Sunday, 27 May 2012

'Daikatana 64'

It’s not hard to understand exactly what drew me towards Daikatana’s garish box twelve years ago. The concept of an epic adventure spanning four different time periods, fighting against both mythological and futuristic enemies with an array of weaponry to match, including the promise of swordplay (!) really hovered my dropship.

Ah, but if I’d had any idea what I was getting myself into, then I would have no doubt done the safe thing and picked up Banjo Kazooie instead. Christ, Clayfighter would have been better.

‘Cos Daikatana has a history, as I’m sure you know. Developed by Ion Storm and ex-ID Software employee John Romero (the one with the hair), Daikatana was originally conceived in the mid-late 90s as this ambitious, epic experience unlike anything gamers had seen before.

Then the delays set in… over… and over… and over again. The whole time, Romero was hyping Daikatana up to a level that really never had been experienced before.

 Oh, he went there.

The game was finally released in 2000 for the PC. And yeah, it was pretty bad. Graphically dated, major design flaws, nightmare-inducing AI – you name it, it probably had it. Or so they tell me…

Because that was the original PC version. What I (well, my sister) picked off the shelf in Toys ‘R’ Us all those years ago was something far, far worse. Pure evil encased within rectangular cardboard.

The Nintendo 64 port.

“Port” tends to be a dirty word amongst gamers. “N64 Port” is downright obscene. Mention it and Sean Connery would bitch shlap you for blashphemy. They tended to resemble hollowed-out husks. Even in the best of cases, you could expect notable concessions. Taking Quake as one (surprisingly good) example: music was missing, corpses now faded into the ether and whole levels were omitted. But at least the basic experience remained the same.

As for, Daikatana 64, the only secure holdover from its PC genesis was the story.

So what’s the plot? Right, bear with me… The year is 2455: an evil dictator called Kage Mishima holds the only cure to a world-wide plague that’s wiped out millions. As it turns out, Mishima engineered this whole mess by using a mystical sword – the titular Daikatana – to travel back in time and change the course of history. You play Hiro Miyamoto, a martial arts instructor who happens to be a direct descendant of the Daikatana’s creator. It’s up to Hiro and his allies: ex-Mishima employee Superfly Johnson and femme fatale Mikiko Ebihara, to recover the Daikatana and set history straight.

Just finding the sword turns out to be the easy part, however. This is where things get screwy. As a result of altering the time streams to further his own nefarious gains, Mishima has a second Daikatana. Using it, he casts you back in time. Way back, in fact, to Ancient Greece. Undeterred, you fight through waves of mythological beasts, including the Gorgon Medusa herself, before finding a way to power your own Daikatana and head back to the future. But Mishima blocks you again, and banishes you to a bubonic plague-era European setting. Of course, he’s managed to send you to the one place where the Daikatana might have a chance of being re-energised AGAIN, and it’s not long until you reach the final episode: a generic near-future locale where Mishima himself awaits.        

I reckon Romero was hit with some kind of epiphany following an all-night fantasy flick bender. No doubt Highlander, Masters of the Universe and Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time were featured. Surely, it’s the only logical explanation for such a convoluted masterpiece.

The plot may have been carried over in a mostly intact state, but the same could not be said for Daikatana’s aesthetic elements. N64 games aren’t exactly remembered for their highly detailed visuals, but god damn this one’s ugly. I could forgive the bland, lifeless environment of smudged textures and severe fogging, but the Frankenstein monster character models just kill it for me. And judging by their faces, it’s like everyone has a severe case of scurvy.

Audibly, the game is a bore. The two future chapters share a guitar and synth retro vibe, while the historic missions attempt to ramp up the atmosphere with generic faux-orchestral tracks. On the off-chance that you actually love these pieces, then don’t worry, you’ll be hearing them a lot. The same episode-specific music is on a continuous loop, and since there’s at least four levels to each episode, your sanity will be tested. Even today I still find myself subconsciously humming the Greek theme. I think Wolfenstein 3D had more music than this!   

More obvious cutbacks could be seen elsewhere. Superfly and Mikiko were originally intended to assist you throughout the game, a la the PC version, but here they only show up during cutscenes to help deliver exposition (mostly riddled with grammatical errors). Being lumbered with a hand-me-down edition is never fun, but when you consider how reviled the AI teammates were in Daikatana’s original incarnation, then hey, maybe I dodged a bullet.             

