Theme Park didn’t invent the tycoon genre, but in the minds of many, it might as well have. Bullfrog skillfully combines the managerial aspects of games like Cartels and Cutthroats, with the population control mechanics of games like Dictator or their own Populous, and the building aspects of games like M.U.L.E., and brings them all into the graphical modern age. Using bright, sharp graphics and a simple point-and-click interface, it’s as deep as it is whimsical. Don’t let the cutesy graphics and facility names like “Boggy Crapper” fool you, Theme Park is far from a breezy kid’s title.
Your basic goal is to develop a profitable theme park. You’ll start with a free plot of land in the U.K. and aim to build a park in 23 of the world’s territories. Each park starts with typing in a name (though why you would choose anything other than Walley World is beyond me) and you’ll see that name scroll across the gate entrance. Next, you place rides, add amenities, and hire key staff. Depending on your selected difficulty level, you’ll add inventory management, ride research, union negotiations, and playing the stock market to your list of responsibilities.
Each territory has a balance and income target to “clear” and allow you to put the park up for auction. Every time you sell your park you can’t go back, so goal is to conquer each of the territories. Each territory has its own inflation and tax rates, weather, and land restrictions (how much area you have to build), along with the general wealth of its population (rich countries are more likely to spend extravagantly at an amusement park). You’re also granted a tax-free period lasting a few years, so you’ll need to get a strong, profitable park going quickly because it will only become harder to make money in that territory over time.
You have three basic attractions in any park – rides, shops, and snacks. Rides bring in the crowds and justify the gate price, but do not generate direct revenue. Shops and snacks are your money-makers, and you’ll balance the prices you pay for inventory with appropriate upcharges to fill your account. There’s an intense level of control available here. You can set the length of rides or their speed – fast rides are more exciting, but more dangerous and wear down faster. You can dictate the amount of sugar in your ice cream or salt in your fries, balancing using your stock up faster with, say, getting patrons excited through more caffeine in their coffee. Again, despite the looks, this isn’t a casual game – it’s a surprisingly serious sim.
Building the park is done through an interface most closely related to an RTS. You’ll click interface buttons to bring up menus of what you can build, then drag the structure onto open land and click to drop it. You’ll lay down paths leading to all your attractions, and connect ride entrances to those paths with queue lines for visitors to wait in. While early rides are simply dropped into the park, more advanced ones, like roller coasters or water slides, require you to actually lay the track in ways to maximize excitement and safety. There are even more advanced concepts, such as placing an expensive store next to the exit of an exciting ride (whose giddy, satisfied riders are more likely to make purchases), or not placing a burger shop before a bouncy castle (think about it), but in general, you are totally free to design the park as you desire.
Of course, your flashy wonderland is nothing without visitors, which are represented as throngs of meandering “little people.” From your birds-eye perspective, you’ll watch the crowds travel the park, line up for rides, enter shops, and (hopefully) leave with toys in tow. At a glance, you can identify traffic patterns and any particular bottlenecks or trouble. Going further, individuals will occasionally display large-head animations or thought balloons with icons representing their opinions. These let you see how many patrons are getting hungry and where, who is getting frustrated with the length of a particular queue, or who thinks you’re grossly overcharging as they pass by a store. Further, every visitor – yes, every single one – can be clicked to get a detailed window of their current mood, destination, and remaining pocket cash.
If this isn’t enough, then enter the charts. Graphs let you track nearly every aspect of your park, showing trends and deficiencies on a stark line graph, and even letting you turn on multiple layers to track one statistic against another. A bar graph of your visitors shows general acceptance of your park along with common complaints, helping you identify areas you need to improve. An omnipresent advisor will also throw in suggestions on prices or new amenities to add, and his comments are almost always helpful clues that should be followed.
The final piece is your helpful staff. You can hire entertainers, handymen, and mechanics. Entertainers try to raise the mood of passing guests, which can help with long queues or greasing wallets inside a dedicated shopping district. Mechanics fix rides when they break down. All rides wear down at different rates, and if a ride is allowed to collapse, it damages your reputation along with leaving rubble that makes that spot unbuildable. Mechanics will automatically shut a ride down before that point and repair it – but you’ll want to have a backup ride those visitors can switch to. Handymen pick up trash, because visitors appreciate a clean park, and the dirty little feckers leave litter everywhere. Handymen will either wander about on their own, or can be given set patrol paths to follow. Often you’ll need to overlap quite a few patrols in high-traffic areas.
At the “sandbox” difficulty, new rides and facilities are unlocked automatically at the end of each year. On Sim and Full difficulties, you must allocate research to discover them. You also gain the ability to improve your staff training, making mechanics and handymen significantly (up to supernaturally) faster. The Full difficulty adds the stock market, and lets you compete directly against other AI parks. You’re rated at the end of each year in areas such as wealth, cleanliness, and fun, and winning top places in these increases the value of your stock. Buying and selling other park’s stock offers additional income (and perhaps lets you avoid a bank loan), but you’ll also need to protect yourself from losing a majority share in your own park. Again, this feature is only active at the highest difficulty for the most dedicated Theme Parkers, because there’s more than enough to worry about by default.
