Bit Treasure is about the old stuff, the games you buy when you’re strapped for cash or throw your money at Humble Bundles for, the games you come back to every now and then over the years, or have buried in your 300+ Steam games list. And sometimes it’s about games you’ve just never heard of.
Treasure Four: The Last SimCity
I never played the first SimCity, it was a bit before my time. Developed by Maxis and the brainchild of Will Wright, it came out in 1989, and as of writing, is just a few years short of turning thirty. Coincidentally I now feel very, very, very old. SimCity basically invented a new genre of gaming during a period when innovation was sorely needed for the industry’s survival. After almost nuking itself out of existence just a few years prior, 1985 may have seen gaming’s return, but 1989 showed the industry’s resurgence was in full swing and wasn’t going to look back.
SimCity began as a very rudimentary city-building game by modern standards. You made buildings, connect power lines to said buildings, made a power plant for the power lines connected to the buildings, and occasionally built a park or something to keep residents happy. There were also taxes. Everybody loves taxes.
The 1993 sequel was one of the first games I ever played as a kid. I didn’t quite understand it at first but I got into the swing of things as I got older. I even did more than just run a giant robot spider through my cities.
SimCity 2000 is still highly regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. Building on from its predecessor, 2000 went isometric for a then-immersive 3D experience, allowing you to see your city as truly alive for the first time. Everything from SimCity 1989 was either expanded upon or given immense additions, almost tripling the amount of buildings and services you could create. You could build underground railways, water systems, seaports, airports, even a giant microwave power plant that got its energy from a laser in space. There were also taxes. Everybody loves taxes.
Maxis, and by extension Will Wright, cemented themselves as one of the top developers in gaming after the release of SimCity 2000 particularly in the Simulation genre, with Maxis giving each game a sort of flair unique to the developer. With no topic too absurd for them, the Sim franchise covered almost too much, with such “memorable” titles like Sim Park, Sim Farm, and Sim…Health?
There were some truly stellar contributions to the Sim franchise as well. SimTower, SimCopter and Streets of SimCity were all incredible games in their own right, with the latter two actually being able to let you import the cities you built in SimCity 2000 and turning them into 3D cities that were fully explorable by either car or helicopter. They may look like cardboard buildings populated by fleshy balloon people now, but this kind of interconnected gaming had never been attempted before, and was rarely seen in gaming again. Thus was the imaginative powerhouse that was Maxis and Will Wright.
1997 saw a not quite evil yet Electronic Arts take Maxis under its giant money wing, and in 1999 SimCity 3000 was released, proving itself to be more or less 2000 again but larger, shinier, and with far more detailed 2D pixel sprites. And then Maxis made The Sims a year later and everyone pretty much forgot 3000 existed while EA made literally all of the money.
A billion Sims expansion packs later, and 2003 welcomed the arrival of SimCity 4, the last SimCity game Will Wright would work on. Everything was bigger and more 3D, while also trying its best to be a bit more dialled back for a new generation of City Builders.
And there were taxes.
Everybody loves taxes.
One of SimCity 4’s newest additions reveals itself when you first start it up. The game’s city selector is an overworld of sorts, a giant landmass divided up into small, medium and large city areas for you to build in. The scale of it all was impressive, to say the least, and was basically an alternative way of giving the player a difficulty selection screen. Small city areas allowed for more focus, but not as much space, meaning that management of population and services etc. was crucial, but money wouldn’t be a huge worry. The Medium and Large areas pretty much let you run wild, but you needed to pay much more attention to how much money you were spending in such open spaces.
This is also where the game’s God Mode comes in, as selecting an empty lot will let you to terraform the land to however you see fit. The myriad of tools that could be used to shape the land were remarkable for its time, allowing you to make cliff faces, meteor craters, mountain ranges, canyons, and much more. Terraforming in SimCity 4 is also a hellish nightmare experience and I hate it. It’s perfectly fine and pretty amazing if you’re changing the land within the borders of the lot you’re in, but as you can see from the Region map above, you’re able to connect the land of one lot to the next. You do this by having the game automatically “Reconcile the Edges” of the lot to match the neighbouring lots.
