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Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday

Amiga game review, ADF downloads, screenshots, ratings and insights
Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday is a science fiction RPG built off of the legendary Gold Box engine developed and published by Strategic Simulations (SSI) in 1990. It was the only sci-fi Gold Box title ever made for Amiga; all others were straight-up fantasy games featuring TSR’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) universe. And why Buck Rogers of all licenses was used is an interesting and convoluted story in and of itself.

It turns out a businesswoman named Lorraine Dille Williams, who acquired TSR and the rights to Dungeons and Dragons after working there for years, also inherited the rights to Buck Rogers from her grandfather, John Dille, in a family trust. He had created a very successful comic strip syndication business that spanned several decades, and he somehow acquired the rights to the Buck Rogers trademarks along the way. Incredibly, the ownership of the character was still being litigated between Ms. Williams and the creator’s family as recently as 2017. Don’t you just love it when beloved brands get tied up in the courts for decades well after it makes logical sense to anyone else on the planet?

Back in 1990 Williams convinced SSI to create a computer game to help establish the Buck Rogers franchise as it was launched to the RPG gaming world in various forms. And SSI did a pretty decent job - better than some of the D&D games that the engine was actually designed for, to be honest.

However, Buck Rogers is one of the most baffling games that left me in knots as I prepared for this review.

On the one hand it is by far the most innovative Gold Box game in the series since the very first title, Pool of Radiance, was introduced. There’s no doubt about it. The game’s entire universe and rules were rewritten from scratch to live within the engine’s D&D-focused constraints, and brand new combat sequences were introduced with simply no equal across any of the fantasy titles.

But on the other hand, the game consists of a hand-wavy overall plot and a forgettable and often random set of characters. Buck Rogers was way before my time so I didn’t really know who he was, what the hell was going on or why I should even care. Not to mention he’s barely even in the game, so why it was named after him I’m not entirely sure. Except, of course, because Trademarks.

The fact this entire universe is named after a single person feels rather forced. It would have been as if Star Wars had been named Luke Skywalker instead, which really would have been awful and limited the scope of what was yet to come.

Realizing Buck wasn’t exactly a household name for its target audience, SSI actually included a Buck Rogers paperback novel inside the physical box of some of the versions it shipped (e.g. the C64 version) so people - in theory - could read about him before playing the game. I have the book but I simply started playing. I’m pretty sure most folks did exactly what I did, too.

Thankfully the manual is pretty nice in setting the stage and helping you gain your bearings.

But based on the quaint and antiquated ship designs and the art direction of Buck and others in the game, I pretended instead that I was playing in a hybrid Flash Gordon world with familiar Battlestar Galactica characters (from the SyFy channel) to really get into the sci-fi mood. It helped a ton.

If you’ve played any of the Gold Box engine games before, this game will feel quite familiar as you get started. At least, until you need to actually create characters. You might *think* you know what you’re doing, but you really won’t. Not at first, anyway.



Character Creation & Skills

I originally decided to build my party like one I would have made in a fantasy setting, since that’s what I was used to doing. It wasn’t easy as it’s just not a one-to-one comparison to my D&D comfort zone. And that’s totally to be expected. Regardless, I went for two strong warriors (fighters/paladins), one medic (cleric), a rocket jock that I treated like a fighter (no real comparison, but I’m not getting on a spaceship unless someone knows how to fly it), and two engineers. I imagined the engineers being like ship mechanics originally, which seemed like it could be important, but in hindsight I’m not so sure. If I were to replay this game from scratch, I’d probably change it to be 4 warriors, 1 medic and 1 rocket jock. I could have taught the warriors engineering skills and simply kicked more ass with strength and weapons bonuses, seems like.

On paper, though, the balance I was going for looked right to me for a sci-fi crew.

The really hard part is you’re asked to use skill points to add weights to a character’s unique abilities. And there are pages of them. For example, an engineer might want Repair Weapon (which none of my characters ever used) or Mathematics, Computer Programming or being skilled at using ship Sensors. Truth is, you’ve really got zero clue which skills are important when you start out, and easily over half the points I spent were likely wasted on cool-sounding traits that simply never got used in the game as far as I could tell. You have to just use your best judgement and realize half-way through the game which skills you *should* have chosen but never did. Oops! I’m looking at you Befriend Animal!

