Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (Genesis) Review

Click here to view the Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (Sega Genesis) description page for screenshots, save files, and more information.

Review by tankMage (June 2018)

Score: C- (7/10)

   Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday showed a lot of promise early on and I thought this title was going to turn out to be a hidden RPG gem for the Sega Genesis, despite its hideous graphics. I was really disappointed to watch this adventure turn out to be laden with quests that didn’t pay off in terms of challenge, story development, and hidden loot. It also lacked a compelling story, despite having a colourful cast and interesting source material to draw from. In fact, Buck Rogers would have greatly benefited from a bit more exposition to show off its eccentric villains and heroes who often only have a few scant lines. The fact that this game is a port of a DOS title may have something to do with its many shortcomings. The original DOS release was based on a Pen and Paper RPG known as Buck Rogers XXVC and seemed to be more fleshed out than the Sega Genesis version with more classes, races, and skills just to name a few things. At any rate, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday is an interesting title thanks to its battle engine and source material, but it lacks vision. As a result most players will probably walk away from this RPG feeling disappointed.

Graphics

   In 1991 RPGs were generally pretty limited in terms of artistic quality aside from the occasional outlier. Character sprites were often stunted and blocky, so were maps, and you were lucky if you got to see some cool spell effects or attack animations in battle. On the same token, RPGs were at least easy on the eyes and their graphics often had a sort of charm. This is not the case with Buck Rogers.

512 colors to choose from and this is the best they could do?

   My primary gripe is the color pallet used in this game. I really like the Sega Genesis’ color pallet and have seen great things done with it, but not in this game. Many of the colors used for floors and walls look like various shades of puke and I wonder if the person who did the artwork was color blind or if they just didn’t care when they ported the game from DOS. This may not seem like a big deal, but the color of the environment sets the tone of a game’s visuals and poor color choices can throw everything off. As a result, Buck Rogers will probably sear your retinas. Not only are the environs poorly colored, but they are designed really lazily and players will find themselves wandering through empty hallways into empty rooms that are occasionally adorned with a computer console or some pipes. Text boxes that describe the party’s immediate surroundings often pop up, which is a saving grace, because players will need to use their imagination to get through this title.

   Character sprites are a bit better, but they are kind of awkward since the artist tried to make them more or less realistic, but couldn’t, because of technological limitations…I guess this explains why RPG sprites were often squat little dwarves at this point in history. Some of the character sprites look pretty darn good, though and the player is free to pick the sprites he or she wants for each party member, which is awesome. The enemies in this game are not very well depicted and there’s a lot of recycling, however. Buck Rogers’ color palette woes rear their ugly head again with the enemy sprites, because some foes nearly blend in with the puke colored floors.

   I mentioned earlier that this was a DOS title that was ported to Genesis and after looking at pictures of the original version of Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the visual content was cut along with other stuff. It’s hard to say why so much content was cut, because both games are under 4 Megabytes in size, which was about as much as a Genesis cartridge could hold, so space shouldn’t have been an issue. It’s likely that they were trying to cut corners when porting this game and some graphical assets didn’t make it over to the Genesis version. Sadly, many of the sprites and even character portraits that got cut were some of the best looking bits of art in the DOS game.

   There’s two things I really liked about Buck Rogers’ graphics that came as a surprise: the cutscene stills and the spaceships. Important events are depicted in still cutscenes that are nicely drawn examples of the sort of art that was common to Pen and Paper games in the eighties. None of these images are fine art, but they have personality and a sense of corny drama that save the day and translate into the game itself, giving it much needed atmosphere. Enemy spaceships were also cool looking and used the same art style, but the animations for their weapons were awful. They were also true to the source material, since the old Buck Rogers movies were all about rocket ships and lasers, but the artist managed to reinvent the antiquated spacecraft from the old films in a manner fitting 1980s sci-fi, which in turn has become old fashioned.

Story

   Buck Rogers was a science fiction series that became popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Ray guns, rocket ships, and a world controlled by criminal cartels made up much of the basic premise. Buck turned out to be popular enough to warrant a long running comic and even films, but faded into obscurity. Decades later, the family who owned the rights to the franchise also acquired the rights to the famed tabletop RPG, Dungeons and Dragons. Thanks to them, Buck Rogers saw a slight resurgence in the 1980’s in the form of a television series and a tabletop RPG of its own. While the show did little to add to the Buck Rogers mythos, the RPG managed to build a rich and intriguing world, which brings us to this game.

