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, 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 will update the article accordingly if anything more turns up, as of this writing there is no playable Amiga version around.
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 make sense, except the many instances where even a 99 ability will cause the character to fail with no way to try again, except load a previously saved game.
Matrix doesn’t really waste time in letting the player know that this is, indeed, a sequel: the team gets attacked within 2 minutes from the start 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 seem to hate all otherworldly non-human creatures. Basic a KKK in Buck Rogers sauce. The team will encounter 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, instead of a direct sequel to their previous game.
While the places of interests are mostly the same from the previous title, there a couple of interesting new ones, Losangelorg is now explorable and also 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 much fun since are mostly made up of busywork.
Still, it’s the conclusive two hours that will test many gamers patience: an onslaught of unskippable never ending battles to get to the end. 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 does indeed star 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 and the first person exploration is more colorful and varied. Still, I can’t help but feel sad that SSI did not take the chance to make the whole RPG isometric, like the Genesis version of Countdown to Doomsday. Music is still pretty much absent, except for short jingles in 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 need apply”.
There are some new enemies, some of them 2x 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 more difficult, which might make sense in keeping with the “if you’ve played Countdown before then 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.
There’s still no other way to heal the team members except for the team’s own medic or going back to the ship, most of the time prevented by the game design, along with the rare autodoc in the levels, which might end up being a problem. But I’m not going to harbour on combat too much, all things considered it is still one of the better features of the game. It is easily noticed in a long section on Luna where the team is tasked on uncovering the dirt on a few politicians and important people and there are no fights, not even random ones. Unfortunately that section, while sounding interesting as a change of pace, actually ends up as one of the most tedious in the whole game, outside of the repetitive unwinnable fights, of course.
The critical reception was less favourable than the first one too, in general, Matrix Cubed is way less remembered than the first game and sales suffered as a consequence. Understandably, after the not really smooth release of the second title in the series, SSI gave up on the franchise altogether.
So, are Countdown to Doomsday or Matrix Cubed great games, wonderfully aged like wine and 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.
Does that make sense? 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 to be found 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 most battles see your enemies come at you in groups, thus a weapon that does mass damage is always the good choice. Also, as soon as the fights get more difficult, in Matrix Cubed above all, unless your team members have very high skills, guns and rifles do 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 series of stories published as 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 game writers had more freedom, on the other it means that there’s no strong design philsophy behind the narrative and character design that allows the players to latch unto something, like Knights of the Old Republic did for Star Wars universe.
Even still, this doesn’t explain the weird design choice to make Buck a NPC rather than a team member, since he – along with Wilma Deering – are the only recognizable characters from a franchise that enjoyed only brief period of success, by the early 90s it was totally forgotten. Reading some of the reviews and articles about the games, as few as they are, it is made pretty clear that no one at SSI really understood the decision to develop two games based on the franchise. It was almost like they were forced down the artists’ and writers’ throats.
Buck’s role in both games is marginal at best, he provides intelligence or gives the team missions, like sending the team on a suicide mission to save a Desert Runner friend of his… thanks commander Rogers! 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 one 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 ET, read by Elliott, the boy protagonist. I remember being impressed when I finally got to meet the Man himself, 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.
Even beyond all these problems, it is not surprising that the character design, the writing and the art manage to still shine through. The art was done by several talented artists, among them prominent are SSI veterans Laura R. Bowen and Fred Butts. It is peculiar to think that a 1990 rpg features – in many cases – a downright gripping mature narrative, since even today we haven’t managed to kill off the discourse on videogames being “a waste of time for kids or immature adults”
Similarly to an RPG like Planescape: Torment, even though I wasn’t a fan of the mechanics, the atmosphere and the quests of both games were – and still are – a great selling point for me. 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 goes for an Alien-like vibe: the team climbs aboard a ship full of mangled corpses, unearthing recordings that tell stories about experiments gone wrong, encounter organisms that mutate and evolve right before their eyes. It is expertly narrated and also has its cliffhangers, it is a delicious slice of space horror that fits perfectly in an rpg.
The Venus planet is the opposite of the Nostromo-like ship. The team lands on a planet which has been gutted by RAM, villages devastated and people – the Lowlanders – killed. Entering a village that has been torn from within, a distant baby crying is heard and he is finally found, among dead corpses and RAM assassins. His mothers 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 and keeping him out of harm’s way, while not required by the plot, feels like a required moral choice.
The sad tale of the Venusian child that somehow survived in such a lugubrious environment and is still willing to fight 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 and doesn’t overstay its welcome or go 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 and forgive its shortcomings? I would say so, out of the two Countdown to Doomsday is definitely worth a player’s time today, 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 aformentioned infested ship then decide if it’s worth to continue.
In this regard, since the unforgiving 90s world of SSI Goldbox titles may indeed be daunting for some people, understandably, the Genesis version is more easily approachable, while retaining the brilliant narrative. Even after the hours of frustration spent 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 them that just made me want to go back and try that one battle again, to 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.