John Romero’s about to make you… a remake. At least, the veteran developer’s open to someone else having a modern stab at Daikatana, according to his newly released autobiography Doom Guy: Life In First Person.
“I feel that Daikatana, if remade, could be an exciting game,” Romero says, “more so than the original. Personally, I would consult but not do the remake myself as I’m very busy with other games. I would not remake Daikatana myself, but I support a remake.” (via PCGamesN.)
On the surface that sounds like a creator simply sticking up for one of his more maligned projects, but I played Daikatana in the year of our Lord 2022 and I actually think Romero’s onto something here. Maybe we really are finally ready to appreciate one of the most critically mauled FPS releases in history.
The backstory goes like this: Johns Romero and Carmack invented the first-person shooter with their stratospherically talented id Software team, then they went on a tear of seminal shooters that popularised the genre and pushed all the coolest boundaries. Then Romero split from id to form Ion Storm in 1995 where they hoped to release games with less publisher interference, and set to work on Daikatana.
The expectations couldn’t have been much higher. Imagine Todd Howard leaving Bethesda Game Studios to make a new RPG, except in a bygone era of cultural monomedia where everyone interested in games is reading the same 10 magazines and that new RPG is on the cover of all of them. And then you flip a few pages and find said developer making a faintly sexualised threat in an advertisement for that game.
Did people want it to fail? Maybe. The ad didn’t help, and in fairness Romero’s subsequently been nothing but dignified and apologetic about it. Numerous delays didn’t help its image much either. Originally penned for a 1998 release, by the time it made it to shop shelves in the summer of 2000 it carried the whiff of troubled development.
What really did for Daikatana was that it wasn’t a great game. The marketing might have been perfect. The release date could have been set in stone. But even in 1998 we probably wouldn’t have been rubbing our eyes theatrically at the sight of someone swatting at robot mosquitoes in a modified Quake engine.
The problems have been covered in exhaustive detail over the last 23 years, but succinctly: terrible AI companions who routinely get stuck and force a reload. A hokey cutscene-led storytelling style that ran in stark contrast to id’s (superior) worldbuilding style. An uninspiring initial arsenal of weapons. All the bugs and glitches you could dream of. And most of all: an opening level so misjudged that it actually felt like Daiktana was trolling you. Doom begins with a gun and a room full of monsters to use it on. Quake throws you headlong into an industrial-gothic labyrinth and chucks you a gun. Daikatana, on the other hand, has you flapping impotently at mechanical toads and buzzing insects in a big green bog. You only get one chance to make a first impression.
Half-Life it was not, but neither was Daikatana totally without merit. Not at the time, and certainly not now, in the age of boomer shooters that actively try to recreate the technical limitations and artistic sensibilities of its era. In short: underneath all the damn toads, just past the 70th time Superfly gets stuck on a set of stairs, there’s a fantastic period piece waiting to be excavated and modernised with the right design calls.
I suppose multi-period piece is more accurate. Time travel is Daikatana’s strongest asset by far, and something the Ion Storm Dallas team clearly put a lot of love into. Over the course of four episodes you jump from near-future Kyoto to ancient Greece to mediaeval Norway and back to near-future San Francisco, and each time period has its own distinct and thematically relevant arsenal. Games just don’t do that anymore.
And what people forget about this game is that the quality absolutely leaps up when you reach Greece. The distinctive John Romero levels are back, guiding you along roller coaster rides of mob slaughter. Subverting your expectations, luring you into traps and then repaying your tenacity for surviving them with a big old satisfying arena of chumps to slice in half with a discus.
It also helps that this episode has a lot less sidekick-shepherding in it. Modders have tried to fix Superfly and Mikiko’s behaviour in unofficial patches since release, but even in 2022 working through a level with them in tow feels like doing the Saturday shop in a rammed supermarket with a couple of aggro toddlers. Where’s Mikiko gone? Oh, she’s standing behind that door I opened five minutes ago is she? Back I go then. No, don’t you come back with me Superfly, you’ll only come a cropper on those stairs again. Remember? Oh, you’re coming anyway. Fine.
Remake, don't rewrite
It might not be possible to fix this blight in the original code, but in a fully fledged remake, sidekick AI simply isn’t going to be an issue. We’ve come a long way since 2000. Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite. TLOU’s Ellie. Even Bethesda RPGs can do semi-functional companions now. Getting two armoured grunts around a set of corridors isn’t going to be a technical challenge for a modern studio.
But should a developer actually take this project on with Romero’s consultation, it should be careful about what it preserves.
For me, the once disappointing and outdated visuals became a highlight of my modern-day playthrough. Quake engine’s back in vogue thanks to the likes of Dusk, HROT and Amid Evil. Trying to translate Daikatana into a lush, ray-traced fidelity-fest would be a fool’s errand - this is a corridor shooter, and it’s always going to have more charm and character expressed in retro visuals than in modern rendering.
Nightdive’s recent (absolutely wonderful and cool and great) System Shock remake is a handy reference. It’s running in UE5 and when you first take in a scene in macro view, it looks modern. There’s complex real-time lighting happening, high-poly assets populating Citadel Station’s many nooks and crannies.
But when you get close up to it, you notice that the textures pixelate. There’s a grainy look to it that speaks to the original’s immortal sprites. It’s a really effective bit of art direction that ensures System Shock’s 2023 incarnation feels connected to its source material.
Modern Daikatana absolutely needs that. It isn’t going to work as a triple-A reboot like Arkane’s Prey or Doom 2016. Half the fun is in its anachronisms, in how committed it is to what was cool in late ‘90s culture when it was being developed. (Exhibit A ‘Superfly Johnson’ as a character name.) If the remake doesn’t embrace those and place them front and centre, it’s just another shooter.
Given the appetite for boomshoots right now, this project would actually be a smart business decision. But only as a mid-budget, period-authentic take. Realistically Daikatana is never going to go toe-to-toe with a new Wolfenstein or Atomic Heart. Its appeal is niche - it’s a curiosity from a bygone age with material that too few people got to enjoy because its intro is so laborious. Keep that in mind, and you’ve got a winning remake.
If you can't wait for a remake, why not try out some of the best FPS games to scratch that itch instead?
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Ad creative by day, wandering mystic of 90s gaming folklore by moonlight, freelance contributor Phil started writing about games during the late Byzantine Empire era. Since then he’s picked up bylines for The Guardian, Rolling Stone, IGN, USA Today, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, VG247, Edge, Gazetta Dello Sport, Computerbild, Rock Paper Shotgun, Official PlayStation Magazine, Official Xbox Magaine, CVG, Games Master, TrustedReviews, Green Man Gaming, and a few others but he doesn’t want to bore you with too many. Won a GMA once.