The Greatest Games: RollerCoaster Tycoon (1999)

RollerCoaster Tycoon (1999)
Developed by Chris Sawyer Productions

Our first exposures to a medium can help shape how we process that medium going forward. Throughout my childhood, there was no game I played more than RollerCoaster Tycoon. I believe this had a strange effect. My attention was drawn to other simulators, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around SimCity 3000. And while the term existed before, the following years saw an uptick of games with ‘tycoon’ in the title. Even as a child, I was wary of what that meant. While Pokemon had Dragon Quest Monsters to scratch a similar itch, RollerCoaster Tycoon stood alone. This time searching and failing to find something suitably similar must have influenced my current perception of art. I’ve never been one to focus too much on one particular style; I want to get my hands into a little bit of everything. After all, there’s no way of knowing where I’ll find the next game to resonate to such a degree – aside from two being in the same series, my personal top 10 games have little in common.

Though not quite an indie game due to being published by Hasbro, RollerCoaster Tycoon certainly operates in a similar manner. The game was almost entirely created by Chris Sawyer, with some help from artist Simon Foster and composer Allister Brimble. Even in 1999, the graphics were archaic, but that lent a simple charm to the experience. In fact, I think the simplicity is part of what makes scrolling over the park so fun. The sense of motion Sawyer managed to create is surprisingly smooth.

The game is straightforward in its purpose; you must run an amusement park for a few years and achieve a certain popularity. There are few bells and whistles in the basic presentation, which in turn draws more attention to your personal creations. The park management is fine enough (if a little too easy as an experienced gamer, though my childhood self never quite got there), but the draw is building bigger and better coasters. The grid-based system makes this a straightforward process with physical constraints being simple to learn; rides must be two solid steps above to pass over one another, getting over a hill requires either enough momentum or a chain, etc. Designing a great coaster requires just the right speed around corners and hills; the simple design makes it easy to pick out and correct the sections which aren’t working.

The park guests give an incentive to make various rides. Some are too afraid for even the most basic coasters, while others live for thrills – within certain limits. Each ride has meters rating their intensity and their tendency to cause both excitement and nausea. Make a death trap and no one will ride it; these restraints are key in enforcing realistic designs.

The different parks which operate as the game’s levels do a nice job of emphasizing various mechanics. First level Forest Frontiers is situated in a narrow clearing, putting an emphasis on more compact rides – but there’s also the option to buy more land for the park. Evergreen Gardens really ramps up the management game. If you’re not paying enough attention, your park rating will dip as its sprawling paths will become a sea of vomit. Penultimate park Rainbow Valley completely prevents landscape changes; there’s always something which sets these parks apart.

RollerCoaster Tycoon is simply a game which handles its concept very well. What the sea of imitators did not understand is that designing rollercoasters is a certain joy which does not really exist elsewhere. The selling point here was the rollercoasters, not the ‘tycoon.’ Which is not to knock on RCT’s management system; these two concepts played into one another, giving the player a reason to care about the quality of their rides beyond simple aesthetic pleasure. This game would have never had the same draw if it was a mere sandbox.

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