The Buzz is Gone

BUZZZZZZZ! Where are you, Buzz Aldrin? I’m playing your old 1993 Interplay game, Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space (BARIS), about the 1960s U.S.-Soviet space race. Things are bad. I’ve got two Apollo 9 astronauts in a Jupiter rocket on a direct ascent to the Moon, in fall 1968. Looks like they’re about to burn up on reentry. This will knock my capsule reliability down to 46% and also – speaking just on general principle – sucks. Why does your Race Into Space keep frying my astronauts, Buzz? Is this supposed to make me want to go into space? You’ve got me so jumpy I can’t drive to the supermarket.

Now that I think on it, Buzz, I don’t want help from you. Even though your name is on this game, you were an astronaut, not a NASA engineer. If Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space were about piloting the Apollo 11 LEM to the lunar surface in July 1969, you and Neil Armstrong would be my go-to guys. But to help me win BARIS, I need someone who can plan a whole space program – some high-profile, fully-empowered Space Czar who is working even now to get America back to the Moon and beyond.

Oh, wait – there isn’t one.

Does that help explain why we can’t buy Race Into Space any more?

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
– John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

No Space Available
Pop culture defines society’s desires. A zillion Wing Commander and X-Wing knockoffs let you zoom around space and zap alien bad guys, but astonishingly few electronic games take a realistic, contemporary approach to space travel, let alone a historical treatise like BARIS. People just don’t seem to want them.

You’d think a plausible approach to colonizing the Moon, the Solar system and other stars – the future of humanity – would make a good game. Think of the grandiose goals you could present: constructing orbital habitats, mining asteroids for metals and water, and terraforming Mars! Building a space elevator, which seems tantalizingly possible even today, would present a wonderful challenge. Heck, you can easily spend a day or more just tooling around the Milky Way with Alessandro Ghignola’s 1996 space simulator, Noctis, and that’s not even a game.

But the vacuum is near perfect. Hardly a dozen electronic games have covered space travel with anything like realism. In 1984, Lawrence Holland created a fine NASA mission simulator for Avantage, Project: Space Station, before moving on to Lucasarts and X-Wing. And in 1987, Electronic Arts published Karl Buiter’s odd space business simulation Earth Orbit Stations for the Apple II.

We’ve also seen a few space shuttle simulators, notably the excellent Virgin Interactive Shuttle from 1992. Microsoft never produced a sequel to its 1994 Space Simulator, though in 2001 we got a superior freeware equivalent, Martin Schweiger’s Orbiter. Another worthwhile indie effort is Kai Backman’s 2003 space station simulator ShortHike. Legacy Interactive’s 2001 Moon Tycoon is OK, but limited god-game about building a lunar colony. Beyond that, we reach conventional real-time strategy games like Humongous Entertainment’s 2002 MoonBase Commander (mistakenly marketed as a children’s game) and goofy sims, like FireFly Studios’ 2003 Space Colony; realism recedes into the blackness.

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Just as interesting are the tantalizing projects that never made it to liftoff. In the late 80s Origin Systems, run by Skylab astronaut Owen Garriott’s sons, Richard and Robert, started an unannounced, untitled space colonization simulation. The company made decent headway on the project until somebody realized it made a lot more financial sense to do another Wing Commander game instead.

The highest-profile space-colony game that aborted before launch was undoubtedly SimMars, an ambitious title Maxis announced in 1998. Having presented a Mars terraforming scenario in SimEarth, Maxis would now use actual NASA research to portray a realistic, accurate effort to colonize Mars. From a 1999 SimMars preview by Vincent Lopez:

You select a section of the planet to colonize, then launch a lander from Earth filled with vehicles, or your first set of scientists and engineers. Unlike earlier Maxis sims, you control vehicles and characters in a full 3-D environment. […] The design of the vehicles and astronauts are still in the classic Maxis style, realistic but full of character and life, as well as the small details that continue to make the company’s games so charming. It was important to [Maxis producer Matthew] Thornton that the astronauts add a true character-based feel to the colonization process, and the company used EA’s capture studio in order to get correct animations for everything from repairing a faulty vehicle to golfing on the planet’s surface. You’ll never forget the first moments watching a team of astronauts exit a lander and begin work on the colony – and when one of the team loses their air hose, you’ll definitely feel it. […] Though the game begins in the near future, Thornton says that the goal is to follow humanity into the first few hundred years of development, when research has allowed scientists to create concrete and steel structures on the planet, and combine colonies into “cities” in order to prepare for long-term habitation.

