Thursday, January 24, 2013

Daikatana: One of the Best Game Boy Color Games Ever?

Or, “How in the hell did a notoriously awful P.C. shooter get turned into one of the greatest 8-bit action-adventure games of all-time?” 

The long, tragic back story behind “Daikatana” is one of video gaming’s greatest cautionary tales. For those of you unfamiliar with the grade-A train wreck that was Ion Storm’s 2000 first person shooter, here’s the abridged yarn: back in 1997, John Romero, a dude that had become rich as hell off all of that “Doom II” money, decided to build the FPS game to end all FPS games, an insanely ambitious, content-loaded title using an already obsolete engine, with an understaffed crew, in a comically brief amount of time. Originally scheduled for a Christmas 1997 release, the entire game had to be scrapped and rebuilt, once the Ion Storm team realized that everything they had been working on for the last year was utter shit. Spring 1999 rolls around, and the only thing the developers have to show off is a crappy deathmatch demo. By the way, the company promised the game would be on store shelves just a few months before that. In an absolute snafu of biblical proportions, the developers then decided to show off the software at E3 later that year, running at a molasses-slow 12 frames per second. The demonstration was so embarrassingly awful that it led to the founders of Ion Storm getting shit canned and Eidos buying up the company, to make sure the guys calling the shots there wouldn’t set fire to the ashes of what was left of the game. To make matters worse, once the game finally was released - almost three years late - it was promoted via a downright disastrous marketing campaign, in which oblique ads that didn’t even state the NAME of the game were released, stating that “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch.” The reception of the gaming masses, unsurprisingly, wasn’t all that positive.

Alas, I would like to turn your attention towards an entirely different “Daikatana” - and not that shitty Nintendo 64 port, either. Believe it or not, there was a Game Boy Color version of the ill-fated PC game released - albeit, only in PAL countries - and the truly shocking thing here is that not only is it NOT a bad little handheld game, it’s actually one of the most awesome GBC games to never make it stateside. So, how did a notoriously underwhelming, ego-fueled FPS disaster turn into a super-awesome Game Boy Color offering? Well, primarily, by changing the entire genre and format of the source material.

Released the same year as the PC iteration, “Daikatana” on the GBC was published by Kemco, the guys that are probably known best for the “Top Gear” series - and a whole slew of crappy GameCube games, like “Universal Studios Theme Parks Adventure” and “Batman: Dark Tomorrow.” After spending the better part of a month playing through it, I’ve pretty much determined that it’s one of the best 8-bit action-adventure games I’ve ever played - a game that’s probably even on par with such GBC titans as “Metal Gear Solid” and the two Capcom “Zelda” games. It’s a lofty claim, and one that sounds bat-kaka insane on the surface, but trust me; once you play through this one, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with my assertions.

Granted, it’s a pretty hard game to track down, but as a bonus, since the Game Boy Color is region-free, if you do so happen to encounter a copy, your North American GBC should have no problems converting all of that Euro-only fun into 8-bit ecstasy. And yeah, you can ROM this one, but the purist I am, I STRONGLY suggest you try to play this one the way the gaming gods originally intended.

So, why is this hyper-obscure title worth going out of your way to experience? Well, I’ve come up with four distinct, concise reasons as to why the Game Boy Color version of "Daikatana" is something every retro gaming fan worth his “Sonic the Hedgehog” cartridges should play, at least once…

Reason Number One:
It’s Pretty Much Everything You Love About Old School, 8-Bit Gaming Crammed into One Cartridge

A subtle allusion to the discography of Otis Redding?

The GBC iteration of “Daikatana” immediately, and obviously, reminds me of two 8-bit classics: “The Legend of Zelda” and “Metal Gear.” In fact, the game is pretty much a perfect synthesis of the two titles, creating one of the most finely tuned, exploration-based action-adventure games in the history of handhelds. That said, the game also amps up the experience by including some “StarTropics”-like platforming, “Crystalis”-like roaming and even an emphasis on story and character development, which easily puts it on par, as far as narratives go, with the absolute best Square and Enix were squeezing out on the NES. Similarly, you’ll find the occasional touch of “Metroid” and “Blaster Master” in there, too, in turn, making this essentially what happens when you take every single action-adventure title found on the Nintendo Entertainment System and puree them into a single experience. For serious old-schoolers, this is a game you simply HAVE to experience, and for all of you young Turks that weren’t born until after the PlayStation came out, this is a fantastic introduction to the gloriousness of 8-bit adventuring.

Reason Number Two
The Atmosphere is Just Awesome

Fun fact: the game actually began life as a VERY loose adaptation of "Onibaba." 

