SimCity 2000 30 Years Later: An LGR Retrospective

SimCity 2000 30 Years Later: An LGR Retrospective

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[calm jazz music] [computer buzzes, beeps] Wow, feels like we just celebrated the original SimCity’s 30th anniversary, now here we are four years later hitting that same milestone with its sequel. SimCity 2000! Developed and published by Maxis Software and releasing in late 1993 – or early 1994. And by that I mean the MS-DOS PC port, despite being more popular, wasn’t fully completed until the final week of December 1993 and didn’t hit store shelves till early ‘94.

Whereas the original Macintosh version is what actually came out in the fall of ‘93, so yeah! Whatever the version though, my goodness is it worthy of celebration, as even three decades later its impact on the city simulation genre can still be felt. SC2K was as proper a follow-up to SimCity as anyone could’ve wanted, improving nearly every part of the game and adding so many things that would become city sim staples. Things like water pipes, zone densities, city policies, buses and subways, terrain height, neighboring cities, virtual advisors, more utilities and buildings.

Not to mention the shift from top-down 2D to 3D isometric graphics! Or really, dimetric projection, a look directly inspired by the aesthetic of the 1992 game A-Train, which Maxis published in the US. SimCity 2000 was still rendered in 2D, of course, but this was the era of 68K and 486 CPUs and 4 to 8 megabytes of RAM. So you took what you could get, and I was more than happy with what I got! Going from SimCity to 2000 was huge, provided you had the hardware to handle it, at least.

With sluggish performance being a chief complaint on launch. Not to mention the graphics requirements, which brings me to my own experiences back then. Because after getting a copy and installing it on the family Packard Bell Legend PC? All I got was an error message and a DOS prompt. And I can’t express how devastated I felt as a 10-year-old kid, being prevented from running the one game in the world I most wanted to play. It was the harsh reality of system requirements in the 1990s. If you didn’t know your exact specs, you could easily end up with software that refused to function.

And y’all, I was utterly obsessed with SimCity 2000, well before I ever owned a copy. SimCity Classic was my favorite game, but as soon as I got to play 2000 at a friend’s house, running from CD-ROM on their shiny new Compaq desktop? I was hooked, there was nothing I wouldn’t do to spend more time there, begging to stay overnight, hogging the computer every moment I could. I absolutely had to have the game, it was the one thing I requested for Christmas, but until then? I ingested every single related magazine article and strategy guide at Barnes & Noble, ogling these exact screenshots over and over. Because if I couldn’t play the game, I could at least admire static images and commit each pixel to memory! That year I also decorated my own birthday cake, recreating the SimCity 2000 box art largely from memory in sugary dessert form for everyone to enjoy – but mostly myself. Even my halloween costume was a SimCity 2000 box, something I know I have a photo of somewhere and can’t find for the life of me.

But it was a cardboard box a bit larger than me, with head and arm holes, wrapped in white paper that I covered in hand-drawn SimCity 2000 artwork, right down to the marketing blurbs and system requirements. I was so sure my obsessive, heavy-handed hints would pay off by the holidays, and fully expected SimCity 2000 under the tree! But alas, Christmas morning came and went, everything was unwrapped... with no game to be found. Yeah I about broke down in tears on the hour-long drive to my grandparents’ place that afternoon. Grandparents who not only hadn’t witnessed my SimCity obsession, but didn’t even own a computer! Much less ever set foot in a computer software store, right? This was my thinking, all hope was lost.

Until I opened that one last present from them, a shiny big box copy of SimCity 2000 for MS-DOS! [chuckles] Decades later I still vividly recall that flabbergasted moment. And feeling more than a bit silly realizing my elders pulled a fast one on me, turning the Christmas of ‘96 into one of the best ever. [sigh!] Yeah... So then I got it home and the dang thing didn’t work! Unbelievable! And it all came down to those darned requirements, which did not mention VESA drivers. Heck I didn’t even know what those were – and I knew everything about computers, I was 10 years old! As for what happened next, we’ll get to that. For now though, let’s dive into the box, with largely the same contents for both Mac and PC.

