DOS Boot: Outpost was the best hard sci-fi sim; it also wasn’t finished

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DOS Boot is just Brock digging into old DOS/Windows games and talking half-remembering cool and bizarre experiences that are only available on abandon-ware sites at this point. Weekends should be for having fun and by god, we’re going to have some wholesome gosh dang fun on RPS Weekends.

There’s a great one and done TV series from the early 90s called Earth 2. And by great I mean “god bless em for trying.” It’s on and off of Netflix these days, so you can venture into those waters should you so choose, but it was the sort of thing that meant a great deal to me as a kid because it showed the potential of life on another planet where, perhaps, people wouldn’t be so mean to me and the people who had been mean to me would have all died a terrible death thanks to an asteroid or the sun reaching out to do a big hug. While that show made the rebuilding of life on another planet into a fun adventure, a game called Outpost was released at the same time, and it taught me how much of a slog survival could be.

It was also one of my favorite games. Yeah, that sucks to admit.

Outpost came from Sierra On-Line, and the pitch was pretty simple: SimCity in space. How can you mess that up? And some of the ideas behind it still strike me as so original I’m surprised no one has ripped them off elsewhere. For example, the game begins with Earth getting blown up by a meteor and you can only take a certain amount of resources with you to a new planet. That means selecting the number of people and tubes and recycling machines right out of the gate, which having to balance mining tools against the number of miners (and minors) you can bring to start your Earth 2 is a delicate chord to strike. You can also wind up setting all of this up and then moving to a planetary system that is uninhabitable, so humanity dies right out of the gate and the game ends.

Once you find a habitable spot and settle in for the long haul, the game becomes a lot of tile based resource management and using isometric world building to connect factories to power stations to people via tunnels. Certain buildings have certain positive and negative effects on your colon, which can all be read about at length in stat read-out screens that look exactly like their comparable SimCity screens. With a few notable exceptions. First, there was a research tree here that puts XCOM to shame with the level of nonsense you have to work through. Second, at some point in most runs, a rebel colony would depart and become the on-map antagonist city.

It really wanted to be SimMars with some light combat elements. Hilarious side note: SimMars was actually in production and this trailer for it was included on the disc for SimCity 3000:

Anyhow, Outpost’s lasting legacy is that the game shipped unfinished, yet had some of the highest PC reviews of the year. How does such a thing happen? Journalists reviewed an unfinished beta with a number of features that didn’t wind up in the shipped version of the game. It’s one of the first great games journalism kerfuffles. I remember asking my dad to buy me the strategy guide because I simply couldn’t figure out the end game. Well, turns out there wasn’t one, because most of the building types that you’d need for an endgame simply didn’t make it into Outpost.

(Apparently, much later, there was a patch introduced the put some of these features in, but that never reached me because I have no idea how I would have known about game patches in 1994.)

So the world’s best hard sci-fi sim game, featuring a NASA scientist on the dev team, shipped unfinished, broken, and unbeatable. This is exactly the kind of IP that you’d really wish someone could reboot and do right. The bad news here is that Outpost did get a sequel, and it went full Dune 2 / Command & Conquer instead of perfecting its formula. Little nano-trucks doin’ laser things at each other wasn’t nearly as interesting as taking the rebirth of humanity with a much more serious scientific tone.

Outpost entered my life at the end of on computer’s usefulness span in our home. I remember very specifically the day that we needed to buy a mouse, for example, to play Sierra On-Line’s EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus because I couldn’t move the character with just a keyboard. I remember when we need a color monitor so I could play a new SuperSolvers. When Outpost got loaded up, our soundcard couldn’t handle the output so I played the game in total silence. Uh, you guys, you have to check out how over-the-top horrifying the soundtrack to this is. Maybe bounce passed the eight minutes of unneeded backstory and just get to the midi chords that would make the worst SimCity background track seem like Antonio Salieri’s final concerto by comparison.

