Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PC: Theme Park


The next part of our retro-journey takes me to a dearly beloved favorite of mine.
I'll bluntly admit, it's one of those cases in which the majority of you might look at me with an expression of fear and disgust. Kind of like that old guy living down the street who keeps insisting on crappy old black and white movies being far more superior than those modern flicks.

In a way, maybe you shouldn't be all THAT surprised. After all, this is coming from a guy who until recently crowned Baldur's Gate 2 as the ultimate RPG (until Origins arrived, at least). A guy who also finds the first two X-Com games to be among the hallmarks of computer game history.
Yeah, and I love Theme Park too.



What a ride!
In a way it's kinda hard to describe this game in a way that really makes it shine compared to all its successors. Again, you have to see it in the proper context. Back then, Theme Park was basically among very few of its kind. In fact, I think you could argue that it was the only one of its kind that at least offered a graphical aspect worth a damn.

Speaking of which, I'll gladly admit the reason why I even started on this game was because of its visual appeal. I mean, look at it. I love colours myself and Theme Park was back then an orgy of details and pleasing-to-the-eye scenery. The guests were plenty, rides looked awesome (they did!) and just looking at the shops actually made you a bit hungry.

But once again I'm getting ahead of myself, as I am sure there are plenty of you out there who have absolutely no history with this game. Allow me to shortly elaborate.
Theme Park is all about...wait for it...THEME PARKS!
That huge shocker being put into place, there is actually much more to it than mere design. In fact, unless you cheated (which, granted, the majority did back then) this game was really hard. First and foremost there was the enormous financial aspect in which you had to juggle the various expenses against the meager income you made through the park. This was purely represented by merchandise from your shops and unhealthy consumables. Of course your little visitors also had to pay a steep entry fee in order to partake in the fun, which in the end often reached astronomical heights as the consequence of your park-size. In the end it wasn't entirely uncommon to see ticket prices around 250$.

Of course you couldn't just set a price and wait. You had to justify it. This is where the rides came along. Theme Park offered a wide variety of rides, some certainly more fun than others, that could all be placed in your park to increase its overall attractiveness. Initially you only had access to four of them, consisting of a bouncy castle, spinning teacups, a tree house and the much appreciated ghost train. While investing in these rides dug into your budget they were a necessary evil to attract the little punters to your park.

Daaaad, I'm really booored....
It all sounds simple. You begin with 200K at your disposal and set out to establish your park and make a name for yourself. Once you've placed some rides, roads and few shops you could move on and hire your staff or decorations to your park. The former included some entertainers (who frankly never seemed to entertain anyone), guards and the ever so important engineers and handymen. The engineers were essential components to keep your park running since rides would eventually get worn out and break down (much to the dismay of your customers). Unless they were repaired they would simply detonate and leave immovable debris forever. The role of the handyman was way more subtle and addressed the universal truth that wherever Man goes, boundless amounts of trash are doomed to follow. In Theme Park this truth is taken to the extreme. You customers trash, litter and throw up just about everywhere they go, and once the show gets rolling it quickly spreads and hell breaks loose. It's a strange thing, somehow, that you were able to build toilets for them to throw up in, but never a litter-bin to dump their trash.

The urgency of said staff was, of course, to retain just a modest amount of happiness among your visitors. Happy guests came back, would pay higher prices and in general made your park more valuable. If you failed at this, you were quickly looking down the long road of bankruptcy. And nothing pissed off your customers more than being blown up in a defective ride or stepping in someone else's lunch on the way out.
To make matters worse, one could quote House MD by saying “My staff are idiots” which is certainly the case in Theme Park. At times the handyman would get stuck in a loop, the engineer right next to a ride on fire would sit idly while another one across the park would respond and shortly after they'd demand higher wages. If not they went on a strike.

