SimCity Classic

The principle of SimCity is simple: build it and they will come. Establish a city on an empty plot of land, provide infrastructure and zoning, then sit back to watch it grow. While that core gameplay loop is fun, it is quite short. However, it almost ends up feeling more like a tech demo or proof of concept than a fully-featured game.

When SimCity was released in 1989, it was clearly the beginning of something special. Any game that makes it into schools and the lexicon of real-world urban planners has to be doing something right! City management gameplay captured the attention and imagination of a large portion of a computer savvy culture. Beyond that, people who didn’t know a thing about computer games knew what SimCity was. Playing it in 2017, I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate SimCity for what it was when it came out. A short half an hour of play time is all that is needed in order to see the building blocks of a series that’s remained relevant thirty years later. Unfortunately, time has been cruel to the original game’s accomplishments in that its own sequels have managed to improve upon it in nearly every way, rendering the original release obsolete.

The principle of SimCity is simple: build it and they will come. Establish a city on an empty plot of land, provide infrastructure and zoning, then sit back to watch it grow. It’s a game built around what the developers call a “system simulation”. Systems are sets of rules that determine how the city behaves. Tools are the hands-on gameplay elements a player uses to manipulate those systems. Everything that happens onscreen is a result of the cause and effect relationship between the rules and tools as used by the player. For example, residential demand is a system that is governed by and responsive to job availability, tax rates, and quality of life elements such as crime and pollution. If there aren’t any jobs available, or if crime and pollution are too high, there may not be any demand for new residences. But as more jobs become available and land values climb, more citizens – referred to as “Sims” in game – will want a place to live. Building residential zones satisfies the system’s immediate need, which in turn generates other needs which need to be fulfilled. There are other systems like traffic, land value, and crime that interact and feed off one another. It’s your job as the mayor to use the game’s tools to manipulate these systems to the desired end: turning a barren plot of dirt into a bustling megalopolis.

Cities begin with the creation of a power plant. Two varieties are available, coal and nuclear. A nuclear reactor will only set you back $5,000, so it’s the logical choice! Draw some roads and power lines from the plant to your nearby industrial zones. Belching pollution and providing a place for miscreants to hang around, industry nevertheless provides a means for your Sims to earn living. Residential zones are ideally placed a ways away from the industrial arm of the city. Waterfront properties are particularly desirable. Commercial zones can be freely interspersed with residential areas. Though busy, commercial squares carry less negative effects than industry. As the city grows Sims may demand police and fire coverage, as well as the occasional sports stadium. Everything costs money to build, and roads and services have recurring maintenance costs to consider. Build too much too quickly and there’s a chance the city will go bankrupt, ending the game. Debt isn’t the only adversary in the game. There is an entire list of disasters that can and will befall your city. Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, and even a giant radioactive lizard are capable of reducing your city to rubble.

When I dove into the game about two weeks ago I’ll have to admit I didn’t expect to have much fun playing a twenty-eight year old city simulator. Given the progress other games have made with time, would this first offering be too basic to enjoy now? The answer to that question is yes. At first. Those first ten to fifteen minutes are the most difficult! Ugly. Slow. No details. No real control, at least when compared to other games in the series. A large part of the struggle is that the game doesn’t explain itself. It’s not supposed to. All of those systems and tools are explained in depth in the game’s manual, which is surprisingly difficult to find online. Guided by a manual or not, keen observation pays off and once you start recognizing the systems it’s easy to fall into a rhythm. SimCity is essentially a video game version of Newton’s third law: For every action a mayor takes, the city will respond with equal but opposite reaction. Sims demand a place to live? Put some residential zones down! Now those new residents need jobs? Time for some industry! Traffic on the commute is terrible and people are going to start shooting each other? Well, there’s not much I can do about that. People just need to learn to be nice.

While that core gameplay loop is fun, it is quite short. Once you’ve constructed an area, there’s very little reason to go back to it. If it functions well, it will keep working with no input from you. Making minor tweaks to existing areas is easy since nearly every building has the same footprint. If you need a police station, simply demolish one zone and plop one down. Easy, yes, but not requiring or allowing much creative expression. Trying to redesign or renovate a renovate a section of a city because of that standard zone size. Adding a rail line next to a road usually means you have to demolish an entire block of developments, and at the end of it you’ll have a line that’s 2 tiles wide with nothing that can fit there. If you’re meticulous and know what you’re doing it’s possible to plan in such a way that no renovations are needed, but where’s the fun in that? Disasters are something of a saving grace in that they present an opportunity for an unintentional, albeit not always necessary, remodel. The closest this game gets to requiring creative design is when a nuclear meltdowns leaves behind tiles of radioactive waste that cannot be used for anything. Ever again.