Finally, the cheat codes for this game were exceptionally limited: there was a cheat for infinite resources or raising crime (?) and the traditional SimCity “cause a disaster” bit of self-destructive pleasure. There were two cheats that I will always remember from the game that I point back to with some frequency in my other writing, and in that way, are perhaps its greatest legacy. One cheat triggers the sound of a bunch of people cheering. It’s a good nice morale boost just for you, which you’ll need in a game this broken and bleak. But there’s also a cheat that causes the power plant at the rebel colony to explode. Years later, when I took an evilish path in Fallout 3 and watched Megaton meet a mushroomy end, I flashed back to my youth and my nostalgia for bringing an untimely glowing end to hundreds of people.

So I guess thank you, Outpost, for teaching me sociopath tendencies during my developing years. Those were the real survival skills I needed. Although maybe the kid that wanted to settle other worlds because he so disliked this one didn’t need your help.

37 Comments

  1. Sakkura says:

    “Certain buildings have certain positive and negative effects on your colon, which can all be read about at length”

    I think I’ll skip that chapter. It sounds kinda shitty. :D

    • MajorLag says:

      I insist this typo remain uncorrected.

    • Shaun239 says:

      Not all buildings are suitable for Uranus.

    • liceham says:

      I assumed he was calling the interconnected tube-town a colon. Took me a second to come around to it, but I thought, yeah, that sounds about right around here.

    • Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

      I’m scared to learn how’d they handle their annual evacuation drill.

    • Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

      The year our descendants shall need to learn how to survive inside the claustrophobic walls of man-made metal viscera at some ass-end of space will definitely be ultimate annus horribilis!

  2. Vilos Cohaagen says:

    I was going to say “Looks like we eat at the same restaurants” but you beat me to it :D

    • Vilos Cohaagen says:

      that was meant to be a reply to Sakkura but RPS’ crappy login screen forgot that…

      • Beefenstein says:

        This was meant to be a reply to Odin the All-Father but Thor’s chariot accidentally took me over Bifrost and to Midgard.

  3. zanflango says:

    Is Outpost the game that would give you an alert message about a time travel experiment every time you loaded from a save?

    • aliksy says:

      Yes! That message really confused me the first time I got it as a kid, then I realized the joke and thought it was pretty clever.

  4. beleester says:

    The opening was the best part of this game! Holst’s “Mars” is a classic.

    (I do wish you had linked to a version with full sound. The computer’s narration really added to the effect.)

    Honestly, I think Outpost 2 was also really good, even if it went in a really different direction. It was an RTS game where managing your base was an engaging game all on its own, even when you weren’t building an army. Your base would be humming along, a factory here, a residence there, a recreational facility or two… then suddenly, The Blight is approaching! Panic, panic, get everything into trucks and get out! Do you have enough Evac Transports?

    Outpost 1 should have been finished, sure, but Outpost 2 also deserves a remake with better controls.

  5. LegendaryTeeth says:

    God I loved that game. It is a shame it was so not finished. I had been hoping surviving Mars would be along these lines, but nope…

    That opening though.

  6. Someoldguy says:

    Outpost 1 was ok but unless I’m getting my dodgy space colony survival sims mixed up, it was just a case of eking out an existence until you unlocked the ability to process your colonial waste into a sort of magic glue. From that point on your existence as a thriving colony was assured because you could 3d print anything you needed instead of relying on the finite amounts of resources on the map and everyone could spend their time relaxing in entertainment facilities.

  7. SirGamingScotsman says:

    I still have my original boxed copy of Outpost. I spent so much time playing this game, it gave me the love of sci-fi and building games I have today. I also managed to get a copy of the patch that came out, I can’t quite remember where from, I think a friend copied one for me.

  8. juan_h says:

    A friend of mine had this game (or what I believe was this game). As I recall, the game had a tendency to freeze and lock up his computer about 20 minutes in. We never got very far in our joint attempts and I don’t think he managed any better when I wasn’t around.

  9. aliksy says:

    I played the crap out of this when I was a kid. No internet back then, which meant no wiki or gamefaqs, so I probably was super suboptimal in my strategies. But I did terraform the planet at least once- there was a little video clip as a reward and everything.

  10. fuggles says:

    Next…. Gene wars!

    Or dark colony.

    • subactuality says:

      I emphatically second both of these suggestions!

    • DudeshootMankill says:

      Gene wars looks so interesting so yea, i’d be interested in that too. Wasnt there a sequel too?