No doubt what intrigued me the most about Daikatana was its wide variety of enemy types; and at the very least, it did deliver in the numbers department. The initial futuristic levels start off simple enough, with Mishima’s goon squad consisting of generic foot soldiers and chain gun-toting assault droids. But before you know it, you’re fighting off waves of large spiders, reanimated skeletons, centurion guards, satyrs, griffons and harpies in ancient Greece. Then the medieval mission throws a load of zombies, knights, werewolves and wizards at you for good measure. Your final trip to the future takes another turn for the mundane, but there’s still room for a few jetpack troopers and giant gorilla cyborgs… yeah.

Yet by some impressive design feat, not a single one presents any kind of challenge. They all follow the same basic attack pattern: slowly walk/crawl/fly towards you in a straight line and hope for the best. And except for the bulkier foes, most require no more than a couple of shots from the period-relevant weapon to bring down. Only a boss fight against a lighting-zapping wizard proves troublesome, and that’s because of the insta-death electricity pit you can fall into. I had figured a battle with Medusa would prove nightmarish, but Ion Storm replaced “turned to stone” with “gently nicked by laser eyes”. Being used to a punishing history of brutal Nintendo platformers, this was by far the easiest game my nine-year-old self had encountered at that point.

About that weaponry: there’s also a lot of it. Laser blasters, funky grenade launchers, gattling guns, something that creates Death Star explosions, Poseidon’s trident, a homing discuss, a hammer, crossbows, clawed gloves, magic staffs, and finally… pistols and shotguns. Wow, that last episode sucked.

Despite the variety, there isn’t much to set them apart. Most, including the lowly ion blaster, deliver near-instant death to your foes. I mentioned a hammer. It may not sound like much, but the shockwaves it sends out rival anything found in a Goron fire temple. It can even knock flying enemies right outta the sky! Plus it’s unlimited. Once it’s picked up, you rarely need to let go.

From what I’ve seen, the PC version was a violent affair complete with full-body gibbing. No such luck here. Daikatna 64 is a bloodless experience – enemies produce a brief spark effect when damaged. What’s worse, I played a version that had been censored for PAL territories (this was back when distributors viewed all non-US gamers as pansies). It wasn’t a fatal blow, though. The NTSC cartridges did indeed feature blood, but it was purple… like mood slime.      

There was also a tacked-on RPG element (because EVERY game benefits from one of those). As Hiro progresses, his stamina, agility, strength etc. slowly increases. To this day, I have no idea if these improvements really made any kind of difference. And even if they did, the changes would have been microscopic and ultimately pointless, given how much of a cakewalk Daikatana constantly proves itself to be.

Well, except for one abhorrent sequence half way through that I’m sure would leave most gamers utterly baffled. While exploring a plague-infected village, you happen upon a monk in the local church. He delivers the usual “We’re all doomed, save our king, defeat the necromancer.” info dump, and then lets you know about an important key hidden somewhere in this very church. But the dufus can’t quite remember where it is.

So you go bouncing around the church, checking every nook and cranny for any sign of a secret passage, just like a true 90s gamer… in 2000. You’ll soon notice the golden musical chimes dangling near the altar and, sure enough, a set of interactive music bars appear on-screen.

But what the hell do you play? You experiment with various notes for a bit before going back to check all those walls again for something you missed first time round. After all, there’s bound to be a set of notes scribbled somewhere, a la Ocarina of Time. Ah, there’s nothing. Right. Help?

Surprisingly, this isn’t where kids with convenient internet access (!!) would consult Game FAQs in a last desperate bid for advice. No, because by now you should have heard the noise. Upon further investigation, it transpires that monk from earlier is whistling to himself. Hit with a sudden brainwave, you pay close attention to his angelic tones…


Oh-ho no. Funnily enough, that’s the exact same noise I imagine an octopus makes when you step on one. In other words, he’s no help at all. Sure, now you sorta know how to work the chimes, but those garbles might as well be white noise. Cue a significant number of players ejecting their Daikatana cartridges for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, I got off easy. No doubt expecting an inevitable influx of returned games, the fine folk at Toys ‘r’ Us included a free strategy guide with each purchase. Without that tatty record of mediocrity (which I may or may not keep under my pillow), I’d have been lost.

I can only imagine the suffering others endured… 

Those of us lucky enough to proceed onwards committed wizard genocide and restored the mad king’s sanity by collecting the pieces of his broken sword (duhyeahIdunno), before being teleported through time to the final episode. I’ve already expressed my dislike for this climactic chapter (it’s primarily comprised of a prison and dull grey corridors), but at least the end is nigh… and the final confrontation between Hiro and Mishima draws close.