And it’s those limits on creative play styles that holds SimCity back from being truly timeless. Give the game to two different people for for an hour and their two cities would wind up looking very much alike. Even if one player builds two different cities, there are areas where it would be difficult to tell one city from the next. It’s certainly not a fault of the game design, but rather a realization of the limits of technology available to the developers at the time. There’s even a line in the game’s manual stating that the passenger trains aren’t broken; the game literally can’t render more than one train car per city! But the building blocks are there. SimCity exudes potential from every pixel. Potential that would be realized by one of the best sequels of all time…

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother

Handing out a rating of “Don’t Bother” to an all-time classic like SimCity feels more severe than I intend. It’s a landmark title, to be sure. If you have any interest in city-building or management games, you owe it to yourself to play this for at least an hour. However, it almost ends up feeling more like a tech demo or proof of concept than a fully-featured game. In 2017 it’s an interesting history lesson. SimCity 2000 is the realization of the vision presented in SimCity, and as such I’d have to recommend SC2K as the starting point for anyone interested in the series.

Why you’ll love it:

  • The birth of the Sim franchise.
  • Simple, but all the basic elements are there.
  • First look at unique flavor of humor found in games made by Maxis.

Why you might not love it:

  • Very basic when compared to later games in the series.
  • You can see everything the game has to show you in an hour.
  • Top-down perspective and lack of zoom affords a window of the action.

Where to Purchase:

SimCity is not available for purchase anymore. The original Mac and DOS releases have entered the public domain, so the game can be enjoyed online for free here: Internet Archive – SimCity 1989. Be warned that you cannot save your game while playing online.

Also, there’s a version of the game available for free on the Windows store called RetroCity. This is a program that takes the source code of the original game and adds a few new features like zooming and a more polished interface. The downside is that there are a few weird graphical glitches and some of the menus have a weird layout to fit the Windows 10 style. While it doesn’t contain the original challenge scenarios, it does allow saving and loading of cities.

Sid Meier’s Sim Golf

“[…]Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game.”

It’s must be a difficult thing to design a game about managing a golf course. Most people who play video games are probably more interested in a virtual experience that simulates the act of playing golf. It has to be challenging to try and translate golf course management into video game form, especially since their development doesn’t naturally lend itself to simulation gameplay. Take city building games, for example. There you have a natural progression and series of events in each city. Start off with a bare patch of land, place a few roads, utilities, and buildings, and watch your city grow. As the city gets larger, new districts are added, infrastructure is upgraded, and so on. While video games take liberties with that progression, it’s a sequence that fits gaming well. Golf courses are an entirely different beast. Each course is meticulously designed and then built to completion before a single golfer sets foot on the turf. Once the course is open for business the superintendent’s responsibility shifts to managing day-to-day operations to keep the course running smoothly. The short of it is, basing a game off how golf courses operate in the real world probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun.


Thankfully Sid Meier’s SimGolf eschews realism, slices and dices the various aspects of course design and management, and sticks all the fun bits into a game. Play begins by giving you a sum of money and a choice of parcels of land to purchase. Each parcel of land is a different size and fits within a certain environment style such as tropical, alpine, grassland, desert, or others. Every location comes with an already-built clubhouse and potentially other buildings unique to the scenario. After selecting a starting location it’s your job to design and build a profitable golf course. Each hole must be built one at a time. Construction options include all the components of individual golf holes; tee boxes, fairways, and greens. Also present are hazards like various types of rough, rocks and trees, and a few other obstacles that are unique to each locale. The game will allow you to open a hole for play with nothing more than a tee box and one square of green, but the embellishments are what make each creation special. Constructing paths that connect your course aren’t essential to its operation but they do increase the rate of play, which means more money for you. Eventually, you will gain access to specialized buildings that provide some kind of statistical or financial bonus to your course. A golf cart garage gives your customers motorized carts which, further increases the rate of play and drives up your income. Driving ranges and putting greens improve the skill set of your patrons, meaning they are able to play more challenging holes without getting frustrated. Other buildings like tennis courts, spas, and snack bars play a part in providing a boost to people’s happiness stats.