      • fuggles says:

        I’m not sure there was. Impossible creatures was similar but lacked the Mr wolf mechanic.

  11. Dave Mongoose says:

    Lots of other games have done the “what do I bring with me” thing, though – Dwarf Fortress is an obvious one.

  12. melancholicthug says:

    Earth 2, Babylon 5, TNG, Sliders, Space: Above and Beyond, TZ reruns… man the early 90s tv sci-fi were awesome for a, let’s say, “friends-having-challenged, not-much-to-do-on-saturdays” teen as I was. Good times.

    • pookie191 says:

      Wow someone else who remembers Space: Above and beyond.. That was so begging for a game based on it.

      WILDCARDS!!!

  13. boneskull says:

    Brock, I hope you have since found a good therapist.

  14. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    I remember this game getting utterly savaged by PC Gamer back in the day.

  15. Green Frog says:

    This post put a huge grin on my face. Back in those days, not only did I love Earth 2, but Outpost was one of my favorite games. I sunk so many hours into that lovable, broken scamp.

  16. indigochill says:

    Aww yeah, I played the crap out of Outpost and its sequel as a kid. There was also an Outpost-themed Pinball game called 3-D Ultra Pinball with not one but three Outpost-themed tables.

  17. fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

    “Any mistake at this point will doom you, and your colonists, to certain death. Have a nice day.”

    “There is no help available on that topic. You’re on your own.”

    In retrospect, the AI may have been boldly breaking the 4th wall to warn you about the state of the game. I really, really, wanted to like it; but oh so broken.

  18. mushufasa says:

    Outpost! One of my first PC games ever. Was that a different time in gaming or what… Hours of fiddling with games just trying to figure out what things do and what you’re SUPPOSED to be doing, and no wikis to read every single detail. I miss those days, yet I find that when I try to play a game that way now I just don’t have the patience, and it isn’t as entertaining to me as it used to be.

    Ah yes, also that mention of Earth 2. I enjoyed that show as a kid :)

  19. Nauallis says:

    Oh yeah, this game. Weird itch to play it. Agree with most of what you wrote, with the added fun of playing it on a Mac. Just as broke and unfinished.

  20. Elric666 says:

    Still got the CD ROM version lying around here somewhere. I played that game three or four times, until I started to figure out that my colonies were not getting anywhere because all those advanced features talked about in the manual didn’t actually exist. I never knew the game had actually been patched.
    I’m now slightly intrigued to go back and try to get it to run with the patch, to see what the endgame was all about.
    Maybe, one of these days, I’ll bathe in the nostalgia.

  21. Premium User Badge

    kingcharlesxii says:

    I remember that this was one of the first games I played that needed a significant patch. We didn’t have home internet really at that point so I had to mail away for a patch on floppy disk (which was sent free). I wouldn’t have even known there was a patch if it wasn’t for the Sierra magazine which had mentioned it.

    When the game worked, I really enjoyed it but I think the opening was best part.

  22. zaldar1978 says:

    Thank you for the shout out to Earth 2. Man how I loved that show. Such great stuff. I was so upset that it didn’t get picked up more. All the best sci-fi shows it seems don’t get picked up sigh.

  23. Raoul Duke says:

    I desperately, desperately wanted this game as a kid, and relentlessly badgered my parents to buy it for my birthday. They eventually gave in, and I had to wait weeks anticipating its arrival… I was so excited I didn’t sleep the night before. I had visions of a super cool hybrid of Sim City (2000) and Dune 2 with a harder sci fi theme.

    So when I eventually played it, I was physically exhausted and had the types of expectations that a kid has after months of imagining how great something is. And… what an utter, steaming pile of shit the released game was. Static, unintuitive, ugly and extremely poorly designed.

    I like to think of that as the moment that I became cynical about pre-release/pre-purchase hype. As a grown adult I am firmly in the ‘never pre-order, always carefully research’ camp and I rarely pay full retail for games on the principle that I can just wait for prices to drop while I play through my infinite backlog. So thanks, Outpost!

  24. Harlander says:

    On reading this article I thought, “Hey, a niche, ambitious and flawed game like this must have a fan project trying to get it back to the status it should have been.”

    And there is.