Saturday, March 22, 2014

Retro Game Review -- Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom (Atari 5200)

SystemAtari 5200
Year: 1983
Ranking: Two Quarters

Example Gameplay: YouTube - Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom

Before Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman, and perhaps the greatest superhero icon of the 20th century, Superman, there was Buck Rogers. Created in 1928, Buck first appeared as Anthony Rogers in the Amazing Stories' novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. Buck is a modern day Rip Van Winkle. After falling into a mysterious stupor when exposed to radioactive gas during a cave in of an abandoned mine, Buck, like Rip before him, wakes years later to find a world completely different than the one he left.

Armageddon 2419 A.D. doesn't hold up as well as the other classic origin stories. First, it's seeped with jingoism. The final line of the book, "...unless you and I [Buck] are killed in the struggle, we shall live to see America blast the Yellow Blight from the face of the Earth.", still has me cringing. 
The "Yellow Blight" that Buck refers to here are the Hans, a technologically advanced society from central Asia that has swept across the globe in the centuries Buck has been sleeping. While the great superheroes that came after Buck were well know for defeating malicious and malignant enemies, never did they target an entire human population for annihilation.  

The second, and not quite as morally damning, shortcoming of his origin story is that it is completely devoid of any space drama. Sure we have ray guns, disintegrator beams, and inertron belts (nifty devices that allow their users to defy gravity), but there is not one space ship, space trip, or space alien. Buck Rogers, a name synonymous with outer space adventure, gives us none of this in his inaugural title. Luckily Buck's legacy was saved by the comic strips, movies, radio dramas, television shows, video games, and books that followed.

In the early nineteen eighties, Buck was experiencing a revival. The property had a TV show and a movie. While the TV show only lasted two seasons, it was enough to spark imaginations. SEGA, not afraid of scooping up sci-fi properties, e.g., Star Trek, acquired the rights to Buck Rogers and produced his first video game: Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom. The only references to Buck were 1) the title and 2) the flashy painting of a super-sized Buck launching spaceships from his hands. The fancy cockpit conversion arcade didn't even get a painting of Buck. The game was a third-person forward-scrolling trench shooter. As it was, it didn't add much to the Buck Rogers cannon, and, in fact, appeared to have more in common with Luke Skywalker's X-Wing flight over the the first Death Star than anything Buck Rogers had done. Surprisingly, the Atari 5200 manual, often a rich source of context and background, also doesn't delve much into the story either. It simply states "It's the 25th century. You are Buck Rogers fighting the battle of Planet Zoom. This is a race against death! Your ultimate and most powerful enemy is the deadly MOTHER SHIP". This game could have really just been called "Planet of Zoom", and nobody would have missed a beat.

I'll admit that when I first played the Atari 5200 game, I wasn't impressed. The space ship swoops over a surface of banded blue lines. Off in the distance, snow cap mountains loom. Ringed electron posts appear, and ostensibly, you must slalom through them. I say ostensibly, because this is a video game, and that's what you are suppose to do. On the first level of the game, however, there is no immediate penalty for missing a gate. If you don't fly through any of the 
electron posts, you won't be credited with defeating and enemy and will never reach the end of the stage. You will simply blow up when you run out of fuel. I think that it's a little sad that our cars don't blow up when they run out of fuel. It would make driving a lot more exciting when the low-fuel light pinged on. Back to the game. Since there's no immediate penalty to missing the electron posts, I recommend avoid them when you are in doubt. They are squirrelly devils and appear to behave non-linearly when you get close. Just when you think there's enough room to fly past: WHAM, you've slammed head first into one. 

After the first stage, alien saucers fly past you to the horizon and then come back down the screen to attack you again. It's easiest to shoot them as they fly past the first time. While this game purports to have three-dimensions, it's only worthwhile to fly at the top of the screen at maximum speed. This will cause all the alien saucers to initially fly underneath you. Luckily your blaster can blow them up from any level. Eventually, space hoppers will also lumber towards you. Blast these when they are as far from you as possible. It's important to always fly as fast as possible, otherwise you will run out of fuel and not have enough to fight the MOTHER SHIP at the end of the forth stage.

The dreaded MOTHER SHIP is unique. She can only be destroyed if you hit her dead center, presumably where the pilots are. If you fail to hit the ship in its one vulnerable location, your energy pulse will ricochet back at you! Why the antagonists in the battle of the Planet of Zoom didn't think of caking their entire ship in this marvelous material is beyond me. Succeed in blowing up the enemy ship, and the entire screen will flash with its destruction. Or is it your destruction? At the end of every level, when the screen flashed, I always had to ask myself, "Did I just blow-up?" Victory music would be more rewarding than an apparent explosion.

Eventually, I started to enjoy the game. While it bears no resemblance to the jingoist hero introduced to us in Armageddon 2419 A.D.Buck Rogers and the Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200 let's you pretend for a moment to be that legendary pilot portrayed by Gil Gerard in television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. 

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200: Opening screen. Beware the innocuous looking electron posts. They have a strange attraction to Buck's ship. 

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200: Explosive stage ending. Did Buck just blow up, or did I just successfully finish a stage?

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200: The deadly MOTHER SHIP. Be sure to hit the center module; otherwise, your photon torpedoes will ricochet back at you.

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.