Once upon a time, a small development team named Bullfrog created what would become known as the god game. In this game you would take the role of a deity and your goal was to develop a world capable of sustaining your followers. However, keeping your followers alive was no easy task, as there was always another deity attempting to do the very same thing, at your expense. It was a ruthless game that tested not only your wits, but your management ability as well. This game was called Populous. Years later, Bullfrog introduced Theme Park, a game that took the basic gameplay of Populous and put it under a microscope. Now Electronic Arts and Bullfrog have returned with the latest in the series: Theme Hospital.
Theme Hospital thrusts you into the role of a director/supervisor of a local hospital. Your objective is to develop, design, and maintain a hospital that maximizes efficiency and keeps death rates low and profits high. Finish the job well, and you get to move on to another hospital for even bigger bucks. Sound simple? Far from it. Unlike Populous, Theme Hospital doesn't have opposing armies burning down your settlements and pillaging your crops. Instead, Theme Hospital has the sick. Not just your average flu-pneumonia-tonsillitis kind of sick, but the bloaty head-uncommon cold-hairyitis-invisibility kind of sick. Research the symptoms and develop the cures to succeed. Keeping up with the swarms of bizarre ailments that flood your hospital takes a good measure of reflexes and coordination, and while no one would ever confuse the two, Theme Hospital is as much a real-time strategy game as Command & Conquer ever was.
Originally designed for the PC, Theme Hospital has made the transition to the PlayStation relatively unscathed. The graphics, while not as hi-res as you're likely to see on an RGB monitor, are clear and distinct. Considering that the doctors, nurses, receptionists, janitors, and patients can number in the hundreds, each with its own distinct set of animations, it's hard to believe that it's the PlayStation moving all of these sprites. Fortunately, the sound is just as stunning. The whole game comes to life as a result of the detail in the sound effects. Everything in Theme Hospital produces the sounds you'd expect: soda machines, treadmills, filing cabinets, video games, pool tables, toilets, men on toilets, X-ray machines, diagnostic computers, sliding doors, people throwing up - you name it, it's in there. Add to this a female announcer on a loudspeaker who constantly hails the doctors and nurses from one department to another, and you have a very immersive experience.
While the aesthetics are in place, the real attraction to Theme Hospital is in the gameplay, and it's here where things start to fray. Unlike the Sega Saturn or N64, the PlayStation does not have a dedicated sprite engine and therefore must render sprites in software. As you can imagine, with the incredibly large number of sprites hogging the PlayStation's processors, things are bound to slow down. Granted, you can adjust the game's speed; however, that only compensates for so much. Coupled with a cursor that moves in one speed only, incredibly slow, maintaining your hospital can be a trying experience. Another issue is the PlayStation controller. Cramming a set of controls originally designed to take advantage of a full keyboard onto an eight-button joypad can be a tricky proposition. Novice and seasoned players alike will find themselves navigating a substantial amount of menus, which eventually become intuitive but serve to boost the learning curve from the outset.
Ultimately, the biggest drawback with games of this nature is in the lack of variety. Sure, you're not facing hundreds of worlds as you did in Populous, but the couple dozen or so hospitals that you're charged with running go some distance to test your patience. Each successive hospital pretty much recycles the challenge by giving you larger hospitals to maintain, with little difference from the preceding one. In fact, after you've become fairly proficient at this game, you'll find that the annual awards you're given, based on your performance, are almost always identical.
Despite these drawbacks, Theme Hospital remains an incredibly addictive game. Given the chance, it rewards your patience with consuming, deep gameplay. If you like racing games and fighting games, you should stay away from Theme Hospital. If you already have it for the PC, then there's no reason to pick this version up. However, if you like strategy games like Command & Conquer and even Final Fantasy Tactics, you'd do well to give Theme Hospital a try. Powered by Bullfrog, EA has another commendable PC port on its hands. Following in the footsteps of Diablo, Theme Hospital has arrived almost completely intact on the PlayStation.