Sunday, June 28, 2015

Game #41: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (Genesis) - Just a 25th Century Man (Finished)

Game 41

Title: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday
Released: 1991
Platform: Genesis
Developer: Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Publisher: EA
Genre: RPG
Exploration - Top-down
Combat - Turn based
Series - Buck Rogers (standalone on console)

There's not really a final screen, so this will do
I'd like to know the story behind how this was chosen as a title to port to Genesis while none of the other gold box games made it. Possibly FCI already had an exclusive license for those, and only released them on the NES. It's a difficult engine to port completely, even on the Genesis' trimming content was necessary. Half the races, those based on planets, and one class was cut from the game.
We prefer the term cannon fodder, now where do we pick up our red shirts?
There's a default party, but where's the fun in that? I created six new characters: 2 Desert Runners that excel in warrior classes, 3 humans that are, as always,  jack-of-all-trades with access to all classes, and 1 tinker that can only become a medic. This port misses out on the engineer class. Rerolling stats happens with the press of a button, and HP is rerolled whenever race or class changes. I wanted a good mix, so I settled on two warriors, one rocket jock (pilot), one rogue (security expert), and two medics. I thought medic skills, or any skill really, was an active ability rather than passive, and I liked the idea of maximizing my healing potential. Turned out that nearly every skill was automatic or encounter based.
My party configuration
In addition to stats, characters have a combination of 10 generic skills and 1 class specific. Every level a character gets 4 points to distribute among them, and characters begin the game at level 2. Skills are a mix of combat and encounter related abilities. Only 2 points per level can be put into a single skill. I'll explain skills as they become relevant.