First up is the Ultimate City Simulator itself on two 3.5” high density diskettes, followed by the product registration and the Maxis Maxims cards going over support details and warranty info. With the earliest releases also having this lovely letter on the back from lead developers, Fred Haslam and Will Wright, thanking original SimCity fans for barraging them with endless feedback and helping make SC2K the best game possible.

Which, if you know the story of its development, almost seems passive-aggressive. There’s a great section in the book “SimCity 2000 Strategies & Secrets” that goes into how Will Wright was sick of SimCity so it was initially left to SimEarth collaborator Fred Haslam to make it. But after nearly two years the project was kind of a mess, so Wright was brought on to help reel in feature creep and untangle the mess of code and countless ideas that were stalling its completion.

But yeah, next up there’s the Maxis Software Toys catalog, aka my own personal gift wishlist for every single birthday and Christmas in the 90s. And finally there’s the documentation, with a technical addendum specific to your hardware platform, and one of those delectable Maxis instruction manuals by Michael Bremer. I must’ve read this cover-to-cover a hundred times as a kid, probably while eating a 10 cent pack of ramen while my brother was chowing down on sticks of butter or something, true story. This 140-page tome not only went over each feature in admirable detail, but also went out of its way to help OG SimCity players settle into this new one.

Plus a section breaking down the finer details of the gameplay, with strategies and specifics of how the economy functions, balanced with the systems that govern them. A level of clarity I wish certain modern city sims still provided. It also brought back the bibliography of reference material related to city design, urban planning, and economics. And even a section of inspiring prose, artwork, and poetry for the budding virtual mayor. The epitome of old school Maxis! Finally, there was one more sheet of paper in the DOS release, summarizing the bane of my existence: SVGA VESA compatibility.

BEAUTY and THE BEAST, as it puts it. Yeah Maxis knew what was up, and the problems I was having were well-known indeed. To get 256-color Super VGA, it needs at least 512K of video memory, as well as a compatible VESA driver running alongside it. So I pulled apart my Packard Bell and found it had a Trident video chipset, something the SC2K installer didn’t properly detect.

Or maybe it did but didn’t fully work? Eh it’d either refuse to start or there was corruption or something, I don’t remember exactly what was wrong or what I did to fix it. I know it involved a TSR and a boot disk, but man. Either way, it eventually worked and I was over the moon, it was quite the accomplishment for me as a 10-year-old. Still didn’t have sound since my PC didn’t even have a sound card, but whatever, I played the dookie out of it regardless! Although that list of supported sound devices turned into a personal crusade to acquire and experience every single one of them, a crusade that’s still ongoing, there’s some darned obscure devices in there. As long as you have at least one of ‘em though, SimCity 2000 begins with a Maxis logo, followed by this whimsical animated splash screen and catchy theme song! [SimCity 2000 theme song plays] I’m using a Sound Blaster 16 and its FM synth for sound and music throughout this video, as it’s what I most associate with SC2K and it makes me happy, but yeah! Clicking brings up the main menu, with options to start and load a city, play a scenario, or enter the map editor.

-”Reticulating splines.” And it’s this reticulated editor you’ll likely wanna start with, if you’re looking to found your own city. Since editing terrain after you’ve begun playing racks up hefty fees, but doing it here is free. And it becomes immediately apparent just how much has changed from SimCity, strictly in terms of terrain! You’ve got 128x128 tiles filled with hills, valleys, bodies of salt and fresh water, and clumps of trees in varying densities.

Roughly 25 square miles to manipulate, either through generating via sliders or through individual terrain tools. Then once you’re satisfied, you get the familiar options of naming your city, and choosing difficulty and starting year, affecting not only the money you receive and available technology, but disaster likelihood along with financial and demand models. You’re then greeted with the city newspaper! Despite having no citizens, the fourth estate is already diligently doing their thing, complete with weather forecasts and random side stories. This becomes more useful later on, so let’s get some citizens moving in, which begins with the usual power, roads, and zones.

But also the addition of water pumps and pipes. So, power is still largely the same, with most plants themselves now lasting 50 years before wearing out. But there also are quite a bit more to choose from now, and even more as time goes on and technology improves, into the year 2000 and beyond. Next up are roads, now placeable by clicking and dragging instead of one tile at a time. They function the same on level terrain, but can also be placed on angled tiles, too.