   The developers had a lot to work with when creating a story using concepts from the the Pen and Paper RPG. There’s strange genetically engineered races like the half feline Desert Runners, evil corporations, and even an eccentric Louis the XIV wannabe who lives in a space station orbiting mercury. Unfortunately, the story only briefly explores these places and the plot shifts to another setting just as the inhabitants of an area begin to display some degree of character development. While this is not unusual or terribly damaging for most RPGs, Buck Rogers is a western style RPG, which means the player controlled characters only have whatever personality traits are imparted to them by the players, which is easily accomplished in tabletop RPGs, but in video games the narrator and/or NPC cast must do all the heavy lifting to keep the narrative rolling. While some of the descriptions of places and events are nicely written, the NPC cast fails to carry the story along thanks to their shallow involvement with the player’s team.

   The plot of the game probably won’t mean much to most players unless they do some research or happen to be familiar with the PnP game. At any rate, the background is fairly interesting, with the planet Earth having become a war torn hell hole centuries after the colonization of Venus and Mars. RAM, an evil corporation, is the primary villain in this incarnation of Buck Rogers and the player controls six NEO (New Earth Organization) agents who are working to revitalize the planet Earth. The game starts out with some action as RAM attacks the base that the player’s party happens to be stationed at. A few mildly interesting events take place and the party ultimately reports to their new home at Salvation III. The rest of the game is essentially spent gathering info on RAM’s new weapon, the Doomsday Laser (cue dramatic music) and meddling in RAM’s attempts to control the solar system. So, yeah, the plot of this game is basically save the world from the bad guys despite its interesting veneer.

  One thing that really helped this game along was some of the scenario writing, which made a few of the missions really interesting. In fact, the second mission in the game was one of the most creative and entertaining quests I’ve encountered in an RPG. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I’ll just say it takes place on a spooky derelict spaceship and the team has to uncover what happened to the crew. Of course even this scenario was not perfect, thanks to a really out of place an unexplained ghost that pops up out of nowhere. There were a few other creative missions, but the game is mostly composed of the usual “go here and get this” generic RPG quests that you’ve probably seen a thousand times.

  Buck Rogers and his significant other, Wilma Deering, make appearances in this title, but it feels really forced. Buck will even join the party for a while, but like the rest of the cast, his personality is lacking. On top of that, there are probably few people out there who care or even know anything about Buck Rogers, which makes his presence even more pointless. Of course, the game is named after him, so I guess the devs felt obligated to include Buck. The writers would have done better to place him in command of the team, since he would have come off as more respectable if he were the guy doing mission briefings at Salvation III. Buck also appears at the end of the game to congratulate the player on completing the mission, which was the only thing I could have thought of that could make an already lame “You’re winner!” type of ending any worse.

Music

   I really hate the music for this game. There are maybe five or six songs that play throughout Buck Rogers and all but one of them suck. The worst offender is the dramatic battle theme, which used one of the most abrasive sound fonts I’ve ever heard. Although the victory theme (which sounds more like a funeral dirge) is arguably worse, if only for the fact that the player will hear it constantly. The rest of the sound track is more tolerable and there is one song that I actually liked, because it managed to establish an eerie atmosphere.

   The sound effects used in this title are actually ok considering the limitations of the Sega Genesis’ sound processor. Laser shots and explosions sounded like something totally appropriate for an old science fiction film. There were even some crackly voice clips that made cutting down enemies more amusing.

User Interface

   Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday features a pretty decent UI. Most of the menus are set up conveniently as one could expect from an early 1990’s PC port. The battle menus were easy to use and even include an auto-fight command that can save players time when fighting weak enemies. The perspective used for the game maps was a bit awkward, however, since it takes a bit of practice to get used to moving around at strange angles.

Gameplay

   Here we have Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday’s redeeming quality: Gameplay. While the missions may have ranged from being very well crafted to lackluster, the battle system was solidly designed, though this is to be expected of a Gold Box CRPG. The game also has a respectable arsenal of weapons and classes that the player can experiment with as well as exotic areas to explore. Even the enemy lineup is creative, though they do tend to become repetitive after a while.

