I think it takes a certain kind of person, a personality type that obsesses over minutiae and loves to tinker in a way that would be maddening for another… These are the sorts of people who enjoy the business simulator. Now, take that group and filter them through the theme park prism, and what you have left is the audience for games like Roller Coaster Tycoon and its sequels, along with offshoots like Zoo Tycoon. These… these are my people.
I love theme parks, have ever since I was a kid and a little place called Opryland U.S.A. was in my (relative) back yard. It wasn’t the best theme park, but there were a couple of good coasters and a sense that, while smaller in scale than your Six Flags and Disney parks, it was ours, a theme park that served we happy few in Nashville, TN and its environs. When the Screamin’ Delta Demon, a bobsled-style ride, opened toward the end of Opryland’s existence, it was a thrill. There were expansions until Opryland simply ran out of room to grow. With the construction of theme parks in the region, attendance at Opryland waned and it was eventually decided that the space was no longer worth maintaining as a place for coasters and games and laughter and joy. It is now a mall. Some of the key rides made their way to other parks, but many of Opryland’s signature attractions lie rusting in a field in the midwest. Such is life, I suppose.
That’s a long way to go to say this: my love of theme parks extends to gaming, and I have always been both enchanted by theme park-based games and somewhat frustrated by the limited toolsets they offered. Games such as Rollercoaster Tycoon and the sequels gave me the chance to play theme park magnate and make sure I was delivering quality thrills while still maintaining enough staff to clean up the pools of vomit left by nauseous customers… maybe I shouldn’t have built my food stands so close to the coasters, but those people knew what they were getting into!
Flash forward to the bitter year of 2016. Political turmoil. Legends of entertainment and culture dying off left and right. Fires. Tsunamis! It’s just too much. There is only so much awfulness a person can stand before they shut down and look for escape. And, ladies and gentleman, I have found mine.
Frontier Developments, best known for Elite: Dangerous, has released my own personal messiah in the form of yet another theme park tycoon game. Except it’s not. It’s actually not a very good tycoon game, all things being equal. And it’s still my favorite thing I’ve played all year. Let me explain…
The game is, of course, Planet Coaster, and it’s been surprisingly popular. Partly for the reasons I described above, I believe. But it almost shouldn’t be for the flaws it wears so genuinely on its sleeve. The game presents you with three modes: Scenarios, Sandbox and Challenges. The Scenarios are the best example of tutorials the game provides, and that ain’t so good. There are objectives, the first few easy to obtain, but later Scenarios require amassing x amount of monthly profit to complete, and often times that is simply a matter of ignoring all the other elements of your park to get that total up. I ended up fast-forwarding time to hit those goals, which neither taught me about the game, nor did it make for much fun.
Sometimes, though, the Scenarios do give you key tasks, such as completing a half-finished coaster. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you how to do that, only that it needs to be done. So, off to wikis and tutorial videos you go to learn the mechanics of the game. It’s a bad system, and Frontier Developments would do well to revamp some of those Scenarios to better acclimate its players to the systems used to build and grow your park.
Challenges are similar to Scenarios, with more focus on achieving specific goals. One might start you with crippling debt and you have to dig yourself out of a financial hole, while others emphasize scenery and guest happiness. Regardless, they’re the weakest part of the game and fall prey to many of the shortcomings that the Scenarios do regarding a lack of tutorials within the game and the time-suck of running the clock faster to achieve financial goals.
It may sound like that’s a lot of criticism, and if you’re coming to Planet Coaster looking for the next great Tycoon simulator, you will probably be disappointed to one degree or another. BUT, these business-like turns are not the real focus of Planet Coaster. What happens both within the scenarios, and, more precisely, in the robust Sandbox mode is nothing short of wondrous. All the tools to create the theme park of your dreams are here. And, once you get the hang of them, the controls become simple and incredibly powerful. From editing terrain to creating rides buried underground, coasters that spike high against the lovely backdrops, to spending hours making your own park entrance for your virtual guests to wonder at, Planet Coaster is a toolkit unlike any other in the genre. I have spent hours and hours carefully mapping out paths and raising hills that roll through my park center, leading to a central castle at the center, all using the available in-game assets. Sometimes I scrap whole sections of Schadeland to make room for some crazy new ride idea, and the time rolls by unnoticed as I tweak the colors on the cars of my new haunted house ride.
And then there’s the Steam Workshop, where hundreds of creators have uploaded everything from new bits of scenery to whole parks and everything in between. Some of these community-created assets are remarkable, including one that emulates the entirety of Disney World with surprising fidelity. If you want your sci-fi theme park of the future, you don’t even have to exit the game. There’s a link from the main menu to explore community items, and it showcases the power of the game’s tools like nothing else. Want that Fairy Tree to go with your teacup ride? A quick download and it’s in your blueprints list now.
Coupled with the game’s serene day/night cycle and music that dances on the edge of being twee, yet somehow remains bubbly and happy throughout, Planet Coaster is the warm hug of a game I needed. Sitting in front of my screen, adjusting the entrance to my coaster to maximize queue times, setting up paths for my janitorial staff to keep Schadeland sparkling clean… it’s a comforting and delightful place to wile away the hours. And, once a ride is done, you can change camera mode to ride the new attraction along with your guests. Rumors are swirling that a VR component may be added to experience these rides in that format, which would be an unneeded but exciting addition, and I think would make your creations more real in the process.
Simply put, I love this game. As much as I talk ill of the Scenarios, they guided me competently through my first hours, teaching me, sometimes harshly, about how to employ the mechanics of park-building. Once done, the Scenarios can be abandoned for what’s really important – creating your park. The sounds of the rides (you can add custom songs to your rides, too!), the animatronic krakens rising from my man-made pond to sway tentacles over the guests in line for a coaster, the way the lights wink on as the sun slips below the horizon while I toil underground for my latest masterpiece of a ride… these are the things I think of when I think of Planet Coaster, and it makes me happy. I smile a lot playing this game, whether it’s shooting a half-finished coaster’s cars at another group of paying customers or sincerely landscaping the pathways, it feels satisfying and warming in a way that is hard to define. It’s the best Erector set you never had, or the Tycoon game that didn’t give a flip about being a Tycoon game and just wants you to build, to play, to explore, to let your imagination create a world just for you. The community support and developer promises to keep rolling out new attractions and holiday themes (like I’m not going to decorate Schadeland for Christmas…) make it feel like you’re at the beginning of something, a roller coaster slowly chunk-chunk-ing up the hill to the crest and the inevitable drop, sending you hurtling toward nothing less than pure joy.
Enough jibber-jaw… I think I may know just enough now to take a stroll through that long-lost Opryland of my memory, to create, in just a small way, the rides I remember thrilling me as a child and to ride them once more, with maybe a few tweaks to make my own Screamin’ Delta Demon a bit faster, a bit louder, and with that AC/DC song in the background it always needed. And you know what? There is not one thing stopping me from doing so. Thanks, Planet Coaster. In a world of chaos, you’re just the friendly, enthusiastic, happy place I needed.