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20 years after its release, it's time to play Daikatana

Romero's folly deserves a second look.

John Romero and Ion Storm's FPS Daikatana was released 20 years ago and it's regarded as one of the biggest failures in video game history. Nowadays, we remember its infamous advertisement warning us that "John Romero's about to make you his bitch," its delays and its poor reviews. Maybe we also remember the controversies surrounding Ion Storm itself.

We remember its myth, but we don't remember Daikatana. While Ion Storm expected to sell more than 2 million copies, Daikatana is a game few people actually played. For its 20th anniversary, it's time to see what Daikatana has to offer now, beyond legends and prejudices.

In Daikatana three characters travel through time thanks to (and because of) the powers of a magic sword, and they fight to stop an evil corporation. The game features 24 levels split into four episodes set in different ages: a cyberpunk Tokyo, a mythical Ancient Greece inspired by Ray Harryhausen's movies, a zombie-plagued Medieval Europe and San Francisco in 2030. Each era surprises players with its own environments, soundtrack, enemies and weapons, and almost every weapon (there are 25 in total) tries to do something different with an ingenuity more common at the time but usually lost nowadays. Not everything is equally brilliant, but from ricocheting energy orbs to a demon-summoning staff, from melee silver claws designed to kill Medieval werewolves to sci-fi freezing guns, there's a lot of variety and distinctiveness that's carried over to its multiplayer. It's a massive experience that sometimes feels like four different games collected together.

Playing Daikatana now means rediscovering a forgotten relic from an experimental and transitional period at the end of the previous millennium. Visually, it's reminiscent of 90s American comics books influenced by Japanese manga. Like 90s FPSs, it mixes enemies with hit-scan immediate attacks and enemies that shoot dodgeable projectiles. It's frantic, especially in its multiplayer modes, and it's filled with secrets that ask you to understand its levels as interconnected spaces. But it also has cutscenes, missions and objectives, and its level design is less abstract (and so less gameplay-driven) than Doom's and Quake's. Moreover, it tried to innovate its genre adding RPG elements and, above all, the sidekicks, two AI companions who follow the player during part of their adventure and fight by their side.

Sidekicks were one of Daikatana's most advertised features and became the most criticised element of the game, because they often get stuck in the environment and they desperately throw themselves to their death. Since their defeat means an instant game over (and till its 1.1 patch Daikatana had limited saves), players mostly had to carefully babysit them and drag them alive to the end of each level. As Romero explained, sidekicks were designed to be a burden, and while the execution was tragically flawed and buggy, the concept was (and still is) brave: creating buddies who were not mere gameplay tools but digital people with their needs. Sidekicks need medikits, armors, weapons and ammunition and they were coded to act, run, crawl, climb and jump as a human player would do: a fake life we must live together with.

But the technology was not there yet.

Daikatana was the most tangible sign of the difference between the technology-driven id Software and the design-focused Ion Storm, and while its idealistic vision ("Design is Law" was Ion Storm's credo) gave life to Deus Ex, it didn't properly work with Daikatana, which looks like a child who has overgrown their clothes, the Quake 2 engine.

"Back in 2000 [Daikatana] was pushing the limits of [what] the Quake 2 engine was capable of and the knowledge of the programmers" tells us Daikatana modder Frank Sapone via email. Sapone played Daikatana at launch and he "liked it a lot," so years later he started modding it to solve a few known bugs and crashes. "Once those things were resolved I became eager to fix as many bugs as I can to make it more enjoyable to a wider audience" he says, and so he went on working at a massive homebrew patch with other modders. The 1.3 patch makes Daikatana run on Mac and Linux, it makes sidekicks invincible on easy difficulty, increases their health, improves their AI and allows us to disable them entirely, plus it adds support for widescreen resolutions and improves online multiplayer.

Thanks to these modders, Daikatana is a totally playable game now. But, admittedly, the first impact is still awful. The opening cutscene is boring, unintentionally ludicrous and it lasts for ten minutes. It's followed by the worst episode of the game, and I fear that many players got discouraged and never completed those early areas filled with unavoidable damage and tiny greenish enemies that you can't distinguish in the green and brown environments. It's hard and there's a lot of frustrating trial and error. So, just use a cheat code and skip to the second episode: it's probably the best part of Daikatana and it brings us to a totally imagined and unhistorical Ancient Athens with big levels, backtracking and throwing disks that bounce off walls before flying back to us Xena-style.

"The multiplayer [...] is probably even more underrated" tells us u/dama__, moderator for the Daikatana subreddit. "It's not as balanced as Quake 3 because of the many gimmicky weapons from the single player. [...] It's also harder to make a comeback compared to other arena FPSs because you gain experience points when you frag someone, leaving the other player(s) at a disadvantage. However it's very fun. The movement is kind of like Quake 3 with more air control, and when you upgrade your speed you can really zoom around the maps."

Daikatana was a failed experiment, but with its new patch you can actually enjoy what remains of its ambitious vision and, though it's not an underrated gem or something like that, it has a lot to offer. You can buy it on Steam and GOG and you can find its 1.3 patch here (at the moment, I suggest you to use the more stable 32 bit version). If you want to play its multiplayer, you can either look for opponents in its dedicated Steam community or grab a couple of friends and try the campaign in coop mode.