It’s interesting at some level, and when you use the skills and succeed in your saving throws it’s pretty cool. But you often find yourself wandering through the pages of skills completely at a loss for the most part of what you should value. Kind of annoying. Skills had the potential to be a powerful aspect of the game, but it feels less deep as you progress through the game and actually feels kind of unfinished.

Some of the skills sound incredibly important, and even require multiple levels of experience to unlock. But I couldn’t tell if they ever really made that big of a difference with a couple of minor exceptions. Planetology, anyone? Now that I’ve played and finished the game, there were probably about 10 total skills I’d want to spread across my party and simply max them out. All the rest (and there are a LOT)? Noise.

Pro-tip: Make sure you give your characters good Zero G skills when you are adding skill points.

One of the nice visual perks with this game is you get to choose from a brand new set of character icons, and they look pretty slick. You can’t edit them, however, like you can in all of the other games. You can only pick them and name them. That’s it. Don’t want to be a blonde, or wear green pants or hold a bazooka? Too bad, Johnny! Now quit your belly achin’ and load up.

Also on the visual front, the cut scenes and environmental graphics have been given a very nice new coat of paint. All in all, I liked the minor graphical updates this release received.

Funny side note: One of the skills you can beef up is Jet Pack. Not really knowing what this was, I outfitted one of my characters with the skill and device and decided to use it once. AFAIK, you can only use it during outdoor battles, like on a planet’s surface. Anyway, I assumed when I used that skill during battle it would vastly increase my move distance. What actually happened was she zipped and blinked all over the screen for several seconds and just randomly landed far away from all of the action. It was totally surprising and hilarious. I never wound up using it again.


Story

The early missions of Buck Rogers easily offers the most tightly integrated story implementation out of any of the Gold Box games I've ever played. Screen after screen after screen of story are to be found nearly every step of the way - not in the manual in fits and jerks like usual. It's SO much better than previous Gold Box incarnations, it's frankly jaw-dropping. The fact that I totally understood what was going on in a game in the Buck Rogers universe better than most Dragonlance implementations, well... I never thought that would be possible. 

The story delivery is just fan-f'ing-tastic with this one. To be honest, in the beginning I felt like I was almost in a finely crafted horror/sci-fi setting more akin to Aliens, and loved every second of it. It set the stage by describing horrific scenes of things floating in zero gravity in the various rooms of a seemingly dead spaceship I was exploring. And reading the computer logs of dead NPCs was super creepy and the mood was amazing.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

After the first few handful of missions were behind me that tightly integrated story and moody atmosphere mostly flew out the nearest air lock. The various planetary missions were pretty cool, but they felt more like “Traditional Goldbox” games at that point. They were easy enough to follow and looked nice, but the mood shifted from thick and engaging to a much more typical feel. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t maintain the absolute excellence it delivered in the beginning. By the end I found myself in a mind-bending environment akin to Mardi Gras with all of the characters dressed like french royalty from the 18th century. It was a bit jarring to say the least and seemed to lack any context as to what I had been doing up to that point.

The fatal flaw of this game’s story really was the Bad Guy, or lack thereof. You never meet or engage with whoever or whatever is in control of RAM (Mars-based Russo-American Mercantile). RAM is what’s setting up the doomsday device that destroys entire planets and civilizations (sound familiar?). But RAM is a seemingly headless and voiceless army, which is just kind of weird and doesn’t make a ton of sense. Who’s giving the orders? Who’s in charge?

You will ultimately destroy the technological equivalent of a Death Star planet destroyer and “Save the Earth.” But you’ll never actually deal with whatever controls the vast army you’ll fight all along the way. Perhaps this was done under the idea that some folks might want to continue playing the game after beating it (which is possible) and those evil RAM forces are still going to attack because, like the Empire in Star Wars, they still exist throughout the solar system.

