SimCity: One Game, Served Four Different Ways

Last week I looked at Quake, a first-person, shoot ’em up game from id Software that despite being eight years old remains one of the most popular games in its genre. This week’s offering is a very different game: SimCity. Though it doesn’t give the player the same adrenaline rush in dealing with a chainsaw-wielding ogre with nothing more than a shotgun and an axe, SimCity is still a remarkably addictive and compelling game. Like Quake, SimCity has a long history and is available in a succession of versions, all four of which are still being played.

Though the gap between the release of SimCity in 1989 and the latest version of the game this year, SimCity 4, spans fifteen years, the basic gameplay has remained surprisingly consistent. The job of the player is to create an economically viable city by developing the right balance of residential, commercial and industrial zones each of which interacts with the others by producing labour, revenue, pollution, crime and so on. Choices the player makes for things like the location of police stations or funding of public transportation have subtle, long-term effects that can help or hinder growth of the city, and most importantly, inefficient distribution of resources quickly drains the city’s bank account. Spicing up the game are rewards, typically something for the ego like a statue or a mayoral mansion house, and there are occasional disasters like fires and alien attacks to keep the player from getting too complacent. What has changed with each new version of the game is the graphics, with the cities becoming steadily more realistic, complex, and active.

Though the original was fairly plain and looked rather like a map, the next version, SimCity 2000 supplied plenty of eye-candy. The view changed from a top-down two-dimensional view to an isometric three-dimensional view (which was then revolutionary, but now familiar to us in games as disparate as Civilization and Diablo). SimCity 2000 portrayed the city as bustling metropolis, albeit a cartoon-like one, with movies playing at drive-ins, animated aeroplanes, trains and sailboats, even stoplights at junctions.

Screenshot: SimCity 2000
Although cartoon-like and limited to 256 colours, cities produced with SimCity 2000 can be amazingly rich and satisfying.
Screenshot: SimCity 2000 zoom in

As Quake was open enough for mappers to create new adventures, so SimCity 2000 allowed players with artistic talent to design extra buildings to place in their cities, using a special add-on called the SimCity Urban Renewal Kit, or SCURK. Some of these could be across the board modifications of the existing building sets, called tile sets, so that your city could include not generic American buildings but ones from Rome or London. Other people handcrafted landmark buildings like the Sears Tower, Chinese pagodas or European palaces. These typically replaced SimCity 2000’s built-in “arcologies”, strange super-buildings incorporating homes, offices, shops and factories and awarded to successful mayors able to guide their cities to a certain level of prosperity. Mac and Windows versions of SimCity 2000 can still be found in discount software retailers (a hybrid CD edition including the SCURK retails in the UK for about £12), and a version even exists for palmtop computers.

Screenshot: New York
SCURK artwork by Stephen McGlen replaces the arcologies with well-known New York City landmarks, including the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. This tile set, among others, can be downloaded from David Fairhurst’s Mac-specific SimCity 2000 website.

Bustling as it was, SimCity 2000 lacked a citizenry, something that SimCity 3000 included. Now people could be seen walking the streets, and cars travelled the roads not simply to show congestion but following their actual routes between home and workplace. SimCity 3000 also raised the bar graphically, introducing realistic buildings with fronts, backs, and sides (in SimCity 2000 a building had only a single view, regardless of the orientation of the city). Here’s a great example of this, Apple’s own corporate headquarters in Cupertino. SimCity 3000 was released for the Mac in 1997, but it’s been kept fresh with the release of new buildings and editors (“SimCity Unlimited”), and this is the version that can still be picked up in games retailers and software stores. Unlike SimCity 2000, which was tremendously popular on the Mac, SimCity 3000 wasn’t so successful not because it was a bad game but because it was slow, slow, slow. To run well it needed a very fast computer with a decent graphics chip, and so inevitably users of the iMacs popular at the time just didn’t get good performance.

