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 close to it.
This was mainly because of my prejudice and of my upbringing with Western RPGs like Rings of Power and Buck Rogers. The simpler narrative and 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 jRPG 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 them 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 and has nothing to do with the RPG, naturally.
Russia and America together at last
The TSR roleplay game setting introduced various new concepts to the saga, many of which are not really relevant to this videogame retrospective. After the first nuclear war in 1990, mankind has deeply 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 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.
This is the first step towards 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 can be found 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 and it’s 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 RPG 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 from 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 not big; 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… yes! SSI 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 finding your way around 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 games, those are slightly less useful.
First of all, levelling up is only possible in one of the several bases scattered around the galaxy, there is no automatic levelling up. 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 still takes a while.
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 shot, the system calculates the player’s chance of hitting the target and potential damage, even though it rarely manages to be accurate. But, there are no different altitudes and – in the pc version – no big advantages in moving around the enemy, looking to inflict a shot in the back. Indeed the different character abilities have a direct influence on combat, but the player will 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 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 beyond the scope of SSI’s plans for the saga.
Space travel serves to get the player’s team from point A to point B, every planet and cluster of stars the player is allowed to visit is already shown on the map from the get-go. Exploration is basically non-existent beyond the main plot and a few side quests. 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.
Space combat is slightly more engaging and fun than the average turn based combat that was the trademark of SSI games. But, unfortunately, space combat can be skipped for the most part, really. Apparently SSI realized it since in the second title there’s not even a single required space fight, like there is in Countdown to Doomsday.
There is no big reward in hunting down RAM ships and, as mentioned before, credit rewards soon become pretty useless. 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. Space combat definitely feels like a bit of an afterthought the way it was designed but, 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 conversion on a Sega console. What is most interesting about is its console friendly design, which 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 every once in a while. To be fair, the songs aren’t especially good or memorable but, at least, it means not playing in complete silence. Another obvious thing to go was the Log book, that 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 were 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 and are now more pleasing to look at and easier to understand for a non-RPG player. The inventory is slightly less cumbersome to manage, the option to individually divide the credits was also removed, since that barely made sense to begin with. On the 16bit version it is also possible to flee from ground combat since areas are much smaller: unfortunately every single one of the team members has to leave the area or it won’t work.
There is also an animated introduction which shows a generic looking alien using a laser on Earth, which, thinking about the plot, only makes sense as a game over sequence, rather than an introduction. While hardcore RPG fans of SSI classic titles will smirk at the 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, let us draw some simple conclusions.
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, should one be curious to check out the odd one out of the Gold Box games. It is simplified, yes, but 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.