The back story given in the manual describes a history of near collapse. After a period known as the Last Gasp War major countries formed alliances: the Russo-American Mercantile (RAM), the Euro-Bloc faction, and the Indo-Asian Consortium. These three formed a larger alliance to create technology that would allow for space exploration. Terraforming makes Mars and Venus habitable, and they're claimed by RAM and IAC respectively while the Euro-Bloc settles on the moon. Years later, old Earth fell to RAM forces. Many of the inhabitants were displaced to Mercury. Over a hundred years later rebels known as the New Earth Organization (NEO) start to fight for the independence of Earth.
Being briefed in-game
Buck Rogers thwarted a plan by the Soviets in 1995 to launch a weaponized space station called Masterlink. He successfully destroyed it, but in the ensuing blast his ship was damaged. As it hurtled through space he activated his cryogenic sleep, not knowing when he'd be rescued. The destruction of Masterlink is what triggered the Last Gasp War. The legend of Buck Rogers was repeated throughout history, and taken up specifically by NEO. In the year 2456, Buck Rogers was recovered, and now he fights on the side of NEO. With his help RAM was forced to abandon their interests on Earth; however, the threat of their forces still lingers while NEO attempts to rebuild. The party has signed up, and is ready to be transported to a space station orbiting Earth called Salvation.
when all of a sudden...
Good thing we've come prepared with laser pistols. Not my first choice of weapons, but I didn't exactly have a choice. Warriors gain a weapon specialization every even level, and I had chosen the rocket pistol for one and the mono blade for the other. I suppose I'll have to search for these some other time. The party came across a wounded officer during the attack. He commanded me to find the missile defense override; the automatic defense must have been jammed. With no specific direction I stood there blankly as the devastation around me escalated.
I wandered around disoriented, pressed back by explosions, and was reminded of just how much fun I had with the gold box titles once I entered combat. Those games, and this one, were known more for their set encounters rather than purely random battles. In this first area there were no less than eleven by the time I was finished, and a handful of those included decisions I had to make on the fly. Combat is handled via top-down turned based square grid movement. Turn order is based on each character's dexterity plus a random number. Thankfully for these early battles I was joined by other novice NEO recruits. Each battle allowed me to upgrade my armor from the spoils. While a few of them bit the dust, my party came away with no causalities. At the end of each battle, medics healed the party automatically based on their specialized skill. I couldn't tell if two medics made a difference.
The warrior's special skill allows them to take direct control of NPC troop, as well as give a chance to boost hit rate for the entire team
The final encounter for the base pitted my party against a group of elite Terrine fighters guarding a RAM technician working on the missile control console. After the battle I still had to deal with the technician. Instead of surrendering, he began to open fire with his laser pistol while still working the console. I had the option of firing, which could damage the console; charging, which is the one I chose; or duck and take cover. Charging seemed the most prudent option. I rushed forward and pinned him to the ground. Still some fight in him, he then pulled out a grenade and let the pin fly. Suddenly another choice, do I dive on the grenade or run away? Well, we are would be heroes after all.
Alright, who took the human shield skill?
Since Jinn had the highest current hit points, I elected for him to dive on the grenade. Luckily he survived, and the controls remained undamaged. We quickly brought the missile defenses online, and RAM's air superiority was eliminated. The surviving NEO troops secured the base and I received a small reward. After a debriefing I was sent to Salvation to begin my first mission. What an entrance! The commander greeted my party, and told me to look around a bit before getting my first mission from him. I unloaded my spoils in the equipment shop and purchased rocket pistols for everyone as well as some poison antidote, which turned out useless (I'm not sure how it's used, but I never got poisoned once during the game). My first mission was a simple salvage mission from nearby debris.
If that's not foreboding then I'm not sure what is
I'm out! Back to the ship guys
As soon as I stepped on board a ghostly figure wailed as it floated through the left wall. This was then punctuated by ship fire, followed by silence. Checking nearby scanners, the tug I had brought with me wasn't registering. My only course, figure out what happened to this ship, make it right, and fly it back to Salvation. It wasn't long before I ran into the first set of genetically modified creatures, affectionately called Gennies. Even though they looked like a cross between spiders and the predator from Alien, they were easily dealt with. The security robots on the other hand (I'm assuming they were released to contain the creatures) deflected my rocket pistols, so I had to fall back to lasers again.
That can't be good
I found the ship's hydroponics lab with a strange vine that wrapped itself around my party. I thought it might drain out whatever was causing the rash, but if it did, it didn't stop there. The party was quickly drained to death. So, it's going to be that kind of game. I reloaded, and investigated the room to my left immediately upon entry (the one the ghost escaped through). It was a an office where a body floated weightlessly about with various tapes. Listening to each one I gathered small bits of information about what happened here. They were planning some kind of attack on Earth, but something went wrong. I retrieved a sigma code from one Dr. Williams, and learned about someone named Scot that he couldn't reach. The rash, which started with an itch, grew into a headache. This sounded bad, and it was getting worse. It was also spreading to the other party members.
Yep, definitely getting worse
On the third floor of the ship I learned that Scot was pro-Earth, which explained his sudden unresponsiveness. Another man by the name of Vilnikov was dead in a room surrounded by the ECG (I'm not certain what this stands for, but the G is Gennie). He had another sigma number on him, and a log that identified a gas that could subdue the creatures. I then found an air shaft that I took me to the fifth floor. In the engineering room I found Scot.DOS, a personality program created by Scot, who confirmed he was trying to defect to NEO. I connected him to the main computer, and he warned me that the creatures would soon molt to stage 3.
Oh good, he's awake, wait, he's attacking now
In another room I found the security console that controlled the robots. My rogue disabled them; one less threat to worry about. I ascended one more level using the main ladder, and found the creatures had control of the bridge. There was a barricade that attracted them every time I tried to move it. I returned to the fourth floor I bypassed earlier. There I found a medical bay. The computer announced, "Please enter Sigma number." I had the choice of entering the sigma numbers for Williams, Vilnikov, or Conchitez, who lay on one of the medical tables splayed open. The autopsy logs noted a parasite, and a method to protect against it. Just then Jett Phewl (my pilot) collapsed. I needed to act quickly. My options were to speak a sigma number or reprogram it. I didn't have faith in my party's programming ability since I didn't devote many points into that skill. I took a gamble and spoke the sigma number of Vilnikov. It worked, parasite removed and party fully healed.
Buck? That should work on a RAM ship
Scot tapped into the medical computer, and found it was Argon gas that could subdue the growing infestation. With my party now at full health and free of impending doom from within, I now had to deal with the one surrounding me. In the first floor cargo bay I found the Argon canisters I needed. Installing those in the air pumps on the second floor was an easy matter once I found the correct room. However, we weren't out of the woods yet. The Gennies were evolving rapidly, and learned how to operate the controls. They reversed the air flow, preventing the gas from dispersing. I scrambled for the correct console to override the air flow, but finally located it on deck 1.
Nice inconspicuous console in the middle of a wall
The ECGs started to swarm on my position, but instead of retreating, I stood my ground to ensure the argon gas was sent to all decks. The effect was quick. Finally a reprieve... just then Scot shouts at me to get to the control room quickly as a mechanical voice announced the self destruct system activated with a count of 20. This game does not let up. On deck 6, I quickly broke down the barricade without the threat of ECGs, and found the control panel to disarm the sequence. Then a stage 3 ECG, a humanoid creature with black eyes, appeared from the airlock. As I neared, another appeared. After that battle I found another alone, setting a demo charge. I opened fire, shot him into an escape pod, and launched it. The resulting explosion rocked the ship, but all was safe.
Back at HQ the party received command of the ship, and the responsibility of figuring out what's going on
After the first real mission I was already level 4 out of a max of 8. I focused leveling up two skills for each character, mostly their class specialization and one other skill. For my second warrior though I decided to forgo the leadership/tactics. Instead I made him a demolition and climbing expert. Library research turned out to be a fairly useless skill as it reveals only minor hints. I invested at least one point from everyone into first-aid and rocket repair so I would never be without some way to regain health. The Zero-G skill was a minor distraction. I had the warriors and rogue invest in stealth, but it's only use is in battle to gain back attacks. Had I known that I wouldn't have bothered. One of my medics specialized in fast talk, which helped in a number of situations. My other warrior was a pro in perception, although it was difficult to tell when that came into play. Knowing what I do now, I would have trained my rogue more in programming. Whenever it came time to use it I never succeeded.
Encountering a RAM scout on patrol
