The enduring allure of Rollercoaster Tycoon

I have no memories of the fateful day in 1999 I bought Rollercoaster Tycoon. I don’t remember what got me interested in the game. I get nauseous as soon as I get on a bus, so it’s safe to say I’m not a theme park fan. I do remember having an obsession with the hypercapitalist, cool America style of Disneyland Paris, forever dangled in front of me by ads that would run at the end of Disney movie VHS tapes. But Rollercoaster Tycoon needed no specific branding to appeal. It just has you, right from its box illustration with the rollercoaster whizzing just out of view, the bright logo with its pleasant rollercoaster-esque bend. Rollercoaster Tycoon screams fun before you’ve even started it (even literally, on the back of the box).

Nowadays, games let you manage just about anything – hospitals, zoos, cafés - but in those management simulations you’re responsible first and foremost for someone’s well-being, or advancing your business. Of course you’re supposed to build a thriving theme park, but Rollercoaster Tycoon is interested in the mechanics of fun. Every aspect of it leads back to fun, and it explains why fun is at the root of your success as a player in terms that are easy to understand.

It is almost a meta look at how game designers try to get people to play their games: the overarching question is always what engages people and makes them stick around. As long as your guests are having fun and feel that they are getting value for their money, they will stay in your park. There, they will continue to spend money until they run out, and hopefully leave satisfied. Depending on the season and weather, they may favour different attractions. New things are always particularly exciting to them.

To have a successful park, money is only important in as far as you can reinvest it into the park itself in order to further attract customers and heighten customer satisfaction. The game offers the graphs and spreadsheets any micromanaging strategy players loves, but you don’t really need them. The people you’re working for are right there on your screen, hollering on rollercoasters and giving a hop and a little squeal after finishing a fun ride. They can complain about pricing, lack of thrills or overly busy walkways. They will tell you what to do, so as long as you keep an eye on the customers you’re serving, you can’t really go wrong.

The skill ceiling, both for the game as a whole and for rollercoaster building, is pleasantly low – it takes little to build a simple rollercoaster, but you have to have a certain understanding of the physics behind rollercoasters to build something that’s a bit more exciting. The UI with its big icons and Windows-style folders may not be pretty by today’s standards, but maybe that’s what makes it so intuitive to many players straight away. I hadn’t touched the game in almost twenty years when I bought the digital version, and yet it felt like I had never been away.

I got immediately lost in the game for hours in a way I don’t often do anymore, simply because making something pretty in Rollercoaster Tycoon is so easy. With the game’s rollercoaster building tools, designer Chris Sawyer intrinsically understood the principle behind sandboxes that would turn so many other games into successes, from The Sims to Minecraft: building something is even nicer when you can use it or get to see it used afterwards.

At the same time, Sawyer’s RCT games never had an official sandbox mode, and I’ve always found keeping a balance between park management and rollercoaster building slightly stressful. Then again, this is likely the only aspect where Rollercoaster Tycoon poses a challenge that can lead to skill growth, if that’s what you’re interested in, and it does add longevity to the game. The RCT reddit community is active, and people love to post their own designs.

Chris Sawyer was a huge fan of theme parks. He understood them to the point that he could make them fun for someone like me, someone who had more fun with the idea of amusement parks than their real life counterparts and who wasn’t even that good at building her own ‘coasters. Sawyer declared his vision for the game fulfilled after Rollercoaster Tycoon 2, and in my mind it really was – no successor, whether it was spiritual in nature like Parkitect, or RCT3 and Planetcoaster by Frontier Developments, managed to surpass it, and I don’t say this out of nostalgia. Games and theme parks share important qualities – both are interested in being at the forefront of technology, but some designs just timelessly work. Sawyer decided he was done, and with the OpenRCT2 mod, his community took over.

Good design is an important aspect to a game’s longevity, but it’s the art I will truly never forget. After RCT2 in the early 2000s, every game had to be 3D, and I’m very glad the industry as a whole walked back on that to once again embrace 2D and pixel art just so that we could continue to give Rollercoaster Tycoon artist Simon Foster his due. Foster’s colourful rides embody the world of amusement parks as I know it – fair grounds with bumper cars blaring a very specific kind of European EDM, swinging ships and merry-go-rounds with big yellow tops and horses to ride on.

Theme park history tells us that these amusements inspired the big theme parks like Alton Towers, parks you can emulate in digital form. I like howRCT honours the classics, and how there's something about their visual design most of us will recognise. While I’m sure I didn’t buy Rollercoaster Tycoon for that reason, playing it now unlocks only good memories, from the way you could hear the summer and autumn fairs on the wind near my childhood home, to the smell of concession stands and that one specific children’s laughter sample I’ve heard in plenty of films since.

Theme parks are supposed to spread fun. In playing RCT, you spread fun, whether it’s as part of a community of rollercoaster builders or simply in amusing a digital crowd. I really can’t think of any other game with such a clear, undiluted message that’s also entirely non-violent. There are more than enough games that want you to kill everything, not a whole lot where your goal is to make sure everyone has fun. As an adult, finding innocent fun like this can be difficult, but I can always appreciate Rollercoaster Tycoon as a pocket of child-like wonder.

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