A couple of years ago I caught a show on the Discovery Channel about designing and building roller coasters. They went into the intense detail and engineering that is required to put together a modern scream machine and get it off the drawing boards and into reality.
I love riding roller coasters -- the rush of wind and dizzying wrench in the gut when the track drops out from under me on a hairpin curve -- but I know I don’t have the skills to build coasters for real. I was really looking forward to trying my hand at a miniature version in SimCoaster, unfortunately the game suffers from performance problems to the point that most of the enjoyment is thrown out the window like my lunch after a ride on the Tilt-O-Whirl.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
At its heart SimCoaster is a lot of fun. You’re the new kid on the corporate ladder and it is your job to take three theme parks from nothing to the pinnacle of roller coaster filled excitement. You start with a futuristic techno park and as the game progresses you get to expand into a snowy winter theme and an Arabian Nights-style desert park. All three have unique rides and features and each offers a unique challenge when it comes to getting the paying customers through the gates.
When you start the game you’ve got a very simple park layout, a stack of starting capital, and a half dozen rides ready to be built. Your overall goal is to build a profitable park, but to get there you’ll have to overcome several challenges along the way. Some are fairly easy (building up park attendance or selling off an overstock of hot dogs), but some of them get downright nasty -- I still haven’t managed to keep all my staff happy enough for long enough to beat the Employee Happiness Drive.
Beating some of the challenges will require working in all three parks at once. For example, skills that you learn to clear out the swamp in the winter zone are used in the Techno Park to revamp an old lake into a bumper boat ride. To get each promotion during my rise to the top of the company, I found myself constantly switching between the parks -- tweaking ride ticket prices and pushing my staff through ever more complicated improvement projects.
On top of the other challenges you have to keep your research staff busy coming up with new rides and improvements for your existing ones. Failure to keep up with the competition will cause your guests to leave for other parks. My one big complaint with the park research model is that things don’t always move from one park to the next. The overall skills (landscaping, water drainage, etc) can be used across the parks, but after I researched a hot dog stand in one park I still had to spend the time and cash to research it again in the next.
When you’re not working on building your park's value and popularity you can spend time in the Coaster Design Kit. Here you get to take all the track styles in the game and concoct scream machines from your own twisted imagination. Once you’ve created that masterpiece you can take it into your theme park and let your customers go for a spin (if the budget can handle the expense).
Graphics & Audio
Choppy. Disjointed. Slow. These are words you don’t want associated with the audio and video in your games, but that’s exactly what you’ll see here. The truly sad thing about the poor graphics performance is that the 3D modeling doesn’t look all that complicated. The textures are fairly simple and the roller coasters and other attractions look blocky when you select the "Ride" option to get a virtual experience.
My system cranks out a frame rate of well over 60 FPS (frames per second) playing Quake III at 1024x768 with all the detail options at max, but SimCoaster was hard pressed to do 15 FPS at 640x480 at its medium quality setting. Add to that audio that is constantly stuttering and looping and you’ve got an experience that is akin to when I tried playing Under a Killing Moon on my 486/66
The listed systems requirements (Windows 95/98/ME, Pentium 233 MMX or faster, 32 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM, and DirectX 7.0a or later) aren’t all that demanding, but frankly I don’t believe them. Every system I tried the game on had a least double the recommended processor speed but the only system where I saw decent performance was a 800 MHz Pentium III with a top-of-the-line Voodoo card. Even on that system performance was only acceptable at the lowest screen size (640x480). The slowest system I tried was a Celeron 466 and playing SimCoaster there was completely frustrating -- choppy frame rates and broken audio plagued the game constantly.
And that Pentium III that ran the game acceptably? Its also running Windows 2000, an operation system the specs on the box say isn’t supported. I generally don’t expect the minimum system requirements to allow the game to play seamlessly, but when they they’re as far off base as they appear to be with SimCoaster it screams either dishonest marketing or shoddy testing.
I enjoy playing SimCoaster, but after fighting its poor video performance and choppy sound for several hours, the game became more frustrating than fun. Underneath all the bugs there is a great game here, but Bullfrog sent it out to the stores way too early. Compared to the other Sim titles developed by Maxis, SimCoaster looks like an illegitimate, redheaded stepchild.
If you’re looking for the depth and quality that we’ve come to expect from the Sim line of games then look elsewhere, as it’s nowhere to be found in this latest entry. Hopefully we’ll be seeing patches in the coming months to correct the performance problems in the game -- the gameplay lurking underneath this buggy exterior deserves better.
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP