All gamers have video games that they deeply cherish, forming a connection with them that regular games cannot come close to creating. They are often widely regarded as the greatest games ever made, held up to a legendary standard for all to revere. Games like Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, Deus Ex, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Final Fantasy VII frequently appear in “Best Ever” lists, get top places in popularity contests, and always occupy a place in gamers’ hearts as those very special experiences. My “Special Game” is a “smaller” one. One that is very well liked by most anyone who played it, but nevertheless not quite regarded as “Best Ever”. Its name is RollerCoaster Tycoon, and in my mind it is truly the best game ever created.
It seems far more difficult to articulate my connection to this game than with other games. When discussing cherished games, we speak about the fantastic story, amazing soundtrack, satisfying gameplay, or even simply its special moments. In games like Ocarina of Time, these descriptions make a perfectly valid argument. From the brooding cinematic opening with Ganon towering over a bleak and rainy field to the spine-chilling notes of the Temple of Time’s theme, the elements that drove gamers to sheer euphoria are relatively tangible. But my connection with RollerCoaster Tycoon is deeper, or at least less obvious. Starting Ocarina of Time yields a gigantic moon setting over the hills, dawn fast approaching to the soft sound of a horse’s gallop, with the soothing main theme playing shortly afterward. Not even five seconds after booting the game does its pedigree make itself known, foretelling of an epic, unforgettable adventure.
Starting RollerCoaster Tycoon leads to a loud, grinding roller coaster chain lift noise looping over the company logos. The main menu plays cheesy carnival music, its presentation simple. Choosing a scenario just drops you into your first game with but a simple “sliding” noise serving as the only transition between the menu and the game, and more often than not what follows is complete silence. Most starting scenarios have few or no rides and few or no guests. The graphics, even for its time, were simple, with completely static, unanimated trees and no ambient nature sounds to speak of. Manipulating the game world through methods like plopping down paths, constructing rides and removing trees is equally devoid of aesthetic substance. Everything in the game magically disappears or materializes out of thin air, with a simple “plop” sound for anything added to the park and nothing at all if removed from it. Ten minutes into the game and anyone who’s read up to this point will undoubtedly think “This is his greatest game of all time?”
My connection with the game has nothing to do with its presentation, story or feeling of epic adventure. When I was in grade school, a friend of mine asked what games I enjoyed, and upon mentioning this, he said, “That game is easy” dismissively. And he was absolutely right. A year later, a different friend asked me the same question, and upon hearing the same answer he said, “Why? You just build stuff,” with essentially the same tone. And he too was absolutely right. But the simple, easy-to-approach game mechanics are what made the game so appealing in the first place. But what sealed my desire for the game back in the day was the simple fact that I couldn’t have it.
A Pilgrimage for a Game
Certain goods never make it to certain countries, and for a country like Mexico certain video games never set their proverbial foot on that soil. RollerCoaster Tycoon was one of them, but I never knew it when my brother told me he saw an American (dubbed to Spanish) show that previewed up-and-coming games on cable TV. He told me he saw a preview of the game and it looked really neat, so we sacrificed our house’s phone line to go on the Internet and found the game’s demo. Much like every other child with a dial-up account, the affair was long and arduous, requiring a phone line commitment of several hours which led us to simply let the download run overnight, adding to the anticipation. What resulted was pure elation.
My first foray into PC gaming included demos of this and the original Age of Empires. Before that time, we didn’t own a computer and all my gaming was done exclusively on my Super Nintendo. As with nearly everyone else of my generation, I still consider that console to be the best of all time, but especially during the mid-90s PC gaming was an entirely different experience. The games tended to be larger, with different pacing, controls, gaming conventions, interfaces, etc. Unlike today, where PC gaming offers little more than a souped-up console experience thanks to the bevy of simple ports from most major publishers. PC-exclusive games were far more in abundance the night that I downloaded that RollerCoaster Tycoon demo. As a result, when I first started the game I was treated to an experience unlike anything I had seen before. Everything was novel, even the little details. It didn’t even matter that our computer’s sound card was having trouble, resulting in playing the demo in complete silence (it only made it that much sweeter when the problem was fixed a few days later). The game itself struck every chord of amazing novelty that no other game had done before. Every day after school, I switched on the computer and played through the demo again, enjoying it as if it were a full game. It didn’t matter that the demo closed itself after about an hour, making it impossible to complete any scenario, or that I couldn’t save my progress and was forced to start over every time. The game was pure, unadulterated fun and I loved every minute of it.