The thing about the Reconciler is that you can’t choose which borders to match, it can only do all of them. So when you’re trying to build a new Region on a blank template that’s either completely ocean or flat grassland, terraforming land in lots where you can only match all the borders is a nightmare and I hope it dies in a fire.
Anywho, let’s talk about the city building.
After you’re done in God Mode, you name your city and you’re thrust into the wonderful world of Mayor Mode. The city building and management of SimCity 4 is pretty much the standard for city builders today; build power plant, build residential areas far away from said power plant, and build your money-makers in between. Industrial buildings bring in money easier but will cause pollution like nobody’s business, while farms are cleaner but demand more area so not as much money will come in. Residential housing brings in tax dollars, but if you don’t keep your residents happy with jobs, education, health, and safety, land value drops and you won’t be getting very many tax dollars. No other city builder does it like SimCity 4. The cleanliness and simplicity of the menus to the number graphs all tell you exactly what you need to know in the fastest and simplest ways possible. As long as you balance your taxes and income against your expenditures with general upkeep and services, you’re golden.
The game’s Advisors are Maxis’ way of, in theory, giving newcomer players a sort of “guide” in city building without necessarily pulling you out of the game entirely. The game does have tutorial maps that show you the basics, but if you’re not into that then the Advisors will make sure you’re keeping everything hunky-dory. In theory. Most of the time, they’ll scream at you about funding, halting the game with a big text box to tell you about how your road budget needs to be upped because “reasons”. It’s all very helpful in keeping track of your expenditures but it’s also super annoying because they only seem to contact you when something is going horribly wrong and it’s all Mayor Balgruuf’s fault.
Another addition to SimCity 4 is MySim mode, the most tacked on tacky game mode to ever tack on a tacky tack. You basically move individual Sims into whatever residencies you like and they tell you how they feel. That’s pretty much it.
The appeal of SimCity 4, for me at least, is the imbued personality that Maxis has excelled at with their games since their early days. Cities XL and Cities: Skylines are both stellar city builders for their own reasons, but they both don’t quite have the charm and exuberant design of SimCity 4. And what I believe to be the most important part of that charm and personality is the music.
From the quiet, punctuated with the odd unbridled screaming of SimCity 1989, to the swelling orchestras and the odd song that sounds suspiciously like a Sonic the Hedgehog track in 3000, the truly unique soundtracks of the Wright-era SimCity franchise are unrivalled. Everything in SimCity 4 is the culmination of almost 15 years worth of refinery and experimentation. But nothing is quite so evident of that fact than in the game’s soundtrack. When you’re in God Mode, the soundtrack is sweeping and epic, ebbing and flowing while you mould the land to your will and scream at the Reconciler. Mayor Mode has a varied soundtrack of jaunty strings and guitars with electronic beats, xylophones and the odd pan flute, all motivating you to build and create as best you can even if the Advisors are screaming bloody murder. The music of city builders are meant to motivate and create a sense that you’re really a part of something great with music that stays with you. Cities XL almost gets this right with some great songs, while I can’t recall anything from Skylines. I think it was so bland, in fact, that I turned the music off so I could play my own.
I’ve probably been a bit harsh to SimCity 4 in this article, but I still regard it as one of my favourites, if not my number one city builder. It’s because of the personality given into each building, the simplicity in the presentation of the more complicated management systems, and the music that reminds you that it’ll all be ok, even if a meteor shower decimates half the city.
SimCity 4 came out in 2003 and only had one expansion pack, SimCity 4: Rush Hour. Rush Hour was a welcome addition, introducing traffic patterns and being able to take control of cars in your city among other things. It was the only SimCity 4 expansion pack because a year later The Sims 2 came out and it made so much money that EA were crowned God Emperors of the Universe for a good few years. The SimCity name fell by the wayside for a bit while Will Wright got all weird with Spore, so the franchise was temporarily given to developer Tilted Mill Entertainment. They came out with SimCity Societies in 2007; it was definitely a game that existed. After the release of 2008’s Spore, Wright left Maxis for good in 2009.
And then SimCity 2013 happened and we shall never speak of it again. Sometimes the treasure lies in just ignoring the mistakes and even gross misconceptions of those that came afterwards.