Ship to ship combat is another turn based affair of a different sort. Ships range in distance from 4 to 0. Withdrawing at range 4 ends combat. Getting to range 0 allows the crew to board and possibly capture the enemy ship. Doing so awards the party a salvage fee based on what condition the ship was left in. Each party member in order gets to act, either firing or arming weapons. The ability to hit is directly linked to their normal combat ability. Lasers, missiles, and cannon fire are the only options, and only available at certain ranges. The last two also have limited ammo. Causing damage to weapons reduces the number of attacks. Damage to the controls and engines reduces a ships ability to maneuver. Reducing the hull to 0 destroys the ship. Balancing the reward of a salvage with the proximity to active weapon systems takes some finesse, although money isn't really necessary so I avoided this kind of combat as much as I could.
Exploration mode opens after the acquiring the ship. RAM scouts act as random encounters while the four inner planets and asteroid clusters act as points of interest
Equipment is limited to grenades, guns, and melee weapons while a linear armor line acts as the only line of defense. All equipment aside from grenades come in either a standard, martian, venusian, mercurian, or lunarian variety, which essentially ranges from +0 to +4. Guns come in a pistol variety that are either laser, heat, needle, or rocket based, and a specialty variety such as rocket and plasma launchers. Some enemies are able to deflect or absorb certain types of guns. There is also a grenade launcher, but it only acts to enhance the range of grenades. The variety of grenades includes defensive, inhibiting, or damaging. The inhibitors are the dazzle, which blind the enemy, and stunner. For defense, mist blocks laser fire while chaff blocks rockets and grenades. My party ended up carrying two or three pistols, and my medics had an assortment of grenades.
Second mission, infiltrate a base on Ceres where the destitute ship was headed
Upon arriving at Ceres I posed as part of the crew, and used my fast talk skill to convince the guard when questioned about Dr. Williams. The base was locked down, and I was led to the only accessible elevator to rescue some children on the second floor. The guards destroyed the elevator shaft to ensure the creatures didn't escape. The children were easy enough to find, and the creatures weren't half as bad as the ones I'd faced on the ship. There were a number of interesting bits of information I gathered, especially with the help of one eager child that seemed to know I wasn't really part of RAM.
Like this super powerful laser, which was too heavy to carry
I managed to get the children out to their evacuating ship. While making my own escape I was too focused on reviewing all the new information, such as the location of their Mars base at Gradivus Mons, that I accidentally ran headlong into a band of pirates. I put up a valiant fight, but I was outclassed by the persistence of the game designers that I be captured during this particular encounter. After being ambushed, immediately boarded, and fighting through three waves of pirates, I entered a scripted event where my entire party succumbed to a flood of stun grenades. I found myself in the clutches of Talon, a well known pirate. I challenged him to a one-on-one match, but he had weapons and armor while my guy was stripped down. Not exactly fair, so I tried to make a run for it. Talon didn't appreciate that, called me a coward, and ordered me into a cell. Back in my cell I saw an opportunity to break free. I disabled the security field and rushed for the door only to nearly run headlong into Buck Rogers himself, coming to my rescue of all things.
Just look at him... no, can't trade equipment from an NPC to a PC
Buck had a plan to get us out, and provided my equipment. The ship was too well guarded to make a break for it, so first we headed to Talon's office to look for a way to distract the engineers. I stopped by the armory on the way and picked up a rocket launcher (which I accidentally sold soon after my escape).  Honestly, every time there was a skill check Buck was there to lend a hand in case I couldn't cover it. In battle, he never got hit, actively dodged grenades, and tended to my fallen members. He led me around from setting up a distraction in the mess hall to sneaking past the engineers to blast apart their consoles, crippling the ship. This whole endeavor was completed by Buck dragging my party around half-dead as we escaped on our separate ships.
I don't think I ever did find Garrity or the secret base he was supposed to send me off to
Back at headquarters I received two direct missions: find Jason Dupare in the radium mine on Thule to get information on the Doomsday Project, and investigate the Mars base at Gradivus Mons. Well, I stopped by Thule, but didn't find Mr. Dupare at all. There are various space stations floating about the solar system with generic hubs. Headquarters and gyms act as training centers to increase character levels. Bars can have some good info, and on occasion have minor encounters, but cost money to stick around. The equipment shop will buy up battle spoils, and sell weapons. I hardly found use for purchasing equipment as most of the best ones came from combat. The library is a good source of hints for future encounters as long as someone has a good score in the library research skill. Each time a new hint is learned 100 experience is awarded. On Thule I didn't find anything more than a prison operated by robots. There was one door that I couldn't bypass with my programming, and if Jason was in there I never got the chance to speak with him due to my lousy skill level.
While Thule was a bust, Mars proved quite fruitful
On Mars I bypassed a RAM scout (by obliterating it), and made friends with the Desert Runners. They tested my mettle, and I helped defend their village from RAM forces. In the end though, the village was overrun, but I left a booby trap that took out the rest of the invaders. The remaining villagers assembled near a blue rock; Atha and Tuskon, the tribe's leaders, led a raid against the nearby RAM base. While the Runners distracted the troops, Tuskon and I secreted into an access tunnel to take the base from the inside. I freed some apes that helped scramble the guards, announced a level three bio-hazard warning for the base, and then opened the front gates. RAM never stood a chance.
How does RAM's plans go from ECG invasion to giant doomsday laser?
As I continued to chase down all research on the laser, I found a functional mini laser. I set it to self-destruct, a standard function on all space age technology. I shouted a warning over the intercom to evacuate, and then ran for the door myself. The entire base went up in flames as the tribe celebrated a great victory. As a parting gift, Atha gave me some security cards she happened to find while exploring the base. I could've sworn I checked every room for items.
Sounds like Buck, good luck man, I'm going to focus on the main quest, thanks
Checking back in with HQ, I found that a base on Venus was manufacturing the lens for the lasers I'd found. On the planet's surface I were another group of natives at arms against RAM. It seems RAM was trying to clean up all the evidence of this laser. I found one by the name of Leander, who sadly died in the next battle. When I returned to my ship to heal him he vanished from my party. In the village, there's only one, I rescued a small child who accompanied me for the rest of my infiltration. I accidentally gave him a rocket pistol, but he put it to good use actually. At the RAM installation I found an unguarded access tunnel where for the first time I used by climb skill. I destroyed the fleet of gliders poised to attack the natives before accessing the main lab.
Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right...
Information on Venus pointed me to the Mercurian Mariposas as the next stop in this interplanetary adventure. Before I made my way there I helped the Lowlander Landon, who's son I'd been dragging about, and his friends escape from this facility. He informed me of a retinal lockpick, which should come in handy during my next mission. With that I climbed back through the access tunnel to my terrain rover, and blasted off back to HQ. The commander informed my that Atha had been kidnapped, but my top priority was to go to Mercury. "That's an order," he added.
Then Buck showed up
So, I went to Mercury. Sorry Buck, not everyone can be a maverick like you. The security cards Atha gave me granted me access to the Mariposas. This place was an elite resort, the perfect place to build a deadly space laser. I did my best to blend in without drawing attention to myself, and managed to slip through most of security and into the core. Ascending the core I found medallions on three floors, which granted me an audience with the sun king. I had to stretch my brain a bit as he enjoyed communicating mostly in French.
Viva la bluff, actually I just agree with everything he said
The sun king controlled the defense system further up the core. With those disabled I painlessly made my way to the top. I think I agreed to disable and deliver the laser to him, but like that's going to happen. I climbed up from the fourth to ninth level without incident. Upon arriving, an announcement sounded over the intercom: "Weapons system armed..." Scot.DOS yelled at me to find the power room on the weapons control level to disable the countdown. No time to check every room I ran straight to what I hoped were stairs up. Luckily I was correct; I climbed up.
That looks fun, but maybe later
Past the level with escape pods I arrived on the weapon control floor. With a 15 count to spare I found the power, climbed up (skill check), and disabled the weapons system. The backup power kicked in, but the countdown was already interrupted. I bypassed a door with the retinal lock pick, and made my way to the weapons control room. Inside were a couple of tough battles back to back. Actually, only the first was difficult with three attack bots, engineers, and officers. Chaff grenades are the only reason I survived. I activated the self-destruct sequence, and watched the fireworks... wait, I'm still on the station.
Yep, definitely agreed to give the Sun King the laser
Yep, definitely shouldn't be here anymore
I raced back to the escape pod level, found the first pod, and opened the door. Well, attempted to open the door. I received a warning that I had not yet prepped the pod for departure from the escape pod control terminal. What kind of emergency escape pod needs prepping? With a count of 15 on the clock, I took a chance and blew open the hatch door with a demolition charge. Escape pod still intact we were fired to safety. Back at HQ I was commended for my actions. Suddenly everyone in the galaxy was then aware of what terrible people the RAM forces were.
and a special thank you from Bucky boy
This was a fun game although rather easy. I'm really looking forward to Pool of Radiance now, as this sparked a lot of memories of playing gold box games, especially that one. You may have noticed that I cut Robin Hood early from the list. I had planned to play through it, but it didn't turn out quite enough. Once again I seem to be slow in writing up these posts. I meant to divide this one, but then the game just ended. Sorry for the long post, but enjoy the short rating.

