The Definitive RollerCoaster Tycoon Experience

“OpenRCT2 is an open-source re-implementation of RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 (RCT2), expanding the game with new features, fixing original bugs and raising game limits.”. To put it another way, a dedicated group of fans have spent years voluntarily rebuilding RollerCoaster Tycoon and improving it in nearly every way.

RollerCoaster Tycoon takes the prize as my second favorite game of all time. So much so that it was the subject for the first post I ever published on this website. Since it occupies such a spot on my list, I’ve got some great suggestions for what your definitive experience with the game should be. Sure, you could just buy the game from Steam or GOG and play it without any modifications, but I don’t recommend it. Installed directly as purchased, the game is locked in a 4:3 aspect ratio that will be stretched to your widescreen monitor. In addition, there’s no way to play in windowed mode. No matter how long you play, it’s likely you’ll never quite get used to the squished perspective everything has. On top of the awkwardness of actually running the game, if you buy RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 you’ll be stuck with some ugly, ugly scenarios.

Here’s a screenshot of what the vanilla game looks like as installed on my PC and played on a standard widescreen monitor at a resolution of 1920 x 1080:

No, it’s not bad, but it’s just kind of awkward. If you don’t think so, compare it to the screenshot below:

The angle is better. The Ferris Wheel is round. The perspective shift doesn’t make things look quite so flat. Things don’t look quite so muddy. It’s an all-around improvement, I’d say. So what’s the secret to the change? OpenRCT2. As stated on the project’s website, “OpenRCT2 is an open-source re-implementation of RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 (RCT2), expanding the game with new features, fixing original bugs and raising game limits.”. To put it another way, a dedicated group of fans have spent years voluntarily rebuilding RollerCoaster Tycoon and improving it in nearly every way. All of these changes and tweaks are completely legal, since the source code to the game was voluntarily released years ago. The improved version of the game works on modern operating systems and is compatible with a wide array of hardware. It supports windowed mode or plays full screen at nearly any resolution. There’s a debug and cheat menu. And it’s quite easy to import custom scenarios. Ready to play yet?

To have the definitive RollerCoaster Tycoon experience, here are the steps you need to take:

  • Purchase RollerCoaster Tycoon 2: Triple Thrill Pack from GOG: https://www.gog.com/game/rollercoaster_tycoon_2 Install it on your PC.
  • Download the OpenRCT2 launcher from the website’s downloads page: http://openrct2.org/downloads Scroll down to the bottom of the page to get to the correct link:
  • The next page you’ll see has a bunch of different versions of the file to download. The one you want is the straight .exe file for windows:
  • Download it, and then run the installation process. Once the program is installed, remember that you want to run the program called “OpenRCT2 Launcher”, and not the installation of RollerCoaster Tycoon. They are very different!
  • To make your installation complete, you must download and install the scenarios from the first RollerCoaster Tycoon. They weren’t included in the retail release of RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, but the game’s dedicated fan base reconstructed them and assembled them in an easy-to-install pack. The link to the scenario pack is in this Reddit post: https://www.reddit.com/r/rct/comments/1h93gx/more_exact_recreations_of_rct1_scenarios_for_rct2/ The MediaFire link is the one to get.
  • To install the new scenarios, extract the contents of the file you just downloaded to the scenario folder created by the installation of OpenRCT2. The file path for that should be something like “C:\Users\YourUsername\Documents\OpenRCT2\scenario”

That’s all there is to it! Prepare to enjoy dozens if not hundreds of hours of one of the best PC games known to mankind! If you need any help with the install process, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to walk you through it.

Deus Ex – Beginning Again

So what makes this game so special? The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective and combines elements of action and shooting, stealth, role-playing games, and character-rich dialog trees. In short, it aimed to be a game where any style of play was a viable option. Enemy outpost ahead? You can mount a frontal assault with guns blazing, or you can sneak around to find the back door. Talk to a few civilians nearby, and they might even offer other alternatives. It’s possible for two people to play the same game and have wildly variable experiences.

