First, a festive tale: midnight, three days before Christmas 1994. Like all miscreant children I knew what presents would be snuggled up under the tree and worse where they were supposedly securely hidden. This year was special and relevant, for within that pile of (currently unwrapped) gifts was the first (and possibly last) computer game I would receive from my parents. It was a game I had been irritatingly obsessing about, bringing it up in conversations at every moment for months, having played it on a friend’s computer some time ago. Ensuring that all the lights were out, and the deep rumbles of snoring were echoing from the bedrooms, I snuck into the cupboard, took my prize and crept downstairs to the Amiga 1200 that lay in the study. With the lights still off, but the with the glow of the ancient CRT monitor blazing on my mischievous face, I played that game compulsively for hours until the first shards of sunlight broke my nighttime adventure. Checking that the house still lay quiet, I swiftly packaged the game back up and returned it to that unsafe spot and stole back to bed. A few moments later the silence was broken by the hubbub of noise that greets the rise of a home with too many children and a very tiring new day began. There would be a tormentous two-day wait until that game could be played again.
If that story has a point, other than what a brat of a child I must have been, it's that the best games will stay lodged in your memory forever, an obsessive feedback loop that will drive you to any lengths to play for just a few more hours. That game was of course Theme Park, Bullfrog’s first foray into management simulation genre. Often regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, it is surprisingly badly designed and frustrating to play, yet its subject matter - creating your own dream park - is so enchanting that it could never fail. It had me transfixed as a kid, it still has me today.
In the twenty plus years since Theme Park’s release the gaming scene has been exposed to dozens of further attempts to recreate the idea to a varying degree of success. Most notable is the RollerCoaster Tycoon series, that succeeded where Theme Park failed. It understood that to create your ideal park you needed to customise as much as possible to match it to your dream. Roller coasters could be looped, twisted and turned inside-out, rushing past (and often through) each other's tracks before disappearing into caves and flying out the other side. Hours of my life would be lost to these games as well.
While the original two games in the RollerCoaster Tycoon series were developed by Microprose and Chris Sawyer (also responsible for the brilliant Transport Tycoon), by the third entry the mantle had fallen to British based studio Frontier Developments, who took the game into the third-dimension bringing with it a new level customisation (as well as far too many bugs). Players were getting very close to being able to forge the park of their dreams.
Fast-forward another twelve years and Frontier Developments have returned to the genre. Eschewing the ‘Tycoon’ brand, apparently due to the fact that subsequent games in the series had degraded the name (but more likely due to conflicts with the suspiciously similarly timed release of Atari’s RollerCoaster Tycoon World), we find ourselves with Planet Coaster. A game that takes the concept of customisation and runs a marathon with it.
When you think about it, memories of actual theme parks may well be highlighted by the rushing embraces with the sky or plummeting back down to earth at several times the speed of gravity, but it is the scenery, those tacky statues, the timed fake explosions, the absurd fakery surrounding the rides that really stays with you. Planet Coaster understands this and gives you the tools to create your own. You notice this very early on in your career when you are presented with a premade park that appears to be nothing more than a single underground train and a huge hole in the ground with some tentacles writhing out of it. Then you notice that the ride makes its way into the hole and disappears down some very suspicious looking tunnels, and somewhere in the distance you can hear the faint roar of something rather scary. On the surface there is nothing to see, but then you choose to ride the roller coaster yourself in the first-person camera mode and suddenly there’s a giant monster's head rearing up in front of the tracks, flames and smoke pouring out from the floor. At first you find it hilarious, that this is something the developers added for fun but could not even get close to recreating in game. Yet hours down the line you begin to realise the power of the tools in front of you as well, and taking a lead from the maps the developers have left you, you begin to forge your very own world of rides, monsters and shooting flames.
However it’s not all that easy to get this far, indeed the biggest complaint we have for this game is its complexity. At its core, Planet Coaster is essentially a 3D modelling kit with a theme park management kit stitched on the side. That’s not to say the management side is lacking, but you can tell (especially with the sandbox mode) that the game wants you to build that dream park without any barriers. The problem is that 3D modelling tools are complex beasts, as anyone familiar with such programs will attest to. It takes time to learn simply how to control the camera, select the items you need and fine tune. Planet Coaster does allow you to use simpler controls, bless it, but trying to create anything with them will end up looking a mess. The advanced controls are the only way to really summon anything respectable, and to use these requires an understanding of translational and rotational axes as well as the ability to manipulate the camera with fine precision. It’s hard work, and a incredibly steep learning curve that may frustrate casual and younger gamers, but if you can put the effort in the payoffs are worth the time.
