Friday 17 October 2014

Snes Review : Theme Park (Game 062)

I riffled through my overnight bag, but it was no good. I was away from home with a 3DS, a flat battery and no charger.  What I did have though was an iPad, which many say is not only an excellent games platform but also the very thing we will be playing on in the future. I'm not convinced. I've dabbled in some iOS games in the past but the results were at best mixed. The iOS version of 'Mega Man X' was a travesty where the difficulty and pixel beauty of the game had been replaced with an unresponsive onscreen d-pad and so much in game help it's impossible to fail. Some games though had been very enjoyable and I really liked 'The Layton Brothers' and 'Republic'. For me an iOS game works when it embraces with the system’s quirks and touch screen controls. Mouse driven games therefore work well but console ports that traditionally use a game controller don't. 

When looking for a game to play that day I therefore thought back to games I used to enjoy that used a mouse control method. It wasn't an exhaustive list but the first games I thought of were 'Cannon Fodder' ‘Monkey Island’ and 'Theme Park'. From these games, one wasn't on the App Store, one was £3.99 and the other was "free" so I started downloading 'Theme Park'.

For those not in the know, 'Theme Park' is, as the name would suggest a fun fair simulator, birthed by the brilliant mind of Peter Molyneux. You play the role of park designer, picking the attractions, shops and staff and placing them on a map. All you have to then do is watching as the Theme Park thrives or flounders adjusting the variables and adding more rides till you have a profitable fun fair. I originally played it on the Amiga and discovered that behind the simple interface, jolly adorable graphics and the quirky jokes was a rather deep and complex management game. Every minutiae can be changed from the cost of the entrance ticket, through to the duration of rides, the length of their queues and even the amount of sugar in the ice cream sold in the shops.

Playing this fondly remembered game on my iPad though is massively disappointing and even makes me worry about the state of gaming today. The transition to iDevices has been a smooth one technically so the game looks better than ever but it's a much more limited experience than I remember. Gone is the ability to lay paths and decide on the actual design of your park, this is now predetermined. Likewise, the choice of rides and shops are restricted and not because you hadn't researched them (as was the case in the original game). In this iOS version many of the game's attractions are locked based on your level and levelling up is slow process involving repeatedly tapping attractions to earn a experience points. You can bypass the wait and level up quicker by spending money; not in game cash but real life pennies and pounds. In fact spending real money is the only way you can get the most exciting rides you need to run a successful theme park.  For instance, a ‘Skull-Train Roller Coaster’ costs more than twenty actual real-life pounds to purchase and this, I'm led to believe, is reflective of the vast majority of the game's rides.

I may have been given a "free" roller coaster after finishing the game's tutorial, but unless I waited a few hours or opened my literal wallet I was limited to just that and a handful of other rides. I also found that these broke down far more frequently than I remember and the mechanic hired would only fix them in a reasonable amount of time if I used a ticket to hurry him along; a ticket that costs real world money. After an hour of play I had a park filled with lots of Bouncy Castles, a couple of Hedge Mazes and a roller coaster. If it was a park in the real world you would ironically only go there if it was free entry. I'm happy to pay for a game, and believe it's right that if at all possible developers get rewarded for their efforts. What I am not happy about is when something claims to be free but actually is only enjoyable if you not only pay a hidden charge but continue to do so for the entire time you play the game.

This wasn't the game I remember and the simple fact that so many aspects of the game cost (lots of) actual money soured any attractive visuals or sound. Playing iOS 'Theme Park' made me long for a day before "freemium" game releases existed. A time when you paid for a game and got to enjoy everything it had to offer. When the next stage in a game was unlocked by a player's skill not their real world bank balance. The one good thing the iOS 'Theme Park' did though was inspire me to get want a copy of the original game on the Snes.

Sadly though, while it may have been made in the same era and have all the same ingredients as the PC and Amiga version, ‘Theme Park’ on the Snes is just as disappointing as the aforementioned iMonstoristy, albeit for very different reasons. Super Nintendo ‘Theme Park’ is a watered down visually ugly ghost of the home computer title that has the same name but much less of its charm. It’s true in spirit and intent but not in execution.