Deus Ex is widely regarded as one of the best PC games ever made. Its critical and commercial success heralded the mainstream arrival of a genre called Immersive Simulation, or ImSim. It’s not hyperbole to say it was groundbreaking at the time of its release, and modern-day developers still draw inspiration from it. Last year, Deus Ex made it to the 23rd spot on PC Gamer’s Best PC Games of All Time feature. Though gaming journalism thrives on gaming in the current era, the merits of Deus Ex are still worth contemplating in a five-part series.

So what makes this game so special? The gameplay takes place from a first-person perspective and combines elements of action and shooting, stealth, role-playing games, and character-rich dialog trees. In short, it aimed to be a game where any style of play was a viable option. Enemy outpost ahead? You can mount a frontal assault with guns blazing, or you can sneak around to find the back door. Talk to a few civilians nearby, and they might even offer other alternatives. It’s possible for two people to play the same game and have wildly variable experiences.

The game’s story paints a bleak picture of the near future. The world population is at critical levels, and to make matters worse there’s a raging plague known as Gray Death spiraling out of control. Cure for this plague is in short supply, and most of what’s available is handed out to those with money or status. This inequality causes tension between socioeconomic classes and threatens to boil over into violent conflict. Fringe groups have started stealing shipments of medicine and redistributing it to the common people.

Cybernetic augmentation of humans is becoming more and more common, with many soldiers receiving upgrades that leave them looking like humanoid robots. Bionic implants have just taken a major leap forward, leaving its subjects more human-looking while granting greater augmented capabilities. Enter JC Denton, the second man to receive these new abilities and the character you control throughout the game. JC works for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, UNATCO. They thrust him into the middle of this mess to find the missing medicine and bridge the gap between common man and the future of augmented humankind.

Even augmented humanoid killing machines have problems with vending machines.

In spite of an entire laundry list of enticing features, I’ve never played Deus Ex through to completion. As best as I can figure, the farthest I’ve ever made it in the game is to Hong Kong, which is about a third of the way through. I don’t know that there’s been any one thing that causes me to quit. It’s not like I encountered a difficult stretch of gameplay and gave up because it ceased to be fun. The extremely sad part is that I’ve started and quit playing the game no fewer than four separate times. There’s a lot here that I should absolutely fall in love with, but for some reason Deus Ex has remained one of the biggest titles on my shameful list of unfinished games.

Not anymore. Here and now, I pledge to start and finish Deus Ex for the first time ever. Why? Two reasons, primarily. First, I just can’t stand the idea that I’ve let this game go uncompleted for so long. I know I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played, I just wind up dropping it for some reason. This time I’ve got to see it through. Second, since Deus Ex is such an influential title in gaming history, it’d be a horrendous oversight not to be familiar with it. In order to recognize its influence, I’ve got to know what it accomplished on its own. There are quite a few games in my library that owe some part of their existence to Deus Ex; Bioshock, Stalker: Call of Pripyat, Dishonored, and Prey, to name a few.

Yeah, there’s not much you can do to hide 18-year-old video game graphics here.

Since Deus Ex is nearly eighteen years old, it has a few rough edges not even the thickest rose-colored glasses of nostalgia can smooth over. That’s why I’m going to play a modded version called Give Me Deus Ex, or GMDX for short. From all reports, it manages to leave most of the lore, layout, and level design of the original game unchanged. It adds enhanced graphics by way of high-resolution textures, as well as changes to the user interface. Enemies are more intelligent, behaving a bit more lifelike than the original design. Plus there are dozens of changes and tweaks to gameplay mechanics that I won’t list here. In short, it seems to be a mod that is faithful to the original design philosophy of the original game. As I write this I’ve had a chance to play the first two hours in the mod, and I think I can safely say that it is true to the spirit of Deus Ex. It makes a lot of cool tweaks and improvements without feeling like a rewrite of the game everyone knows and loves.

