the writings of a mind

Title: Roller Coaster Tycoon 2
Genre: Management
Big Word: Coasting
Strap: One man miracle, Chris Sawyer is back with his favourite baby – but has it grown up at all?

Dotted intermittently along the cobweb-laden hallways of history, there are thousands of old, iron doors, each as old as time itself. Each door bears an etched metal plaque that boldly boasts the name of a genre, and then nothing else but for a small, brass handle. If you were to reach out and turn that handle, then slip through the doorway, you would emerge outdoors in a grassy patch of land. In the middle of the grass would be standing a person – a specialist of the adjacent door’s subject. These people are experts in their field.

And behind the door engraved with "MANAGEMENT SIMS", the nigh-legendary Chris Sawyer, creator of the phenomenon that is the Tycoon series, is the fellow stood amongst the meadow. The game he’s clutching to demonstrate this genius is Roller Coaster Tycoon. A game that was just very, very good. Starting with an empty land, you could build a theme park from the ground up, managing every level from the price of the burgers, to the "intensity rating" of your self-constructed coaster. All under the challenge of completing certain business-focussed tasks within a certain timeslot. Players quickly realised that the game was clever enough to allow you to employ the same sort of devious business practise you’d expect to find in a real amusement park. For instance, having your exit path to a particularly popular ride just happen to lead your punters towards the gift shops, or ensuring that you had a drinks stall near to a mouth-drying popcorn stand. But more importantly than anything else, /it let you design your own roller coasters/. The entertainment of seeing quite how fast you could send your train around the corkscrews, before visitors either refused to get on or died horribly in a terrible track-destroying crash, was equal to any world-dominating elements that more international management games might offer.

And it managed all this without being plagued by that one annoying niggle that renders so many sims infuriating. Where The Sims has its ridiculously slow characters, and the Sim City series always ended with your spending the entire time plumbing, RCT was flawless, always giving you enough time to tweak your favourite coaster to perfection, or find where the wandering handyman had got to.

But why has Mr Reviewer spent the first five hundred words of the review talking in the past tense, about an old game? Well, frankly, he may as well, since Sawyer has released the exact same game again.

Having immediately installed the game, you will not be able to access any thought in your mind other than, "oh my goodness, this looks exactly the same as the original." And your mind will not be far from wrong. This is partly to do with the game’s insistence on setting the starting resolution to yesteryear’s 800 x 600, which magnifies the lumpy bitmaps rough edges to a very undignified level. It seems an amazingly strange decision, when after fiddling with the options, you discover that things can be refined to a smooth-edged glory. Initial impressions are so important, and when dealing a game on already shaky-sequel grounds, it’s bizarre to have you immediately looking to spot what’s wrong.

The question we must dissect, pinned out on a wooden board like an ill-fated rat, is quite how much one is required to change and update in a game before it’s acceptable to add the number "2" to the end of ones title.

By looking at recent examples, it’s often something as simple as a complete graphical overhaul that prompts the addition of a new numeral. Unreal Tournament 2003 adds no extraordinary, revolutionary elements to the multiplayer genre, but it does make the tried and tested formula go incredibly fast in a stunning and smooth graphical environment. It advances upon the original in looks, speed, and most importantly, fun. Or perhaps look at Medieval: Total War. Here the sequel status is deserved by taking a successful and loved format, and applying it to a whole new time zone, and a whole new approach to battle. It recreates the joy of the original, in a new setting with new challenges.

So where does Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 make its advancements? It certainly isn’t through the graphics – other than improved resolution choices, and slightly tidier menus, they are exactly the same as they ever were. Isometric, an extremely limited ability to zoom in, and built from 2D bitmaps. And the approach to gameplay hasn’t dramatically altered, as perhaps the evolution from Transport Tycoon to Roller Coaster Tycoon demonstrated was possible. RTC2 doesn’t bring us into any new territory, and one could reasonably argue, leaves you in exactly the same as before.

The differences are found only in the increased variety of units available to be built, the wider choice of theme park locations and scenarios, and the additional track and scenario design features. But surely these are all the sorts of things one deservedly expects to find in their lower-priced add-on pack? If I want to add to my building and tweaking options in The Sims, I’ll buy "Livin’ It Up", etc. If my desire is to widen the locations available to fly to in my favourite MS Flight Simulator, I’ll get hold of pack giving me access to a few more airports. And if I want to get at the level builder for Quake 3, I’ll download one of the free ones that are released on the net.

The answer to why RCT gets its "2" in this case, is because Sawyer has completely rewritten the code for his extravaganza – all half million lines of them – and so it truly is a brand new build of the game. What’s left for me to argue is: has the creator lost sight of the woods for those 500,000 trees?

As with the original, the level of detail is mind blowing. But this is a level of detail that is only visible when reading through the instruction manual. That particular customers would be more likely to have a go on a ride that they see while on the ascent of another coaster, is a remarkable detail. But if you’re running a theme park with 2000+ guests, and are trying to figure out why no mechanic has fixed the bumper cars, and deliberating about whether to pay back any of the bank loan, or start on a new coaster, you just aren’t going to notice this difference. Every single visitor to your park has an individual name, personality, and ride threshold, but you’re never going to notice that! The only time you’ll ever care about their name is when fishing them from some back path they’ve somehow wandered onto. In RCT2, Sawyer has developed the most extraordinary number of wonderfully ornate tree sculptures, but has somehow forgotten that Mr Player is rather busy managing the woods. (Do read the yellow boxes for some important info on the new bits and pieces).

A deal with the enormous Six Flags company (see SIX FLAGS…) means that you can have a go at managing some of the most successful real-life theme parks in the world, and the fantastic new selections of coasters and rides means that you immediately have a much wider variety of choice from the earliest stages of the easiest levels. But if you bought the original, it’s impossible to say that you aren’t going to feel hugely disappointed by the lack of a significant change in the game.

Sawyer’s ambition to increase the boundaries of RCT with his new code means that instead of having produced a new game in its own right, he has produced a new basis upon which to stretch the idea further. It’s wider, slightly bigger, and certainly hugely more tweaked, and it leaves lots of room for greater and more complex expansion packs in the near future. But for now, can we just call this Roller Coaster Tycoon 1.6?

Margin Note 1:

For the perfectionists and fans of the pretty, RCT2 has greatly increased the ability to decorate your rides, thanks to the code overhaul. Scenery is far more varied, and is now capable of being built above, around, and underneath your rides, helping you to truly theme your park.

Margin Note 2:

Despite that this sequel only offers aesthetic enhancement on the original, it doesn’t take away the ability to produce a tense finish. My heartbeat picked up, as October, Year 3 came so near, and my park was still 150 visitors short of my target. Frantic promotion, ride building, and budget balancing scraped me through in the end, but it was good to know beads of sweat could still be produced.

 Still a superb game, but just far too similar to the old superb game.


Tech Specs:

Publisher: Inforgrames
Developer: Chris Sawyer
Price: £30
Minimum System: PII 300, 64 MB RAM, 120 MB HD, 8 MB 3D Card.
Recommended: 128 MB RAM, 200 MB HD
Multi-player: No.
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