It took me four false starts before I understood
how to successfully play Buck Rogers. I died horrifically stupid deaths that would
never have happened had I only read the manual, but the manual is bible thick and yeah- not
today words. Instead I chose to fumble through alien mechanics
and eventually, through much trial and error, found that despite all appearances Buck Rogers:
Count Down to Doomsday is an engaging tactical RPG with a rich narrative. Upon cursory inspection I assumed, correctly,
that Buck Rogers was a PC port. Because it’s an EA Genesis game, and for
the most part that’s what EA published back then, well, that and sports-ball. I didn’t realize however, that Countdown
to Doomsday was an adaptation of an old TSR pen and paper RPG (which was itself an adaptation
of a TV show based on a modern mythology originating in the 1920s). I had my suspicions, however, once I saw the
character stat screen with its AC ratings and THAC0 score. For those not in the know, TSR was the original
publisher for Dungeons and Dragons (before being bought out by Wizards of the Coast)
and Buck Rogers, the tabletop game was designed using the AD&D second edition ruleset. So while I’m not much of a D&D gamer admittedly
(much less space D&D) I do love me some original Baulder’s Gate which also just happens to
share the AD&D second edition ruleset. Long story short, Buck Rogers the Sega game
felt comfortably familiar. As, someone other than the titular Buck Rogers,
you and your crew of rookie space operatives undergo a series of tactical missions for
NEO. That stands for the New Earth Organization,
a collective band of freedom fighters seeking to overthrow Martian occupation of Earth. Of course when I say Martian, I don’t mean
like little green men (although the game does has its share of nonhuman races) but genetically
enhanced Russian-American Martians (otherwise referred to as RAM) who colonized the red
planet and later grew into an aggressively militaristic imperial superpower. The Buck Rogers Universe is basically Star
Wars minus the space wizards, and RAM, like the Empire, seeks a dooms-day device with
which to obliterate Earth. Alderaan style. The game begins in chaos; shit’s exploding
and people are dying as your team blindly runs into RAM’s execution squads. It’s time to sink or swim as the player
is forced to familiarize themselves with the combat mechanics and field test whether or
not they rolled a viable party. Pro tip: you’ll need medics, at least two. There are no healing herbs or resurrection
potions in Buck Rogers. If a character dies in battle, they stay dead
until revived by a medic or taken to a med bay (but good luck finding one). Hit points are partially restored after combat
encounters, but again, only if you have a living medic handy. A party with no medics will eventually wear
themselves down to extinction and once the adventure begins you’re locked into your
chosen party roster. So recruit accordingly, and save between successful
encounters. Visually Buck Rogers isn’t much to look
at; it’s abstract in a way modern games aren’t. The dungeon maps are sparse – isometric
floorplans with zero décor save the occasional computer station. You’re given just enough visual data to
suggest the vaguest concept of your surroundings. At a glance you’ll be assured that “yes
your party is exploring that… that… whatever that is” and “whoops! There’s a monster!”. Every location is equally and appropriately
or inappropriately desolate; whether you’re trudging through an abandoned space station
or bustling city the atmosphere and details are communicated strictly through text. For players used to games being a visual medium
this is a hard sell, I know. But for the imaginative, the readers, Buck
Rogers has a lot to offer. Your first real mission sends you off to recover
an abandoned ship but as your crew enters things go tits up – to absolutely no one’s
surprise. It’s an extremely tense mission as one by
one your crew succumbs to a mysterious illness. Mechanically you’re just walking around
fighting big ugly monsters, but it’s the scattered ship logs and event descriptions
that provides not only the backstory to just what happened here but also an intangible
feeling of oppressive discomfort and dread. Before the age of photorealism in videogames,
text flavoring was just how things were done, especially if the developer wanted to really
flesh out some grisly details. Similarly I remember playing Fallout 2 as
a teen and noticing that down in the combat description box a narrative spilling out about
how my character had stepped in radioactive sludge and grew an extra toe. It wasn’t information that was crucial to