You can also build tunnels through mountains, select from different bridges when building over water. And even place highways later on, which are always elevated above regular roads and connect via onramps. Then there are zones, which also get the click and drag treatment, able to be placed one tile at a time or in large swaths of tiles. It’s generally best to keep them six tiles deep connected to roads though, as any larger and citizens balk at moving in. Zones are also placeable in both light and dense flavors now, signifying low and high densities and determining how many citizens they’re able to contain.

And of course, the old RCI indicator returns, displaying the current demand for each of the main zone types. Finally, there’s water to deal with now, and although sims will move in without water and tolerate shortages, of course it’s best to provide all you can. It begins with water pumps, which must either be placed beside sources of fresh water, or along coastlines with a desalination plant to turn saltwater into fresh. And this brings us to the new underground view, showing gray pipes for buildings without water, darker blue pipes for those without water flowing through, and animated light blue pipes showing proper water flow. A main concern here is to get everything connected underneath roads, since water doesn’t flow beneath them unless you place individual pipes.

Same goes for power, you’ve gotta string up power lines leading from power plants to anything that needs it, unless it’s directly touching an already-powered building. Power and water do not flow through unpopulated zones. And yeah, that’s the basic simulation core! So long as power, transportation, and water exist, sims are willing to move into zoned land and live out life as they see fit. Though of course, what sims want increases in cost and complexity before long, and typically it begins with city services. Police and fire stations return as ploppable buildings, and now schools and hospitals have been elevated to ploppable status as well. And once you reach a population of 2000, you’re given the first of several rewards to construct, with the first being the mayor’s house! Which always got me excited as a kid, heck it still does.

[crowd cheers] Being able to place your own home, picking out the most prime real estate with the best view? Plus being able to rename the home to whatever you like, and place a personalized sign nearby and then city hall and all that. Yeah it’s a welcome bit of role playing, letting players form more of a personal connection to their creations. And while it can make you feel like an all-powerful overlord, you’re not alone in your decision-making.

There are the aforementioned newspapers, popping up with opinion pieces and surveys that take the place of the old SimCity evaluation window to generally state how you’re doing. As well as a panel of city advisors, with eight experts in their respective fields that you can summon to provide feedback on policy changes. With the notable standout being the transportation advisor from the transit authority, a bearded bespectacled man fond of speaking in all caps whenever you’ve crossed a line.

But yeah, these folks are especially useful for things like setting taxes, managing service coverage, and enacting specific city ordinances. Of which there are twenty that can be enacted or retracted at any given time, with immediate effects on your bottom line. An excellent addition, I love when simulations allow these types of deterrents and incentives. And by the time you’re getting into the nitty gritty of social policies and tax credits, chances are your city will have grown to the point of needing more advanced buildings and services.

Things like water towers and treatment plants to help deal with droughts and sewage, bus depots and train stations for mass transit above ground, along with all-new subway stations and tunnel systems, which are constructed underground alongside the city water system. There are also more institutions, like colleges, libraries, museums, and even prisons and military bases. Not to mention parks and entertainment buildings, including parks of different sizes, a zoo, a marina, and a sports stadium. With that last one even letting you pick from five different sports and personalizing the team name, with the default football team being the Llamas. Yeah! Maxis llama references began with this right here, along with buildings like the Braun Llama dome. For whatever reason llamas have remained the company mascot ever since.

And finally, airports and seaports make a return from SimCity, but this time in the form of specialized zones to be laid out in any size. And finally finally, there are Arcologies: huge special buildings exclusive to the SimCity series, beginning in SC2K. Arcos are intended as giant futuristic cities-in-a-building, along the lines of the megastructures seen in Blade Runner and Judge Dredd. They’re densely-packed, self-contained combinations of all three main zone types with their own traffic and police systems. And the Launch Arcos, well, they even launch into space. Arcos are very much late game stuff, and effectively act as a way to exceed the usual population limit and reach over 9 million citizens.

