As a kid I hated Japanese RPGs with a passion. I remember saying to myself over and over how much I couldn’t stand the genre and reinforcing my intention of never playing a Final Fantasy title or anything remotely similar. This was mainly because of my prejudices and my growing up playing only Western RPGs like Rings of Power and Buck Rogers. The simpler narrative and weird character designs of jRPGs just didn’t cater to my tastes. Naturally, years later I managed to escape my comfort zone, Chrono Trigger was actually the first I liked enough to consider playing from start to finish.
Still, I think my “formative” RPGs had some interesting design choices, so it makes sense to me to revisit all of these titles on my blog, especially since coverage about those games is sparse at best. Since I’ve already talked at length about Naughty Dog’s title, now… let’s get ready for launch.
Buck Rogers to the rescue!
Introduced as a comic strip series in 1928, Buck Rogers was actually born… William. Inspired by a novella published on Weird Tales, William Rogers is a mine worker who falls prey to a job accident, ending up trapped below ground in suspended animation. He is subsquently reawakened in 2412 and soon comes across Wilma Deering, after saving her from an attack by a ferocious beast. They go on going through all kinds of adventures typical of the daily format of the time, hence there’s no overarching plot to connect every story.
In 1933 the comic strip author and its illustrator, Philip Francis Nowlan and Dick Calkins respectively, rewrote the background of the character – by then already called Buck Rogers – making him a top American pilot put into suspended animation to save his life. Buck’s popularity peaked in 1934, subsequently the comic series stopped being published in the late sixties, finding new life thanks to the populiarity of Star wars in 1979, which lead to the production of a tv series and a movie. Still, fame was short lived, by 1981 the whole franchise was basically dead and further attempts at reviving it went nowhere.
In the late 80s TSR designed a game setting, along with a tabletop RPG, Buck Rogers in the XXV century, which led to SSI – which already held the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons license – developing two games based on it: Countdown to Doomsday and Matrix Cubed. The Planet of Zoom arcade game by SEGA predates both, but I think it has barely anything to do with Buck Rogers and, naturally, nothing to do with the tabletop RPG
Russia and America together at last
The TSR roleplay game setting introduced several new concepts to the saga, many of which we’ll not go into, since they are not really relevant to this videogame retrospective. The story goes that, after the first nuclear war in 1990, mankind has explored the solar system, searching for new planets to inhabit and worlds to conquer. In the 25th century, RAM (Russian american mercantile corporation) has long enjoyed a dominant economical position as the only superpower in the system. Even though they don’t consider themselves as evil, after consuming all of Earth’s natural resources and occupying Mars, nobody seems inclined to stand in their way, except for the New Earth Organization (NEO).
The main conflict between RAM and NEO serves as a solid backdrop for the team’s adventures, since the BR universe never really seemed to have a main evil corporation or a bad guy of sorts. In the first game in the series, Countdown to Doomsday, the members of the player’s team begin their story as cadets for NEO: while they are being walked to their first mission, the Earth base gets attacked by RAM. During the game, the player will get to meet both Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering, but both characters are barely that at all, with Rogers coming to our rescue during one mission, then serving as our commander for the rest of the game. He will also sends us to an almost-suicide mission just to save one desert runner friend of his, thanks William!
Still, subquests aside, the title does allude to the plot’s pulsating core: the player must put a stop to RAM’s intentions to sterilize the Earth for their nefarious purposes with the use of the Doomsday Laser, made to eradicate all life on our homeplanet. The war between NEO and RAM and all the innocent casualties is a pretty interesting idea as a main story, even though there are no great political or ethical implications beyond, well, “RAM is bad”. And don’t get me started on ROM.
Naturally, the destruction of Earth and its subsequent use as a breeding ground for the “Gennies”, genetically modified organisms, are dramatic reasons enough to motivate the player. The Scot.Dos AI that shall accompany the player is also a pretty nifty idea, serving as a sort of Alfred to Batman, an advisor and companion. Scattered along in the story, there are also several references to an evil AI – Holzerhein – that seems to be the brain behind the Doomsday laser, but there is no way to confront it/him in the game anyway. It is also a concept that I found out about only years later, being poorly explained at best, sounding more like a “fan service” for players of the tabletop RPG. During the course of the adventure, the team shall – naturally – meet some familiar characters which amount as the only connections between the games and the original comic and tv series.
From dungeons and dragons to rocket ships and laser pistols
SSI evidently wasn’t banking on the Buck Rogers titles achieving any kind of significant success. Thus, they weren’t going to go out of their way to develop a unique system for both games; instead, they stuck with their Gold Box engine, thus making it look very similar to other titles like Champions of Kyrnn and Secret of the Silver Blades. Still, the one major difference between Countdown to Doomsday and the average SSI title, it’s the setting itself: science fiction focused, ergo no spellcasting.