Funny thing, despite Daikatana being the title, and while it’s the central focus of the entire plot, and even though Hiro (A MASTER SWORDSMAN) carries it through three quarters of the game… you never get to use it. Until now. Everything’s been building up to this decisive clash of blades. Mishima’s taunted you at every turn, he’s set you back again and again, he’s got a really stupid beard… and he’s gotta pay.

Still don’t know why I got my hopes up. This was always going to be dreadful. After all the crap I had to wade through… Mishima still walks slowly towards me and a battle ensues with all the finesse of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. There’s absolutely no grace to using the Daikatana. Just backpedal while mashing Z as fast as you can and hope he falls down first. Although, thinking about it, this is probably how a duel between a middle-aged man and a sword master who looks like the Asian lovechild of Tommy Lee Jones and Treat Williams would have gone.

 Or maybe he's the bad guy from 'Kindergarten Cop'.

And that’s not even the end of it. Mishima hits the deck (complete with “Gut Wrench” scream), after which there’s a dumb twist and a final, FINAL boss (who turns out to be even easier) before the end credits mercifully kick in.   

The saddest part is I have quite fond memories of Daikatana. No Goldeneye, but enjoyable enough in its own messy way. Admittedly, I was at the time usually very easy to please (I remember thinking Wild Wild West was a good film), but Daikatana was in all fairness a playable mess. If nothing else, Ion Storm got the controls right. Weapon selection was fiddly and figuring out how to crouch took me ages, yeah, but you can blame that on my lack of respect for the instruction booklet.

Still, when looking at the complete picture, with its hideous (even for the time) visuals, the grinding music, the army of inept enemies, the collection of largely redundant weaponry, and that one game-breaking puzzle... they all add up to one hell of an unpleasant end result.

All of which makes me curious to see how the Game Boy Colour version turned out.  

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Blu-ray Review: Demons 1 & 2 Limited Edition Steelbook

After a long wait, Demons claws its way onto Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video.

The Films

Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento’s Demons might best be described as The Evil Dead on crack. They share the same basic premise – people transformed into bloodthirsty monsters via an ancient evil – but Italy’s finest dial it up to eleven.

After accepting free tickets to a film screening from a guy whose face is infused with metal (warning sign, much?), the most colourful audience of all time (teenagers, one bickering couple, a blind man, prostitutes, their pimp) find themselves trapped in a mysterious cinema that happens to be ground zero in Hell’s invasion of Earth.

Or something like that. Revelling in ultra-violence, Demons quickly becomes a brutal onslaught of gruesome practical effects. It all kicks off with a transformation that sees jagged fangs and sharp talons painfully force themselves out in graphic close-up; and from then on it’s a virtually never ending blur of slashed up faces, torn out throats and scalped, err, scalps. Whenever you think it can’t get any crazier, it does.        

Demons 2 offers up more of the same, with the action transported to a high-rise apartment building. While not quite as wonderfully chaotic as its prequel, Demons 2 still includes some memorable sequences packed with visual flair, the inclusion of one pregnant wife, and an extra dose of hand puppet madness. An overall toning down is clear, though, given the reduction in gore. Elsewhere, one or two subplots that lead absolutely nowhere lend the plot an even patchier feel than you’d expect.

But what really struck me about Demons 2 was its cramped skyscraper action, including one amusing face-off between man and demon in an elevator shaft. And this predates Die Hard by a whole two years, so... nah, it’s probably nothing.       

Together, these oft-considered legends of the VHS era represent the anarchic peak of horror during the 1980s. Anyone going in expecting something truly coherent will come away disappointed. Neither film makes a lick of sense half the time, but that comes with the territory, as true to 80s Italian horror form, their plots play second fiddle to the bombardment of gory visuals.

Therapeutic stuff.

The Discs

It’s become somewhat obligatory to begin an Arrow Video review by mentioning that, yes, they haven’t had the greatest track record in Blu-ray history. Most of their Dario Argento releases were given a middling reception. DNR here, rampant machine noise there, and in one infamous case, the wrong aspect ratio. Then there was that cock-up with The Beyond...

But guys, come on. What about Vamp? Or Maniac Cop? The Exterminator? The Funhouse? Red Scorpion? Dawn of the Dead? All winners in my book, and that’s even without taking the generous application of extra features and superb packaging into account. Arrow’s DVD releases, aside from a couple of NTSC-to-PAL issues, are almost always of exceptional quality too.

