7 June, 2023
Let’s face it: the 90s was an odd decade. Aside from the emergence of Brit Pop and Mr Blobby, this was the era in which kids spent their school holidays not on TikTok, but designing and customising their very own large-scale engineering projects – be it hospitals, zoos, or even entire cities.
Yes, the 1990s was the decade of the simulation game, including such titles as Theme Hospital, Zoo Tycoon and SimCity. But there was one sub-genre of these ‘business simulation’ games that were closer to our hearts and more popular than most, and that was theme park simulators.
That’s right, most 90s kids spent more time building theme parks than actually going to them, with games like RollerCoaster Tycoon and Theme Park World taking up thousands – if not millions – of hours of millennial adolescence. And that got us thinking: whatever happened to theme park simulators? And which of these iconic titles is considered the best of the best?
To find out, we’re taking a look back at the weird and wonderful world of theme park simulators, including heavy hitters like Coaster and Ultimate Ride. So, strap in and buckle up – things are about to take a turn for the nostalgic.
Widely regarded as the first official theme park sim, Coaster was less about park maintenance and infrastructure and more about building the craziest coasters possible. Launched on MS-DOS in 1993 (cue shrug emoji from Gen Zers), the game had one simple premise: to design, build and ride your ultimate roller coaster.
Sound fun? It really was. The game came courtesy of Walt Disney Computer Software, a now-defunct subsidiary responsible for other beloved games like Aladdin and The Lion King. For such a high-profile studio, this kooky coaster-building sim was a little left field, a fact made evident by Computer Gaming World ranking it as the 31st worst computer game ever released.
Still, there was plenty of fun to be had here, and Coaster arguably laid the foundations for other games to follow – with RollerCoaster Tycoon essentially lifting their coaster-building mechanics from Disney’s playbook.
1994 was the year that theme park sims really hit their stride, with the release of the aptly named Theme Park heralding a whole new direction for the genre. Instead of just constructing coasters, this game called on players to build and manage their own park – no mean feat for a 12-year-old fresh from school.
From the synopsis alone, Theme Park might sound like a relatively dull proposition, and younger readers may be perplexed as to why any self-respecting teen would choose to willingly step into the shoes of the MD of a theme park. But at the time, Theme Park was an unprecedented success, with over 15 million copies sold across multiple now-legendary platforms including the Sega Mega Drive, Amiga CD32 and the Atari Jaguar.
Part of Theme Park’s success was its sandbox-style gameplay. Never before had gamers been given so much freedom, with a blank canvas and a pot of virtual cash to do with what they will. Of course, a lot of it also had to do with our unending love and fascination with theme parks, with kids so enamoured by recent trips to parks like Oakwood, they were willing to give up their free time building 2D alternatives.
Ask any millennial what their favourite childhood computer games were, and we reckon over half would mention RollerCoaster Tycoon. This era-defining simulator, launched on good old Windows 98, took building virtual theme parks to a whole other level – delivering amazing graphics (for the time, anyway), immersive audio, and the ability to make park visitors puke all over the shop.
Like Theme Park, RollerCoaster Tycoon’s success came down to the total freedom it granted players. The aim of the game was to build a thriving business complete with all the ingredients needed for a successful theme park: think coasters, thrill rides, gentler rides for kids, and, of course, food and drink stalls.
The game’s unrivalled immersion and frankly over-the-top range of customisation options made it a huge hit, and not just with kids. For three years on the bounce, RollerCoaster Tycoon found itself on top-5 bestselling games of the year lists, with millions of copies sold. It was this obvious success that prompted the release of a further three games in the series, not to mention a huge range of expansion packs like “Loopy Landscapes”, “Wacky Worlds” and “Added Attractions”.
Although plenty of children enjoyed playing RollerCoaster Tycoon, it’s fair to say that some of its features went right over their heads – not least the game’s business insights and advertising management features. Luckily, a more child-friendly alternative was waiting in the wings, with the irresistible Theme Park World coming to Microsoft Windows and PlayStation just a few months after RCT.
Theme Park World was a lot like RollerCoaster Tycoon in some ways and entirely different in others. It was, for example, much more cartoonish, with none of the super-granular business stuff that made RCT a hit with older players. All the creativity and freedom were still present, without some of the advanced bits and bobs that made RCT such a success.
Although TPW didn’t hit the same highs as its predecessor Theme Park, it was still a much-loved game and one we’re sure plenty of millennial-aged players will remember. Plus, the fact that this was the first theme park sim to run on console as opposed to PC was kind of ground-breaking for its time – bringing the genre to a whole new generation of players.
Having seemingly kick-started the world’s love affair with theme park simulator games, Disney was keen to get back in on the act following the success of its 1993 sleeper hit, Coaster. So, in 2001, Interactive Studios returned to the fray, releasing what was essentially the second instalment of its iconic coaster design game.
Ultimate Ride hit the market in September 2001 and effectively carried on where Coaster had left off. Unlike games like RollerCoaster Tycoon, Theme Park World and Legoland, the focus here wasn’t on building a full park but simply designing the rollercoasters themselves – just like with its original ‘93 game.
That might sound a little boring when you consider how far RTC had brought the genre, but the game’s outstanding graphics, cool locations and thrilling ride-along feature made for a decent game that won a few four-star reviews from critics. And in a first for the simulation genre, Ultimate Ride also boasted a complementary website where users were encouraged to upload their finished tracks for others to take a virtual ride on – a neat feature that was ground-breaking for the time.
Nostalgia trip complete, it’s time to take a quick look at how the theme park simulator genre is fairing in 2023, as well as some of the new titles that are coming down the track.
If you haven’t played a theme park sim since the halcyon days of RollerCoaster Tycoon, we’re thrilled to report that the genre is alive and well. In fact, there are some incredible games out there that are making the most of next-gen graphics and performance, including Indoorlands, Parkitect, and RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 (for which expansion packs and new editions continue to emerge).
Plus, a brand-new theme park sim, Park Beyond, is expected to launch in 2023, with excitement already building for its release. Let’s hope it kick-starts a resurgence and puts theme park simulators back on the map!
Enjoyed our nostalgia-strewn guide to nineties and noughties theme park sims? Experience the real thing at Oakwood. Tap here for tickets, opening times and more information.