I owe everything I am to Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday
I can still remember when I first laid my eyes on it. On a shelf full of the usual mid-1990s suspects - Streets of Rage, Sonic the Hedgehog, Revenge of Shinobi, so many sports games - Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday stood out. A distinctive red box with some garish and heroic art, it couldn't help but stand out. I'd later learn this was the NTSC version of the game (fortunately, it was region-free), but for now, that just made it look a bit exotic for an 11-year-old who mostly bought into the 'judge a game by its cover' conceit. At that moment, I was just delighted that I'd stumbled across this game at a rare time when I had £15 to spend. £15! It was a veritable fortune back then, and this proved to be the perfect investment.
I had an almost idyllic childhood: happy parents who loved each other and did everything to support me and make our lives exciting and enjoyable. We never had much money, but ultimately, that didn't really matter. While money gives you opportunity, it doesn't always give you happiness, and my youth was rich with that which you can't buy. What the lack of money did mean was that the rare occasions when I was given a decent sum of money, and sent into a game shop to buy something? Those were a really big deal.
I had to spend wisely. I knew this wouldn't happen again for a while. I glanced at Pelé briefly. Not the footballer, of course - that'd be an unusual encounter in South Wales - but the Megadrive game of the same name that I suspect was probably a bit dodgy. There'd be no value for money there. This purchase needed to last me a long time. I already had a FIFA game and I was almost as rubbish at that as I was at actual football - despite being so enthusiastic.
Maybe Streets of Rage 2? That was very tempting. I'd yet to finish the first one but it was a lot of fun. I wasn't that keen on what I'd played of Revenge of Shinobi at a friend's house. It didn't quite click with me, so I passed on that. Buck Rogers though? That cover. It was like something out of a comic book: heroes standing tall, surrounded by alien enemies leaping in for the kill. The artwork reminded me of Fighting Fantasy books - my other great love at the time. It looked far more exciting than anything else on the shelf.
Flipping the box over, the back seemed just as thrilling. There was talk of commanding warriors in tactical battles, and blasting RAM ships out of the sky. Every line seemed to be focused on making it sound vast, wondrous, and more than a little baffling.
In hindsight, it was perfectly written copy. Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday is vast, wondrous, and baffling. After buying it, I pored over the massive 85-page hint book and manual. Full of schematics for various mystical sounding locations, and advice about what all the different skills involve, it was already exciting and confusing.
Thinking about it, I have no idea how child me had the patience to play Buck Rogers to the end. Having briefly returned to it this week, even starting out in this game is a tricky business. There's a laborious process of flicking through menu after menu as you create your team. On a Megadrive pad, this took an eternity, but that's actually just the easy part. The hard part is that there's no tutorial in sight and Countdown to Doomsday isn't exactly intuitive.
Buck Rogers is a bit like X-Com, if nobody in X-Com had bothered to explain any of the finer details. Wandering around aimlessly from the outset leads to many battles, and in these battles you're fighting your own confusion as much as the game's enemies. Successful attacks are determined by many hidden variables that ultimately show up as a 'chance to hit' percentage. In the early moments of a campaign, you're lucky to get higher than 35 percent even if you're standing right next to the enemy. How could anyone miss when they're at point blank range? Clearly, the troops protecting the planet aren't as good as you'd like them to be. With no map to guide you and a never-ending swarm of enemies waiting if you wandered too far, Buck Rogers is tough going.
And the second mission is worse. You're suddenly exploring a ship that's been overrun by aliens. As soon as you land, a parasite infects half your team. You're regularly reminded that something awful's growing inside you via various ominous notifications of 'x notices a rash growing up their leg'. Once the infection ravages one of your characters, they're placed in a coma until you're able - if you're able! - to get back to your ship. You might think I'd have given up here. Still I kept playing. Perhaps, my mum was right when she said I have patience when it's something I really want.
That's the thing about Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday. It's as evil as it is satisfying. It took me weeks to traverse that infected ship back in the day. With so much to be aware of, and a plethora of backtracking, it was abstruse yet fascinating. The entire game was. The suffering never drops away and things never get any easier: you're just given more options and freedom in how to deal with things.
I tell myself I stuck with it because it was grimly satisfying. Really though, I stuck with Buck Rogers because I didn't have a choice. Okay, so I could have gone outdoors and played football with my friends but who wants to do that all the time? (It was probably raining anyway; this was South Wales after all.) I was done with my other games and I knew another purchase couldn't happen until at least my birthday, and that was many months away. So, I stuck with Buck Rogers and, actually, I ended up loving it. It almost sounds like an unhealthy relationship because it kind of was.
Being poor and desperate for something new and exciting, I made Buck Rogers work in a way that adult me just wouldn't have the patience for. I have money now but little free time. Back then, I had no money but hours and hours of the week to fill so it meant I discovered these oddities and took the time to experiment with them.
I'm yet to find anyone else my age who's even heard of Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, let alone played it, but that makes it all the more special to me. It was my personal doomsday. If I'd have had more money, I would have bought something else, something a bit less confusing and unpolished and second-rate. If I'd had less time I would have stepped away from its rotten spell. Let's hear it for being skint and bored.
And this cruel game served its purpose admirably. It led me to love turn-based RPGs before I even knew what that meant. And I learned that, sometimes, it's worth backing the underdog, even if it's not always the simplest option to take. Mostly though, it taught me to make the best of a less than ideal situation - a lesson that would ring true for many more years to come.