Building things costs money, but golfers bring in income. How much money you make depends on how much your customers like your golf course. In a departure from reality, your patrons will pay for each hole of golf played rather than a per-round greens fee. The more fun they have on each hole, the more money they pay out. If you stick with the most simplistic of course layouts, your patrons won’t have as much fun and they’ll simply spend pocket change on each hole. Create a challenging and fun layout and customers will happily drop wads of cash. And herein lies the great hook of SimGolf: your job is to design a golf course that makes your players feel like they’re good at the game. Each hole is given three ratings that coincide with skill ratings of your golfers: length, accuracy, and imagination. How players of different skill sets react to each hole determine its fun rating. If it has a low rating, only golfers with certain skills can play it well. There’s a handy ‘shot analysis’ tool that shows how people of differing skill sets might play through each hole. This tool is essential to designing holes that will be challenging and fun for golfers of all types.

See those two shots above the fairway that land in the dirt? The shot analysis tool is telling me that golfers with no length skill will have a lot of problem with this hole.

It’s also necessary to pay attention to what golfers are saying as they play through the course. They aren’t afraid to voice their opinions of your course, which is usually a reflection of how well, or not, the course is tailored to their skill set. One of my courses is set in a hilly alpine environment. Things were going pretty well and I was making plenty of money, but about a quarter of my patrons would quit in rage on the third hole. After paying attention to what was happening, I saw that a certain stretch of fairway was sloped so that short tee shots, even though they landed on the fairway, would roll out of bounds. Players with more length skill didn’t have any issues. Golf rules being what they are, the player would have to take another shot off the tee, leading to a nine strokes played without making any headway on the hole itself. At that point, distance-challenged golfers throw a temper tantrum, toss down their clubs in disgust, and storm off the course. Raising the terrain on one side of the fairway solved the problem and all my patrons were happy again.

Of course, if you’re feeling sadistic it’s entirely possible to abuse the course design to give your patrons an objectively miserable experience. On one such occasion I watched a golfer named Solomon, a divorced Psychiatrist, drive a tee shot right into a cactus. After he expressed displeasure with the cactus I retaliated by placing another half dozen prickly obstructions surrounding his position. Solomon’s next five shots hit various cacti and his happiness indicator plummeted. Growing ever more frustrated, his comments glowed in flashing red text. As his patience comes to an end he yells, “I HATE MY CLUBS I HATE THIS GAME I HATE MY LIFE!!!” Other nearby golfers react to his tantrum and I click a button to have him escorted off the course. For a brief moment I wonder if I’m a bad person, then remember that it’s just a game and Solomon was probably a jerk anyway.

Poor Solomon. It only gets worse from here, bud.

Should you want to play though your course firsthand the game allows you do so through your superintendent, Gary Golf. Playing is as simple as drawing a line to where you want the ball to go and then clicking to commit to the swing. The ball will more or less follow the projected flight path, deviating slightly depending on terrain and other statistics. Playing rounds of golf will award you skill points to improve your golfer’s stats, allowing you to record better scores. It can be a fun diversion from the construction and management side of the game, but it’s not going to hold your attention for long. There’s just not much to it. The one thing that keeps golf mode from being a complete throwaway is the golf tournament. Play against other computer-controlled golfers and if you win, you get a large cash payout. The potential trade off is that your course won’t earn any income during tournaments, so it’s possible to lose quite a bit of money before a tournament ends. However, when you level up your skill points enough there’s almost no way to lose.

As fun as it is to build your own course and watch the little virtual people play through it, SimGolf does have a few shortcomings. For one, I have no idea why Sid Meier’s name is attached to it. Even after reading multiple previews and reviews of the game, I’m still not sure why it bears his name. If you’re not familiar with him, Sid Meier is something of a legend when it comes to strategy games. Games branded with his name are known for their depth and complexity, presenting simulations that players can get lost in for hundreds of hours. SimGolf doesn’t possess any of those attributes. Once you’ve figured out the formula for making enjoyable golf courses, all challenge evaporates from the game. If your course is doing well financially after five holes, you won’t have any financial problems as you add more holes and services to it. At this point the game moves from simulation to creative sandbox mode and designing new holes and courses is the only draw. This may not be a bad thing, but the more you play it, the more you notice how simplified everything is. The design constraints of the grid system can only produce a finite number of visually appealing layouts. And even though the terrain tools allow for some substantial terraforming, the game wasn’t really designed for it. Objects and scenery don’t mesh all that well with severe slopes and drop-offs, and golfers complain if there are too many hills. The more you use the editing tools, the more you notice how awkward the interface can be. Everything is shoehorned into the awkward interface layout shared by The Sims and Sim City 4, forcing functions to be grouped according to the visual design of the menu rather than grouping functions logically by what they do. Remember the handy “shot analysis” tool I mentioned earlier? It’s buried in the building and terrain editing panel, which has to be accessed by clicking the a large button with a picture of a house on it. Even after spending ten hours on the game I couldn’t ever find it the first time.