Or maybe it’s an aspect of the original Buck Rogers universe that there is no one in charge of RAM. Maybe RAM is more like the Borg found in Star Trek (I’m trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, because I sincerely don’t know and haven’t read the novel). But from a story standpoint in a game, it’s kind of strange to finish things and never engage the mastermind behind all of the conflict you’ve been battling against.

I would have preferred meeting it and beating it, then watch it somehow escape at the very end thus leading to a tease of a potential Part 2. You know, sort of like Vader’s ship spiraling off into space or Ming’s ring glowing after his death and his faceless, echoey laughter is heard right before the the credits roll.

The story really started strong then soft-landed to a unsatisfying conclusion. I’m only reiterating this point because I really loved the beginning so much. I also very much liked the non-linear feeling derived from the exploration of the various locations in space, the planets and space stations. While the missions themselves are quite linear, the path you take to get to them is pretty much up to you. I really liked that aspect of the game. For a finite game world it felt pretty open to me for the most part.


Combat & Healing

When you first start the game, if you pick any warriors you’ll be asked to select a weapon proficiency which can give them a +1 bonus. Good luck with that choice as you’ll likely have very little clue what to pick and you’ll often need to swap weapons anyway.

After that, it will become immediately clear that most if not all of your characters will depend on some form of gun for combat, each model with their own pros and cons. Some guns will reliably hit RAM foes. Some - even if they hit - will produce zero damage. Good luck finding out which guns do what to whom along the way. Bottom line: diversification of weaponry is a good idea until you start to learn the effects of each.

There were some guns that I acquired that were insanely expensive and therefore presumably powerful that never created damage to a single foe. Not once. It got to the point where most of my characters had at least 3-4 different ranged weapons so I could do fast swaps on the fly.

As a result of all the gun humping, the legendary tactical battles the Gold Box engine provides become heavily dumbed down in this game. Most of the previous tactical considerations that made combat so cool are thrown out the window. You might outfit one or two of your strongest characters with fancy swords (yep, I don’t get it, either) but everyone else will simply stand from a distance and shoot. There’s virtually no need to even move your characters around as most ranged weapons can shoot from insanely far away with good accuracy. It can make battles rather boring after a while.

Pro-tip: Some of your strongest fighters really should be given swords for battle. Sometimes when they hit they will get the chance to hit multiple times and they can do serious damage. Sounds weird, but it’s true. You’ll find some unique swords in the game that can really rock. So at least 2 of your best fighters should hang onto these and use them.

There is no magic in this game, nor any technological equivalent, so you never do any kind of pre-combat prep. You can’t use any sort of force fields or unique tech armor (beyond space suits, which don’t sound like something I’d want to do battle in) or cyborg implant enhancements or anything like that, which is a shame. So simply eliminate that part of the equation from your preconceived notions, you crusty old Gold Boxer!

To be fair, magic was often overly powerful in the D&D games, but a total lack of an equivalent mechanic feels like this game is missing something. I think the skills are supposed to help fill that gap, but they aren’t used in the game that often. At least, not in any way where you need to make roll playing choices or pre-combat selections.

On top of all of this, the healing mechanics were completely re-written, too.

In Buck Rogers, you can’t heal your characters in the heat of battle. I can’t tell you how many times I pored over the manual in vain looking to figure out how to do this. You just can’t. You have to wait until a battle has concluded and simply hope your medic does his or her job well enough. The healing occurs automatically when the battle is over, and it’s not a guarantee your characters will get all of their health back. Medics and those skilled in First Aid get one shot at it, unless you head to a space station (which is not an option if you’re in the middle of a mission on a planet or derelict spaceship or whatever).

I became so frustrated with this change to the core game play that at one point, in order to increase my depleted hit points before an unusually difficult battle, I went searching for a smaller fight in the hopes my characters would get some healing afterwards. It worked - but having the ability to Camp and Heal would have been freaking nice. Looking for street fights in the hopes your Medics will get another chance to do their jobs feels a bit broken. I guess there’s no camping and no time to rest when you’re on Mars. Buck up, soldier!



