Theme park is the grandfather of all amusement park sims. It was developed by bullfrog in 1994 and is known for its robust management systems and quirky sense of humor. The game was originally released on the PC but the game that I am the most familiar with, is the first Playstation or PSX release.
Theme park begins innocently enough with a rather amusing cutscene. A family is suffering from boredom in their living room when a man who looks like Willy Wonka (The Gene Wilder version) taps on the screen and brings them to a magical land full of fun. What follows is a demonstration of some of the rides and a dog riding a rollercoaster. Next, you are transported to the name screen. I highly recommend writing the name down or making a note of it as you will need it to load/continue a game. From here, you name your park and select your difficulty settings. For the uninitiated, I highly recommend the easier settings because all of the logistics are handled for you.
So, what logistical nightmares await you if you don’t decide to take it slow? Well, you need to order supplies for your shops, handle stocks, deal with employee wage increases, manage research and development of new rides and finally, deal with staff training. This seems like a lot at first, but incrementally increasing the difficulty allows you to take on these challenges in a good fashion. For example, the easiest difficulty gives you new rides and shops every new year, but also handles ordering supplies for you. The next difficulty allows you to research rides and training at your own convenience and still takes care of ordering supplies. Finally, on the hardest difficulty, you need to manage everything. These difficulty settings can really help ease you into the game.
Speaking of intricacies, I haven’t even covered what all goes into building a successful park. For starters, you begin with just a basic plot of land, a park gate and some pavement. From here, you can build paths, rides, shops and terrain. When you build a ride, a gate and a staircase are then placed. I highly recommend placing the staircase and gate in easy to see locations as the game doesn’t allow you to turn the camera, which is a huge pain. On the subject of obscured views, when you place trees or other features, they tend to cover what is behind them, so be careful not to mask everything with trees as it turns into a management nightmare. Anyway, I digress, when you select a ride, you can view a variety of settings with which you can fiddle around with. Such as ride speed or how often the ride goes before it needs to be repaired. Over time, your rides will need to be repaired more often due to general wear and tear.
Speaking of repairs, that is where staff comes into play. As is typical for most games of this type, you can hire handymen, mechanics, security guards and entertainers. However, these staff might be some of the most useless employees of your park starting out. I literally watched a mechanic ignore a smoking ride that was right next to him. Eventually the ride exploded and killed the riders on board. I was furious by this. Fortunately, you don’t have to stand for this nonsense. You can choose to either fire the employee or to further their training through research. Be careful though as employees that have better training will want salary increases. If you don’t agree to their demands, they will go on strike and then you will really be in trouble as rides fall apart and garbage heaps pile up everywhere. Not to mention the park goers will vandalize your park until all of your signs are bent in half, it is not a pretty sight.
But enough doom and gloom, lets get on to the most important part of any amusement park. The rides! The selection was rather impressive for its time. These can range from bouncy castles, to haunted houses, to flight simulators to everyone’s favorite, the roller coaster. Though you only start with just a few rides research and development will turn up dozens more. Each of these rides has several factors that must be noted. These are excitement, reliability, cost (of course) and version. Excitement is exactly what it says, how enticing it is to the customers, will it leave them with big smiles or big frowns? Reliability is probably the most important part because the lower the reliability, the more often it will break down. Example, the, “Snakes and Ladders,” slide breaks down constantly, it almost doesn’t seem worth it. Fortunately, the lower the excitement/reliability, the lower the price. Finally, we have the version. This tells you how much the ride has been upgraded, naturally, the higher the number, the better it will perform. Where version 0 will break down a lot, version 2 will break down much less. Again, this is all done through research and development.
Finally, what good is a theme park without large amounts of overpriced food and game stalls? Again, Theme Park has a massive amount of options here ranging from coffee shops to the steak house to the balloon shop where balloons can cost 20 dollars. Yes, it isn’t very realistic on prices, but if the customers are willing to buy them, then so be it. Honestly, my favorite part of the restaurants is the design of them. Seriously, they are extremely creative and detailed. My personal favorite has to be the giant hamburger, bet you can’t guess what they sell there.
Now that we have gotten all the management stuff out of the way, there are still another couple of things that I want to comment on. For starters, the game has a really quirky sense of humor. The ride, shop, facilities and staff descriptions can be hilarious and even a little disgusting. For example, here is the description for the plane flyer ride, “The Plane Flyer is an inexpensive ride for the nuclear family. Not too wild, why just last week, my granny went for a spin.” Another (more lowbrow) example is for the outhouse, “This toilet smells, leaks and is ecologically unsound.” Honestly, the first time I read those, I laughed out loud.
The next thing I need to comment on is the in game cutscenes. These are fantastic and allow you to ride several of the rides within the park. It is a neat feature that doesn’t need to be in the game, but it is there. Unfortunately, on my version of the game, some of the cutscenes cause the game to crash. No the disk isn’t scratched, I checked. It might be a compatibility issue with the PS2.
Lastly, and I think this is something exclusive to the ps1 version but I am not sure, you can go to a street level view and see your park in all it’s 3d glory. Honestly, it looks awful and the draw distance is pretty weak. While it may be an issue with the hardware at the time, or the developers not caring, it is a pretty neat little concept. Now If only there was a way to walk around instead of just spinning the camera.
All in all, Theme Park is a game that deserves some attention. It has some great humor, fairly deep mechanics and has a fun cartoony look that ties it all together perfectly. The only real downsides that I have seen is that it can be difficult to learn at first and that once you find a formula, the game becomes extremely repetitive. But for one of the first games of its kind, it is hard to fault it.