot of ambitious Vaudeville musicians whose works were never committed to vinyl, or if they were, have not survived.

I think now that we have the technology and the storage space to preserve unsuccessful art, we should. I think Daikatana is a game every budding game designer should play as an example of bad design, that every project manager should examine as an example of mishandled management and that every gamer should play as an example of how a wealth of good ideas can’t, on their own, salvage a fundamentally broken game.

Also, in its own strange sort of way, the game is still fun, and at the end of the day, I think that’s what’s most important.

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