I have previously spoken about a console based, role playing game golden age during the early 1990’s largely under the guidance of Electronic Arts. I began with my favourite RPG of the time, Starflight, because in many ways it typifies that eras E.A. approach to a good RPG. Gameplay, suspense, adventure and ease of play were everything, graphics and sound came a distant second and third. This is a lesson which modern games designers, outside of some flashgame creators, seem to have forgotten. So while the market is flooded with games which are undeniably beautiful to look at, and often even more beautiful to listen to, but are almost completely lacking where gameplay and easily understood controls are concerned.
However Electronic Arts didn’t have it entirely their own way in the 90’s. There was one game producer in particular who would do their damnedest to give E.A. a good kicking. That producer was Strategic Simulations, Inc. (now owned and shut down by Ubisoft) While they’re probably most famous for their WarGames, and the Phantasie series of role playing games, it is their multi platform Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday which will always be my favourite of their releases.
Set in TSR’s Buck Rogers XXVC table top setting the storyline, and style of this game was bizarre to anyone who was raised on the 1979 NBC series. Gone was interstellar travel, no mention of the Draconian Empire, no biscuit tin supercomputers, and no annoying walking tin can going “beedeebeedee” all the frikkin’ time. Instead you got a human race who having colonised every survivable environment, had started to terraform Mars and Venus, as well as having mutated into several sub races. You also got incredible spacecraft echoing more to the 1980’s Flash Gordon movie than anything you’ve seen in an American science fiction anything in the last 30 years.
The game has the player leading a small squad of six agents in a covert war against RAM the despotic Russo-American Mercantile. Along the way you join forces with Wilma Deering and Buck Rogers himself, as you battle basically everything that crosses your path.
What makes this game special to me, aside from the setting I’m a total sucker for anything Buck Rogers, is the fact that while SSI created a wonderful RPG of that era, they didn’t ignore their wargaming heritage. So the combat is well thought out, well executed, with different play styles depending on whether you are fighting on land or in space. The story is engrossing, so much so that I played it through twice back to back when I originally got it. And played it again before writing this piece. It’s a wonderfully fun game, nothing is too serious, aside from the Doomsday in the title of course, and in a way it’s kind of sweet. I mean sweet for a game where you slaughter dozens of ships crews, hundreds of ground troops and then outfit yourself with the blood soaked weapons and armor you loot from their still warm corpses.
I won’t say much more on this, but I will say this. You’re most likely to come across a Sega Megadrive/Genesis copy of this game online. And that’s fine, but if you’re lucky enough to find a source for the ms-DOS version play that. The Sega version had a machete taken to it, removing a lot of options, and majorly truncating the skills system. It’s still a good game and well worth a playing even in that version, but the DOS version is where the real hardcore geekery is to be found.
Oh and to really make you pine for those halcyon days of classic American scifi, here’s the opening credits and theme song of the pilot movie from 1979. Nom Erin Gray.
*note to self buy series on DVD.