Theme Park | Principal Platforms: MS-DOS, Amiga, Nintendo DS, Many more… | Developer: Bullfrog | Publisher: Electronic Arts | Genre: Simulation | Year: 1994
Most board games thrive when more players are present, but those thick rulebooks and wealth of pieces can often intimidate people whose gaming experience begins and ends with Monopoly. The term “gateway game” was therefore created to highlight any tabletop game whose play time is breezy and colourful enough that it might attract novices to the hobby in question. Board games such as Ticket to Ride and Pandemic (both notable for their attractive themes and ease of play) are popular examples that enthusiasts have used to break down the perceived barriers of complexity that board games are often associated with.
It’s a useful term, basically, and I find it curious that video games never adopted it before the Internet became a thing. Nowadays you don’t need to look far to find players with the enthusiasm and skill to give you a solid online session of the latest FIFA or Call of Duty, but before all of that were video games whose success can be clearly linked to a friendly premise and an easily digestible gameplay loop. Bullfrog’s classic management sim Theme Park is arguably the deepest and most covertly complex of any video game we might choose to label as a “gateway” offering, and yet it’s still very much one in the same spirit of Super Mario and Angry Birds.
This is because Theme Park is especially clever about how it draws you in. Filling a park with rides and watching those impressive (for their time) animated coaster videos is all younger players need to start having a good time here and the Sandbox mode will allow for it by automating all of the backstage tinkering that each park normally requires. Only by advancing to the Sim setting do players gain access to the research tracks and contract negotiations and even then you’ll find the warehouse and stock market features walled off unless you choose to go in with the Full setting enabled.
This freely scalable difficulty is what set Theme Park apart from a lot of similar titles at the time of its release. Even without any knowledge of the game’s inner workings, anyone can have fun building a park for those little visitors to enjoy and trash in equal measure! As a kid I can recall many enjoyable sessions, even as I remained oblivious to the mechanics that would actually afford me success by gaming’s traditional standards.
Indeed, even though its roots as a PC sandbox game are abundantly clear, Theme Park can be won. The idea is to build and ultimately sell a financially successful park in each country on the world map, it’s simply that most players (casual or otherwise) will probably not even notice or care. Again, this is the beauty of Theme Park; a game that can quite easily be about building the world’s tallest coaster or biggest big dipper before anything as routine as turning a profit.
This is the way I would play when I was a child. Blissfully unaware of the concept of outgoings, would I employ brand new handymen to sweep up every last scrap of litter and brand new mechanics to fix every broken helter-skelter (of which there will be many). I would gladly raise staff salaries and build new attractions and shops without giving proper consideration to the gate price, but only before blowing more dollars on research just so I could see those late game pirate ships and haunted houses in action. And yet still would I lament the utter failure of my parks. I cannot recall ever winning a level at that young age, not that you’d expect me to given such absurd disregard for basic economic sense. Regardless, I would always secretly yearn for whatever stratagem it was that could make both an awesome park and me incredibly and disgustingly wealthy at the same time.
And so years later I decided to return to Theme Park in order to learn and appreciate the game properly. Could I still enjoy building parks with the added pressures that wages, inventories, and a bottom line bring? True genius here lies within a simple dichotomy; to really do well at Theme Park; a game that appears to bristle with positive energy, you need to start viewing its world through more cynical eyes.
Everyone knows that increasing the salt at the fries stand makes people thirsty for the cola store next door, but I’m talking about the sort of pernicious business practices that will afford you a high pedestal in the halls of video game hell. Slashing staff wages and warehouse prices is only the start because if you want to get serious about making money then you’ll need to get your hands dirty.
Once you’ve delved into the stock market and acquired your rivals’ shares, you’ll need to start looking at all those fun rides as a means to an end; to make your visitors pliable enough to spend money. A visitor should no longer be considered your “guest”; they’re simply another wallet and once that wallet has run dry, it’s time to direct it to the nearest exit and get a fresh wallet occupying your park ASAP. Make your attractions more addictive by turning their win percentage up and their prize value down, funnel happy visitors along one-way paths leading to your most expensive merchandise, and most despicably of all; place ponds close to any tight turns on your roller coasters, so that any ejectees drown without their injured bodies hurting your safety record!
You might find it hard to stop once you give yourself over to the sort of pure evil required to run a highly successful park, but I choose to believe that ethics are not welcome in the cut-throat world that Bullfrog created. Even if you choose to play in a slightly less ruthless manner – and if so, what’s wrong with you!? – Theme Park still contains all the dependable thrills that come with building an entertainment complex and subsequently making an obscene amount of money from it.
There are lots of colourful rides with fun animations and each visitor has a wide variety of moods that tell you when they’re happy or sad, hungry or thirsty, or just when they really need the loo. Advanced players who foremost enjoy the simulation elements will discover some heavy detail here and there with each country featuring an intriguing economy where inflation and land tax create a noticeable curve in terms of monetary value.
In the simplest sense, the economy of Theme Park puts time on your side, so amidst the financial stresses that make each Sim or Full level session entertaining, you’ll still have time to appreciate the little details. Your attention is always held by some pressing concern and riding the waves of profit and loss can feel tense in the early years spent in hard countries like Russia and especially the “boss” level, Antarctica!
Revisiting Theme Park today is a tricky endeavour partly because of the game’s aversion to modern computer systems and partly because its most notable ports are all very old. The 2007 Nintendo DS version (pictured above) is one of the most convenient versions of the game still out there, which is lucky because it’s pretty faithful to the PC original. There are some expected downgrades. The animated signs above the rides and park entrance are gone for example and customers no longer carry umbrellas or balloons. There are some reductions to what can be done with tracked rides and there are no animated cutscenes of them in motion either.