Economy

For the first half of the game or so, the economy actually felt just about right. And that is huge praise for a Gold Box game. At least, the process of acquiring and selling gear to buy more gear had just the right amount of grind. Granted each character could carry enough to fill a U-Haul mover truck, but I’m not complaining. Have you ever played Breath of the Wild? Link can carry the equivalent load of an aircraft carrier.

Unlike the fantasy titles, I wasn’t drowning in jewels and treasure. But fairly soon it became obvious that for the most part the only things worth buying at any of the shops were ammo and grenades. Other than that, I had nearly no need to spend my hard earned “credits” anywhere. But, ammo ate up most of the credits I’d earned anyway, so it seemed pretty balanced if a bit boring and narrow minded.

The one exception to this rule was supplies for my spaceship that I used to travel around the solar system. It ate up fuel very quickly, and it wasn’t cheap to refuel or restock ammo even though I’d been given an enormous amount of “spaceship cash” at the beginning of the game. But it does run out quickly as you explore the asteroid belt on the space map. And for some reason the funds for ship repairs used a totally different currency than everything else in the game, which I never understood. But you just run with it.

However, as soon as you attack, board and capture another ship (you really only need to do it once at a bare minimum) you’ll never have to worry about money ever again. At least, not “ship money.”

After the halfway point as is typical with all Gold Box games, you simply stop trying to gain any kind of wealth at all because it’s fairly meaningless and feels like wasting time. Buck Rogers’ economy actually felt a lot closer to being fair in the beginning, then as Paul Simon once sang, it slip-slided away.



Combat Bots and Game Flow (mild spoilers)

In theory, the game allows for non-linear exploration. But the core missions on the planets require a particular flow. At least, Mercury can’t be accessed until Mars has been fully completed. Whether you decide to go to Mars or Venus first is really up to you. However I discovered - painfully - that my party could not beat Mars before Venus, which was the direction I originally took. I’ll explain why.

As I’ve mentioned before, the tactical combat aspects of Buck Rogers are pretty thin. Since there is no magic, and since nearly all of your characters will be carrying guns, you mainly just stand around and shoot at your enemies while they shoot at you. At the end of a battle, your medics do their job and you continue on your way.

However, there is one particular battle on Mars I could never beat until my characters had enough hit points to survive the insane situation. There are enemies called Combat Bots, and at the very end of the Mars Mission you’ll find two of them in a very small room. You have to defeat them in order to complete the Mars mission.

This particular scenario nearly made me rage quit the game a couple of times, and it soured my opinion of it during a time I thought Buck Rogers would become a favorite.

Combat bots are large foes that have extremely low armor classes. No matter what your setup, your characters will struggle to hit them and cause any significant damage. Most ammo simply bounces right off of them if you’re lucky enough to hit them. Because you face them in a small room, you can really only stand there and take it and try to dish it out. It’s a last man standing situation, and the odds are not in your favor by design. And there are no real tactical strategies for you to employ, beyond saving this fight for a day when you’re strong enough to hopefully survive.

Combat Bots have two attacks.

One is a plasma flame bomb with enormous range and a ridiculous spread; it is the equivalent of a massive extreme-damage fireball that can consume half the viewable playfield. They will use this weapon if you aren’t standing right next to them. If some of your characters are straggling at the edges, they will get obliterated in 1-2 hits. If you’re standing right next to them, they instead use multi-shot needle guns which can unleash 20-50 points of damage per turn or thereabouts. And remember, there are two of these things. And they each have over 80 hit points, which in this game is a shit ton especially when you can barely hit them.

I tried to beat this part of the game for days across countless restarts. I finally gave up and decided to rather than quit the game entirely, I’d go enjoy other parts of it and increase my character’s HP along the way.

So, I backtracked in my Saves and flew to Venus instead, which was pretty fun and visually a nice change of pace. Everything was green! Green map, green 3D environments, green NPCs, green baby alien… we see a lot of red or blue palettes in these older games; it was nice to see green for a change.

I increased my characters stats a bit and went back to Mars. I still wasn’t able to beat the bots.

