Thursday, June 23, 2011

Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday

During the “console wars” of the 16-bit era, one of the major complaints about the Genesis was its lack of RPGs. Sure, it had the Phantasy Star series and the Shining Force series, but it never had the sheer volume of RPGs that the SNES had. One thing it did have were more western-style RPGs, such as the much more pen-and-paper RPG influenced version of Shadowrun, and the subject of this post, a port of SSI's Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday. The original PC version is based on the pen-and-paper Buck Rogers XXVC universe, and the Genesis version released a year later was an interesting case of compromise between deep RPG roots and console usability. I am probably one of a very small group of people in my generation whom has treasured childhood memories of Buck Rogers.


Buck Rogers is a strange franchise because it is one of the oldest science fiction franchises and it has enjoyed various resurgences since it's inception in the 1920's. If you ask anyone over 30 what they know about Buck Rogers, they will probably say something about that robot that said “bidibidibidi” in the late 70's/early 80's television series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. For me, this game is the only bit of anything Buck Rogers related that I really care about.

Countdown to Doomsday begins like many western RPGs of the era, by creating a party. A party contains six custom characters, which can be one of three races, four classes, and two genders. The player can reroll a character's stats as freely until the character gets to a respectfully strong starting point. Characters can be named, and, amazingly, the game allows the use of more than four letters per name.  If all RPGs were this generous, I would not have the nickname of Stev, the four letter edition of my given name.

This is a pretty solid team.
There are decent amount of diverse characters sprites to choose from. While the menu gives the choice between male and female, I suppose it is possible to choose one gender and pick a character model of the opposite, so I guess being transgender isn't out of the question. From there the player is able to assign points to various skills which can help out during the game.  Surprising, even obscure skills that sound completely useless, like "Library Search" can actually be quite useful.

Right away it is apparent things have been streamlined to allow for a simpler experience on console. The PC version ran on SSI's Gold Box engine, which was same engine used for their various, far more successful, Dungeons & Dragons-based games. Not only were there more races and classes to choose from in the PC version, but the interface has been largely streamlined, with much of the text and numbers being represented with icons and bars.

Having played the PC version years after having played the Genesis one, I have to say I don't know if I would have gotten into the game if I had to figure out all these different details. It's just a lot easier to figure out the use of the skills and classes with the icons, and if I wanted to get into the nitty gritty details in the background, there is an approximately 130 page manual for that.  I'm sure the hardcore PC gamer just sees this game as an early example of things being "dumbed down" for consoles.

When game actually starts, the party finds itself in the middle of a battlefield on Earth in a fight between resistance fighters, NEO, and the invading space Russians, RAM. The party is considered a random group of resistance fighters who get caught up in defending their part of Earth, though I guess the player could dream up whatever for a backstory. While the music during the title screen and character creation is good, it isn't until now that things start to get exciting. In fact, the music through the entire game is really enjoyable, though a bit bizarre in a lot of ways that only Genesis games are.


During the exploration part of the game, it is presented in an isometric perspective and the entire party is represented by a single generic NEO soldier. In the PC version the exploration was done in first person. This no doubt annoyed purists, but for children like me, that were used to JRPG conventions, this was a much friendlier way to control the game. If the game were first-person, I don't think I could have gotten into it because I wouldn't have known how to process it, but thankfully the changes made it more friendly to me. Another helpful thing is the amount of maps in the back of the instruction booklet that have points of interest marked.

So, the party walks around, kill some soldiers, and stop a missile attack or something. Whatever. The battles in the game are a lot of fun. It's sort of like a strategy RPG in that the player controls multiple units, the six party characters and however many generics they can rally depending on the situation, and their positions largely control the outcome of a battle. At first glance the different characters are all the same in battle, but different classes and different skills can greatly change how things play out. Medics can heal and revive downed opponents, as well as patch up  characters after the end of combat. Warriors are more effective at attacking, and their proficiency points in the different weapons make them extremely deadly.

With space suits and laser guns, these Union soldiers' victory over the Confederacy is assured.
There are various factors that can affect the flow of combat. If chaff grenades are thrown down, lasers weapons will not be able penetrate those spaces, so physical weapons such as monoswords and needleguns need to be available. There are items that throw off rocket's targeting systems, so rocket pistols can be made useless. A similar issue arises with sunglasses and flashbangs. Grenades, grenade launchers, rocket launchers, and plasma launchers can do massive area of effect damage, but it can be difficult to not explode friendlies. There are walls around the battlefield that can be used to break line-of-sight, providing cover from certain weapons.

The variety of weapons is better in the PC version, including things like laser rifles and other things left out of the Genesis version, but it is a trade-off because the player also has to manage ammunition, and with less weapon types to choose from choosing where to put weapon skill points is easier. Overall though, the battle system is the thing that is most similar to the PC version. The UI is a bit different, but it is pretty much the same. I really like the combat and it can be a lot of fun, though it does take a bit to understand the intricacies of how it works.

Of course someone will make the sacrifice.
Throughout the game the party ends up visited a bunch of different planets, asteroids, and space stations.. The events lead to fights with races from all the different planets, different military factions, and different gennies, which are genetically engineered monsters. There interesting characters to meet like Scot.DOS, an AI, and Landon, a doctor from Venus. I enjoy all of the interesting environments and stories that are told in the game, and I'm particularly fond of the optional sidequests that take place on different asteroids.

Don't worry, Saul didn't die.  In fact, he didn't even get knocked unconscious.  He lost 11 of his 15 hit points.  Thus is the power of space whiskey. 
The party also meet assholes, like Buck Rogers himself. He, and other characters from the lore make guest appearances as party members during a few different points in the story. Buck is a jerk because he has the unique ability to dodge out of the way of explosives, so there are many occasions when the whole party takes a bunch of damage from a grenade, but he just flips out of the way like a goddamn ninja. Also, if he is given equipment, it can't taken back, which is probably a way for the game to restrict the player from taking his unique weapon, but mostly just makes him seem like a dick. While the game doesn't allow the player to take his items, it is possible to destroy them, so when I play through the game and I know he's about to leave the party, I get rid of his space suit and his gun and leave him with only a pair of sunglasses.


When I am nearing the end of the game and I have my party all geared out, I like to go around and pick fights. This can be done by going to bars on space stations, where fights inevitably break out, or by getting to ship battles with RAM forces and space pirates. Ship battles are fun because the ship needs to be maneuvered into at different distances and different weapons need to be fired at different parts of the enemies ships. If a ship is disabled enough, the party can board it and slaughter the crew in person.

I've been going to great lengths attempting to explain this game because I think it is awesome, and apparently nobody has played it. In the “reception” section on Wikipedia, it seems that the only place that ever reviewed it was some magazine I've never heard of. I am incredibly nostalgic for this and it is hard to put into words. Just hearing the sound of a needle gun hitting a monster until it dies, and the strange groan it makes, or the “bonk” sound a monosword makes when it connects with an enemy, in spite of the fact a sword one molecule thick probably wouldn't make any discernible noise when it cuts, makes me happy. I don't usually get into western RPGs, but there is something about Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday that is really special.

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