As was the case with Synidicate, the difference between the console and computer versions are immediately apparent when you compare the visuals. The PC Artist was Gary Carr, who said that Moyneux wanted the game to be “really colourful, with simplistic characters with large heads. He thought this style of artwork as well as the design would appeal to a Japanese market.” These cute adorable sprites seen on the PC haven’t survived the journey to the Snes though and the game looks ugly both in comparison and when viewed as a standalone title.
Curiously the sprites were actually drawn by Mark Healey, the creative power house that would go on to design the wonderfully looking ‘Little Big Planet’ games. He was picked to do the art work on the console version of ‘Theme Park’ owing to a background in C64 design work, but he knew the limitations. “For the Snes and Mega Drive, memory was much more limited than the PC version, but I managed to squeeze most things in” he once recalled.

The parks you can build in Super Nintendo ‘Theme Park’ may be crudely drawn but Moyneux’s large headed simple visitors are still roaming around. From your birds-eye perspective, you’ll watch the crowds travel the park, join queues that you have laid, ride the attractions you’ve picked and ideally leave with toys in tow. In an instant any one can be clicked to get a detailed window of their current mood and more importantly how much money they have left.
After all, your main goal is to develop profitable theme parks. Though you start in the U.K. by the end of the game you will have had to build successful park in numerous global locations. Each territory has a balance and park value target to reach and once you do you are encouraged to sell it and move onto the next country. The problem is every time you sell your park you can’t go back and all of your research and developed rides go with it. Therefore, in the PC version of the game, reaching the required milestones to progress to the next territory meant a decision. You can abandon a park you have spent hours on even though you can do no more to it other than watch the little people walk around the park that you have created. Alternatively you could progress further in the game and do the whole thing again. This tricky question though doesn’t have to be answered in the Snes version however, as it’s impossible to save mid park. It actually ends up being a relief when you reach the reuired financial milestones as it means you can end a play session and get a password.  It was something that really irked James Binns when he reviewed’ Theme Park’ for Super Play Magazine. “True it would be tough for a battery back up to store a sophisticated layout” he wrote, “but there must be a better way around this problem than just giving you a code each time you sell up and move onto a new country”.

Not that it takes you long to get back to where you were in a new country though. After a few different locations you are so adept at designing parks that you can put the game at full speed and build a profitable one from scratch in 20 minutes. Even though the Snes version now has different colour palettes for each country, and visually different visitors depending on where you are in the world, this Snes exclusive addition is really only window dressing. The different territories may now look marginally different but that doesn’t hide the sense of déjà-vu you get when you play the game for long periods. I soon noticed that every park I built was a repeat of the last park’s basic layout. You may be able to drop rides anywhere but it seemed far simpler and more profitable to build every park as a loop. Parks in every country develop in exactly the same way, with researched rides and shops always becoming available in the same order. This means you unconsciously always place them in exactly the same places, starting from the park’s entrance and working outwards.  Ultimately once you have made one successful park you have really seen all the game has to offer and what it is actually offering is surprising.

Despite its cute and whimsical exterior, this is morally corrupt capitalism simulator; it’s entirely about squeezing every last pound coin from your visitors. The game may be called ‘Theme Park’ but the rides really only serve to lure the visitors from one shop to another as this is how you make money.
Financial success rather than happy visitors is the overriding goal and ‘Theme Park’ really is a game about exploiting your visitors so they are poor rather than satisfied.  Gambling games like hook-a-duck should always have a 100% chance of winning as this will cause people to flock to them. However, when the price to play is higher than the value of the prize they win, you’ll see a profit every time a duck is hooked. Similarly underhand income can be made by selling cheap chips covered in salt but putting this chip shop next to expensive drink stand that serves cola with far too much ice.  It doesn’t matter if this makes the little people thirsty and unhappy; they’re spending more money which means you’re doing something right. Defenders of the game would say that if everyone is leaving the park depressed you will fail as no one will come anymore. It’s a nice theory but it’s not the case in the game.
I had parks that would take every penny from a every visitor and even though everyone left depressed, the bus was still full the next day with more people eager to waste money. They all had no idea that there was nothing fun about visiting my Theme Park and none of the prices were fair.