the adventure nor could it have been represented in teeny tiny pixilated detail. But the unease I felt reading it stuck with
me; I relived that moment playing Buck Rogers. RPGs are more than story driven games, they’re
storytelling games. A DM, or the computer plays the part of the
narrator. So when Buck Rogers describes the audio disks
floating in zero gravity around the trashed dormitory that’s the DM setting the stage
for action. But a real RPG isn’t complete without the
player response, the player’s choice. It’s the players who provide substance. Buck Rogers allows players some freedom in
choosing the manner in which quests are solved. Every encounter need not end in bloodshed
should the party happen to include a character who meets the ordained stat requirement. And sometimes it’s possible to talk your
way out of combat entirely. This might just be my favorite aspect of the
game; I love the feeling that my choices matter even if ultimately all forked roads lead to
the same finale. As much as I enjoyed Buck Rogers’s dedication
to delivering an authentic pen and paper experience it was not without its quirks; for one map
navigation is alien and unintuitive. You don’t directly control your guy as much
as you input a directional command and he steps a single block in that direction. It’s not bad, it’s just a different and
personally it took me longer than I feel comfortable admitting before I finally stopped ramming
my little dude into walls and dead ends. Again I don’t offer this information as
a criticism as much as a warning. I know how tempting it is to drop a game like
a red shirt Trekkie if your first impression is pure confusion. And then there’s the grenades, which are
awesome. They make things explode, except you can’t
reequip gear mid battle so before you even trigger an encounter you have to decide whether
your character should carry a weapon or an explosive. And then you can’t even switch explosive
types. So maybe you want to start the battle out
with fog grenades to obscure visibility – which is great except after that first throw that
character has literally nothing else to do the entire encounter except skip his turn
and bear witness to the slaughter. And that sucks. My final gripe is with skill gains. After acquiring a thousand XP or so you can
visit a training facility to level up your dudes. And some skills are super important (Zero-Gravity
Maneuvering!) and some are totally pointless (such as library search – the only place
I found that even allowed a library check was the… well… the library and reward
was a bit more XP. I essentially traded thousands of XP for like
200. That’s a shit trade game, a shit trade.) Anyway, only your warrior characters can train
in weapon specialization even though every character participates in battle. You don’t notice much of a difference at
the start of the adventure when everyone sucks equally, but as your characters advance the
disparity really becomes apparent and, sure, your warriors become badass MVPs but everyone
else is still awful. Ok, maybe giving them all grenades isn’t
such an inconvenience after all. In the end, rocket launchers are the true
equalizer. When your party isn’t delving dungeons,
they’re sailing around space and blowing up baddies. Random ship battles are- a thing. They’re never very challenging, or perhaps
I’ve never found them to be because I always made sure to include a very capable Space
Jockey on my team roster. My tactic is to aim for my opponent’s engines
and hull, shortly leaving behind a blackened withered husk adrift in void. After all that’s what RAM lackeys get for
being evil bellends. Speaking of bellends- actually I don’t have
a tie-in to that but I do want to discuss combat. Regular battles are handled tactical style,
I don’t know what it is about the Genesis but like half the RPGs for the system use
combat grids. I dunno, it’s weird. But a good weird because I love moving my
dudes around a 3 dimensional space. I appreciate how combat can be as straight
forward or complicated as you’re willing to make it. Personally I tend to rush in, open fire, and
call it day. I also die a lot. But a careful player willing to exploit the
grenade system can establish a proper defense to the point of blocking enemy explosions
entirely. Which is extremely useful in late game encounters
when apparently rocket launchers become standard issue armaments for RAM soldiers. All in all Buck Rogers is a decent table top
style Roleplaying experience, it may lack visual appeal, but for those who appreciate
tactical battles and lots and lots of reading it’s one of the better RPGs available on
the Genesis. And that’s not even a back handed compliment. Really. I love Genesis RPGs. Particularly this one.