30 years on, the story behind one of the Mega Drive’s best RPGs • Eurogamer.net

Mega Travel proprietors did not typically glance enviously at their Tremendous Nintendo good friends. Right after all, we had incredible system video games. We had superb shoot ’em ups. We had excellent arcade conversions. But there was just one issue we failed to have: the sprawling RPGs of the Nintendo console, this kind of as The Key Of Mana, Remaining Fantasy and The Legend Of Zelda: A Backlink To The Past. Genuine, there ended up Mega Travel RPGs, but none with rather the epic experience and expanse of their Nintendo peers. Then, for a short period of time in the early 90s, it did not matter. For the reason that we experienced Buck Rogers: Countdown To Doomsday, a sci-fi RPG the likes of which never once again appeared on the Sega console.

Countdown To Doomsday started existence in 1990 as a Laptop, Commodore 64 and Amiga recreation. Produced as part of its Gold Box series by Strategic Simulations Inc. (greater recognised as SSI), the sport was dependent on TSR’s Buck Rogers XXVC desk-top job-playing activity, alone a mixing with each other of the famed sci-fi character with the Dungeons & Dragons next version ruleset. As was popular at the time, Countdown offers a first-individual exploration perspective combined with an isometric show for battle. Still whilst the primary has its supporters, it can be the Mega Travel conversion, released a 12 months later, that is the most liked.

“I can nonetheless try to remember when I first laid my eyes on it,” remembered my fellow Eurogamer contributor Jennifer Allen in her loving tribute to Countdown back again in 2018. “On a shelf full of the common mid-1990s suspects… Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday stood out. A distinct red box with some garish and heroic artwork, it couldn’t help but stand out.”

That box encased the renowned Digital Arts adapted Mega Travel cartridge soon after the enterprise secured a contract to publish Countdown on the Sega console. Back again in 1988, EA had signed a offer with SSI, generating the developer an affiliate label and the publisher having charge of distributing SSI’s video games though buying a 20% share of the firm. SSI president at the time, Joel Billings, normally takes up the tale. “Since we did not have the funds to get into console video games, it was purely natural for us to license titles like our D&D game titles and Tony La Russa Baseball, and EA was a normal licensee due to their possession in SSI.”

Countdown To Doomsday’s tale runs again to the finish of the 20th Century as nuclear war devastates the human race. Sent into room to wipe out a new lethal missile process, pilot Buck Rogers succeeds in his mission but not prior to starting to be frozen in place as war rages on Earth. Sooner or later, electrical power shifts to the planet’s firms and by the time Rogers is identified – 500 several years later – it is dominated by the Russo-American Mercantile, aka RAM. Not too long ago defrosted, the hero of yesteryear is now the hero of the upcoming, joining up with the New Earth Organisation (NEO) to absolutely free the Earth and its colonies from the malevolent rule of RAM. Six dazzling and hopeful recruits are now thrust into the war, ready to choose the battle to the colonies on Mars, Venus and further than.

In demand of artwork on Countdown was SSI veteran Tom Wahl. Obtaining joined the firm in 1987, Wahl experienced presently labored on numerous of its famed jobs. “It was a magical time performing with the SSI Unique Jobs Team,” he states. “From observing the business growing up close to us, to becoming on the forefront of some long lasting memories in video game progress.”

Working with the Gold Box motor, Wahl’s claim to fame was tweaking it to 3×3 tile designs alternatively of the regular 2×2 square-pack shapes that had been used earlier. “That one selection authorized us to make additional customisable Ad&D figures in your battle social gathering. By applying 3×3 shapes, the people could now be assigned distinct tiles for every component of the body, with a distinctive major color allotted to every. So personalising the design and style of your bash was normally enjoyable.”

Soon after his very first entire function with the Ad&D Neglected Realms match Pool Of Radiance, Wahl had develop into a crucial member of the SSI growth crew by the time Gold Box RPG quantity five came close to. And as at any time for an artist, colour was a vital component of his system. “By then, we have been generally starting up with Pc VGA 8-bit 256 color graphics and bringing them over to the exceptional 16 color Commodore 64 palette. Despite the fact that the Sega Genesis technically experienced a bigger color palette, it also experienced that exclusive limitation of no extra than 61 colours on display at one particular time.”

Getting overseen development of the initial variations, SSI’s Bret Berry was promoted to manager through manufacturing of the Mega Generate match. In his put, the developer hired ex-Activision producer Tony Van. “They experienced a organization ship date and required me to ensure the game done on time,” states Van. “It aided that I was a tabletop and computer RPG fan, and a enthusiast of SSI as a organization.” SSI, keen to branch into console gaming – particularly given that platforms this sort of as the Commodore 64 were being nearing the close of their industrial everyday living – accomplished the offer with Digital Arts to carry its most recent game, sci-fi extravaganza Buck Rogers, to the Sega console.