A rare feat indeed, heck when I was young I was happy to just surpass the population of neighboring cities. Which yeah, those are a thing too, functioning as unseen connections for industrial traffic and tourism. And when enabled, disasters can occur randomly as well, leaving you little choice but to clean up the mess. Fires, tornados, earthquakes, plane crashes, floods, power plant failures and the like are all here.

Along with the addition of riots and toxic clouds, and a new monster attack. Which earlier in development was going to be a giant robotic ant, but eventually became a weird sort of alien cyclops orb thing. Either way, Godzilla’s nowhere to be seen. Nor is the UFO that’s so prominently featured on the box art, which I always found a bit misleading. Anyway, if you have fire and police services, promptly dispatch them by placing these little first responder poles near the action until it stops. And if you either don’t have those services or you have a military base, then the National Guard can be sent out to clean things up instead.

All while the game’s mercurial music selection plays random tunes to set the tone, often a gloomy one. Regardless of your chosen sound device, the compositions are simple. Only a single drum kit and a few instruments, and it’s not afraid to let things rest between riffs or delve into melancholy.

[FM synth music examples] According to composers Brian Conrad and Sue Kasper, they were told to make it dark and moody, with a particular callout to Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” soundtrack as inspiration. It ended up a bit jazzier and more upbeat than that, but either way the music stands out among DOS games for its simplicity and restraint. The sound effects are rather timeless as well, with short PCM audio recordings doing just enough to get across the idea of what you’re interacting with. [various sound effects playing] And of course, who can forget that power line sound, recorded by Will Wright himself as a placeholder that worked so well they left it in the final game. [“ZzZT!”] A few other things of note before we move on: Scenarios for one thing! Gotta admit, it’s something I never spent much time with back in the day, other than to mess around with some nice Maxis-made cities.

But there were five available challenges, most of which were based on actual events and locations. Including the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm, the one where SimCity designer Will Wright sadly lost his house in real life, which I can imagine must’ve proven quite cathartic to play and rewrite history in virtual form. Another nifty feature is the ability to import saved city files from the original SimCity! Now, they don’t immediately function. Due to gameplay changes they’re missing things like height data, water pipes, zone density, and special buildings, but hey! It’s nice to see regardless. And of course, I gotta shout out some of those memorable easter eggs, like shooting down SimCopter 1 with the centering tool. -”SimCopter 1 reporting heavy traffic."

-"I'm hit! Mayday!” [chopper explodes] Also how if enough disasters happen under certain circumstances, it calls out Captain Hero, aka Maxis Man. Who then proceeds to fly around the city, rapidly eliminating fires and floods and things. Classic Maxis silliness, and they certainly didn’t stop there. 1994 brought the first expansion, and really the only one despite the title, which was SimCity 2000 Scenarios Volume 1: Great Disasters.

Featuring 10 scenarios to solve – some real, some fantasy. And I’ve always found this underwhelming as it doesn’t add anything new to the disaster menu, it’s still the standard eight. Instead these maps feature different spins on existing disasters, like the Portland Volcano scenario that raises terrain and spawns fire tiles as a stand-in for lava. The next add-on in ‘94 was more of a utility, known as SCURK. The SimCity Urban Renewal Kit.

Not so much “Robert Moses bulldozing communities to build highways,” but more a version of Deluxe Paint made for editing SC2’s graphics sets. Including lovely palette cycling options for animation and razor sharp pixel art drawing tools, it’s good stuff! It also provides over a hundred new buildings to use in-game, a lot like the old Graphics Packs, but more piecemeal and not always replacing all the art at once. You also get Place & Print mode, which I loved as a kid. It’s an unrestricted city painter sandbox, where you load existing cities or create all new ones using any of the in-game assets you please. And then of course you can print them out, something I admittedly abused back in the day, especially after we got a color printer.

Then in 1995, CD-ROM storage made it feasible to bundle everything together and release the SC2K CD Collection. Which included the base game with scenarios pack and renewal kit, along with a folder of new cities and scenarios to mess around with and fill up some space. And 1996 brought about the ultimate version of the ultimate city sim: SimCity 2000 Special Edition! Which came in this shiny silver box and included everything from the CD Collection, plus even more graphics sets and something called WillTV.

