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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.

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Brock Wilbur

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