A few cuts like the absent requirement for handymen to mow the lawn are actually quite welcome and the use of the console’s touch screen to manage the various menus is slick. The new music and advisor graphics are great, as are the country-specific rides, and even if the Wi-Fi feature is a waste of space, it’s nice to be able to carry the game around in your pocket, which is doubly nice considering what a miserable cash grab the iOS remake turned out to be. Talk about getting into the spirit of things, EA…
However, what’s shameful about the Nintendo DS version (aside from that redrawn box art), is the continued presence of software bugs that were present in the game’s first release. As good a game as it can be, there’s no getting away from the fact that Theme Park really needed a patch.
Amongst the most major problems are a common tendency for visitors to get stuck in your park; sometimes because of bad pathing on behalf of the player and most other times because of no reason at all. Visitors can get stuck in queues, glitched between signposts, and flattened helplessly beneath the rides themselves. Considering most assets can only ever be erased and not moved, this leads you to tearing up huge chunks of your park looking for trapped visitors who are causing your approval rating to plummet due to their unhappiness at being stuck.
Also aggravating is the seemingly unreliable research spheres that feel like they skip over milestones if a certain level of investment be made towards ride improvements and staff upgrades specifically. All order seems to implode when your park reaches a large size too with more people getting stuck and staff members going haywire as their AI routines force them to run around the park in random directions. Likewise is the handyman routing system, which just never seems to work, and mechanics who refuse to repair damaged rides no matter how many times you tell them to.
In addition to the dispiriting number of major bugs are some baffling design decisions that you’ll start to appreciate when attempting to play the game in longer sittings. With a greater number of responsibilities during any given moment, it’s easier to notice these flabbier elements; features such as guests falling off of tracked rides. What exactly is this meant to add? Having guests leave their seats and become unhappy is annoying, but needing to manually direct them from the grass back towards the body of your park is just plain tedious. It also works against the intended strength of building coasters because under those conditions you’ll be far less inclined to build a fast ride altogether. Surely it’s best to avoid all the fun twists and turns of your typical roller coaster if people are going to keep falling off?
This creates an undue redundancy in tracked rides and it’s a similar case with many of those that have an excitement level beneath ‘Quite Good’. The only reason to build a ride in this game is to excite your guests into spending money, so why even bother programming rides that can’t satisfy that need? Rides like the maze or observation tower may look pretty cool and iconic, but from a gameplay standpoint there is no reason to ever build them because of their low potential for making people happy.
The negotiation mini games aren’t very good either. Once it’s time to start negotiating salaries and inventory costs, a screen appears with two men attempting to shake hands. The idea is to carefully move your hand (and therefore your percentage offer) closer to the other hand without it retreating on you. Do this carefully enough and you’ll coax the other hand into approaching yours thus reducing your offer and potentially giving you a discount for the next term.
Whilst this is cute for the first couple of tries, the mini game becomes really irritating once you’re negotiating twice every in-game year. If your park is near completion and you’ve increased the game speed then you can expect to see these mini games pop up a lot and because you can’t brute force them without agreeing to take a financial hit, they suck away the game’s momentum whenever they appear.
Putting contract negotiations down to a mini game lets the simulation aspect of Theme Park down, but I suspect that it was included in order to prevent players from leaving their game idle. Most of your money comes in automatically as people enter shops and pay for tickets, so to ensure that players can’t leave the game on to acquire heaps of cash (that they can take with them into the next level) there are always these little niggles that require your attention.
Even without the negotiation segments you have the unreliable engineer staff members who seem awfully content to ignore your burning rides and allow them to explode and thus ruin the layout of your park as well as its value. Rides also degenerate over time too meaning you’ll eventually have to go through the laborious process of demolishing them and ordering the surrounding people out of the way before buying a whole new ride to replace it.
In terms of the management settings, the leap from Sim to Full offers very little in the way of added enjoyment. Buying and selling stocks has some appeal and it is nice how incentive is contained there, but the stock screen is so dry and boring and managing your inventory amounts to little more than busywork. You’ll need to spend a ton of research dollars to expand your warehouse and save yourself the frequent diversion, so overall the Full setting isn’t any more fun than the default Sim setting.
The potential for rich owners to build valuable parks only to sell them a year or two later without ever opening the front gates is also an odd feature that suggests this is much more of a sandbox at heart, even though the world map/progress concept is a welcome idea.
Accompanying the Nintendo DS rendition are ports for just about every major video game console in the ten years or so following its original release. The Mega Drive, PlayStation, and Sega Saturn ports all have their own unique ride designs and controller quirks, whereas the Japanese port called Shin Theme Park dazzles with a redrawn aesthetic that has remained exclusive to that market.
Theme Park hasn’t lost any of its charm in 2018, though it does feel outdated in many ways. It’s easy to forget that Bullfrog were shooting for realism back in 1994 and as such you’ll find some old fashioned design sensibilities that may threaten to spoil things. As I said in my review of Pokémon Sun; the need to clean up litter is egregious in any video game, and alongside the tedious mini games and worthless ride statistics is the constant sound of visitors puking everywhere. Lovely.
The roller coaster builder is obviously quite basic by today’s standards too and ultimately, there aren’t many unique approaches to playing. You essentially have one ideal build of every park containing all the best rides and shops; the only differences will come from the player’s zoning skills and individual expression; something that isn’t supported well when parks reach a size that the game simply can’t cope with.
Nevertheless, this remains a remarkably complex game and it still possesses the sort of infectious charm that keeps me coming back for another play. There are no online wikis available for it, so a lot of what makes the game tick remains a mystery to this day. There’s something oddly special about that, even when the game infuriates by exactly the same measure.
The Theme franchise got its start here for a reason and whether that theme happens to be wonderment or sheer frustration in any given moment, there’s no reason for anyone to feel bored whilst Theme Park is on the telly.