The game opens like most other cRpgs of the time: create your characters from scratch, add them to a team, begin adventuring. The player is allowed to choose between 5 different races – which mainly differ in physical attributes – sex (which makes a difference in a single mission) and related combat icon. Then of course there’s a required five minutes to spend deciding which character attributes to assign to each member, we’ll came back to those later.
Countdown to Doomsday, the first game of the franchise, was designed by Bret Barry and Graeme Bayliss, two SSI veterans. Being an RPG from 1990 destined to be converted on widely different platforms (Dos, Amiga and Commodore 64), it is meant to be played alongside a physical Log Book to keep at arm’s reach. Beyond the usual copy protection, the log book serves to enrich and make sense of most of the encounters since the game – from time to time – refers the player to certain book entries. This meant not encumbering the player and making it easy for the game to run on less powerful systems, also allowing for more fluent writing.
While this is a design choice that might sound bewildering to modern players, I find it still fascinating today. The approach to different media that a videogame from the late 80s/early 90s is a design choice that has been rarely explored since, except for the rare VHS, but in the indie gaming world of today could definitely bring some added involvement for the player.
Get a clue (book)
Both titles in the series, like every other SSI Gold Box rpgs, are mainly played in a small window where the player moves around in first person. The rest of the screen is focused on the various members’ status and several options which are chosen via the keyboard-friendly interface. There is mouse support, but playing with one ends up being definitely unfeasible. The first person view works fine when the level map is relatively small; as soon as the team sets foot on Ceres’ RAM base, a huge level on two floors, having no visual clues of any kind becomes problematic. Now comes the time for today’s sponsor, which is… SSI! Yes, indeed, they published clue books which come with maps for every level.
Adding insult to injury, this is a classic RPG and, of course, taking your time and wrapping one’s head around the maps means having to put up with random enemy encounters. Referring, again, to a classic Japanese rpg like Final Fantasy, the continuous battles are necessary to level up your party and gather new weapons and money (the infamous “grinding”). Unfortunately, in both Buck Rogers games, those are slightly less useful than the average.
First of all, levelling up is only possible in one of the several bases scattered around the galaxy, there is no possibility to level up while the team is in an enemy base. Secondly, the experience gained by winning battles is so little that it isn’t worth spending hours in random encounters. Even if the player’s team overpowers the enemy (which isn’t bound to happen for most battles even at the lowest difficulty level), killing everyone will still take quite some time, which makes the random battle system all the more infuriating.
Thirdly, farming for weapons and credits is basically useless since there are few shops around and the characters’ inventory space is pretty limited anyway. The weapons that really make a difference are not very easy to find, even the most powerful rifle is not gonna make that much of a difference in a fight if the character isn’t experienced enough. The economic system in the game is also relatively plain: there are no price fluctuations nor great benefits in selling an item on Earth rather than on Mars. As soon as the team ammasses more than 10k credits, that would probably be enough money for most players; there are indeed more expensive weapons and armors, but then again those are hardly necessary to finish the game.
Wait for your turn, take your shot, roll your dice, cross your fingers.
The combat is turn based and while lacking much of the strategic finesse of later titles like X-Com or the Panzer General series, still remains AD&D influenced. For every time the player attacks the enemy, Goldbox calculates the player’s chance of hitting the target and potential damage, even though it rarely manages to be accurate. While there is some kind of cover system, which is mostly used on Venus and Mars, there are no different altitudes. The backstabbing mechanic is also strange, since in the PC version it seems the character can’t backstab unless it has the “move silently” skill, while in the console version every character can manage it. Indeed the different character abilities have a direct influence on combat, but the player will actually find out which ones matter only a couple of hours into the game.
As an example, as soon as the first mission is finished, fighting in zero gravity becomes common, which means that if a character isn’t trained in the related ability, his/her movement shall be heavily affected. Naturally, certain weapons work better on some enemies rather than others, thus it is useful to train characters in different weapons like swords, rifles and pistols – providing the team has more than one warrior – otherwise risking a standstill in combat. Switching weapons during combat soon becomes a necessity, unfortunately the keyboard interface makes it not very convenient for the player to do so.
Weapons have limited ammo and tend to break after a while, hence the usefulness of having someone trained in repair, which is, at least, slightly more convenient than lugging around six different pistols and rifles. In order to slightly reduce stress from repeated random encounters, the player can lower the difficulty and choose “quick combat”, leaving it to the AI to win the fight. This usually works fine, at least the computer seems hell-bent on ending the fight as soon as possible, as long as one doesn’t expect to save ammo or preserve health. While the AI is keen on saving the player’s precious time, I would not recommend using it for scripted non-random combats, which are usually harder.
