Mega Drive owners didn’t often glance enviously at their Super Nintendo friends. After all, we had some amazing platform games. We had some fantastic shoot’em ups. We had some great arcade conversions. But there was one thing we didn’t have: the sprawling Nintendo console RPGs, such as The Secret Of Mana, Final Fantasy, and The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past. Granted, there were some Mega Drive RPGs, but none had the epic feel and breadth of their Nintendo peers. Then, for a brief period in the early 90s, it didn’t matter. Because we had Buck Rogers: Countdown To Doomsday, a sci-fi RPG like this never appeared on the Sega console again.
Countdown To Doomsday began life in 1990 as a PC, Commodore 64, and Amiga game. Released as part of its Gold Box series by Strategic Simulations Inc. (better known as SSI), the game was based on TSR’s Buck Rogers XXVC tabletop role-playing game, itself a blend of the famous character from science fiction with the Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition Ruleset. As was common at the time, Countdown features a first-person exploration view combined with an isometric display for combat. Yet while the original has its fans, it is the Mega Drive conversion, released a year later, that is most popular.
“I still remember the first time I laid eyes on it,” recalled Jennifer Allen, my fellow Eurogamer collaborator, in her loving tribute to Countdown in 2018. “On a shelf full of the usual suspects from the mid-90s … Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday stood out. A distinctive red box with garish and heroic art, she couldn’t help but stand out. ”
This box contained the famous Mega Drive cartridge adapted for Electronic Arts after the company was awarded a contract to release Countdown on the Sega console. In 1988, EA signed a deal with SSI, making the developer an affiliate label and the publisher taking over the distribution of SSI’s games while acquiring a 20% stake in the company. SSI’s then president, Joel Billings, picks up the story. “Since we didn’t have the money to get into console games, it was natural for us to license titles like our D&D games and Tony La Russa Baseball, and EA was a natural licensee because of its ownership in SSI. “
The story of Countdown To Doomsday dates back to the end of the 20th century as nuclear war devastates the human race. Sent into space to destroy a deadly new missile system, pilot Buck Rogers succeeds in his mission but not before being frozen in space as war rages on Earth. Eventually, the power shifts to businesses around the world and by the time Rogers is discovered – 500 years later – it is dominated by the Russo-American Mercantile, aka RAM. Recently thawed, the hero of yesteryear is now the hero of the future, teaming up with the New Earth Organization (NEO) to free Earth and its colonies from the malevolent reign of RAM. Six bright and hopeful recruits are now launched into the war, ready to fight in the colonies on Mars, Venus and beyond.
In charge of the art on Countdown was SSI veteran Tom Wahl. Having joined the company in 1987, Wahl had already worked on several of its famous projects. “It was a magical time working with the SSI Special Projects Group,” he says. “From watching the industry grow around us, to being at the forefront of some lasting memories in game development.”
Working with the Gold Box engine, Wahl’s fame was to adapt it to 3×3 tile shapes instead of the standard 2×2 square shapes that had been used before. “This decision alone allowed us to create more customizable AD&D characters in your battle group. Using 3×3 shapes, characters could now be assigned different tiles for each body part, with a different primary color assigned to each. So personalizing your party design was always fun. ”
After his first full role with AD & D’s game Pool Of Radiance Forgotten Realms, Wahl had become a key member of the SSI development team by the time Gold Box RPG number five arrived. And as always for an artist, color was a vital part of their process. “At that point, we were mostly starting with 8-bit 256-color PC VGA graphics and bringing them to the unique 16-color Commodore 64 palette. While the Sega Genesis technically has a wider color palette, it also had this. single limitation of no more than 61 colors on the screen at a time. “
After overseeing the development of the original versions, SSI’s Bret Berry was promoted to manager during production of the game Mega Drive. In its place, the developer hired former Activision producer Tony Van. “They had a firm ship date and needed me to make sure the game was over on time,” Van explains. “It has helped me to be a tabletop and computer RPG fan, and a fan of SSI as a business.” SSI, eager to get into console gaming – especially as platforms such as the Commodore 64 neared the end of their commercial life – struck the deal with Electronic Arts to bring its latest game, l Buck Rogers sci-fi extravaganza, on the Sega console. .
