RollerCoaster Tycoon: A Retrospective

I am currently in the process of moving house. One of the worst things about this, aside from not being able to find the power cable for the TV, is the inevitable fortnight of desperation and mind-numbing boredom that occurs whilst BT faff about connecting the new house to the internet. For many people this is a frustrating, albeit bearable, experience. For me, a person who spends more hours on the internet than I do asleep, it became a maddening journey into the cluttered depths of my PC games back-catalogue. Without the internet to download and play anything modern, and with the TV cable inhabiting the murky depths of some cardboard box, I was forced to return to the games of my childhood for entertainment during these traumatic two weeks. Also, apparently something called Gamescom was happening at around this time, but since I had reverted to a time where the fastest mode of communication was carrier pigeon, this was small consolation to me.

My collection of ancient games is fairly impressive, and contains many childhood favourites, among them the original X-COM games, Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, The Settlers 2 and Majesty (the first game, not the awful sequel). All of these are fantastic games from a bygone era, and I would urge you to go out and try all of them immediately (they can all be found online for free or incredibly cheap prices). However, it wasn’t one of these games that I chose. Oh no, the game that I chose is quite possibly the king of my childhood favourites, and that game is: RollerCoaster Tycoon. I had an almost unhealthy obsession with this game as a child, leading me to spend two weeks determined to become an engineer and work at Alton Towers, before then deciding I wanted to be a zoo keeper after a particularly exciting day out. In this retrospective, I will be recounting my experience with this childhood classic, and asking if it really is as good as misty-eyed nostalgia would have us believe.

One of the first things that I remembered upon booting up the game and starting work on my first theme park was just how fucking annoying the Merry-Go-Round theme music is! Even now, writing this article, and having not played the game for several days, the tune is still on repeat in my head, haunting my every movement. It’s the last thing I hear before sleeping, and the first thing that pops into my brain in the morning, acting as both a constant annoyance and an eternal reminder of just how much time I’ve wasted over the last few weeks. Of course, this could all have been avoided if I had just selected the option to turn the music off, but then what kind of mental merry-go-round doesn’t have organ music? You may as well not bother if you’re going down that route.

Brainwashing music aside, I found that there was a lot to enjoy in RollerCoaster Tycoon. At first this enjoyment stemmed from playing the game properly; I’d meticulously place my rides and ensure that there was enough space for everyone to queue. All my parks would be colour coded, and every tile of paving would be earnestly patrolled by handymen, engineers and entertainers. My rollercoasters would reach high up into the sky, and the screams of my delighted guests will sound out from the speakers. Profits soared and the good times rolled.

But then I got bored. You see, one of the biggest problems with RollerCoaster Tycoon is the lack of variety. There’s a very finite number of rides you can build, and after having completed five scenarios or so, every park ends up turning out about the same; spend all the starting cash to build all the rides that aren’t already in the park, max out the loan and build more rides as you research them. The only time this pattern ceases is when the researches churn out something crap (a Monorail? Again?!)and you have to just stare at the screen for ten minutes waiting for the next project to be completed, whilst praying that it isn’t a Hedge Maze or a Chairlift.

I endured though, and soon found new ways of creating entertainment; it’s surprising just how much sadistic entertainment can be found in a theme park simulator. Placing all of your park’s food kiosks by your biggest, most nauseating rollercoaster is sure to provide a never-ending stream of vomiting guests, desperately sprinting along your pathways, looking for somewhere to sit. I found it particularly interesting how the guests seemed to have absolutely no problem with vomiting in the middle of the street, right in front of the poor handymen who were tasked with keeping the place clean. It’s also hilarious to witness a guest vomit all over a pathway, only to then instantly start complaining about the disgusting state of the park.

If upsetting your guests’ tummies isn’t for you, there are other ways of having immoral fun with the game; you can cover your entire park with one massive Hedge Maze, which is physically impossible to escape from because the exit is blocked by several tiles worth of hedge, and watch as the guests become more and more frantic in their movement, before finally becoming exhausted and giving up all hope of ever walking out of ‘Happyland’.  Then there’s building the rollercoasters themselves. Most of my attempts usually result in me building what I think is a fantastic construction, only to be told that the ride has an excitement rating of zero, whilst boasting extremely high intensity and nausea ratings. Most guests become queasy and flee at the sight of such monstrosities, leaving me to destroy my steel creation and place another Ferris Wheel. Damn cowards.

However, as the game’s name suggests, building rollercoasters is the best way of enjoying the game and ensuring its longevity. There are a good number of different designs, and plenty of options, which, along with the constant challenge of creating something that doesn’t crash or terrify your guests, means that you’ll find yourself continuing to play long after you’re ready to never hear a Merry-Go-Round again. There really is no feeling more satisfying than seeing hundreds of little people queuing up to ride your rollercoaster, each one silently assuring you that you didn’t screw up.

Beyond all of the above, a few other things from my time with the game stood out, and these things posed deep, philosophical questions about the world of RollerCoaster Tycoon. For a start, I found it strange, maybe even unsettling, that every single person visited the park alone, without friends or family. Such isolated activity is more fitting for visiting brothels and crack-dens, not theme parks! Either every single guest is such a rollercoaster fanatic that they don’t want their loved ones there, nattering away and ruining the semi-religious experience of riding ‘The Big Loop’, or there’s something illegal going on in the Haunted House… Finally, I also began to question why every single guest is male in appearance, wondering if it was just a matter of design, or evidence of a strange ‘rollercoasters are for boys while girls only like Barbies and ponies’ mentality.

I can safely say that RollerCoaster Tycoon has had a negative impact on my mental wellbeing. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my time as the owner of a chain of theme-parks, and would highly recommend this childhood classic to anyone who is in danger of finding themselves living in a rented attic for two weeks without internet.

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