Whatever happened to Buck Rogers? You’d think with Hollywood and television mining the fertile fields of the past for recognizable brand names—god forbid we see more than one or two original concepts in a year’s space—we’d have been subjected to a Buck Rogers remake or reboot by now. Heck, Planet of the Apes and Spider-Man have both been restarted twice in the past decade. Yet here languishes Buck, television contemporary of the now re-beloved Battlestar Galactica, withering in obscurity alongside such pillars of the genre as Lensman and Ringworld (unless you count Halo as a reboot of the latter).
I’m old enough to remember when Buck Rogers lived in prime time (back when prime time actually meant something). The TV series wasn’t necessarily great, but I did admire the audacity of combining R2-D2 and C-3PO into a single robot with a talking backpack… and had I been a little older, I probably would have admired Erin Grey quite a bit as well. There were toys, comics, lunchboxes… and there was a video game.
I never saw Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom in its original arcade incarnation until I wandered into PAX East 2010’s classic arcade room. But I played the game to the point of exhaustion in its (as it turns out) surprisingly faithful Coleco ADAM port. As the game that shipped with the ADAM expansion module, Planet of Zoom came on a cassette tape that taught us youngsters all about the importance of patience and the dire reality of load times.
It was worth it, though. The game was the closest thing to the Star Wars arcade game I could have imagined playing at home. Planet of Zoom didn’t utilize the keen vector graphics or cockpit POV of Atari’s Star Wars, but the general format was remarkably similar. Buck’s fighter took on waves of enemies in space—well, over a planet’s surface—before diving into a trench. Defeat the enemy at the end and it looped, a little harder than before, until eventually it was game over.
Sega may well have gotten its first taste of scaling sprites with Planet of Zoom. This isn’t exactly Super Scaler tech we’re talking about—not back in 1982—but you can see the fundamental seed of Space Harrier, After Burner, and Galaxy Force being laid down here. The latter-day classics that everyone associates with Sega came from the kernel they created with the likes of Turbo and Planet of Zoom.
But since no one seems to be doing anything with the Buck Rogers license these days, it’s pretty safe to say we’ll never see Planet of Zoom again. Maybe it’s just as well. The ADAM port was OK for its day, but I wouldn’t recommend suffering through it today. And the arcade game itself needs the cabinet (with its cockpit stylings and cool LED displays) for full enjoyment. Like Buck himself, Planet of Zoom may simply be a relic best left in the early ’80s.
Article by Jeremy Parish
GameSpite Journal 12: Buck Rogers Planet of Zoom