And frankly, it didn't take much to annoy your customers. I've even experienced some of them throwing up the very moment they got off the bus. As soon as they enter your park they're thirsty and hungry and demands to be fed. Having eaten their fat meal and casually throwing it on the path they easily became confused and couldn't navigate the paths by their own. They were literally bordering retarded and needed signposts for everything to see in the park. You even needed to place arrows and blockades to make sure they didn't get stuck. Another thing that really pissed them off. And if you ever had a popular ride, the line would often be so enormously long that they'd complain about waiting.

Keeping up with being funny
Naturally you saw the grim side of it. Expenses grew bigger and bigger. You had to make sure that your warehouse was well stocked with soda, fries, burgers, beers, steaks and so on; otherwise you lost money till they arrived. And since there was some delay before arrival, you had to time it quite well. You also had to manage your bank-loan and pay off the rents while considering buying shares and make sure your virtual opponents didn't buy too deeply into your project.

On the other hand was research, one of the most vital elements of the game. Research gave you the chance to set aside 1-9999$ per month and upgrade various aspects of your park. You could invest in bigger warehouses and bigger busses, so you'd have even more unsatisfied guests in your park. Or you could train your staff to be faster and more efficient. Alternatively, and more fun, was the option to invent new shops and rides. You could also upgrade existing rides to house more guests and last longer.

This was an aspect you couldn't ignore, as you really needed new rides if you didn't want to be the king of bouncy castles for the rest of your career. How much money you could spare, however, was a decision left to you. Research quickly dug into your funding, but could be well worth the effort, especially once you got your hands on the big rides, such as the roller coaster.
All the time, your guests were whining, complaining, puking and getting lost. If everything was going downward you could activate the emergency mood and arrange firework to flash above their heads. This really lifted the mood for just about everyone in the park, with the exception of you, perhaps. Firework was extremely expensive.

An interesting element of the game was that if your park was truly hideous, punks and gang members would show up and cause havoc. Wreck your rides, beat up the entertainers and harass guests. While easily dealt with by employing security, this was a signal to you that you really needed to tighten up.

Moving on in the world!
In case you actually made it and got your park rolling with magical sparks of colour against the sky and thundering roller coasters, you could eventually put it on auction for a nice sum of money. Then you were free to purchase ground in other countries, such as Japan and Antarctic. A sad feature of the game is that the climate, scenery and guests don't change at all between countries. You're stuck with green grass and Caucasian guests, which does tend to make the game a bit repetitive. I've never gotten as far as to actually complete Theme Park (which involves completing a park in every country) but I've been told it isn't all that impressive anyway.

Not that it mattered anyway. It was still a great game.

Why is it a great game?
Seen with modern eyes one could easily argue that Theme Park isn't all it used to be, which should hardly be surprising for anyone. It's still an old faithful that will easily run under DosBox (just be prepared to set your CPU-cycles...quite low...) and bring you some nostalgic fun.

What always made this game for me is the sheer amount of management involved at the same time, and just to follow the 'aquarium effect' of your guests. How they enter the park, journey around and have fun before leaving. Certainly no challenge at all to the modern games within this genre, Theme Park still has a certain appeal that I just can't put a finger on. I'm pretty sure that if you've never played this game before and consider doing so, you'll likely be disappointed. It is a game that lives off rose-tinted goggles.

Some elements of it are so annoying and stupid that I'll never call it a true classic. The logic is way off, with burgers costing 300$ and the immense troubles you can have controlling your staff. At times your customers will just be unhappy because they can and because they hate you. Other times you will search for hours trying to find that puking-hot spot. Additionally, while I do enjoy the music (for what it is, of course) the sounds are initially good but quickly become extremely annoying.

Is it to be recommended?
Well, of course, otherwise I wouldn't write about it. I love Theme Park, and you used to do so too...you should give it a go. It's a nice reunion that will quickly remind you of everything you loved and hated about this game. For me it was simply a passing of time and I am surely not going to play it again in the near future. I assume most people will try it out, build a park (likely cheat, can't blame you) and rejoice in the memory.

But that's okay. Theme Park is such a good game. Good enough to give at least one more try if you can spare the time.

Retro-Verdict: 6/10

1 comment:

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