Game Boy Demakes: Daikatana
Across its long and successful reign over portable gaming, companies always found serious value in porting their console games and franchises to the Game Boy brand. But because of the platform’s relative technological primitiveness, these handheld ports often had to undergo serious downgrades and workarounds to maintain playability on the reduced hardware. For instance, in Super Mario Bros. DX, the low resolution of the Game Boy Color screen meant that the camera is much more zoomed in on Mario and less of the level is immediately visible. To combat this problem, Nintendo allowed for a limited ability to actually scroll backwards in the game, which was not possible in the original. Others contended with the limited memory of Game Boy cartridges, such as with the Megaman ports which saw a reduced robot master count.
Things started to get even trickier in the mid- to late-90s when console gaming became largely polygonal. Suddenly, downports had to become a great deal more imaginative in how they translated new 3D games into enjoyable experiences for the stalwartly 2D and 8-bit Game Boy and Game Boy Color machines. I’ve always had an interest in these Game Boy “demakes” of popular series. It’s an interesting display of game design skills when you see how developers handle converting their near inextricably 3D games into 2D throwbacks. Some succeeded quite well at this test, and others failed abysmally. Here, I’m going to kick off a short series of posts I have planned for these Game Boy demakes, where I discuss which ones aced it and which ones fell flat.
I think it is fitting to start the series off with a portable translation that actually managed to outdo its originator. The original Daikatana is a notorious PC FPS from the lavishly acquainted Ion Storm, which was helmed by John Romero, one of the principal designers of the legendary Doom. The product of a long and tortuous development cycle, which received a great deal of attention because of Romero’s fame, Daikatana is unfortunately known for being something of a mess in terms of game design. After a notoriously aggressive (and some would consider offensive) marketing campaign, Daikatana became a punchline for bad video game jokes. The game focuses on protagonist Hiro Miyamoto, whose ancestors forged the mythical Daikatana, a lost blade which can sever the fabric of time itself. In the dystopian future Hiro finds himself living, the world is ruled by the despotic Kage Mishima, who had successfully unearthed the long missing Daikatana and used its powers of time travel to alter the course of history to result in his ascension to global domination. In a failed attempt to wrest the sword from Mishima, Hiro is cast into the past and sets out to return to the future with companions Mikiko Ebihara and Superfly Johnson. The game sees the characters off through time periods such as Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, and the modern day.
The AI partners Mikiko and Superfly are an important part of the original game, as they are almost always with you and are a constant source of ire. They have notoriously incompetent path finding, often either getting stuck in the level or just stubbornly getting in your way. The game has plenty of issues beyond inept partners as well. All in all, the level design is notoriously sloppy and confusing, and later sections have absurdly finicky platforming sections that make Xen feel like a stage in Super Mario World. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone defend this game, which says something. Usually a bad game will have at least a few champions out there, but I’ve never heard a word in favor of Daikatana.
But enough about the awful PC game, this is about the Game Boy Color port, which is actually quite stellar! Released in 2000 shortly after the PC version, Daikatana on Game Boy Color sees the FPS converted into a top-down action adventure game. The story is essentially the same, with Hiro being joined by Superfly and Mikiko on an adventure across time to regain control of the Daikatana. However, instead of hopeless AI partners, Hiro’s companions mostly travel with him unseen, kind of like how in Final Fantasy the party is represented by just the main protagonist outside of battle. Occasionally, you will switch control from Hiro to one of the companions, but functionally all the characters are almost the same. This immediately turns your traveling buddies into bros, as opposed to frustrating deadweight.
The gameplay bears a fair resemblance to Zelda, or at least it would if Zelda had guns. Combat is noticeably somewhat loose. Sometimes the game will have enemies firing at Hiro while he is confined in a tight area, leaving no way to dodge incoming fire. This is probably most pronounced in the first area of the game though, and afterwards combat becomes much more likeable. There are no Zelda-style dungeons per say, but puzzle solving and exploration permeates most of the levels, as well as platforming which is, at worst, unobjectionable.
The GBC version has levels that, in terms of length, are far more concise than the PC counterpart. That is not to say they are too short, however. They are long enough to be memorable, while still maintaining the on-the-go nature a portable game needs. This contrasts well with the monotony that sets in during so much of the sloggish PC version.
Everything in this game just seems to work so much more smoothly than its PC counterpart. The time-traveling adventure of these characters becomes so much more interesting and memorable when it’s actually attached to a game that is worthwhile to play. Granted they may as well be completely different games since their only similarity is in plot. I would hope someday it would see a release on 3DS Virtual Console, but the rights are likely controlled by Square Enix (via Eidos), and they have yet to release their more prominent Game Boy games, meaning the lesser known Daikatana has next to no chance. Nonetheless, I highly recommend Daikatana to those with an interest in the GBC library.