Yet while Countdown could be interpreted as a “simple” port, there was still a lot of work to be done, as Van explains. “Although a lot of art existed and was retouched, new graphics were needed, such as console-specific icons replacing text-based navigation. Laura Bowen created the new icons, Maurine Starkey provided new images and Cyrus Lim created the new space combat UI. ”Additionally, the story and design team, Rhonda Gilbert and Dave Shelley, had to make sure the scripts were ported correctly, updating them. to all-new Mega Drive-specific missions. Also new is a baroque soundtrack from Jon Medek and, of course, streamlining from a gaming perspective.
The concept of Countdown’s continuous isometric view is the brainchild of the game’s lead programmer, Michael McNally. “I added an isometric view – it surprised the product manager and was a total shock when I showed it to the unsuspecting team,” he explains. “I said, ‘Look guys, we can reuse the combat view for navigation …’.
The art team now had to work on making the two modes – exploration and combat – visually distinct. Logos, pipes, computers and more punctuate the main game while the combat mode dispenses with all these embellishments in order to focus on the battle. “It was a huge change,” recalls Van. “We had a lot of bugs to fix at the very end! But I think it was really worth the work because the isometric view is more immersive.” However, not everyone agreed at the time. “I wasn’t convinced it would work in changing the player’s movement from first person to third person,” says Wahl. “But now I think it works. Sometimes you want to look at what’s on the left side of the hidden wall, but in the end you quickly learn to trust what the text description tells you.”
Despite the changes, it was difficult to squeeze the countdown timer into the Mega Drive Cart, especially when the game’s large maps (Venus and Mars), space combat display, and five evocative cutscenes were incorporated. It is these last beautiful images that many Countdown players remember most fondly. Created by artist Mike Provenza (who remains an admired painter today), images such as the ghostly figure encountered by the team on their first mission brilliantly serve an atmosphere that is heightened by the rich, dark music of Medek. . “I think his work is a nice touch and it changes throughout the game, setting the mood wonderfully,” notes Wahl. “I would say Medek’s work was really great, maybe even revolutionary.”
McNally, working on what would become his only console video game, was left on his own to run Mega Drive Buck. “I took a lot of personal licenses in port development, doing things on my own without asking permission from product management or other staff,” he recalls. “In particular, I made the battle map bigger, added an isomorphic view to the dungeon navigation, and had fun animating explosions with the mass effect weapons, which the Genesis sprite system made easier. to do that on the office machines of the time. ” The result is a more elegant and less claustrophobic combat simulation where players can tactically position their team while juggling the most effective weapons and combat techniques. Along with space exploration and battlefields, it has proven to be an effective reimagining of the classic Gold Box. Van says, “The team worked really hard to make the complex user interface accessible on the Genesis – but it’s still a very tactical, story-driven adventure.”
Unfortunately, despite solid sales and decent reception, no other SSI game has appeared on the Sega console, not even Countdown’s sequel, Matrix Cubed, which has remained only on PC. After starting to work on Cubed, Tony Van left for Lucasfilm Games. “I guess for some reason EA didn’t want a Genesis sequel,” he mused. “And SSI didn’t want to invest heavily to enter the console market at the time.” The additional expense of producing cartridges is also cited by Joel Billings, although this is not the last time SSI has attempted it. “Console games were very expensive to distribute because of the cost of manufacturing the cartridges. But, in 1992, we had a Nintendo version of Dark Sun in development along with the PC version. Unfortunately it took two years to develop and by early 1993 we had to cancel the Nintendo Project and focus on the PC version. ”That didn’t turn out to be SSI’s worst decision: Nintendo Dark programmer. Sun, Paul Murray, was then assigned to a war game based on the hexagon of World War 2. 18 months later, the developer would have their biggest success with the Panzer General tank simulation.
But I digress. Countdown To Doomsday, an unmistakable blend of slow-paced sci-fi adventures, space battles and open-world RPG exploration remains an underrated gem for the Sega Mega Drive today. “It was my dream to work on an RPG, and I had this experience with a world-class RPG development team,” Van said. “It prepared me for my later job on Shadowrun at Sega Of America.” Even more important to the producer of Countdown, it was the love that blossomed because of Buck. “A year after the game’s release, Rhonda Gilbert and I got married!” he smiles. “So Buck holds a special place in our two hearts, and I will always be grateful that it brought us together.”
My thanks to Tony Van, Michael McNally, Joel Billings and Tom Wahl for their time.