The holidays are a time of great stress, aren’t they? Constant shopping and preparation, increasingly perilous driving conditions, and a growing mountain of debt that will smack you in the face, even if you tried to be frugal, all await you every year. Still, the stress is usually worth it when you get to sit around with your family, catching up on the past year, watching your little nieces and nephews run around like ticked-off chihuahuas with expensive presents that they will likely stop playing with a week later.
For me, back in the day at least, the holidays also brought out the family game. Now, I know that not all families did this, but it’s fairly self-explanatory: whenever my family got together we’d play some sort of game. Usually it was a physical game, like Cathedral, Jenga, or the Barbie game… forget you read that. We’d also go to my uncle’s and play a lot of computer games as well. For example, for a while my siblings, cousins and I would play Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (usually exploiting all the cheats since checkers was the deepest strategy we could handle), Primal Rage (it is embarrassing to think about how into that game I was), Quest for Glory 3, and today’s subject: Roller Coaster Tycoon.
Roller Coaster Tycoon was one of the few games my whole family could get into. We spent whole weekends mapping out parks and customizing them to our eclectic needs. Even if the game gave us missions we would ignore them so we could we could take advantage of the crazier environments to make mechanical deathtraps. In fact, when my dad built a computer for our family, one of the first games we put on it was Roller Coaster Tycoon. It barely ran on it, but my family still played it all the time.
So in the interest of reflecting on fond memories past, I thought it would be fun to remember one of my family’s favorite games. If you’d like to share your own fond memories of gaming with your family or your own experiences with the game, feel free to do so in the comments.
“It’s educational,” was probably my favorite excuse to drop when I begged my parents for games. Sim City on the SNES? Educational. Brain Age? Educational. Mega Math Blaster? Well, that one was obviously educational, but it was a lot of fun too. Roller Coaster Tycoon was no different. My parents hoped I might learn about economics, running a business, and managing finances. To an extent, this worked out. I learned the concepts of supply and demand, the importance of marketing, design and planning, spacing out facilities, and how important hiring the right people are.
On the other hand, the educational aspect kind of goes away when you realize how godlike your powers are. Need more mechanics? Well, no reason to hire a trained professional; let’s just get the poor guy we stuff in a mascot costume during the summer and give him a new uniform and a certificate we printed off of our dial-up internet–everything will work out fine. Need to keep a certain population in the park? Well, bulldoze the path to the exit once you reach the required population. Is one area of the park dirtier than another? To heck with calling it in, just snatch up some custodians with your claw of destiny and drop them from a hundred feet above the pavement to clean it up (don’t worry, they won’t die from that). Still, it did teach me a lot of business concepts in a way that was entertaining and didn’t feel forced. Now I write articles on the internet… mission successful?
I think one of the things that surprised me the most about Roller Coaster Tycoon was how it went so in depth about the mundane and darker problems of running a theme park. Yes, you can make the most extreme roller coaster ever or turn forests into beachfronts with your godlike powers, but you also have rides breaking down, vandalism, critical reviews, and waves of puke to contend with (seriously, the game does not put a limit on the number of puke sprites a tile can contain: if you don’t hire custodians, the puke can line whole streets). At the same time, you have to deal with customers, making sure they are in a good mood to buy over-priced merchandise and have pleasant memories so they recommend your park to friends and make repeat visits.
Oh, and you need to do PR whenever a ride kills some guests. No, seriously. One mission has a ride launch a whole party of kids and parents to their deaths and you need to do damage control. The game is rated E. I just love how the game doesn’t shy away from the dirtier aspects of managing a park.
I have a bit of a secret: I don’t like playing The Sims and I don’t like playing Sim City or the Civilization series either (though I am partial to Alpha Centauri). I understand why people enjoy these games, but they just aren’t for me. I’m not a fan of micro-managing one person’s life (unless that person is a death-dealing princess) and getting reports on what’s happening isn’t as much fun as actually seeing what’s going on in real-time.
Roller Coaster Tycoon on the other hand is just the right mix for me. You still can micromanage your employees or even customers by using a giant fat caliper to move them around the park, but you also have financial reports to worry about. Overall customer satisfaction and mission objectives require you to use your skills to make the entire park more profitable and to make the most of your limited space to improve the park. The best part though is that you can watch the customers in real time. If they puke, litter, or break a bench, you can see it. You always see their satisfaction bubbles and even see what they are thinking. It’s just that right amount of personal insight into your victims–I mean, customers, while also being the perfect mix of overarching goals and upper management decisions.
While customization seems like it would be natural for any sort of building simulator, the degree to which you could customize your park was amazing. Not only could you choose the colors of your rides and rework the land to make whatever theme you want. Some fools said that a waterpark would never catch on in Alaska. I proved them wrong.
You could also build rides and name them. Suddenly, every childhood dream of building the most insane steel or wooden roller coaster ever made was perfectly attainable and you could build them however long or high you wanted. If you wanted to make a coaster that went around the perimeter of the park, you could. The best part? You could even control the speed of the ride and ramp it up to ridiculous speeds (more on that later).
You could also name the rides and attractions, which would show up in reviews and text scrawls, as well as the rides entrance. I would state the more positive aspects of this system, such as giving you an emotional connection to your park, but let’s be honest, the first thing anyone did once they figured out how to name the rides was to name them the most deplorable options possible or names that worked cleverly with the customer reviews. For example:
“I got sick even looking at “Your Mom.”
“A Chainsaw To The Crotch” is a lot of fun!”
Of course, this leads to the biggest thing most people remember from Roller Coaster Tycoon.
Oh yes. If you’ve even spent an hour with one of the Roller Coaster Tycoon games, you will know how demented the game was if you were willing to experiment. The game might have been rated ‘E’ but you could do things in it that even some current-gen M rated games wouldn’t let you get away with. For example, remember that giant claw I told you about? You know, the giant pair of tongs you use to pick up employees and park visitors and carry them around from place to place? Well, guess what? You can also use them to leave the poor fools stranded in the wilderness, on an island, or just drop them in a lake to drown.
But why keep the death count to only a handful of visitors? Why not build a ride out in a lake and then demolish the pathway from the exit so visitors go tumbling off into a watery grave? In fact, what if you carefully built an island out in the middle of a lake and got EVERYONE in the park on it?
Yes, that was 999 digital characters drowning… and you can get that death toll in the thousands if you’re skilled/demented enough. This game is hardcore. Still, maybe you want to take a more active role in your customers demise. Well in that case, why don’t you set up some launch coasters right next to your park and ramp the speed up to twice the maximum safety speed? Then watch as visitors run in terror as death coasters come hurtling towards them at mach speed and destroy other attractions or booths (I once did this and some poor guy who had diarrhea picked the wrong time to go into a bathroom before it was flattened on him). You have to remember, this is the series that would include Zoo Tycoon, a game where you could seal the exits and release all of the animals, who would happily rip apart the crowd (and yes, there were dinosaur expansions).
Finally, you could do the most devious and twisted act imaginable: rigging the park so every visitor gave you thousands of dollars. For example, make drinks as low as possible and then make the bathrooms charge the maximum fee. Trust me, your visitors might not like it but when they’re stuck three miles from the entrance with five sodas in their bladders and can’t just take a leak out in the open, they will pay $500 to use your cruddy outhouse. I’ve even heard of players who managed to rig their park so there was actually an exit fee and then set that fee at a $1,000. This game lets you be a complete monster and my family loved it for that.
Well, that’s the list. Please share your own thoughts about this game or other simulators you might have played, as well as any games you remember your family coming together to play.