In the second part of my Buck Rogers retrospective, we will take a look at the much less lauded continuation of the first game, Matrix Cubed, and then, finally, I shall explain why I feel both games are still relevant all these years later.
Prepare for launch.
Matrix Cubed, planned as a direct sequel to the first game, was designed by Rhonda Van who wrote some of the encounters in the previous Countdown to Doomsday. Released in 1992, two years after the first one, on PC. The Amiga version was apparently finished but never actually published. I reached programmer Kerry Bonin, who reported there was a serious bug in the Amiga version which caused the whole computer to crash. After weeks of hunting out the bug, management ordered the programmers to just leave it, since there was no market to publish a 16 bit version anyway.
Even though it is not what one would call an instant sequel, very little has been changed: the two games share the same Goldbox interface, the log book necessary to read details on the encounters and, naturally, the overall design. Character creation is mostly the same too, even though this time SSI took care to extensively make use of the characters’ specific abilities, which makes sense, except there will be many instances where even a maxed out ability will cause the character to fail a check, with no way to try again, except loading up a previously saved game.
Matrix doesn’t really waste time in letting the players know that they are playing, indeed, a sequel: the team gets attacked within a couple of minutes from the intro, because of the destruction of the Doomsday Laser. The plot sees commander Buck Rogers sending the team to find out if the rumours about the Matrix Cubed, a technology to re-fertilize Earth and restore life on the planet, are true, along with trying to recruit scientists and doctors to work on it. All this while, of course, preventing RAM from getting their hands on it first.
This time, though, there is a third party interested who will act as the evil corporation: a Terran organization called P.U.R.G.E which seems to hate all otherworldly non-human creatures. Basically, the KKK in Buck Rogers sauce. The team shall face new enemies, like the evil human cyborg at the helm of PURGE which is named, not joking, Sid Refuge. He is a mostly second rate villain with little to no personality that really only comes into play in the second half of the game. All things considered, instead of Refuge, he should have gone for Vicious.
Matrix Cubed is a longer adventure than the first one, with less places to explore but featuring longer levels and a higher number of battles. The stakes this time are definitely lower, since refertilizing Earth does not really carry the same gravitas as saving it from eternal destruction. I wonder why SSI didn’t go for another more exciting story altogether, perhaps saving Buck Rogers himself. The plot as it is, definitely makes sense as a continuation to the first story, but I would hesitate to definite it as exciting.
While the places of interests are mostly the same from the previous title, there are a couple of interesting new ones, Losangelorg is now explorable along with the planet Jove. The most interesting place is, undoubtably, the living ship which the team will need to board and heal up to receive help in the conclusive battles; unfortunately the levels inside the ship aren’t really worth talking about, since they are mostly made up of busywork and repetitive quests.
Still, it’s the conclusive two hours that will test many gamers’ patience: an onslaught of unskippable, long and drawn-out battles only to get to the end, with basically no story or plot advancement to speak of. Well, spoilers alert: the ending one has fought so hard to get to is nothing more than a couple of characters saying thanks and the game exiting directly to DOS with no warning. Ok, “conglaturations” I guess.
Buck comes back as the team’s direct commander and will also – again – join for a brief period of time, but he still doesn’t do much. Even worse, Wilma Deering is only seen briefly and has even less of a role that in the previous title. While the writing is interesting at times, even referencing Blade Runner and replicants/humans relationships, the overall design starts to feel pretty dated for 1992 standards. The same year saw the release of classics like Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld; Matrix Cubed feels and plays, for all intents and purposes, like an RPG from a previous generation.
The isometric combat views are slightly cleaner to look at, while the first person exploration is more colorful and varied. Still, I can’t help but feel that SSI missed a chance altogether, by not developing the sequel to be an isometric RPG, like the Genesis version of Countdown to Doomsday. Music is still pretty much absent, except for short jingles that punctuate some exciting moments, most of the sound is just the PC speaker burping while the team walks around, which for 1992 really screams “hardcore Goldbox fans only need apply”.
Along with P.U.R.G.E., there are some new enemy types, some of them twice bigger than the usual ones, like the stage 5 gennies (which look like the Red Devils from Ghosts and Goblins) and the fearsome Venusian dinosaurs. Ground combat is not only more frequent but feels, overall, more difficult, which might make sense in keeping with the “if you are familiar with Countdown, now it’s time to suffer”. There are a couple of fights which feel almost unwinnable and I personally had to bypass them by modifying my characters to multiply the damage they deal.
But I’m not going to keep on criticizing the combat too much, all things considered it is still one of the better features of both games. Should one have any doubts about it, it is easily noticeable in the long section on Luna where the team is tasked with uncovering the dirt on a few politicians and important people. In the whole section, there are no fights, not even random ones. Unfortunately, while sounding interesting as a change of pace, even going for a narrative vibe a là Disco Elysium, it actually ends up as one of the most tedious parts of the whole game, outside of the repetitive unwinnable fights, of course.
The critical reception was less favourable than the first one too, in general, it is easy to notice that Matrix Cubed is way less remembered than the first game, with sales suffering as a consequence. Understandably, after the not really smooth release of the second title in the series, SSI decided to give up on the franchise altogether.