So Demons and Demons 2, then. Announced back in 2010, and beset by delays ever since, a lot’s been riding on these bad boys. But now they’re finally here! The results are in! Exclamatory!

What’s the first thing you’re gonna look for in an Italian horror movie’s Blu-ray transfer? That ghastly machine noise, of course! The stuff’s been playing havoc with Arrow and Blue Underground’s output for what feels like forever. It is to these cult favourite studious what the Alien is to Sigourney Weaver... or something. Bad metaphor.

Anyway, there I am, starting up Demons and preparing myself for a digital hail storm. But as the opening train scene gets underway... nothing. Perplexed, I stick my face up against the screen. Nope. No machine noise here. But what’s this? My... could it be... film grain? It is! And, get this, it’s only a fine layer that remains stable throughout, never becomes bothersome, and merely adds a rich, filmic texture.

Crazy, I know! And the same can be said of Demons 2 (albeit a little more rough around the edges). Both films boast a surprisingly high level of fine detail, and what with this being Italian horror, you can expect a lot of leering close-ups demonstrating the added boost of these hi-def upgrades. I could count maybe two shots where it looked like over-sharpening had taken some kind of effect. Otherwise, get ready for a very cinematic experience.

Even better, edge enhancement (my main bug bear) is virtually nonexistent. A barely noticeable slither of ringing in a few scenes may well be apparent, but that’s par for the course these days. Elsewhere, colours remain natural, with skin tones looking healthy and those gaudy neon light effects coming off stronger than ever.    

The main weakness with both transfers, however, is black levels. They’re neither as deep and inky as you’d like to expect, and various compression artefacts can be seen swimming about during some darker moments (this applies especially to Demons 2). Still, crush is never an issue of concern, so please don’t consider this a deal-breaker.

Not much can be said about either film’s mono audio tracks, really. Available in both Engish and Italian, they’re basic, loud, punchy, and they get the job done. I’d rather have this than a hollow 5.1 remix. Quibbles arose over Arrow’s decision to go with the mono US dub instead of the stereo European dub, but aside from a few choice (and frankly hilarious) changes to dialogue and musical cues, it doesn’t seem to have made any notable difference. Hearing the opening lyrics of White Wedding suddenly repeat themselves was a bit odd, though... not sure what the story is there.

Sadly, extras are just a bit of a mixed bag.

In Dario’s Demon Days, Dario Argento shares his thoughts on the two films. Although quite informative, Argento doesn’t appear so much uninterested as he does shot in the neck with a horse tranquiliser. He also looks like he wants to murder the interviewer. But that’s Dario!

Top Italian Terrors and Bava to Bava sees genre favourite Luigi Cozzi brought in to discuss the history of Italian horror, ranging from Mario Bava classics to the splatterfests of Lucio Fulci. Not a whole lot to do with Demons, it must be said, but at least Cozzi is engaging. No mention of Alien 2 and its ilk, either, much to my chagrin.

Defining an Era in Music allows composer Claudio Simonetti a brief opportunity to give us some insight into the thought process behind the first film’s unique score – a boisterous mix of synth and metal. Simonetti is great company, and keeps the discussion lively, although fans may be a little concerned to learn of his hopes for a Demons remake (eek).

Creating Creature Carnage has to be the pick of the bunch. This is a lengthy (20ish minutes) and honest interview with special effects designer Sergio Stivaletti. The man clearly has much passion for his work, giving frank appraisal of his designs, including the weaknesses of certain Demons 2 effects.   

Rounding out the package are three audio commentaries (two for Demons, one for the sequel) which I have yet to listen to (sorry!), and an enjoyable booklet written by Arrow regular, Callum Waddell. The artwork deserves a special shout out too. I’m all for championing the use of original poster art, but Jeff Zornow has outdone himself this time.

Obviously, I can’t comment on the new comics, as they aren’t included with this edition.   


The films are utterly bonkers. You’ll either get them or you won’t. Regardless, the transfers are mostly excellent, with only a few very minor niggles keeping them from greatness. As ever, Arrow haven’t skimped on the extras, and while they don’t all hit the mark, they’re certainly interesting enough to warrant a watch.

Whether you go for this edition, or the separate releases (out later in the month), or even the DVDs, you’re bound to be impressed by the package Arrow has put together for both Demons films.

Oh, and let me assure you, the steelbook is VERY shiny indeed.