Elapsed Time: 10h18m (Final Time: 10h18m)
The credit roll was well done
Combatant - Combat was a bit too easy. I rarely felt challenged even when half my team was dying off. Enemies tended to feel samey, and their AI varied more based on their available weapons than anything else. I suppose it makes sense for grenades, rocket launchers, and plasma guns to do lots of damage, but it really hampers the strategic aspects.
Rating: 6
Some artists to blame or praise
Admirer - There's a great deal of customization for the team, and even individual characters. The skill system comes into play often enough to matter. There might be ways to completely cripple a character, but who's going to invest in a perceptive librarian. The character portraits only include a male and female human version, even if other races are used. The battle icons are chosen from a set instead of built, but I suppose trying to fit one of the old gold box's mix-and-match creation kits might be a bit much to hope for on console.
Rating: 6
Why couldn't I be a predator?
Puzzler - I gave this a rather average rating due to weak side plots, puzzles that work well yet are limiting (didn't get programming, can't do this part), and while multiple solutions exist for some everything leads to the same outcome.
Rating: 5
No slight against you guys, you made a good game
Instigator - One of the weaker points was the story. Everything seemed rather disconnected. The numerous space stations are rather sparse, and there aren't a lot of descriptions in the game for the various locations or equipment. Encounters spice this up a bit. In the end the story isn't formed around the player's actions, it's laid out as a path to follow.
Rating: 4
I don't even remember seeing this guy
Collector - Nope, this is not a collector's game. There are quite a number of limited items. One could choose to attempt to find all the best equipment, but I'm not even sure where to start looking. Actually, it might be kind of fun to locate it just for the sake of doing so. The economy is well balanced, but there's not enough places to store equipment. I was lugging around armor off dead soldiers to earn a bit of extra coin, but the encumbrance system encourages slimming down inventory.
Rating: 3
Ah, now I understand why there's only one death cry for creatures
Explorer - Graphics for the game are good, but the detailed scenes are great. Music had a good mix, but sound effects seemed more limited or rushed than other games. There's a good number of locations to find, but most are generic outposts until someone sends the party there. Overall there's not much to see here, and it all looks very similar.
Rating: 4