Which is a simple video player where you can choose from several full motion video clips of an interview with SimCity creator, Will Wright. This was the first time I’d seen a game with behind-the-scenes commentary, plus simply watching real video on a PC at all was captivating, so I played these over and over while visiting my CD-ROM equipped friends. Also, that FMV intro? Absolutely top-notch, and the first appearance of Jerry Martin’s musical chops in a SimCity game. [inspiring Martin music plays] [UFO noisily zooms past] SimCity 2000 naturally went far beyond Mac and DOS as well, and 1994 was full of computer conversions, beginning with the obvious port to Windows 3.1 early that year. Followed by the Commodore Amiga AGA and Acorn Risc OS ports in the UK and Europe, as well as FM Towns and NEC PC-98 versions in Japan. Proceeding into 1995 were the first console ports, with Super Nintendo and Sega Saturn versions showing up that year, both with their own fascinating changes in graphics, control schemes, and content for each system.

I gotta say, those Saturn FMV sequences are pretty sweet, I love that era of pre-rendered 3D cutscenes. 1996 brought about a rather obscure release in the port to IBM OS/2 Warp, as well as the highly successful Sony PlayStation version. The latter of which is famous for its exclusive 3D driving mode, allowing players to take the wheel of a vehicle and navigate their cities from a first-person perspective. Taking a car to the streets of SimCity huh? What a swell idea.

I’ve also gotta mention the Japanese Nintendo 64 version and GameBoy Advance port, from 1998 and 2003, respectively. The GBA one simply 'cuz it was nuts to see SimCity on a handheld back then. And the N64 due to its unique features.

Like dating and horse racing mini-games, creature breeding and giant monster battles, and a multi-arc sci-fi storyline. Things didn’t stop there either, SimCity 2000 was a proven cash cow and Maxis had every reason to milk that sucker with a few spin-offs. Like SimCity 2000 Network Edition in 1996, a variant of the Windows 95 port with added multiplayer letting up to 4 mayors manage their own sections of a city simultaneously. Followed by SimCopter later in 1996 and Streets of SimCity in 1997. Each using a new engine that let players fly and drive around SimCity 2000 save files in 3D, expanding on what was introduced on PS1 and allowing for all kinds of driving and flying shenanigans. Without debate, these games were highly flawed.

But it’s stupidly fun doing missions, engaging in combat, and causing chaos within cities that you made yourself. And there were even third party expansions, of a sort! Like Megametro and S!Zone, which were less expansions and more so collections of tools, graphics, and savegames downloaded from the fledgling internet. As for Maxis, well after several years of SimCity 2000 ports and spin-offs, they sought to move on. The sequel, SimCity 3000, was on the horizon, planned for a Christmas 1997 release. Now with a true 3D engine and fully 3D cities, where you could zoom down to street level and see individual sims walking around and... that’s something that of course never happened in that form, a story for another day indeed.

But yeah, SimCity 2000 continued to and continues to have a lasting legacy of excellence, a proper refinement of the formula for an entire genre. A bit like how Wolfenstein 3D established the bones of the first person shooter, whereas Doom properly solidified the formula. SC2K did the same for city builders, introducing a look, feel, and feature set that was mimicked and copied endlessly. It instilled in me early on everything that a game sequel should ideally be. Making no compromise to what made the original great, taking every chance to augment the parts that needed it, while all the stuff that worked before is either tastefully enhanced or left alone. And for as many features were added in later sequels, I find SimCity 2000 truly hits a sweet spot of manageability and complexity.

Revisiting it is refreshing after having put so many hours into newer city builders, with their countless interconnected systems, convoluted economies, and so many expansions and DLC packs that you need a spreadsheet to keep it all straight. Not saying complexity is bad, obviously the sequels of 3000 and 4 proved there was still much more to add. But at the same time SC2K doesn’t need any of it to provide hours of fun. Even thirty years later.

[PS1 mix of SC2K theme plays] And if you were half as crazy about the game as I was back then, leave a comment elaborating, or any other SimCity-related memories you care to share. And do stick around if you liked this video, there are always new things in the works here on LGR. And of course, thank you for watching!

2023-11-21 10:00

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