However though Countdown could be construed as a ‘mere’ port, there was however a ton of function to do, as Van describes. “Even though a ton of artwork existed and was touched up, new art was needed these kinds of as console unique icons changing textual content navigation. Laura Bowen made the new icons, Maurine Starkey presented some new photos and Cyrus Lim established the new space battle UI.” In addition, the story and style group, Rhonda Gilbert and Dave Shelley, had to ensure the scripts ported the right way, updating them to manufacturer new Mega Generate-precise missions. Also new was a baroque soundtrack from Jon Medek and, of training course, the streamlining of the game’s viewpoint.

The idea of Countdown’s continual isometric watch was the brainchild of the game’s guide programmer, Michael McNally. “I additional an isometric check out – it surprised the products manager and was a complete shock when I showed it to the unsuspecting crew,” he explains. “I reported, ‘Look men, we can reuse the beat watch for navigation…’. But they preferred it, though it compelled the artists to incorporate a number of far more tile varieties for the wall joins.”

The art crew now had to do the job on building the two modes – exploration and beat – visually distinct. Logos, pipes, computer systems and a lot more pepper the main game while battle manner dispenses with all of these embellishments in order to focus on the battle. “This was a enormous adjust,” remembers Van. “We experienced plenty of bugs to correct at the extremely end! But I think that operate was absolutely well worth it as the isometric perspective is additional immersive.” Nevertheless, not everyone agreed at the time. “I was not convinced it would perform in the changing of participant motion from 1st-individual to third-human being,” says Wahl. “But I feel now that it performs. Occasionally, you want to seem at what’s on the remaining side of the hidden wall, but in the conclude you quickly learn to depend on what the text description informs you.”

Inspite of the amendments, squeezing Countdown into the Mega Generate cart was difficult, especially when the game’s substantial maps (Venus and Mars), room beat display and five evocative lower scenes were being included. It truly is the latter lovely illustrations or photos that many Countdown gamers remember most fondly. Made by artist Mike Provenza (who continues to be an admired painter today), illustrations or photos these as the ghostly figure the team encounters on its initial mission provide brilliantly an ambiance that’s intensified by Medek’s rich and brooding tunes. “I believe his operate is a wonderful contact and it variations throughout the match, incredibly environment the temper,” notes Wahl. “I would say Medek’s function was actually amazing, probably even ground-breaking.”

McNally, operating on what would turn out to be his sole console videogame, was still left to his very own devices to make Mega Drive Buck get the job done. “I took a whole lot of personalized licence in building the port, doing stuff on my possess initiative with no asking authorization of the merchandise management or other staff,” he recalls. “In particular, I enlarged the combat map, extra an isomorphic view to the dungeon navigation and had enjoyment animating explosions with the mass result weapons, some thing the Genesis sprite program made easier to do than on the desktop devices of the working day.” The result is a sleeker, fewer-claustrophobic fight simulation where gamers can tactically posture their crew when juggling the most powerful weapons and beat tactics. Alongside with the area exploration and beat fields, it turned out to be an efficient reimagining of the Gold Box vintage. Suggests Van, “The staff labored actually challenging to make the advanced UI obtainable on the Genesis – nonetheless it really is still a quite tactical and story-pushed adventure.”

Sadly, despite good product sales and a respectable reception, no further SSI online games appeared on the Sega console, not even Countdown’s individual sequel, Matrix Cubed, which remained Computer only. Acquiring begun function on Cubed, Tony Van left for Lucasfilm Online games. “I guess for some purpose EA did not want a Genesis sequel,” he muses. “And SSI didn’t want to make investments heavily to enter the console sector at the time.” The excess expense of cartridge production is also cited by Joel Billings, although it wasn’t the closing time that SSI tried it. “Console games ended up extremely expensive to distribute due to the value of building cartridges. But, in 1992 we did have a Nintendo edition of Dim Sun in progress together with the Pc variation. Regretably it took two many years to develop and early in 1993 we experienced to terminate the Nintendo project and target on the Computer system variation.”
It didn’t convert out to be the worst final decision by SSI: Nintendo Dim Sunshine programmer Paul Murray was subsequently assigned to a Entire world War II hex-dependent wargame. 18 months later, the developer would have its biggest hit with tank simulation Panzer Basic.

But I digress. Countdown To Doomsday, an inimitable combination of slower-paced sci-fi adventuring, space battles and open up-earth RPG exploration remains nowadays an underrated gem for the Sega Mega Push. “It was my aspiration to work on an RPG, and I bought that encounter with a earth-class RPG dev staff,” states Van. “This well prepared me for my do the job afterwards on Shadowrun at Sega Of America.” Nevertheless far more importantly for Countdown’s producer, was the really like that blossomed thanks to Buck. “A year following the activity shipped, Rhonda Gilbert and I acquired married!” he grins. “So Buck holds a distinctive place in each our hearts, and I will generally be grateful that it introduced us with each other.”

My thanks to Tony Van, Michael McNally, Joel Billings and Tom Wahl for their time.