The way the game is designed also doesn’t allow the player any “grace periods”, hence it may well happen to meet random enemies just ten seconds after a hard scripted fight, which of course means little time to fully heal any injured members or to go buy new weapons. But wait, forget about ground combat, now we come to the meat and potatoes of the Buck Rogers SSI saga: space exploration and combat!
Jury-riggers at the ready!
Space travel and combat are the main features SSI introduced exclusively for the Buck Rogers titles: interesting concepts that could have transformed the gameplay in a full blown Elite “light”. Imagine an open world SSI RPG where one travels from planet to planet, freelancing, picking up quests and defeating ships to rack up credits to upgrade the spaceship and get better weapons to bring the fight directly to RAM.
Sounds good? Unfortunately that seemed to have been way beyond the scope of SSI’s plans for the saga.
Space travel, shown on a galaxy map with the ship moving around, basically serves to get the player’s team from point A to point B. There is no real exploration involved, since every planet and cluster of stars the player is allowed to visit is already shown on the map from the get-go. There are a few places non-required to be visited to finish the main plot, even though I wouldn’t say the side quests are very interesting to begin with, they will yield some interesting rewards though.
The only enemy found in space are RAM ships: they can be of three different sizes and can also be boarded, should one wish to. The characters’ abilities shall also play a direct role, since it is important to keep up the repairs on the ship and also to fire weapons. Dogfighting in space is slightly more engaging than the average turn based combat that was the trademark of SSI games. Still, weirdly enough, for the most part space combat can be skipped, since it barely factors in the plot: there is only one single fight required to progress, everything else is extra. Apparently SSI realized it was a mostly useless mechanic, since in the second title there’s not even one required fight.
There is some slight reward for hunting down RAM ships but, with space combat usually being pretty long winded, I wouldn’t say they’re worth the time required to see them through There is some powerful weapons to be found on some of the bigger vessels, should one manage to board them and survive the not really easy fights inside, but that is basically the most space combat will award the player.
The team’s own spaceship, former RAM vessel Maelstrom Rider, can’t be upgraded nor changed in any way, it will always have three weapons at its disposal and the same amount of hull points. Overall, I would say that the way it was designed, Space combat definitely feels like an afterthought: the only sensible new feature that SSI added to the Goldbox engine. On a final note, at least it is possible to attempt to flee most of the encounters.
A console conversion of a SSI title? Yes please.
Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday was probably the only RPG from SSI to receive – at the time – a direct port on a 16bit Sega console. At the time, Electronic Arts seemed to be banking on converting homecomputer titles for the Sega console, with Starflight also coming out around the same time and being a great port. What is most interesting about is Countdown‘s console friendly design, is that it does make the game more approachable, but not less unforgiving, as a whole.
The first thing to go was the 1st person view, probably on EA’s insistence: the title adopts a slightly more palatable 3rd person view. It is also now fully soundtracked, while before it only had a couple of tunes that played once on a blue moon. To be fair, the songs aren’t especially good or memorable but, at least, it means not playing in complete silence. Another obvious thing that had be cut away was the Log book, which would make little sense for a console game. Thus, the events and encounters are fully described with the in-game text, even though some minimal cuts to the text had to be made. The character creation is simplified, which, in the end, is probably the better design choice: gone are the four pages of mostly useless skills to peruse, they kept only the basic ones for each character’s class.
Everything else made the jump to console mostly intact, with some improvements to boot. The graphics are more colorful and varied, especially the character and inventory screens are now more pleasing to look at and easier to understand for a non-RPG player. The inventory is slightly less cumbersome to manage, with the option to individually divide the credits also removed, since that barely made sense to begin with. On the 16 bit version, it is also possible to flee from ground combat (by reaching one of the edges of the screen) since areas are much smaller: unfortunately, every single one of the team members has to leave the area or it won’t work. Also, if one is fighting inside a room, there is no way to escape.
There is also an animated introduction that shows a generic-looking alien using a laser on Earth, which, thinking about the plot, should make more sense as a game over sequence, rather than an introduction. While hardcore RPG fans of SSI classic titles will frown at the different changes made, which indeed make the game simpler, it is fair to say that SSI almost put more work into the Genesis version than the PC/Amiga/C64 one.
As we come to the end of the first part of the retrospective, I would like to finish with some recommendations. Should one wish to have a go with the lesser known sci-fi RPG Countdown to Doomsday, surely the Genesis/Megadrive version is the one to go to. While it might be an overall simplified experience, it is also more straightforward and easy to pick up and play; ironically enough, it has aged more gracefully.
In the second part, I shall analyze how and why I chose to pick apart all the problems with Countdown to Doomsday and, of course, also take a look at its PC only sequel, Matrix Cubed.