Theme Park! Wow, just wow! This one was huge back in 1994. It seemed like Bullfrog and Molyneux were at their popularity peak. Which usually occurs when someone's artistic peak is already behind them, but they are already living off past fame. Yes, easy to say in retrospect, but how to know that at the time? One way or another, the world was blown away by their latest game.
In a number of respects, this was for good reasons. The extent of micro level simulation in this virtual amusement park was just breathtaking. Every single visitor having their own needs, their own mood, or so the marketing slogans went. And indeed, all those little visitor figures walking around the park could be individually selected and their stats looked into.
A theme park, in real life as in the game, is of course designed to squeeze as much money from each of these visitors as possible. The Sim City style construction of walkways and structures allows for a lot of optimization in this respect. That is, compared to the alternative of simply managing everything through abstract menus, which could still have been a viable approach at the time. Of course, you'll put your souvenir shops where everyone just has to pass by. Ideally, when they are in a good mood. Like at the exit of a particularly popular ride.
The sandbox approach, coupled with the colourful cartoon graphics, just works. The first hours of playing are a truly wonderful experience. There is so much to try out, so much to discover during this initial exploration phase.
Though then, it is a Peter Molyneux game, and maybe the first to very clearly show those signs which would make his increasingly bad reputation over the years which followed. Specifically, Theme Park simply feels unfinished. And I'm not even talking about the frequent, never patched crashes here.
This unfinished state really becomes apparent after longer playing times. The draw, as discussed, really lies in the perceived depth of the simulation which, after all, turns out to be completely shallow and at the same time hardly manageable. How do those two observations come together?
Much of the tinkering offered to the player turns out to be trivial or meaningless. The default example you will read in any coverage of the game is to make the fries more salty so that you will sell more drinks. There is no downside and as such, there is no actual decision to be taken. Very salty fries might as well just be the unalterable default setting. Same for the caffeine, the burger fat etc.
Players can spend countless hours optimizing their parks according to intransparent criteria in order to make visitors happier. Put up signs where to go, keep toilets clean. Don't just drop rides, walkways and shops, but put some nice scenery around so that everything looks nice. Though none of that will actually have a relevant impact on visitor happiness, finally. Of course it looks much nicer to surround the haunted house with some swamp, dead trees etc. But in gameplay terms, it is meaningless. The game offers all these options, but it's only in the player's mind. What really helps instantly, on the other hand, is two things: fast rollercoasters or just enabling fireworks. The latter will make everyone happy regardless of any other factors, so far that it almost feels like cheating.
As far as the unmanageability is concerned, the completely awful artificial intelligence must be considered. Visitors have the tendency to just get lost or even stuck, no matter how many signs you put up. Worse, unsupervised handymen default to mowing grass, a completely useless activity, while the park is buried in garbage. Assigning fixed routes to them is a theoretical possibility, but the interface for it is an abomination working about 15% of the time. Likewise, mechanics will sit idly munching their sandwiches while defective rides will explode right next to them. Entertainers apparently prefer spending their time chatting with each other instead of staying put where they have been assigned to. OK, the last thing may be realistic, even
On top, several meta game features amount to nothing. Higher difficulty levels introduce aspects like supplies management for food and drinks. If not ordered on time, considering delivery delay, your shops run out. But let's be honest, this is just busywork. There is absolutely no interesting decisionmaking, no actual player consideration attached. Therefore, it does not increase difficulty or complexity.
There are other parks located somewhere around the world. Every year, players receive a ranking of the parks according to several criteria, such as “most popular”, “best rides” or “friendliest park”. Though what's the point? You cannot even see these other parks, so why would you care whether another one is considered “more friendly”? The only “interaction” comes through the stock market, enabled on highest complexity level. A feature maybe inspired by Railroad Tycoon? Though if it was, it was copied without understanding its purpose. In the other game, trading stocks of companies which act in the same game world, on the same map, made for an additional strategic layer of actual competition. In Theme Park, you trade stocks of parks which you don't see, which you are not in any real competition with, as all of them can turn highly profitable at the same time.
Meaning Theme Park is chock full of mechanics and features which go nowhere. They just exist for their own sake. The design is incomplete, as it doesn't nearly manage to tie all those things together. It seems complex at first glance, but the simulation is finally laughable. It doesn't make Theme Park into a horrible game. As in Sim City, the appeal really lies in fulfilling objectives you have set for yourself rather than “succeeding” in ways suggested by the game. Thanks to the appealing visual style, parks can become quite nice to look at, the busy moving about of the little persons beautiful to watch. How long will this appeal last? At most through one park, or until a frustrating, unrecoverable crash. I've never heard of anyone who then moved on to another country, as suggested by the game.
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