In the 1980s and early 90s, TSR was a tabletop juggernaut thanks to its Advanced Dungeons and Dragons ruleset bolstered by rich campaign worlds like the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. It was towards the end of the 80s that the tactical strategy kingpin of the era, SSI, had also struck a licensing deal with TSR to produce video games based on their properties, creating the famous “Gold Box” series of CRPGs.
TSR wasn’t only involved in high fantasy. They also dabbled in a large variety of settings publishing Gamma World’s post apocalyptic sci-fi setting in 1978 to a game system based on Marvel superheroes in 1984. Wargames had also been a focus of their catalogue, at last during the 70s.
But it was in the late eighties that TSR would license Buck Rogers — the old school version of Buck Rogers from the 1920s and 30s and not the television series. The president of TSR at the time of the deal was Lorraine Williams who also happened to be the granddaughter of John Dille whose estate owns the rights to the comic strip that he had syndicated in the early half of the 20th century.
Created by Philip Nowlan and contracted by John Dille and his company to build a comic strip based on the short story starring the man who would become known as Buck Rogers, his pulp adventures have inspired countless adaptations in the decades since from television to movies. Today, you can even read an archive of collected strips online thanks to a dedicated fan and get a taste of what that era looked like through the lens of sci-fi.
TSR took Buck Rogers and meshed his 25th Century into their AD&D ruleset fleshing out the stats and adapting sci-fi concepts right into the crunch with a number of tweaks. For example, Buck’s system uses skills versus the proficiencies of AD&D. The changes would also trickle on down into re-envisioning his world and take it from its pulp roots into a swashbuckling struggle against an inner system empire striving to squash rebels daring to oppose it.
The boxed set has a ton of material setting up the state of the Solar System in the 25th century with a rich history. In short, Buck was sent on a mission in 1999 to destroy a Soviet space station. He was successful, but it was a pyrrhic victory — his ship was too damaged to return home.
But right when his ship ruptured to space, an experimental cryogenic system switched into action preserving him as he floated off into space . Nearly 500 years later, he’s awakened to a Solar System where humanity has managed to colonize nearly every world to some degree — and where a tyrannical superpower threatens most of it with ruthless intentions.
How it got there is a long, convoluted history of alliances, factional warfare, and ended up where Earth was plundered of its resources leaving it dependent on the other worlds of the Solar System a number of which reign as independent powers. The greatest of these is Mars which is the de facto “homeworld” of RAM, the Russo-American Mercantile Combine, who had ironically rebelled against Earth’s oppression centuries earlier only now to become as ruthless as those they had overthrown. Buck, who was discovered by the New Earth Organization who battle against the might of RAM from the shadows, has quickly become the face of the resistance and an inspiration for others.
SSI’s game dives right into this world of mutants, genetically engineered citizens, the roving cities of Mercury, steaming jungles of Venus, and the half-terraformed face of Mars. On the surface of it, much like the tabletop version, the game resembles a sci-fi mod over top of the same engine used for the Gold Box games, but that’s were most of the similarities end. The game includes ship-to-ship battles in space, boarding actions, a greater emphasis on ranged combat (ray guns, yo!), and classes built atop a skill system which may remind a few players of similar approaches found in such games as Interplay’s Wasteland. Space combat even had a “juryrig” command to fix systems damaged in battle.
The class descriptions oozed pulpy character from the comics. In the tabletop docs, Buck Rogers was surprisingly classed as a mere 10th level “rocketjock”, a guy who eats nuclear bullets for breakfast while piloting the fastest ships in the Solar System. Wilma Deering is a warrior which speaks for itself. There were also Medics, Rogues, and Scouts. And this being sci-fi, you have to have an Engineer to make sense of all of this tech with his tech attribute added right next to the usual STRength and DEXterity scores with THAC0 still determining just how many points that laser blast will shave from their character sheet.
As characters level up, they get points with which to distribute among their skills — much like what Wasteland and a number of other games like Sir-Tech’s Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge in 1990 had also done and would be an approach adopted by others such as Bethesda Softworks’ own Elder Scrolls Arena in 1994.
Yet Buck Rogers was still as CRPG as its peers were — there was loot, tactical combat on an isometric map just like in the Gold Box series, and a 3D view while moving through the “dungeons” and other areas of the game during exploration along with plenty of experience points to be gained. The main quest of the game involved a mysterious new project by RAM on a weapon that they intend to use to finally crush the independence of Earth’s arcologies and anyone else that they might decide to turn it against. While Earth is a battered, wrecked shell after centuries of war, it’s still a convenient backwater for groups like NEO to use as a base of operations. RAM knows this and doesn’t care about annihilating a few domed ruins if it crushes the bugs they know are there.
By the early 1990s, the list of port destinations for games began to rapidly dwindle as MS-DOS continued asserting itself on ever more powerful IBM-compatible systems that began to dominate PC gaming. SSI ported Countdown to Doomsday on only two other platforms for its initial release in 1990 – the Amiga and the Commodore 64.
In 1991, the Sega Genesis would get its own port albeit one that was stripped down of a number of options compared to the PC versions. For example, the Genesis version replaced the 3D exploration with an isometric perspective that would be used throughout the game and it had fewer races to work with (only three versus six) and classes (four versus five) when it came to character creation. Still, I thought that the Genesis version was still a lot of fun even with the missing content. It was just too short given the scope of its universe. I wanted to keep exploring and see if there were any “dungeons” or side quests out there among all of those planets.
Much like Electronic Arts’ own Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic in 1988, Buck Rogers was an interesting diversion for a CRPG in taking the genre away from the high fantasy that often dominates it. Yet it, along with Matrix Cubed, were the only two games from SSI based on the Buck Rogers material as TSR wrote it. It was a surprisingly gritty universe that didn’t owe itself to retro-styled jet packs and rocket men the way the old comic strips did — it was a look at a Solar System that had come out from the ashes of nuclear war, only to have history repeat itself with economic slavery, racism, and brutal oppression behind facades of prosperity. Earth was a toilet.
Unfortunately, it didn’t prove to be as popular a setting from TSR as its fantastically successful Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms. It had its share of source materials published, a few novels contracted by TSR to flesh it out even more, but it never really captured the imagination of more than a few die-hard fans.
By 1995, the setting met a fate that had also greeted more than a few other projects that didn’t catch the same kind of fire their traditional fare did and was canned. It’s a grim fate for material that easily lent itself over kind of sci-fi action and adventure that seem perfectly suited for a CRPG setting. SSI could have even done something with the kind of tactical bent that a war among the Inner Planets could have created, with a ragtag fleet of NEO ships fighting against a vastly superior RAM. Even in today’s cluttered landscape of CRPGs, I’d love to see another crunch-heavy reach for the stars. There’s an entire universe out there begging for dice rolls.