SSI began wrapping up a number of its CRPG stories based around TSR’s fantasy worlds in 1992, party because the engine driving their famous Gold Box titles was starting to look a tad aged especially as the competition began racing to take advantage of the growing power of IBM PCs and 3D driven gameplay.
The last titles set in TSR’s hugely popular Forgotten Realms setting were released in that year such as Treasures of the Savage Frontier and the story arc for the Dragonlance setting would close out with The Dark Queen of Krynn, But it would also be the year that would see the last game SSI would make based on one of TSR’s sci-fi IPs, Buck Rogers. This wasn’t the Buck Rogers who starred in the 1979 – 1981 television series (which was still neat). This was a setting based on the old school take on Buck Rogers from the 1920s and the 30s and tweaked by TSR to bring it up to speed with a more modern audience.
In TSR’s take, the solar system has been colonized and a number of different planets are now sovereign nations. Buck Rogers is still the hero thawed from his icy tomb 500 years later only to discover that most of the Solar System trembles before the might of RAM, a super corporation based on Mars that is one of the superpowers of the Inner System.
As for Earth, it’s a cesspool after having succumbed to war, environmental pollution, and general chaos over the long centuries. It’s the armpit of the Inner System where life exists only in domed, and ruined, cities and where the New Earth Organization has hidden itself while waging a guerilla war against RAM.
Genetic modifications and rampant experimentation have resulted in new races, such as the stormriders of Jupiter, as well as super soldiers in service to RAM. Vast, floating cities hover over Mercury farming the sun’s power, terraforming has made planets such as Venus habitable, and Jupiter is the home to a powerful nation of its own living within its atmosphere and among the moons.
In the first game, Buck Rogers and friends (such as the player’s party) stopped RAM’s plans to develop a doomsday weapon that would have crushed the resistance on Earth and could have been used to intimidate the other powers within the Inner System as well. In Matrix Cubed, the player’s party (assuming that they are the same ones who saved the day in the first game, imported or not) attend the coronation of a new Sun King on Mercury and discover intrigue related to a miraculous invention that could help rebuild Earth — an invention that can literally turn anything into free and abundant energy.
Of course, everyone wants it, especially RAM who fear it will destroy their own monopoly on power. But another group, PURGE (Prevention of Unwanted Research and Genetic Engineering), also want the device in order to push their agenda of wiping out anything genetically altered — even if that includes the new races that have emerged.
Like the previous game, Matrix Cubed followed AD&D’s rules tailored for the Buck Rogers universe with races, classes (called “careers”), and crunch such as the always present THAC0 alongside the usual STR, DEX, and INT attributes which now include Tech (TCH) which affects skills focusing on machines and even first aid.
The new addition to the usual rule set were Skills which covered things such as treating serious wounds, repairing a nuclear engine, astronomy, or even singing. Careers also had specific skills they could focus on to further differentiate them from the others allowing players to craft a party of swashbucking space adventurers with a variety of abilities.
Because the game had a lot of ranged combat thanks to pew pew guns and plasma grenades, battles felt very different from those in the Gold Box series and Matrix Cubed ramped the difficulty up. Players could import their characters from the first game, though, to give them a bit of an edge or roll their own, but things were considerably more challenging this time around. Like Dark Queen of Krynn and Pools of Darkness, Matrix Cubed assumed that players knew what they were doing at this point and doubled down on the combat which not everyone might have agreed was the best thing for any sequel.
The scope of the game was also much larger than that of the first with many new destinations spanning the Inner System and beyond. Players could fight other ships, board them as they did in the first, and loot fancy tech from their defeated foes. They could also explore the surface of planets (within reason) and visit other ports for information and a potential job or two.
Altogether, Matrix Cubed was a decently solid entry as an underrepresented genre in CRPGs breaking away from the traditionally dominant high fantasy that most titles leaned toward. Unfortunately, it also came out at the tail end of the Gold Box engine’s popularity and wasn’t ported to other systems like the Sega Genesis as the first one was. Although the ad above boasts a release for both IBM PCs and the Amiga, only IBM PCs would actually get the game in much the same way that Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace had also been released.
Like the rest of the SSI/TSR catalog, Matrix Cubed became abandonware so if you have a copy of DOSBox, you can still dive into one of the few sci-fi focused CRPGs made. And if you make it far enough, rub elbows with one of pulp’s earliest superheroes in a bid to save the Earth!