Window showing play statistics for a hole. Take note of the awkwardly placed bridge at the bottom of the screen; the game just can’t handle significant elevation changes.

This menu awkwardness continues into how the game tracks career progression. It would make sense that when you play through career mode, all of your progress can be accessed through a central hub like the world map. From there you’d be able to see which locations you own and what your progress is with each course. SimGolf doesn’t have a method to view your overall career progress. While you can use the world map to see each plot that you’ve unlocked, you have to load up the course file – if there is one – to view your progress. This is made more complicated by the fact that each save game defaults to the name of the course combined with a time stamp on the end of it. So unless you manually rename your save game every time, it’s possible to wind up with dozens of save files for one course. Since there are no visual previews of the save games, you also have to remember the name of the course you’re working on. Who does that?

None of these are insurmountable problems, but all of these flaws coalesce into what can feel like a giant mess. As far as I can tell there’s no one major goal for players of the game to work towards. The game essentially drops you into a golf course design sandbox and lets you do what you want. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it takes away any sense of discovery the game could have. After about thirty minutes you will have seen all the game has to offer, and that’s a shame.

The Final Raving – Don’t Bother

This is a game that’s better left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

There’s a lot of fun to be had here if you can tolerate the flaws. However, the fun will only last a few hours and it’s probably just not worth the effort it would take to play the game.


  • Simple gameplay is easy to dive into
  • For the most part, the graphical elements combine into some pretty courses
  • It’s fun to make your golfers mad


  • You can’t legitimately buy or install this on modern systems
  • The interface and game file management is absolutely atrocious


  • The “Sim” visual design of the golfers is ugly enough to make you puke
  • The game is locked at a resolution of 800 x 600, and it can’t be changed or played in windowed mode

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • The game isn’t available for purchase on any digital distribution platforms, and obsolete copy protection means you can’t install a legitimate physical copy on Windows 10

Tips for New Players:

  1. As with any simulation game, start small and get a little bit of profit first.
  2. Play in every tournament that pops up. You can’t lose!
  3. Listen to the golfers who complain a lot. They do make some good points.

Release Date:

  • January 23rd, 2002

Developer: Maxis & Firaxis Games

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Where to buy: eBay, but it won’t do you much good…

Screenshot Gallery


Fifteen years after its time I look at SimGolf and see tons of potential. While flawed, it’d be easy for someone to revisit this concept and turn it into a great game today. Imagine a game that shows a map of a city or a small state. On the map are locations of existing golf courses as well as lots, both empty and occupied, that are prime locations for new courses. As a potential course management tycoon it’s your objective to start out small. Build a mini golf course or maybe a pitch and putt to build up your cash reserves. In time you’ll have the funds available to build a nine-hole municipal course. That, in turn leads to private courses and then prestigious country clubs. When you’ve acquired enough design rep, you start fine tuning select courses for nationally televised tournaments. From time to time you’ll have to compete with rival designers who try to undermine courses in select locations. Sometimes they’ll be honest and simply build a competing course, other times they’ll play dirty and try to sabotage your workforce. Beyond design elements the game also includes management of course employees, maintenance schedules, clubhouse restaurants, and other facilities. In addition to career mode there would also be a set of challenge scenarios wherein the goal is to rescue troubled courses, cater to a specific subset of golfers, or simply generate lots of profit. The game would be built with 3D engine that has simple and intuitive terraforming tools, much like Planet Coaster. Scripts of procedural generation can take some of the legwork out of course design, but there’s potential for players to tweak and design every little detail they want. It seems like a great idea to me, and I suppose I’ll work on a design document sooner or later. Playing around in Planet Coaster gave me just a glimpse of the potential that might exist for a new golf management sim:

Please forgive my use of the Union Jack to mark the location of the hole; it’s all I could find in the right scale…