But in 2000 Maxis cancelled SimMars. Today the only Martian sim activity is an unrelated fan effort, a mod for SimCity 4 creatively titled SimMars. Why did Maxis pull the plug? Because somebody realized it made a lot more financial sense to do another Sims expansion instead.

Do you see a pattern here?

Top Ten Ways to Tick Off Buzz Aldrin
10. When you meet him, make buzzing sound like a bee.
9. Squeegee his space helmet and ask for a buck. […]5. Every time he eats cheese, wink and say, “Wonder where you got that, moon man?” […]

2. Refer to Apollo Eleven as “That guy from the ‘Rocky’ movies.”
1. Hog the Tang.
– David Letterman, The Late Show (September 12, 2002)

And Cancel His Computer Game…
For historicity and strategic depth in realistic space games, BARIS remains the gold standard. BARIS, Interplay’s 1993 computer game by Fritz Bronner and Michael McCarty, was adapted from Liftoff!, an obscure 1989 Task Force Games strategy board game designed by Bronner (with John Olsen and Robert L. Sassone).

In both board and computer versions, you can direct either the American or Soviet space program in a race to land astronauts on the Moon and return them safely to Earth. You manage a hardware budget, teams of scientists, and crews of astronauts/cosmonauts. You research various projects – capsules, rockets, boosters, kickers – to increase your missions’ all-important reliability percentages. If a mission fails and astronauts die, your reliability can drop calamitously while the program regroups. You progress through a sequence of programs (Mercury/Vostok, Gemini/Voskhod, Apollo/Soyuz), and decide the sequence of unmanned and manned missions that will maximize reliability. Throughout, random events, such as a command from the government to make your next mission manned no matter what, complicate matters

A director faces many interesting decisions: lander type (Eagle/Duet vs. Cricket/L-3); Lunar-Orbital Rendezvous (LOR) vs. Earth-Orbital Rendezvous (EOR); and exactly how to get to the Moon: two-, three-, or four-person capsule, reusable three-person shuttle, or the science-fictional Direct Ascent? When do you research what? What hardware do you need? How much will it cost? You face the same choices the United States and the USSR faced, and in making decisions you start to understand why history played out as it did.

There has never been another computer game like BARIS. It is innovative, balanced and highly replayable, but complex and extremely hard to win. It appeared first on floppy disk, and proved so difficult, the CD-ROM version the following year reduced the chances of mission failure.

Nowadays, that’s not the game’s only tricky aspect. The BARIS copyright has reverted to the designers, who have made the game freely available. (Abandonware sites usually offer just the floppy version, but the CD-ROM version includes scarce archival video footage of actual launches, so get it if you can.) But BARIS is for MS-DOS only. The players who couldn’t run the game back in 1993, because they lacked a CD-ROM drive, now can’t run it from (so to speak) the other direction. Setting it up under a modern Windows installation requires a DOS emulator and lots of finicky attention.

Yet fans still cherish BARIS. Leon Badarat maintains a fan site with all kinds of emulator tips, background, and useful material. It’s a Geocities site, so if you get bandwidth limit errors, be patient. The website, The Space Race, has an active forum discussion of BARIS. There’s also a Sourceforge project to recreate the game for modern platforms, but it appears to have stalled.

Could there ever be a commercial remake or spiritual sequel? In today’s market, the idea is increasingly unlikely. A small group of players passionately loves the game, but a mass audience would be only mildly interested – not unlike the way America’s diehard community of space enthusiasts cannot overcome general public apathy toward the space program. NASA wants to spend 100 billion dollars and 12 years to return astronauts to the moon, but the political will for this remains unclear. Some people do get excited about private companies striving to reach low-Earth orbit, such as Armadillo Aerospace, co-founded by DOOM and Quake programmer John Carmack. But without a compelling vision and a worthy opponent, most people appear unwilling to imagine reaching for the stars, either in a game or in reality.

Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space, like the space race itself, proved a magnificent dead end.

Allen Varney is a freelance writer and game designer based in Austin, Texas. His published work includes six books, three board games, and nearly two dozen role-playing game supplements.

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