Finally, tens of hours into the game you find yourself conjuring up battles between aliens, that shoot each other over the heads of guests that are queuing up for your latest epic ride. Explosions are ringing in the background, and somewhere nearby a giant dog-shaped mechanoid is blasting the ground with his laser eyes. Meanwhile in the skies above (rather disproportionate in size) those titular coasters are swinging and whirling around each other. Constructing them is of course just as much of a thrill. Pieces are clicked together, just as they were in the original RollerCoaster Tycoon all those years ago, but now the control you have over each section is unprecedented. The track can be adjusted to any angle, banked or turned to fit exactly how you wish, meaning you no longer have to rely on prebuilt loops or corkscrews (although the option to use them is there) and can forge these shapes in your own style. This means that those dreams of having trains dive through their own loop-the-loops, while twisting upside down before diving towards the floor and disappearing underground in a puff of smoke can be realised. It’s not quite perfect, again it is fiddly and hard to manipulate without experience, and often tracks do not quite seem to join up as easily as one would expect.
Meanwhile, those puffs of smoke that hide the train’s descent underground are not incidental. Coasters can have trigger points set on them, which can cause placed effects to activate as the train rides past. This is how the monster underground earlier worked (you realise after a few hours of hunting through menus), but it also means you can summon explosions or cover your guests in water or even glitter if you so choose. And it is not all entirely for show either. The scenery and the special effects all make the rides more impressive in the eyes of your guests causing them to spend more money, meaning there is at least a point in adding all these spectacular events, even if they may not appreciate just how much time you spent aligning everything so that it is exactly straight and perfect.
It is easy to get lost in the sandbox mode of the game where your money is unlimited and everything is fully researched from the beginning. But it’s worth remembering there is a whole other side to the game, a career mode where you must try to hit goals such as profit margins or number of guests or even create rides with the right level of excitement, fear and nausea ratings (the three statistics available for each). These career modes are where you find semi-built parks, places the developers have had some fun before letting you run wild with it. It is where we found that monster of the deep, but there are also levels with giant golems 100m high being bombarded by giant dog mechanoids as well as bizarre monoliths that seem to cause your rides to break down more often. But if you want to have a little more space and not rely on a prefabricated park, there is also a challenge mode that starts you with a completely empty park, but still with limited resources and a long list of research to be done.
In both these modes you need to be frugal, no longer can you let your mind run completely wild. Players need to monitor all their rides to check their profit margins, adjusting the prices of tickets accordingly. Shops need to be built so that guests can eat and drink and spend their money on pointless momentos. Staff should be employed to clean the park, fix rides and entertain the guests, and they need to make sure they are paid well enough and have had enough training to keep them happy. The management side of things has not changed much since the days of RollerCoaster Tycoon, but then again it had no reason to. It all works rather well, and the statistics screens available in the management section keep you up to date with everything you need to know, and are in depth enough to keep even an avid accountant occupied. The only real issue is that it is all a little easy. Guests always seem content to spend their hard-earned cash, and as long as you're sensible more and more will flood through the gates to visit. Meanwhile since rides do not seem to possess the ability to breakdown in a horrific manner, you’re never left having to face a huge reputation loss due to guests being injured or dying in your park.
Both career and challenge modes require some patience, allowing time for your profits to bring in some capital to construct more rides, but one of the brilliant things about Planet Coaster is that there is always something to do. There is always some scenery that needs to be adjusted or improved (even if most of the time it is just to keep your own mind happy, rather than that of the guests). Shops can be made far more pleasant by building around them, adding walls and roofs that match your park’s theme, and the same can be done to roller coaster stations meaning you can have your trains rise out of metallic futuristic space stations or a grove of trees or volcanoes if you so desire. Adding scenery is thankfully cheap, probably because the developers realised it offers something to do in the down-time. One thing that is rather sad however is that the static rides (the carousels, ferris wheels or strange pirate-singing swing boats etc) can only be coloured and their style can not be manipulated at all, which means that often they feel out of place in your otherwise themed park, as if they were an afterthought.
Finally, if you are into this sort of thing, Planet Coaster offers the ability to save your rides or buildings as blueprints, which means you can not only use them across multiple parks on your save but also upload them to Steam workshop sharing them with everyone else playing. Players can then use other people’s creations in their own park, which if you’re not in the mood for creativity can save a lot of time and still be left with an impressive park to look at. There is however one small issue with this, and it is a problem that can be seen throughout the experience. Your blueprints are limited to combining and positioning of props that are available in game. Without the ability to import models, images, change the materials or even scale scenery, after some time you begin to notice repetitions in both your designs and those available online and replayability does falter somewhat. Hopefully many of these things may be added down the line and we have already seen some festive content added to the game in the last week, so perhaps credit should go to Frontier for committing to their creation.
Nevertheless, Planet Coaster should take the crown as the best theme park creator of all time, and perhaps even the best management sim as well. It provides that long sought after ability to precisely create not just rides but also the scenery around them and thus be able to summon the (albeit slightly limited) park of your dreams. My ten-year old self would have gone mad over this game, and although he would have struggled with the controls, I can see him obsessively crafting every single inch of the perfect park. My thirty-year old mind does the same. There are of course issues, a steep learning curve, frustrating camera controls, a slight shortage of content and one of the most twee title songs in existence, but nothing that hinders someone that has the time and patience to enjoy the game. Perhaps it’s not much in such a despicable year but 2016 has at least spawned something so filled with joy that we’re left with something to smile about at its end.