34. RollerCoaster Tycoon
Developer: Chris Sawyer
Quite simply, build a theme park. Each level had a different goal, usually “get x number of people in the park with an approval rating of y before the month of z”, and each one started slightly differently. So one park just gave you the front gate and told you to get on with it, while another one was already built and asked you to keep its popularity nice and high, and a third was filled with dangerously rickety old rides and required you to sort it all out before hideous mangled death occurred. The locations also varied, from basic grassy plains to little islands connected by paths, and each level had different limitations on how you could build on the land, as well as how much (if any) extra land you could buy up.
The key thing about RCT, I think, is the graphics. Detailed isometric sprites of a sort that were becoming quite old-fashioned at the time, the look was a move of genius. First off, it let even pathetic computers like the one I had at the time run the game with no issues. Secondly, by calling to mind model train sets, doll’s houses and the like, it instantly tapped into that childlike mindset of carefully maintaining your own little world to exacting standards. Frankly, it wouldn’t have been as fun presented any other way.
And the fact that the graphics were deceptively simple meant the game could put the rest of the space on the disc to huge amounts of detail. Almost every bit of every ride and building could be colour-swapped in a moment, allowing for massive customisation potential. Vast amounts of technical info could be put up or taken off the screen, helpful when building your rollercoasters. But most impressive of all were the guests. Every guest was a little individual person, with detailed statistics kept on each one. Money in pocket. Money arrived with. Money spent. Favourite ride been on. Items held (maps, umbrellas, bag of chips). Time spent in the park. What they’d been thinking recently.
It was a massively impressive bit of programming, but as well as just wowing it helped you play, as you could see instantly what parts of your park needed work. Genius.
Minor points? The hugely comprehensive kit for building your own rollercoasters was arguably a bit too exhaustive, and I never fully got the hang of it. Also, the fact that you could charge both for park entrance and individual rides rather broke the illusion – but the sequel changed it to one or the other and you could never have enough cash in that to do anything. So never mind. Otherwise, RollerCoaster Tycoon remains the finest construction game I’ve had the pleasure to play.
MAGIC MOMENT: a few months after the game’s release, developer Sawyer put together maps based on Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers and popped them on the Internet for download (or in the last of the two expansion packs). As a theme park nerd, the Alton Towers map was basically one of the most exciting things ever, and was the first thing I ever downloaded off the ‘Net.
(I can’t remember, but I bet it took bloody ages. I was on dial-up.)