Despite its amusing setting and visual appeal, SimTheme Park is at heart a business simulation.
SimTheme Park is an amusement park management game that is part of Maxis' Sim series in name only. Known as Theme Park World both in Europe and in the game's many intro movies, it is actually the sequel to Bullfrog's Theme Park, a detail-oriented business simulator that happened to be set in an amusement park. SimTheme Park is just as much a business simulator as Theme Park was, but it removes many of the unnecessary minute tasks from the formula and adds some elements that make the amusement park setting much more important to the game.
Your goal is clear: to build a series of profitable parks. SimTheme Park is loosely mission based. There are four themes to choose from, including Lost Kingdom, Halloween World, Wonder Land, and Space Zone. Success in one theme will help unlock later, more difficult parks. While every theme has basically the same shops and rides, they are suited to fit the corresponding park. For instance, a Ferris wheel ride in the Lost Kingdom will be a South American sun god statue, while in the Halloween World the same ride is a spider on its web. Success in any park is based on undisclosed factors, but your advisor will give you little clues as to how you can earn golden tickets, which earn you mystery rides and the coveted gold keys that open new parks. The advisor's clues ("I bet if you got a lot of people into this park...") hint at what will earn you a ticket, but the goals are never stated directly. While this may seem vague, it actually works well to keep your focus on building and improving and not on reaching some arbitrary numerical rating.
The advisor not only helps you earn golden tickets, but serves as a good tutorial and helpful ally when building your park. He constantly draws your attention to problem areas and helps you get the most out of your employees and attractions. Unfortunately, he can be a bit too helpful at times and will point out areas that don't have janitors or security even if those areas don't need janitors or security, or he will criticize the number of food and drink shops in your park even if they're everywhere and customer satisfaction is high.
Unlike in Hasbro's RollerCoaster Tycoon, building rides is not your primary focus in SimTheme Park. While you can design coasters to your heart's content, your real goal is to make money. And you don't make money in SimTheme Park by having exciting rides - you do so by encouraging your customers to purchase goods from your shops. This requires a great deal of shop building, and the most successful parks will have two or three vendors or midway games strategically located near the exit to every single ride.
Managing your shops is easy. You have control over the quality of goods at each kiosk through a generically labeled "quality" slider, as well as through shop-specific sliders for ingredients, such as the amount of salt on your fries and the amount of ice in your drinks. After you've set the quality and price levels for one shop, you can easily set the same levels for all shops of that type. Unfortunately, you can't standardize your preferences, so each new shop is built with the computer's default settings. Rides do play an important part in attracting customers to your park, and new rides let you charge higher prices at the gate. However, the game has some strange problems associated with this correlation, as visitors will flock to any new ride even if it's just a newly rebuilt ride you've already had sitting in your park for months. And though you can design the layout for any track-based ride (go-karts, flumes, and roller coasters), your designs don't have any impact on the attraction of that ride. You can only make a particular ride more exciting through research; researching will let you build loops for coasters, tunnels and jumps for go-karts, and improve other types of rides as well. Upgrades will not only make a ride more exciting, but will also increase its capacity, making long lines move more quickly.
Designing rides in SimTheme Park is a much simpler affair than in RollerCoaster Tycoon. You don't have to worry about bad physics causing a ride to stall or a hairpin turn throwing the car into the fountain. As long as you complete the ride, it will run. Some physics are modeled, but even a really poorly designed coaster will creak its way over humps and through loops. What makes designing your roller coasters exciting is that you can ride any of the attractions in your park, and seeing a coaster you've designed first-hand is really fun.
Riding your coasters and wandering through your park in first-person view is made possible by the game's 3D engine, which lets you rotate and zoom in and out of your park in the default isometric perspective, much like in Bullfrog's Dungeon Keeper games. Yet while the engine makes things look great, it can also get incredibly bogged down when there are lots of visitors in your park.
Despite its amusing setting and visual appeal, SimTheme Park is at heart a business simulation. As such, there is a good deal of micromanagement involved. In addition to hiring the shop management, you have to hire janitors, security, and entertainers and set patrol routes to make sure each area of your park has access to each of these services. You also have to keep a close eye on the condition of your various rides, and you need mechanics to fix them whenever they start to break down. This is actually one of SimTheme Park's most aggravating aspects; once you have a good number of rides in your park, you have to constantly assign repairs. Rides will automatically be repaired if they break down, but this is undesirable because a ride's total life span diminishes if you let this happen. SimTheme Park would be much less frantic if you could just set some sort of maintenance schedule.
However, you cannot, and this is perhaps SimTheme Park's biggest flaw: You just have too many details to manage once your park becomes large and successful. The initial planning and building for each park is the game's best point because you have time to watch visitor reactions and to make small adjustments in order to achieve maximum efficiency. But once your park becomes large and popular, it becomes a chaotic mix of advisor messages and rides needing repairs. There's no longer any time to just sit back and enjoy what you've created, which is a shame considering just how enjoyable this creative process can be.