I was soooooo close to quitting again.

Instead, I decided one last time to “do other things” and became a space pirate, which was a blast and a very interesting aspect of the game unlike any other Gold Box effort. (pew pew!) I could see that my financial gains were leaping out of the stratosphere, but my character experience was not. It turned out that space pirating was a really slow way to grind your stats.

So after fully stocking up on ammo and fuel I tried to go to Mercury where another set of missions existed, but the spaceport doors wouldn’t open. You have to finish Mars first. Mercury, I learned, was the end-game mission and you couldn’t jump ahead to it.

After this discovery I clenched my jaw and went back to Mars.

I figured I’d give it one last try, one final night unless I succeeded. I spoke to the Amiga out loud, making sure it heard the sincerity in my voice. This was it, I told it, I wasn’t going to go beyond one more night, damn it.

I played for nearly 3 hours straight that night. (It takes quite a while just to get to the final room, the path to which I’d memorized at this point.)

And my entire crew died over. And over. And over.

I rotated characters, I rotated weapons, and at the end of the day it still completely depends on the lucky rolls of the dice to see if you go first or if the combat bots do. And if you do go first, it’s another roll to see which character goes first, etc.

After about 1.5 hours, I was able to sometimes kill one of the robots and I actually got the second one down to half-health. This boosted my morale to keep trying. I got the 2nd one down to 12 points. Then, brutally, I got it down to 5 points (5!!) before being wiped out.

My characters would miss their targets over 50% of the time against these things. The bots never miss, and they typically hit 5 times each go. The lack of fairness is so blatant it can make you cuss like a sailor in the middle of a church without batting an eyelash.

Also, the reason this all takes so long is two-fold. First, when you save the game outside the door where the battle begins you have to click at least 24 “Next” buttons to progress through a story that you’ve read 100 times before. Second, each battle takes about 8-10 minutes to complete. So you might get somewhere around 6-8 battles done per hour on average.

Anyway, after getting the 2nd bot down to 5 points I tried three more times (by this time my family was all asleep) and finally won.

The trick? There’s no trick. Except: you really do need to complete Venus first to get all of your characters hit points above 40 and at least two characters above 75 assuming you have two warriors (you better…), you need chaff grenades which I’ve only found on one base or via space pirating, and you need two heavy guns: a rocket launcher and a plasma gun. Oh, and you have to deliberately shoot your own characters with heavies and take huge damage along with the bots and hope for the best. Just like character creation at the beginning, you have to continuously and mindlessly Re-Roll until you finally win.

Easy peasy.

When it was all over I had 3 characters still standing, my strongest with less than 20 hit points remaining and 2 characters in single digits. Everyone else was either unconscious or comatose. Comatose characters can only be healed at space ports.

At one point during my shuffling of characters and weapons, I mistakenly gave my NPC one of the only 2 powerful guns I had in the game - the plasma gun. I did this based on where he was standing when the battles began and didn’t want to rotate characters. As a result, when I finally beat the mission I lost the gun. When you beat the battle the NPC tells you he’s staying on his homeward and leaves the party along with anything you may have given him. I tried to go into his Gear and trade the thing to another character. You can’t, as the Trade function isn’t shown.

Fuck.

I didn’t wind up missing it that much, but it would have been comforting to have in a couple of other situations I found myself in later in the game. You will encounter other battles with combat bots, but none quite like the final room on Mars.



Space Wars!

Easily the most innovative aspect of Buck Rogers over all of the other Gold Box games was the opportunity for space combat.

Pretending your characters are on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise can be very helpful here. One of your characters must assume command. I would flipflop between my character with the highest leadership skills and my Rocket Jock. Your engineers will typically either man various guns or “juryrig” parts of your ship that has taken damage. This is one of those places where the character skill selections really comes into play in a very cool way. My engineers also would sometimes do things like use Sensors which would tell me the status of the other ship’s various key systems.

There are several types of ships you might encounter in space. You can either hail them, try to bluff them or simply fight them. If it’s a gigantic ship, you’re probably going to want to just flee. That seemed to work every time for me. But if it’s a little ship, you’ve got an opportunity to do one of two things: either blow it up into space debris, or board and capture it.