Eventually I started pining for the full game, but alas, as far as my young mind could fathom the game it simply did not exist. Back in the mid-90s several games were so scarce that they were only attainable through the purchase of pirated CDs, and amazingly enough it wasn’t even available through those means. It was simply too obscure and too slow-paced to be of any interest to the majority of Mexican PC players. I simply thought it a lost cause until my father announced we would be visiting the US for a business trip of his as he explored a job offer. It dawned on me merely days before the trip was to happen to ask him if we could maybe take some time to look for the game at some store somewhere, and he said yes. I was as elated as I was anxious. How could I possibly find this game, as obscure as I was sure it was, in an entirely different nation?
The search was surprisingly short. Upon arriving at the border, several people working for stores would hand out fliers to everyone at the customs office, Best Buy’s weekly ad being one such flier After sifting through a couple of pages my heart skipped a beat: RollerCoaster Tycoon for $20. My brother and I yelled excitedly, but my father’s business trip had priority and we needed to be at our destination as soon as possible. He promised we would look for it as soon as we had time, but it would mean waiting at least one more day. My brother and I simply sat for hours on end in the car, internally exploding with excitement.
We arrived at our destination, a tiny college town. We looked for a Best Buy but infuriatingly, the only one there was not yet open for business. We would only be there a few days so the store was obviously not going to open in time. But then again, we would be in town for a few days. We were not going to have the game until after my father’s job “stuff” (at least that’s how it sounded to a 9-year-old) was done. I raged. Not at my father, but at that cursed building, refusing to sell me the game I couldn’t have. Damn that building. Damn it to hell.
On our way back we finally arrived at a Best Buy. Interestingly enough, I have absolutely no recollection of the Best Buy I was in, or physically picking up the game, or having my parents pay for it. The next thing I can remember is lying face down on the hotel room, staring wide-eyed at the box, marvelling at the tiny screenshots promising more hours of unadulterated fun. I must have been too drunk with excitement at the store to have my brain bother with such trifling matters as storing that moment in my long-term memory. No time for memory burn, my brain must squee.
The next two days were equally painful as we made our way back home, with little to entertain me but the box and the juicy screenshots. We got back home at 10 PM, far after my usual bedtime, but nevertheless we were allowed to give the game a test run. And boy did we have fun. We even managed to use the coveted “Save” feature. Nothing like a pilgrimage to another country to get a game, come back fome, and finally press a “Save” button.
A Game Formula, Perfected
It’s a general rule of thumb that there’s a point of diminishing returns between anticipation and actual game enjoyment. The more hype, the more likely one is being set up for disappointment. Only two games have actually lived up to and even surpassed my astronomical expectations beset by massive hype: F-Zero GX (another one of my favorite games of all time), and RollerCoaster Tycoon. The approachable game mechanics coupled with behind-the-scenes depth made for a highly dynamic experience. Two parks could never be the same, and while attaining a scenario’s goal is “easy” (as my dismissive friend from middle school put it), the goal was never the true satisfaction. True satisfaction came from making a truly breathtaking park; taking care in ensuring every path was surrounded by beautiful scenery, every ride led seamlessly into the next, and every shop was stocked with perfectly priced goods. The more happy faces there were in the guest list, the better.
RollerCoaster Tycoon has taught me that any game, no matter its genre, greatly benefits from carefully-crafted feedback. As you begin a scenario, you get the satisfaction of building a park in mere seconds, since the vast majority of scenarios start with amusement park staples like the Merry-go-round ready for construction. It takes only a few clicks for your screen to look like a real amusement park, complete with fairground organs playing, and it only takes mere seconds afterward for your park to be populated by guests with their cheery voices permanently filling the silence. The game creates a fantastic point of entry for new players by making the starting steps a trivial matter, instantly grabbing their attention.