Liberty Island

The opening mission of the game is one that perfectly illustrates the vision of Deus Ex. Diverted from their escape plans after stealing a cache of anti-plague vaccine, a group of rebels has taken over Liberty Island. Yes, the same island which the Statue of Liberty calls home. They’ve taken a fellow UNATCO agent hostage and are holding him the base of the statue. The terrorist leader is hiding out in the top of the statue, waiting and hoping for a chance to escape. Your brother, a fellow augmented UNATCO agent, informs you that you’re working the mission solo. Someone “high up” wants to see how you handle the situation. It’s your job to capture or kill the rebel leader. You do have at least two choices when it comes to handling the situation: Either you can use brute force or try to sneak around undetected. The design of this level forces a certain amount of discretion, no matter what your intent is. The area around the statue is flat and open, so it’s difficult to engage with enemy soldiers without alerting their squad mates.

The South Dock, where it all begins.

Since ammo is scarce and I didn’t have any ranged weapons worth using, I decided to clear the island in a non-lethal manner. At first, I thought I’d sneak up on enemy soldiers one by one and knock them unconscious with my handy baton. That worked extremely well for the first soldier. The second one was, apparently, alerted by the sound the baton makes when it extends and turned around to face me before I could land a blow on the back of his head. He fired a shot or two as I started whacking him in the face with my baton. It took about four or five blows, but I eventually knocked him over. No time to celebrate victory though, as the gunfire wounded me and alerted more enemies to my location. Though I could outrun the pack for a few brief moments, the next time I turned around I saw six enemy soldiers firing pistols and machine guns at me. Time to reload and try something different.

The fact that I had this much trouble so early in the game speaks volumes about the improvements GMDX makes to enemy AI. While any stealth game is about exploiting the AI and game design to an extent, it’s nice to feel like there’s a real challenge to overcome here. It didn’t take me too long to adjust my tactics and make some progress in infiltrating the statue. There was a brief moment near the cargo yard on the east side of the island where I thought it was all over. I had worked my way clockwise around the island and was preparing to climb up a pile of crates. An enemy turned the corner, saw me, and started sprinting in my direction. I heard a burst of gunfire and was momentarily puzzled as to why my health stats weren’t going down. Then I noticed impact marks behind the terrorist. A lone UNATCO security bot, patrolling near the north dock, had come in range of the terrorist and opened fire; it saved my rear end. For a brief moment I considered luring the other nearby terrorists into the firing range of the security bot, but decided that would go against the pacifist position I’d adopted for this mission. After a missed jump or two, I’d safely navigated the piles of cargo containers and made it onto the second major level of the statue foundation. 

Near the end of the mission, I found myself stuck in a predicament about three-quarters of the way up the statue. On my way up I’d somehow managed to sneak past two soldiers who were hanging out near a stairwell. They should have seen me, I’m pretty sure one of them was suspicious, but neither one came after me. I climbed up a stairway past the two of them, walked down another hallway, and then climbed another set of stairs. Here’s where the problem became apparent. There were two more mercenaries at the top of these stairs, and there was no possible way to sneak past them. It was easy to take the first one of them down with a well-placed tranquilizer dart from my mini crossbow. But as soon as the first enemy dropped, the other immediately became alerted to my presence and started shooting at me. Dealing with one angry soldier isn’t a problem, but the sound of gunfire alerted the two soldiers below me. By the time I’d downed the second soldier on the upper level, the two from the lower level came to spell my doom.

Eventually I realized I had stolen a gas mine from a supply room below. I planted that in the hallway between the two groups of enemies. This time when the lower set of guards was alerted to my presence, they walked through the hallway and triggered the gas mine. The explosion and ensuing gas cloud incapacitated them allowing me to leisurely send a tranquilizer dart in their direction. Hard part done, I made it to the top of the statue where the terrorist leader had taken up refuge. He told me that I was too late to recover their shipment; that it was already on the way to the mainland. Primary mission accomplished, you have the option: let him go, or shoot him on the spot. Owing to my non-lethal commitment for the mission, I let him go to be scum for another day.

After this are another two missions I won’t go into much detail about. UNATCO HQ serves to fill in some back story and introduce you to more of the cast members of the game. You’ll certainly read more about them in future posts. Assault on Castle Clinton is the next one that, while fun, doesn’t resonate with me as much as other missions in the game. I think part of that is because after assaulting the ruined Statue of Liberty, it’s hard for me to be excited about a mission centered around a big brown circle. Worth playing and kind of fun? Yes. Fun to read about? Not so much.

Next up – Hell’s Kitchen!

