`Sim Coaster' is wild ride

April 09, 2001|By Aaron Curtiss | Aaron Curtiss,LOS ANGELES TIMES

What kid wouldn't want to run a theme park?

Sure, there's the allure of getting to work in some of the happiest places on Earth. But there are also the subtle joys of meeting unforgiving financial goals, staying one step ahead of ruthless competitors, answering to a miserly board of directors and trying to figure out what a capricious public wants and at what price.

Yes, sir, what a gig - and players get to experience all of it in "Sim Coaster," a theme-park simulator for the PC that expects players to build and manage an amusement enterprise that siphons as much money as possible from its oblivious patrons. Theme-park games are nothing new, but few do as good a job of striking the balance between the nitty-gritty financial aspects of running a park and the fun stuff, such as getting to ride all those neat attractions.

It's not much of a surprise, really. "Sim Coaster" was developed by Bullfrog Productions, which produced the first popular simulator, "Theme Park," in 1994. Although that game looked like a kids' title with bright graphics, it was actually a sophisticated - and slightly dark - business simulator in which unsuccessful players watched their characters commit suicide if the park failed.

"Sim Coaster" is not nearly as bleak. Players start as the assistant manager of a theme park under corporate control. The goal is to prove a knack for developing new sections of the park that are attractive, functional and profitable. From laying footpaths and hiring janitors to developing new rides, players oversee every aspect of management.

But it's not nearly as difficult as it sounds. Players are helped along every step by an adviser who says when it's time to hire new staff or clean the bathrooms or think about building some new shops. More important, players start the game with enough cash to build some interesting parks.

While Mom and Pop may appreciate the business aspects of the game, youngsters are more likely to want to just build twisting and turning coasters. The game allows players to either plop down prefabricated roller coasters or design their own - and then ride them in a first-person perspective. Figuring out how to jam a new coaster into an already-crowded park can be a challenge, but the game offers hints on where to lay tracks.

For budding coaster engineers who don't give a whit about pro formas, the game includes a design mode to experiment with various layouts without laying out any cash. It's quite fun to build impossibly complex tracks and then take a spin on them.

All of the interfaces in the game use simple and self-explanatory icons, and it's easy to drill down to find out exactly how every employee, ride and shop in the game is performing. Likewise, the controls are easy to master. Players spend most of their time looking down on the park from above, but they also can zoom down to the level of guests to see how the park looks from the ground up. In a crowded field, "Sim Coaster" stands out.

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