“Daikatana” shows us just how much life 8-bit gaming had in it, even as recently as the year 2000. The visuals are crisp and detailed, and the music is just downright tremendous. A lot of times, we tend to discount just how much influence sound design has on a game’s overall feel, and the audio-philes at Kemco went out of their way to bring the aural awesome in this title. From the ambient, droning hum that picks up while you’re navigating dungeons to that awesome, Optimus Prime-meets-Knight Rider chime that tunes up when you solve a puzzle, there’s just so much to love about the game - and that’s not even taking into account the game’s exquisite chip-tune score, which sounds sort of like an 8-bit mash-up of Danny Elfman’s “Batman” soundtrack as performed by The Prodigy. I don’t want to say that the aesthetics of the game are minimalist, but the game is also refreshing devoid of clutter. Everything in the game is detailed, but none of the sprites are too elaborate; it’s just a smooth looking game, sans any gimmicks that would slow down the game play. In other words? It’s NES-era gaming, the way it ought to be.

Reason Number Three
The Dungeons!

What the? An adventure game, with dungeons that aren't populated with red stalactites and killer bats?

The dungeons in “Daikatana” are among the best I’ve ever visited in an 8-bit world, and that’s including heavy hitters like the first “Zelda” and the afore-mentioned (and stupidly underappreciated) “Crystalis” and “StarTropics.” For one thing, there’s actually a pretty fair amount of variation among the dungeons, so you’re not just trekking through purple and blue caves over and over again. Throughout the game, you’ll explore futuristic barracks, a feudal Japanese dojo, a HUGE monastery and an ocean-side cavern (well, I guess you have to have at least ONE spelunking level in an 8-bit game). Not only are the dungeons surprisingly large, the challenges therein are pretty damn intense, with some of the most brain-bending puzzles and thumb-numbing boss fights you’ll encounter in a GBC title. A lot of times, level design can make or break a title, and in the case of “Daikatana,” we’re dealing with some of the best laid-out dungeons in the annals of portable gaming.

Reason Number Four:
The Story is Surprisingly Enjoyable and Nuanced 

Racial profiling, Game Boy-style. (Note the gigantic prescription pills and naked dude just casually chatting it up with you.)

OK, so maybe expecting a Tolstoy-esque narrative in a handheld game from 13 years ago is a little dumb, but I have to say I was really surprised by the (relative) quality of the narrative in “Daikatana.” Yeah, it starts off pretty generic - some dude named Kage has unleashed a killer virus, and only you and your time hopping buddies can prevent it from destroying humanity - but the presentation here totally transforms it into something exceptional. For one, I LOVED how the story was so seamlessly woven within the gameplay itself, with several triggered flashbacks - displayed in a black-and-white tone, which was a really nice touch, in my humblest of opinions - actually tying into what you were doing in the level. Furthermore, there actually IS a fair amount of character development among the three avatars you take turns controlling, and each of the three have their own, somewhat fleshed out personalities. Yeah, maybe it is a little blunt to have a main protagonist literally named “Hiro,” but like I’ll ever complain about commanding a virtual ass-kicker named “Superfly.” The time-hopping hook is also pretty cool, as it whisks you away to a whole bunch of diverse gaming landscapes. It’s not too often that you can visit feudal Japan, ancient Greece, a futuristic San Francisco and (for some peculiar reason) Norway in one game, but that’s PRECISELY the kind of globe-hopping that awaits you in “Daikatana.” And without giving away too much, let’s just say there are plenty of great twists and turns as the story unfolds, including several out-of-the-blue boss fights and a twist-ending that TOTALLY blindsided me. And I will leave the spoils of the final boss fight up to you to find out, dear reader…

And also: it has some of the coolest-looking rugs in video game history.

I really can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t at least make an effort to hunt this one down. Granted, it may not be worth a trip to a PAL country to find, but if you’re ever just hanging out in Wolverhampton, it may be worth your time to scour the Mom and Pop’s, you know, just in case. A game like “Daikatana” is really the kind of title that old school purists like me are absolutely enchanted by: a no-frills, straight-up, hyper-fun game that seemingly NO ONE is aware of. It’s “Zelda” meets “Metal Gear,” with shades of Kurosawa and “Logan’s Run” thrown in there, just because; in short, it’s pretty freaking amazing, and you need to experience such awesomeness with your own two thumbs and eyes, folks.


  1. I'm agree with you in this.

    I didn't play Daikatana when it came out and first version of the game I played was this because John Romero shared the ROM file in his website. All the things I've heard about Daikatana did not apply to Gameboy version. (Ofcourse later my friend showed me Daikatana on his N64 and that version really sucked).

    I think it is a shame that Game Boy version only got limited release because maybe it would have got much more attention that it deserves. Now it is only forgotten classic. :(

    1. Check out this metal medley I made of music from the game:


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