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.

golf_2016-11-26_22-28-13

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.

skillshot2
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.

solomon
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.

holestats
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.

Good:

  • 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

Bad:

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

Ugly:

  • 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

Afterthought

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:

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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…

 

Kerbal Space Rescue

There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit above the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons.

Things rarely go according to plan in Kerbal Space Program. And that’s kind of sad since my plan was so simple there was almost no room for anything to go wrong. It’s been a while since I’ve spent quality time with the game, so I wanted to get reacquainted. Build a rocket, launch it into orbit, and bring it back. No fancy maneuvers, no tricks, just a simple up and down. Easy stuff we humans mastered back in the 1960s. But Kerbal space program doesn’t have humans, it has tiny green people called Kerbals. And it doesn’t take place in the 1960s, it’s all happening in the here and now. Anything goes, since you’re the one responsible for everything. My plan to get reacquainted had three simple parts. Part one, building a rocket, was easier than ever. Part two, launching it into a stable orbit above Kerbin, went off without a hitch. Part three, returning my brave Kerbalnauts back to the planet, is where things got a little complicated. How complicated? Well, have a look for yourself:
KSP 2016-09-03 20-39-27-21There’s a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the good news. There’s only a crew capsule in orbit around Kerbin. That’s the bad news. It’s bad because the crew capsule is no longer attached to an engine. Or maneuvering thrusters. Or any other spaceship parts that allow it to move under its own power. So it’s stuck in orbit around the planet with no way to move. How did it happen? I blame it on my love of pushing buttons. In this wonderful game the space bar, which I would like to remind you is the largest key on your keyboard, is bound to a command called simply ‘next stage’. You see, each craft in Kerbal Space Program can be broken into different sections or stages that are activated in sequence. One stage may activate solid-rocket boosters, while the next fires a liquid-fuel engine, and the next one jettisons spent fuel tanks, and so on. Having a firm grasp of staging is essential to building and controlling a rocket that does what you want it to. As long as you press the button at the right time. In this case, I accidentally pressed the button to separate my crew capsule from its method of propulsion at the worst possible time.

Having three brave explorers trapped in permanent orbit isn’t the way I wanted to return to a game I love dearly, so I decided to mount a rescue mission. No Kerbals left behind! If a rescue mission is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing! A boring old rocket isn’t good enough here. No, I created a Gigantic Recovery Plane with a cargo bay large enough to contain the stranded space capsule. This vehicle would dock with the drifting capsule and then capture it and keep it safely contained within the cargo bay. Say hello to the GRV: 
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The design required a few test flights and subsequent modifications before it was powerful enough and maneuverable enough to fly easily. Once it got to a point where it handled fairly well in the air I had to do something I’ve never done in Kerbal Space Program: land a plane.

It went better than I expected.

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The cockpit is all that survived my first landing attempt. The key word there is “survived”. Before you write that off as a failure, please observe that the ever-brave Jebediah Kerman is still alive and smiling. Any day where your Kerbonauts are alive and on the ground after a flight is a good day. A second test flight proved that I did have what it takes to safely land the plane. At this point, I’m confident that as long as the GRV makes it back into the atmosphere I can get it landed safely. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Before I can return it to the surface I need to get it up into space to start with. And for that, I need a rocket. A really, really big rocket. With eighteen solid-rocket boosters. Say hello to the Giant Recovery Vehicle Launch Rocket:

KSP 2016-09-04 21-21-34-98

My drifting crew capsule is in orbit. The GRV is in orbit with plenty of fuel to spare. At the moment, nothing is in danger of exploding. Now I can relax and think through other problems. Problems like the fact that I’ve never successfully pulled off a docking maneuver. It sounds like it’s simple enough to do. relatively speaking, spacecraft in a higher or larger orbit move slower than craft in lower, faster orbits. I needed to keep the GRV in a lower orbit than the drifting capsule, and then make a series of carefully timed engine burns to match orbits with the drifter. It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s difficult to get the timing just right so that you’re not way far away from your intended target. It will suffice to say that after quite a bit of trial and error, I got close to the drifters. Excruciatingly close.