Attention grabbers would be borderline useless if there were nothing to keep said attention, and not once does the game fail at doing so. The game is
built to cheer on the player at every moment in the game, especially when it comes to financial gain. No matter how small a transaction, every time a guest purchases something the game deposits that amount directly in your coffers in real time and plays a cash register “ka-ching” sound if the purchase was made on screen. This gives a fantastic sense of progression, as you’re aware of every single successful transaction, no matter how small, one at a time. It gets even better when you build a successful high-capacity ride like a roller coaster, where guests pour into large trains by the dozens, resulting in a quick succession of transaction sounds and a soaring budget on the lower left of the screen. Only the negative things, like ride upkeeps and employee wages, are silently subtracted every other in-game week, but when it comes to making money the game sure does let you know of your successes.
In fact, feeling good is something that the game revels in. The very basic premise of the game involves building massive funhouses from scratch for tiny guests. Unlike other games, success isn’t measured by the number of people you decapitate but rather the number of people you please. The successes of your rides are reinforced by having elated guests let out a yell of excitement as they exit, swiftly walking right back into the entrance for seconds. Crowded paths are punctuated by a cheery sound loop of what can only be described as people having fun. Having a great park means clicking on each guest and being greeted with a comically beaming face in one of the status tabs. Packed roller coasters made from scratch contain dozens of guests yelling in unison as they swoop down one of your deviously-crafted drops. Satisfied, hungry guests sit on benches and gladly eat their concession-stand food as they watch all the other guests excitedly zip around the park, eager to find the next thrill you’ve laid out for them. And at the end of the scenario, every single guest in the park turns to the camera and applauds you, letting go of their balloons in celebration of your success before turning back around to enjoy your park some more, at which point you’re invited to start the next scenario to begin the process all over again. The game is so good at being happy that it’s simply infectious and you can’t help but share its enjoyment.
But that’s not to say the game is entirely without challenge. Despite the fact that the game puts your successes at the forefront, there are plenty of chances for the game to throw a wrench in your gears. Without proper planning, guests can be lost and the game has no qualms about letting you know in the always-important news ticker on the bottom. Guest complaints are compiled in a list and thrown at your face in the same ticker (with red text at that) when you fail at satisfying them in any particular way. And rides can crash should things go especially bad, in which case the game swiftly pops up an unsolicited view of the explosion right in your face, muting all audio (including most likely the looping sound of cheery people) and replacing it with a gut-wrenching explosion, the loudest sound effect in the game. The first time it happens to you, you bet your pants that you’ll be soiling them. Lesson learned.
Keen eyes will quickly realize that the cause of nearly every crash in the game is when a ride breaks down for “Station Brakes Failure”, a ride condition in which the coaster train never stops when arriving at the station platform. Since other coasters loading passengers are sitting there more often than not, “Station Brakes Failure” almost always means disaster unless you have an amazingly speedy mechanic who just happened to be walking right next to the ride. You’ll quickly develop a Pavlovian hatred for those three words, and you’ll quickly learn to immediately pause the game in fear when the news ticker lets you know that a roller coaster of yours breaks down. Of course, it doesn’t tell you what ails that ride; providing a few moments of anxiety as you bring up the ride info to see what is wrong. These kinds of things in the game are perfectly inserted to keep you on your toes, to know that although everything around you is happy, you still need to be attentive. This game design feeds into itself, as bigger parks mean bigger fun, but demand more caution and more attention to detail, and each and every scenario provides a different experience even if they have the exact same goals.
The scenarios themselves were wonderfully crafted, each with intriguing geography and requirements that were simply fun to fulfill, perhaps only because they were simple themselves. The requirements were often very open-ended, such as having to get a certain number of guests by a certain date. But the real fun came in the later scenarios provided by the expansion packs, my favorite of which involved finishing half-built roller coasters that had to have a specific excitement rating. Essentially, this turned it into a puzzle game, which commanded that you balance space, speed, fun, cost, and ability to have the coaster make a successful runthrough to succeed. And regardless of what you did (even in the coaster-building scenarios), you always built a park to go along with it (in that case, to get enough money to actually finish the coasters). This multi-layered, open-ended style of design was the perfect complement to the creative tools that the game provided. The scenarios never limited you, they simply gave you a starting point and inspiration. And the scenarios are huge in number as well. The game with both of its expansion packs brings a whopping 86 scenarios into the mix, and since nearly every scenario takes at least two hours you can expect at least 172 hours worth of gameplay if you aim to beat every one. Additionally, if you happen to beat every scenario from the base game, a secret one is unlocked that has every ride in the game, the biggest plot of land, and one simple objective: nothing. Very few single-player games offer that amount of gameplay.