  Being a western style RPG, players can create their own characters and build a party of six, made up of any combination of the game’s classes. There are four classes to choose from including Warriors, Medics who can heal teammates, expert pilots known as Rocket Jocks, and Rogues that are capable of getting around security. Of course some teams are more viable than others and players who make a party that lacks a Rocket Jock or Medic are in for a challenge. Overall the class system is pretty balanced, though I found my Rogue to be the least useful member of my party, because her bypass security skill only came in handy in a few situations.

   Each character can learn special skills that range from climbing and stealth, to library research. The skills could have been implemented more effectively, however, but this was likely more of a technical issue, since the developers had to make the game playable for parties that lack certain abilities. There was some effort put in to making sure every skill had some use, however, and there were often a number of ways to complete tasks. All in all, this made for a surprisingly flexible and interesting class/skill system that added a lot of depth to the game.

   Players can also choose from a variety of weapons, though they’ll have to carry backups, because some enemies are resistant or totally immune to certain arms. Laser pistols and needle guns are examples of the game’s smaller armaments, but players will also find things like rocket launchers in their adventures. Melee lovers will be pleased to find swords in their travels. The devs did a fair job of balancing these weapons out, aside from needle guns, which were perhaps a touch too powerful under the right conditions.

  The level design was bland at times aside from a few cool places to explore. Much of this could be blamed on the game’s poor graphics, which highlighted the fact that most areas were just a series of winding corridors. Add in the fact that there were very few secrets or items to find scattered about, and you get rather disappointing missions. I actually paid attention to the credits and saw that there were three level designers, which seems about right, because many of the areas felt like they were made by different people. At any rate, this game would have been much better had the level design been more consistent. It also bears mentioning that the player has a lot of freedom to explore the game at large, which helps the overall design along a bit.

   There are plenty of creative monsters and enemy soldiers to do battle against that range from genetically engineered troops to giant sand squids. Unfortunately the player will find him/herself fighting stock RAM soldiers all too often. There’s also a conspicuous lack of bosses in this title, which is a shame, because the bad guys and monsters provided plenty of material from which some lethal bosses could have been crafted. The closest thing this game has to a boss is a pirate with swords for arms that turns out to be a pushover. Luckily, there are a few challenging fights with powerful enemies that were put together well, but these didn’t serve as suitable substitutes for bosses.

   Space battles are perhaps my favorite aspect of this game, because they were well implemented for a novel concept and different from anything I’ve encountered in an RPG to date. Early in the game, players get a Rocketship of their own and can cruise around the solar system…well the inner planets. Eventually, the player will be attacked by a RAM Cruiser and will have to fight or talk their way out. There’s a bit of nuance to fighting other ships and players will need to have their strategy down pat if they want to survive encounters with the most deadly enemy spacecraft. Not only can you blast enemy ships into oblivion, but you can also board the hostile vessel and fight the crew to take it over. As fun as this feature was, I couldn’t help but think it could have been improved upon the idea a bit by adding more weapons and enemies. It is worth noting that the DOS version allowed players to commandeer enemy ships and use them, while such ships were simply sold as scrap in the Genesis port.

   I have to add that this game was on the short side, clocking in at about 15-20 hours, even with grinding. This is partially a result of the era in which it was made, since many console RPGs of the time were were not terribly long (remember, this game was made in ‘91, several years before games like Chrono Trigger), but Buck Rogers is a 16-bit title and most people would expect it to be in the 30+ hour range.

Final Thoughts

   I was tempted to give this game a “D+”, but I did not find myself hating it at any point and Buck Rogers has a few redeeming qualities. Science fiction RPGs are not terribly common either, which makes me think this game saw its way to the Sega Genesis partially as a result of Phantasy Star’s popularity. Though I found this title to be somewhat disappointing, I look forward to playing its DOS counterpart, which looks bigger and better in every regard. I found the main character, Buck Rogers, to be something of a detriment to the allure of this title, because I expected something more akin to the dreadful 1980’s TV show or the primitive 1930’s flicks, which haven’t aged as well as other sci-fi films from the same era. This probably explains why the name of the pen and paper game was eventually changed to XXVc, since others shared my sentiment.

Recommendations   

   Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday is a niche game for Sega Genesis fans looking for something a bit different or perhaps fans of CRPGs who have exhausted better options; do not play this if you’re expecting a high caliber sci-fi game.

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