A shooter from the past! Zooming in from yesteryear – Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom 1982

Sega’s motto in this ad was “The Arcade Winners” which reflected their success there. A number of their flashy titles, like Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, were easy to spot in a crowded arcade.

In 1982, Sega brought out a sit-down cabinet shooter called Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom. It had no story, nor did it really seem to be based on anything Buck Rogers whether it was the television series from the late 70s and early eighties starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray or the original comic strip that started in 1928. But it was pretty fun for only a few tokens.

This particular ad does an decent, if somewhat deceptive, job in showing off what the game is with four screens arranged above describing what players can expect. Though they seem to be artist-drawn interpretations of what is in the game, they’re pretty accurate if not a bit too fantastic. Looking at these, it’s something of a huge leap of faith to assume that the screens show that what you’ll see on Commodore 64 will be exactly what you’ll get on the Atari 2600 (it wasn’t).

It used a pseudo-3D, fixed-screen perspective as 2D sprites scaled up or down to simulate the effect of being 3D as saucers zoomed at the player along with obstacles such as towers and barricades in a stage eerily reminiscent of the Death Star trench run. The player guided a ship from a third-person perspective, as you can see above. They could move side to side and even elevate themselves a bit with a little Y movement. Players could even control their speed determining how quickly the obstacles, and enemies, came at them.

Players had a quota of ships they had to destroy and there was a time limit on how long they would be in a certain stage. If you destroyed your quota of ships before time ran out, you got bonus points. It could also be pretty tough and the game featured a rare “continue” option to pick up where they left off at the cost of having their score reset to zero.

After going through several stages simulating trench runs, races between giant pylons on the surface, and defending yourself against ships, missiles, and asteroids in space, you came up to a boss fight against a big starship that would launch smaller ships at you. You had to destroy it by shooting its weak points which were four thrusters and then began the whole process all over again.

The home versions, more or less, followed the same formula with major differences in the stages depending on the limitations of the platform in question. And like most games at the time, a soundtrack was not an option — the same with the arcade version.

Another example was the “mother ship” battle: in the Atari 2600 version consisted of having to blow away several blue saucers before the giant — and fast moving — mother ship showed up which you had to blast both halves. On the C64, you also had to blow away saucers but it only took one good shot to destroy it.

Though it was a license, it didn’t seem to mean much to anyone other than provide Sega an excuse to bring out an exciting game into the arcades and then leverage it for home platforms. I remember not really caring who Buck Rogers was when I first saw this machine years after its debut — but the game’s exciting mix of colorful graphics and sound effects was all I needed in the arcade.

The technology pioneered in this game would also see use in a number of other Sega properties, most notably Space Harrier in 1985. And as Sega’s hardware got better, so did the visuals. Even though games such as Super Hang On in ’86 and Thunder Blade in ’87 still used scaling 2D sprites to simulate 3D effects, everything else would get much better as hardware capabilities improved.

It’s surprising that Buck Rogers only had his one arcade shot, yet by that time, all anyone could think about instead was Star Wars. Buck Rogers wouldn’t have much of a history in video gaming, either, although TSR and SSI would have something to say about that in the 90s…

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