RescueNotToday

3 kilometers away with a relative velocity difference of only 10.5 meters per second. Keep in mind that both craft are more than 300,000 kilometers above the surface of the planet and traveling at 2,300 kilometers per hour. They’re effectively two speeding bullets traveling in the same direction and I’m trying to nudge one of them to piggyback onto the other one. Coming within 3 kilometers with a small velocity difference like that is pretty impressive to me. Did I mention yet that I have no idea what I’m doing? It turns out that the first 300,000 kilometers of the journey is easy, and closing the gap of the last 3 kilometers is the hard part. The very hard part. I thought I understood what to do but my grasp of orbital mechanics failed me here. No matter what I did the drifters floated farther and farther away from the GRV. I tried a short burn from my engines to bring me closer; it pushed me farther away. I tried long bursts from my maneuvering thrusters; they pushed me in the wrong direction. With each attempted course correction my orbit skewed even more in the wrong direction.

After a few mistake-filled minutes I took a deep breath and looked at my orbital trajectory. It was a lopsided egg totally off track compared to the gentle oval of the drifter. To add insult to injury I was now running low on fuel. With my limited resources there was no possible way for me to rescue the drifters and return back to the planet. Rather than have two craft stranded in orbit in two separate orbits I decided to return an empty GRV back to Kerbin. At least I know I can land it. I nudged the GRV back into the atmosphere and begin my descent.

worried-jeb

Jeb looks worried. That’s not a good sign. Ever. Why is he worried?

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Well that wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes, the GRV blew up. It was torn apart by aerodynamic stresses. There is such a thing as coming into a planet’s atmosphere the wrong way. My speed of 2,500 meters per second probably wouldn’t have been an issue if I’d approached from a shallower angle. As it was I ran into too much atmospheric density too soon and it ripped my spaceplane apart. If I had a shallower approach then the thinner atmosphere would have slowed down the GRV a bit more, allowing for a more gradual and less explodey descent to the planet’s surface. I suppose it’s for the best. If I had successfully retrieved the drifters only to disintegrate upon reentry then I would have been quite peeved.

That’s the thing about Kerbal Space Program: even when an untimely explosion reduces your best plan to bits of flaming rubble, it’s never unfair. Punishing and rarely forgiving, yes; but never unfair.  Every time I’ve failed, and I’ve failed a lot, it’s been the result of something I did. Either my vehicle design was a flying trash heap or I just didn’t know how to fly it properly. It’s a game that’s easy to get into, but difficult to master. There’s no need for a story mode since the best stories will write themselves if you play long enough. That’s the real draw of Kerbal Space Program. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and write the best rescue and recovery story since Apollo 13!

Rollercoaster Tycoon

At the time this article is written, RollerCoaster Tycoon has had two released sequels, with RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 slated to come out at the end of 2015. Two other theme park games are also in development, Parkitect and Planet Coaster, and are slated for release in 2016. So the question becomes: “Why is RollerCoaster Tycoon still worth playing?”

Answer: “It’s just fun!”

RollerCoaster Tycoon

Release Date:

  • Original Game: March 31, 1999
  • Expansion #1 – Corkscrew Follies: November 15, 1999
  • Expansion #2 – Loopy Landscapes: September 30, 2000

Developer: Chris Sawyer

Publisher: Frontier

Where to buy: Steam and GOG.com – $5.99

What’s the Premise?

Your job is simple: manage theme parks as best you can. The game gives you a long list of scenarios to play through, 81, each with their own goals. Most of the scenarios that shipped with the original game focus on growing a small park into a larger one while maintaining standards that contribute to your park’s rating. Scenarios added by the two expansion packs tend to be a bit more diverse; such as requiring you to build coasters that meet minimum ratings like length, speed, excitement value; or else the scenario locations themselves are more challenging.

Why Should I Play This?

At the time this article is written, RollerCoaster Tycoon has had two released sequels, with RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 slated to come out at the end of 2015. Two other theme park games are also in development, Parkitect and Planet Coaster, and are slated for release in 2016. So the question becomes: “Why is RollerCoaster Tycoon still worth playing?”

Answer: “It’s just fun!” Continue reading “Rollercoaster Tycoon”