A Lasting Legacy
There’s no time when I’m not in the mood to play RollerCoaster Tycoon. Strangely enough, I actually prefer the original to its sequel, RollerCoaster Tycoon 2, despite being essentially the same but with added features. My complaints about that game aren’t major, but enough to mar my experience. The new “stacking scenery” feature was implemented in an awkward manner that caused some serious depth perception problems, often being at odds with the already-established isometric perspective. It encouraged you to build what I like to call “fatter” parks, with wider paths, clunky and huge buildings, and obnoxiously animated objects (it only got worse with its expansion packs). Menus were unnecessarily rearranged and there were far less interesting rides, with plenty of simplistic skins of already existing rides. The scenarios were poorly designed and didn’t lend themselves well to making sprawling parks, many having ridiculous restrictions that actively hindered you rather than serving as a creative platform from which to begin. The scenario editor itself was poorly organized and not at all intuitive, the complete antithesis of the first game. Even though I could simply avoid having to deal with all the complaints, the second game simply lost its charm by adding all of these things. The first game had the right amount of complexity, the right amount of features, the right amount of rides, and the right kind of scenarios.
As disappointed as I was with the second game, the third made it all better. Yes, I am apparently one of the very few people in the world who
absolutely loves RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 to bits. Despite the overly kiddy presentation, the game did every right move in adding to exactly what needed to be added to. It began by fixing everything that RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 tried to add but failed in its implementation, starting with the “scenery stacking” feature by making it far easier to work with thanks to the new 3D perspective. The terrain editing got a major overhaul, it added depth in the right places (such as keeping employees happy), and added plenty of tiny details to entertain yourself with, such as adding a stamp system where you add various stamp machines throughout your park and have guests collect these to exchange them for souvenir prizes. It introduced several wonderful features like a coaster cam (that had a very good sense of speed and thrill) and a deep fireworks system. Expansion packs were true expansions by adding water parks complete with their own unique rides, and zoos which added animals to take care of. In short, from my perspective it was the sequel that RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 never was.
But the game’s legacy extends beyond that of its own series. The original game spurred plenty of industry hopefuls to start their own “Tycoon” game, including Microsoft with Zoo Tycoon. And, as a programmer today, I find myself floored at the original game’s structure, being coded entirely in assembly with the exception of a few lines of code to make it compatible with Windows. It was programmed so well that it works completely flawlessly on any Windows OS to date, including Windows 7 64-bit, which often stumps many games from the ’90s and prevents many from running entirely. It even takes advantage of modern hardware by making the game’s loading times completely disappear, and changing its display to windowed lets the player run in very high resolutions. With a few very minor tweaks it’s possible to even run the game at the massive (for its time) 1080p. Having to wait for an “HD” remake of an old game you can’t run anymore? Don’t think so. The game is just as awe-inspiring on a technical level as it is on a gameplay one.
I still have my original CDs and game boxes of the base game and its two expansions (by the time those came out I was already living in the ‘States, thankfully making their purchase a trivial matter). Every once in a while, I throw in the discs, install the game on the next Windows OS, become elated that the game can still play just as well as it did over 10 years ago, and play for the next several days. My mind instantly teems with ideas of park and scenery design, carefully crafting each coaster to have the perfect dips and sways, pricing each ride and shop just right, and generally having a blast by letting the game’s guests have one as well. I remember what I had to do to get this game in the first place, being impossible to acquire in my native country. And I remember what an amazingly versatile piece of software it is on a technical level, bringing a new way to astound me even to this day.
Then I think, yes. This indeed is my favorite game of all time.