Spline of the times
Antique Code Show The summer of 1995, I remember it well. I was but a slip of lad at the time, slightly console obsessed perhaps, but about to embark on a period of PC gaming that would put me at the forefront of cutting-edge videogame technology, nearly bankrupting my parents as I went.
It was my birthday and I’d just finished hooking up my brand new Pentium 60 – oh yes indeed; take that, 486 – and was looking forward to a day spent on my new purchases: Star Wars: Dark Forces , Ecstatica and, ever late to the party, the game having released in 1994, SimCity 2000.
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Looking back, I’m still unsure as to how I convinced my dad of the ‘educational’ benefits of my ninja rig. Perhaps he’d long since given up hope of having a child who was captain of the school football team? But regardless, here I was, only a boot disk away from gaming nirvana.
As a veteran of SimCity, I was confident of donning my mayoral crown once more ahead of creating yet another model town. What I hadn’t reckoned on were the changes – every one an improvement – which would mean re-learning the art of city design all over again.
Before getting to the gameplay, however, perhaps a history lesson is in order. After designing the surprise success story that was 1989’s SimCity, developer Will Wright and publisher Maxis next looked to expand the ‘Sim’ series still further, so spawning the likes of SimEarth, SimFarm and SimAnt, each of which was greeted with less enthusiasm than its forebear.
Keen to rekindle that previous level of success, Wright and Maxis looked to bring out the big gun once again, and so SimCity 2000, the true successor to SimCity was born. Wooing fans with a much larger area to develop, a vastly more diverse range of building types and an infinitely more interesting visual engine designed to better replicate the look and feel of a real city.
Starting up the game immediately presented you with two options, the first being to select a time period – one of 1900, 1950, 2000 or 2050 – while the second asked you to pick a difficulty setting which directly affected your initial capital. It was the former option, however, which was the most eye-catching, particularly when it became obvious that a 1900 city would actually move through the years, modernising and evolving as it went.
Brilliantly there was even a constant stream of new one-off building purchases which evolved along similar lines. First the chance to zone airports becoming available as you reached 1950, next a nuclear power plant unlocking at around 1980, before eventually the entirely sci-fi microwave power plant and 'arcologies' made their presence known.
It was the latter which was to offer some kind of endgame to the standard SimCity experience. Arcologies essentially consisting of residential domes grafted onto rocket blasters that would launch huge chunks of your population into space, as your citizens rushed off to explore the final frontier. A scenario somewhat comparable to winning the Space Race in a game of Civilization.
Splines, of the reticulating variety
Before all that, however, it was essential to get your city off to the best possible start and, as I’ve already said, this was a far tougher task than it was in the original SimCity. So-called 'Reticulating Splines' were first introduced here as a means to calculate an entirely random landscape canvas upon which your city would be crafted. Wright coined the term, which would eventually be adopted as a catch-all for any environmental randomness algorithm used within game development.
What such grandiose a description for a simple premise actually meant was that you could never be sure how much water and land relief would be present on your claim from the start. Just as well then that the SimCity 2000 engine allowed you to spin your viewpoint around through four set perspectives.
Raiders of the lost arcologies
Such natural features meant there was scope to sculpt your city in new and ever more gorgeous ways too. The lay of the land and areas of water allowing for studiously designed takes on Venice, or else the chance for wholesale terraforming according to personal taste.
Replaying the game before writing this, I was also surprised by quite how tough it was to initially get Sims moving on in. Those most fussy of virtual people turning their collective nose up at any conurbation that had inadequate power and water supplies, a lack of a prerequisite amount of residential, commercial and industrial zones; not to mention something approaching a road network with links to surrounding towns.
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Cater to their whims, however, and your people will let their love be known, throwing parades in your honour - all of which are reported in the dependable local newspaper. Indeed the periodical was something of a triumph, the yearly editions offering an insight into the opinions of your people with such nuggets of advice as ‘Naysayers say nay’, among others.
As before, natural – and not so natural – disasters would be unleashed upon your city to test the mettle of your emergency services, while scenarios appeared once again to push your mayoral skills to the limits, but it was the richness of your city that really made SimCity 2000 shine.
Maxis added so much variation into the game’s residential, commercial and industrial zones, as well as specialised structures, that above all else it was just a sheer joy to watch your city grow. The ebb-and-flow of gentrification mesmerising the player, particularly if you played on llama or cheetah speeds which would have the years flashing by.
In writing this, and going back to SimCity 2000 - by way of the ingeniously programmed DOSBox  - I’ve been reminded of a time when sequels really were a genuine step-up, not like the glorified expansions that can qualify as follow-ups these days. SimCity 2000 encapsulated all that made its predecessor great and took it up a notch, and though it’s a tad dated today, it still provides the purest form of Will Wright’s build-'em-up for my money. ®
Developer Will Wright
Platforms Mac, Amiga, DOS, Windows, SNES etc