If you destroy the ship entirely you’ll typically find some salvage floating in space which gets converted into monetary units. If, however, you board the ship - this is where things can really get cool.

The boarded ships are typically very small and simple layouts and don’t require mapping. You have to clear each level (there isn’t much to clear) of bad guys and use computer skills to shut the computers down in engineering (bottom deck) and ultimately take over the bridge (top deck). Once you do that you make a TON of cash, and it pretty much sets you up for life in this game. Life of a space pirate can be very rewarding and a lot of fun if you know how to pick your fights.



Conclusion

Buck Rogers is a very fun game most of the time, but it left me wanting more.

The wandering plot started so brilliantly but ultimately most of its power by the end and drifted off into space.

The game came so heart achingly close to genius, but the stripped down combat mechanics (and infuriating combat bot battle), mysterious skill selection and faceless enemy help explain why a sequel was never ported to Amiga. It was *so fucking close* to greatness it hurts to ponder what might have been.

We have to give it high marks for its ingenuity and overall effort considering the brand SSI was forced to work with. But at the end of the day this probably deserves around a 3.5/5 rating.



Technical Notes

I first installed this game on my A3000. The game was released in 1990 - the same year as my 3000 - so I wanted to be period accurate hardware-wise. But after making my characters and exploring for a couple of hours into the game it would crash. And it would consistently crash in the same general place during a battle every time.

After doing some research, I found an old usenet posting of someone back in 1990 complaining about the exact same issue I had. Turns out even the WHDLoad folks ran into this problem, too. (Read the Notes here, if you’re curious.)

But the game itself was aimed at the 500 and 2000. For some reason - since so much was likely changed in this game moving from fantasy to sci-fi - some pretty big bugs were introduced and never tested or addressed on 1000’s or 3000's before the game was shipped to market.

That A3000 user in 1990 contacted the tech support number for the game and was told the following:
“They said they did extensive testing (but only on an Amiga 500 & 2000).  The guy said he knew of no problems and the only thing he could suggest is to send the disks back and they would replace them with a new ones.  I guess I will try this, but with "no known problems" I doubt they have a fix.”


I wound up installing the game to my A1000 and it ran mostly fine there. I moved my Save contents over and ultimately didn't lose any data or progress.

As a result, I played Buck Rogers on an Amiga 1000 with 2 MB chip and with an Iomega Zip 100 attached and used as an integrated bootable hard drive.

The game would still occasionally lock up, however, but only very rarely and not consistently. It usually would happen during a battle sequence in an outdoor environment. But it once happened in an indoor isometric view, too, for no obvious reason I could discern. It seemed to happen when the computer was selecting enemy icons during battle.

It didn’t stop me from playing the game the way my 3000 did, though, and wasn’t that big of a deal. Just… odd. My guess is since SSI only tested this on the 500 and 2000, those machines should run the game just fine. YMMV.

There was one other bug I encountered that really drove me nuts. When I first created my characters I haphazardly selected character icons not really knowing what I was going for, and made some dumb choices.

On my second or third run, I went back and chose a completely new set based on the Battlestar character names I’d chosen. I picked new icons that visually made sense to me: I wanted Starbuck to be a woman with blonde hair, Cottle to be an old man with white hair, and so on. But for some reason, the game would not save my new icon set. For over half of the game I had to either run with character icons I just hated, two of which were identical which really made some combat scenarios confusing at first, or hand-pick my new set at the beginning of each game. Over, and over, and over.

As soon as I saved the game and quit, my icon choices would vanish the next time I fired up the game.

For no rhyme or reason that I can understand, around 80% of the way into the game my laboriously hand-picked icons finally stuck.

The ADFs provided on this page were taken from my original disks. Take a look in the Downloads section for links to PDF scans of the Log Book and Rule Book, which you'll need to 1) enjoy the story properly and 2) get past the copy protection.
3.5
2 total votes

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Anonymous

Wed Aug 19, 2020 4:10 am