There’s a ton to keep track of here, and the interface holds up surprisingly well. The visitors’ thought bubble system is a great concept that works beautifully for spotting problems at a high level. The graphs allowing you to drill deeper and look for ways to maximize profit do their jobs just as well. You can also tap the R key to switch to a “high-res” version of the game – moving the camera far out while still retaining all the functionality. Alternately, you can use it to take quick peeks at larger parks before switching to the closer camera to deal with actual issues.
Which leads to the first and largest problem – game speed. Theme Park flies on a modern system. Even a measly Pentium II was enough to make game time shoot past at an unplayable rate. Meanwhile, trying to find the correct cycles in DosBox is a bear, because a setting that works well for the main screen drops to a crawl in the high-res mode, or in any store interface that lays a live snapshot of that building in a “picture-in-picture” window above the store settings. Getting the timing right is pretty crucial, as through taxes and inflation, the game intentionally gets harder to make money as the years go by. I had the Jaguar and Nintendo DS versions to use as a reference, and still couldn’t get DosBox to that level of universal reliability. I suspect it’s why you’ve yet to see an official Theme Park re-release anywhere yet.
My second issue is one of simple replay value. As stated, the overall goal is to build a successful park in every territory on the map. However, when you sell your current park to build a new one, all of your research and progress goes with it. The only thing you carry over is your bank balance. This means every park starts and develops the same way – bouncy castles and treehouses get replaced with increasingly modern rides as soon as they’re available, and that progression occurs in the same order every single time. I suppose the idea is to build up a massive cash reserve and then blow it all on faster research at the start of your next park, but that’s still repeating what you’ve previously done with little variation except in possible speed of unlocks.
While the game gives you plenty of feedback about what visitors don’t like about your park, it’s surprisingly difficult to figure out how to fix it. In an early park, over half my visitors were complaining that they were hungry and thirsty, but I had food and drink stands, so what was the exact issue? Were they not able to find the stands? Were there not enough of them? Were they not placed correctly? There’s more trial and error to this than you’d think, and trial and error starts to get fairly expensive. Unhappy guests won’t spend money, regardless of if your advisor is badgering you to raise prices, so you’ll want to look for reliable patterns and methods that keep smiles on their faces and money leaving their wallets.
This means that I quickly noticed that every park I built was a repeat of the last park’s basic layout. You can drop rides anywhere and use sign posts to direct visitors around, but it seemed far simpler and more profitable to build every park as a loop. Snacks would get guests ready for the day, rides would amp them up, which paired with shops that took their cash. Regardless of how you do it, the point here is not in building a fun park, but in figuring out the underlying system and then ways to exploit it. Despite its cute and whimsical exterior, this is entirely a capitalism simulator – it’s not about the rides, or really even building the park you want to build, it’s entirely about squeezing every last dollar from your visitors. I suspect there’s only a handful of park designs that do that with maximum efficiency.
Finally, the interface is smart and simple, but only through extended practice. Your first few sessions will be befuddling disasters, and you’ll almost certainly need to rely on an external FAQ somewhere. It takes time to learn where everything is and why that setting is important, and for better and worse, much of the game’s mechanics aren’t explained up front. For example, another early game treated me to a chorus of coughing and “eww!”s. I looked around the park trying to spot the problem, thinking perhaps someone had a cold and “viral outbreak” was another contingency I had to plan for. Instead, it took far too long to realize that the toilets were not being cleaned by the handyman I thought I assigned, inciting guests to vomit as they pass. Other guests would come across the vomit and vomit themselves. It was a chunky conga line leading almost all the way back to the entrance.
As was Bullfrog’s way, there’s a whole lot more to this game than you might expect. I can’t say that I always understood everything that was going on, and I’m not entirely sure I was always enjoying it, but damned if it isn’t addictive. From a modern perspective, it’s tough to get the speed to something that feels comfortable, and it may be a case that the original game also slowed to a crawl as parks got bigger. It’s also, obviously, been surpassed by other similar games – even its own series. Still, a great start, and a fun distraction if you take the time to figure it out.
An astonishing level of factors and considerations to balance. Bright, sharp graphics with amusing rides and animations. Smart and generally helpful interface. Quite a challenge here if you get into it.
Tough to get into. Refining park theories and designs is fun at first, but deja vu sets in quickly. So much going on that precision clicking can be difficult. “Music” is the operating theme of whatever ride is nearby, gets shrill and annoying quick but can be turned off. Doesn’t run smoothly.