With so much to learn, ‘Theme Park’ initially seems daunting. My first few parks were disasters leading to the infamous suicide game over screen. It takes time to learn where everything is and why each seemingly insignificant variable is important. It’s just a shame that there were many more variables to play with in the original PC game as more things to fiddle with equates to greater depth. Individually all the missing elements don’t sound like much but when looked at collectively it’s clear that Snes ‘Theme Park’ is a slimmer game than it should be . There are less rides, shops and staff to pick from. You can no longer assign routes to cleaners, you can’t dictate how your research money is spent, you can’t move entrances to rides, buy shares in competing parks, or negotiate with unions. Most bizarrely you can’t even buy toilets as overzealous Nintendo censors have banned them and the bullies who used to roam aging parks assaulting the entertainers.

Annoyingly the one thing you wish hadn’t survived the translation to the console version is the shrill repetitive music, which is just as annoying as it always was. James Binns also noted this in his Super Play review. “The sound effects and musical accompaniment are competently designed but less than slickly handled. As you track around the park and check out existing rides, each has its own anthem, which starts up when your pointer gets close to it. However, rather than fading these tunes together there is a tedious audio pause while you wait for the new tune to start. Distracting at best, instantly turn-offable at worst”.

Despite the audio and visual failings, Super Play still lavished a 91% score on the Snes version of ‘Theme Park’ calling it a “seminal game, a masterpiece of game design [with] just the right balance of humour creativity and downright devious business practices.” Every word here is true, and should you want to experience what it’s like to be a cruel morally dubious money-hungry business mogul then ‘Theme Park’ is certainly for you. But much like iOS ‘Theme Park’, Super Nintendo ‘Theme Park’ isn’t the version of the game you should play. The control pad is a poor substitute for a mouse, with limited saving opportunities parks have to be completed in one sitting and half the game is missing. I can criticise the iOS version for putting rides behind a paid barrier, but at least they exist if you are happy to pay.

At the time I have no doubt that should a Snes owner have wanted to play a business Simulator they would have enjoyed this if they didn’t have a home computer. However, you have to wonder if console players wanted to play such a complex slow paced game in the first place? Now-a-days many games have been inspired by ‘Theme Park’ and taken the ideas much further. With such advances in the ‘funfair simulator’ genre, it’s hard to imagine that, unless they are driven by nostalgia, many will want to go back to the game that started it all. For those so inclined the DS version is certainly the way to go – including all the elements of the PC game but presenting them in a way that’s at least as attractive as the iOS version. This really does mean the Snes version is undesirable by anyone other than Super Nintendo completionist.  It’s a weak port that’s as diluted as my park’s cola and as unappealing as the lard filled burgers my stalls sold.

Where did I get this game from?
The iOS game may have been free, but so was my Super Nintendo copy of ‘Theme Park’. It was a present from my brother for my birthday.  Ironically though, while I criticise the iOS version for making you spend money to play, the Snes version actually made me do the same. I was really excited to get it, as I remember our Amiga version so fondly. However after a few hours playing this console port I realised that much had been lost in translation to the new system.  The iOS game had made me want to get an original version of ‘Theme Park’, but it was the SNES version that made me want to get the greatly superior DS version when I saw it in CEX for £2.

‘Theme Park’ sat in my 3DS for long enough for me to actually complete the game and finish the last territory; Antartica. This is testament to how much I enjoy the ‘Theme Park’ game, even though I didn’t enjoy the specific Snes version. Clearly there’s a ruthless streak in me, happy to watch little people suffer in pursuit of virtual money.  

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