In conclusion, are Countdown to Doomsday and Matrix Cubed obscure gems, wonderfully aged like wine, still endlessly replayable? Unfortunately I would have to say no. But, I would be lying if I said they don’t offer some of my favourite RPG moments from the early 90s era, with Countdown to Doomsday easily in my top 10 of my favourite RPGs of all time. Let us first see what went wrong.
The SSI “goldbox” system, while designed to perfectly suit an AD&D-influenced game, unfortunately doesn’t lend itself to a sci-fi title. It is no coincidence that the two BR games are the only sci-fi entries in the SSI titles and the Goldbox system was never modified to better suit their specificity. Since there are no spells, but only weapons to fire, in order to quickly end battles the player is forced to spam grenades and plasma launcher, while hoping for the best. This is because in most battles, enemies come in groups, thus a weapon that does mass damage is always the best choice. Also, as soon as the fights get more difficult, in Matrix Cubed above all, unless the team members have very high skills, guns and rifles end up dealing little damage.
Still, what becomes pretty much evident playing the two SSI RPGs is that the Buck Rogers universe does not really lend itself to a RPG series because… it is not a universe. Like the classic Superman comics, the Buck Rogers serials rotated around the man himself, there never really was a gallery of fleshed out characters and creatures like Star Wars or Star Trek. On one hand, this means the writers had quite a lot of freedom, on the other, it means that there’s no strong design philosophy behind the narrative, along with no recurring characters or something for the players to latch onto, like Knights of the Old Republic did for the Star Wars universe.
Despite this, I still don’t really understand the weird design choice to make Buck a NPC rather than a permanent team member, since he – along with Wilma Deering – are the only recognizable characters from a franchise that enjoyed only brief period of success, quite forgotten by the early 90s. Reading some of the reviews and articles about the games, few as they are, it is evident that no one at SSI really understood management’s decision to develop two games based on the franchise. It was almost like they were forced down the artists’ and writers’ throats.
I’ve asked a few people on various Dos related forums who bought the games back then, while they have mostly fond memories, not a single one of them mentioned the “franchise recognition” as the main reason for buying them. Probably the single famous scene with Buck Rogers in all its years as a sci-fi comic in the vein of Flash Gordon (that was actually inspired by Buck!), was in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., being read by Elliott, the protagonist. I remember being impressed when I finally got to meet the Man himself in Countdown, but it was more out of curiosity than anything, Buck is not really fleshed out as a character in any way, not even in “his” RPG.
Despite the “universe” problems, it is not surprising that the character design, the writing and art manage to still shine through. Especially the images, done by several talented artists, among them prominent SSI veterans Laura R. Bowen and Fred Butts. It is also peculiar to think that a RPG from the early 90s features – in many cases – a gripping mature narrative, since even today we haven’t managed to entirely kill off the discourse on videogames being a waste of time for kids or immature adults.
In a similar way to an RPG like Planescape: Torment, even though I wasn’t a great fan of the mechanics, the atmosphere and the overall quests of both games were – and still are – a great selling point. The two SSI titles don’t shy away from death, pain and feelings of dread, in particular two of the settings from Countdown will always stick in my mind. The first is the gennie-infested ship The Maelstrom Rider which is permeated by an Alien vibe: the team climbs aboard a ship full of mangled corpses, unearthing recordings that tell stories of experiments gone wrong, soon encountering organisms that mutate and evolve right before their eyes. It is expertly narrated and features its own share of cliffhangers, it is a delicious slice of space horror that might not quite fit in the Buck Rogers narrative, but really, no complaints here.
The Venus planet is quite the oppositie narrative to the Nostromo-like ship. The team lands on a planet which has been gutted by RAM, with many villages devastated and its inhabitants – the Lowlanders – killed. Entering one of said villages, the team hears a baby crying in the distance, a sound that can be traced back, among dead corpses and RAM assassins. The baby’s mother was also killed so the only choice is to find someone who has managed to survive and entrust the child to them.
The team shall also take control of the kid (which might be young, but can walk and fight with no problems) and keeping him out of harm’s way, while not required by the plot and not changing anything in the story, definitely feels like a required moral choice. The harrowing tale of the Venusian child that somehow survived in such a lugubrious environment and is still willing to bring the fight against the evil RAM soldiers is almost heartbreaking.
While probably none of the RPGs from the late 80s would qualify as great literature, the Buck Rogers series is well written, not overstaying its welcome or going overboard with details.
Is the narrative and the atmosphere of some of the scenarios enough reason to warrant my advice to rediscover the Buck Rogers saga, thus forgiving its shortcomings? I would say so, at least out of the two, Countdown to Doomsday would definitely be worth a player’s time today. While it might not measure up to classics like the Ultima series but it still features important choices, mature events and political discourse. At least, give the game a couple of hours and reach the aforementioned infested ship then decide if it’s worth persevering.
In this regard, since the unforgiving world of SSI Goldbox titles may, understandably, be daunting for some people, the Genesis version is more easily approachable, while retaining the brilliant narrative. Even after the hours of frustration with Matrix Cubed, I’m honestly kind of sad that I have nothing more to play in the all the Buck Rogers RPG series. There is something about both titles that just made me want to go back and try that one battle again, bring my team to success, to save Earth, to meet commander Rogers’ expectations and discover more encounters and subquests.
If that’s not a sign of great game writing, well, I wouldn’t know what is.