Final Rating: 28 [47%]

Thanks for the many bugs you found, I didn't find a single one
Overall a good game, and I recommend it (possibly the PC version) to any RPG, and especially gold box, fans out there. The tension kind of petered out at the mid-point, but the game didn't overstay its welcome. I do wonder what would have happened if I found that one Dupare guy, went to rescue Atha, or even investigate the ship escaping from RAM to Ceres, but in the end the game is won and RAM was routed. I'm sure everyone is doing fine.
Now on to cutting a game from my childhood. ActRaiser is a simulation-action game with very slight leveling mechanics. Someone called it an RPG, so hopefully I can explore it enough to show why it's not according to my scale. After that we have The Faery Tale Adventure, which I believe Chet tried to play, but gave up on it as it was too boring. Let's see if I can manage any better.


  1. Actraiser is not an RPG by any meaningful metric, no.

  2. I loved this game as a kid - though I tried to play it again recently and just couldn't get into it (lack of time didn't help). Thanks for the memories via your detailed descriptions and screenshots!

    1. I'm here to play the games so you don't have to. :)

      Glad I could bring back some joy, and share in heartache.

  3. I loved this game when I was a kid, and it was my first exposure to the Gold Box combat engine. Too bad the game was super easy, and short to boot. Oh well.

    1. It was one of the better PC ports to console. Too bad the sequel didn't make it.