20 years ago, John Romero’s Daikatana launched on PC and was immediately slammed by critics and players alike. The Guardian even lists it as one of “the 30 worst video games of all time.” But the controversies surrounding its release and its developer, Ion Storm, claimed an innocent victim: the forgotten Game Boy Color version, a top-down Zelda-like action RPG.
After the release of its seminal FPSs Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake, id Software co-founder John Romero was kicked out of his own studio (but he was already planning to leave) and created Ion Storm with his old friend and Commander Keen designer Tom Hall. There, he began the development of what was advertised as the best FPS ever, Daikatana, writing a 400-page design document. The hype was real, but things turned bad pretty quickly. The game was delayed, dated technology and inexperienced devs and artists weren’t able to meet Romero’s expectations, and Ion Storm’s publisher Eidos invested 26 million dollars in a company that launched three commercial failures (Daikatana, Dominion: Storm over Gift 3 and Anachronox.)
But the PC was not the only platform Daikatana was released on: Kemco published a port for Nintendo 64 (Romero says that this game is “abysmal”) and a surprisingly okay Game Boy Color version developed by Japanese studio Will.
While the Game Boy Advance received some FPS titles, the Game Boy and Game Boy Color were not powerful enough for the genre. As far as I know, there’s only one FPS in the Game Boy’s catalogue: Faceball 2000 (1991), the first handheld FPS and one of the first FPS games in general. As a result of the much lower processing power of handhelds at the time, portable ports were often stripped-down versions of their console counterparts. More rarely, they were entirely different titles.
Romero writes that “the Game Boy Color version of Daikatana was designed to be like Zelda on the NES,” and its visuals recall old NES games, indeed. But it’s not exactly a Zelda clone: unlike many top-down action RPGs, Daikatana GBC focuses on ranged weapons, features quite a lot of platforming sections (there’s a dedicated jump button) and has mostly linear levels. You can usually backtrack inside a single stage, and a couple of areas can be solved in multiple orders and reward a bit of exploration, but the game has no overworld and is mostly based on puzzle solving and a “find the key to open the door” loop. Unlike Zelda, you don’t gain items that allow you to traverse old areas in new ways; there’s a hammer that can break rocks, but you get it almost at the beginning of the section where you need it.
The GBC port includes Daikatana’s entire plot: you start in a cyberpunk Tokyo, where you retrieve the eponymous Daikatana magic sword and your two sidekicks, and then travel through time and visit Ancient Greece, European Middle Ages and 2030 San Francisco. Your goal is to stop Kage Mishima, who used the Daikatana to change the course of time and become an evil tyrant. Each age has its environments, enemies, mid-bosses, bosses and weapons, but the game’s scope is very small.
The game can be completed in less than two hours when you know what to do, and it’s not very replayable because it lacks the secrets you’d expect to find in a game by Romero. Moreover, while AI-controlled and independent sidekicks were a main and highly anticipated feature of the PC version, in the GBC edition the whole party is represented by only one character at a time. You are obliged to play as one of the two sidekicks in specific sections, but you can’t freely switch between them, they don’t have special skills and the only difference is that the two secondary characters can’t use some of the weapons. RPG elements are limited, too: while in the PC version there are stats and experience points (and even the Daikatana sword can level up), in the GBC edition you increase your maximum health when you beat a boss, and that’s all.
Still, it’s a fun ride. It works a lot better than its retail PC version, and not just because it’s more competently made and less ambitious than Romero’s unrealistic vision. It works better because these Japanese ARPG mechanics resonate with Daikatana’s Japanese influences and tone. The title of the game is Japanese (it means “big sword”), the main character’s name (Hiro Miyamoto) is a homage to Shigeru Miyamoto, and Japanese manga and anime culture along with JRPGs shaped the title’s development.
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Life is Strange, Daikatana is Stranger
Nowadays, Christian Divine is known as the writer and co-director of the Life is Strange series, but he started his career in the video game industry as the writer of Daikatana’s original story. As he wrote, Daikatana was meant to be “emotionally immersive,” with the “epic quality of the Final Fantasy games, that unique brand of anime science fantasy romanticism.” Daikatana’s time-bending journey was based on what Romero declared his favourite video game at the time, Square’s Chrono Trigger, and the Daikatana sword was inspired by The Legend of Zelda’s Master Sword. After playing Daikatana’s PC and GBC versions, I had an epiphany: Daikatana would be a perfect Final Fantasy clone, a JRPG with turn-based battles and pre-rendered backgrounds.
Built within the limits of Nintendo’s handheld console, Daikatana for the GBC is stripped down to its essence, and what’s left is a dungeon crawler. Maybe that’s the true essence of the whole FPS genre. As recounted in David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, Doom’s, Quake’s and Daikatana’s worlds have their roots in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. And when Fountainhead Entertainment and id Software adapted Wolfenstein 3D and Doom to mobile, they created turn-based dungeon crawlers.
Daikatana on the GBC was initially released only in Europe. Its US launch was canned because of the poor reception of the PC version, and the game was distributed in Japan as a downloadable content for the Nintendo Power cartridge in 2001. Years ago, Romero published the ROM of this unreleased American version on his own website, but it has since disappeared. Daikatana GBC was neither perfect or groundbreaking, but as we find ourselves at the infamous game’s 20th anniversary, an official re-release would be the perfect way to mark the occasion.