SimCity Comes to OS X

The latest version of the game expands the game in one important way; the player works within a region, and can connect as many cities together as he wants. Neighbouring cities can exchange goods and services, or smaller residential cities can supply the labour for larger, more industrial or commercial ones. But the player still works on one city at a time, doing the same sort of thing as before. Of course the graphics are even better, and now you can import Sims from the popular “The Sims” game and check on how they do in your metropolis. More than ever before, your city really looks alive, with activity going on everywhere you look.

Although a bigger and more complex game than SimCity 3000, performance isn’t bad at all, provided you have a fast computer. After correcting for an error in a configuration file, on my 1 GHz Titanium PowerBook the game is pretty sprightly for the most part. The error was with a file entitled “Video Cards.sgr” included the following line:

card 0x4966 “Radeon 9000 Pro”

Which needed to be changed to this:

card 0x4c66 “Radeon 9000 Pro”

The difference this made was astounding. Before, the game was almost unplayable even with the eye-candy turned right down, presumably because it wasn’t using the Radeon 9000 Pro chip in the right way. With this correction, the the city simulation runs reasonably quickly assuming there isn’t anything else sharing the processor (it’s probably best to quit other applications before playing, and certainly processor hogs like Microsoft Word). Starting the game and quitting it when you’re done are pretty laborious though, and just saving your city can take a minute, and since the game operates in full-screen mode only, you can’t Command-tab to another application to check your e-mail or whatever. Anyway, full credit to the tech support staff at Aspyr for setting me right within twenty-four hours of e-mailing them, but it’s still a shame this bug crept onto the CD-ROM.

Screenshot: SimCity 4 at night
Your city becomes especially attractive at night.

Gameplay is engrossing, and if you’ve got some experience of these sorts of city-building games it is surprisingly simple to get the hang of. The visual and sound effects are lovely, from the clouds drifting over your metropolis through to the cars, trucks and buses shuttling along the thoroughfares. The transitions between day and night are especially nice: school buses drop off the kids at home or school, car headlights and street lamps switch on and off, and people in their houses turn the lights of and go to bed at night time. There are some negatives, though. The game requires a lot of computing horsepower to work well, and even on a fast machine some actions like redrawing the screen or saving the city take time. There isn’t much in-game help, and the supplied manual is woefully thin (the SimCity 2000 manual was practically a hundred page book on city management including essays about real cities, not just the ones in the game). So total freshman to this sort of game are likely to find things a bit perplexing at first. Finally, this is a game that needs the CD-ROM to be left in the computer, something anyone hoping to play this game on his or her laptop while travelling is going to be disappointed about. Nothing drains a battery quite so fast as constantly spinning CD drive.

Screenshot: SimCity 4 layout
In its latest version, the simulation is strikingly realistic, if your computer has the horsepower to run it.

Appealing to Mayor Daley in All of Us

SimCity is unquestionably the definitive micro-management strategy game. There are others that have a similar gameplay but change the context in some way. I happen to like Caesar 3, which has some of the niftiest graphics of any city building game despite rather modest system requirements by modern standards. As with the later versions of SimCity, there are people walking around the cities you build in Caesar 3. These people do jobs, and follow more or less efficient routes between home and work depending on how well you design your city. Unlike SimCity, each of these people is a “mini-Sim” of sorts, meaning you can click on them and they will tell you something about how happy they are, what problems the city has, or what resources they feel you need to supply. Even compared with SimCity 4, Caesar 3 remains a top-notch game with lovely sound effects and graphics, despite being several years old. It is even more fun to play if you know a little Roman history and can appreciate the subtlety and research that went into the game’s design. Oddly, the Mac version was not a great commercial success, and though Sierra Studio’s later historical city building game, Pharaoh, was promoted as coming to the Mac platform, it never made it. Extending the micro-management idea beyond running a city are games as diverse as Tropico and Black and White. As with SimCity, choices need to be made in the allocation of resources, the effects of which influence the outcome sometimes subtly, other times dramatically. At the other end of the spectrum, The Sims focuses these decisions on characters, rather than a city or nation, in a remarkably voyeuristic sort of way.

These sorts of games are often described as allowing the player a god-like role, and perhaps that is one reason they are so popular. Perhaps as our lives become increasingly controlled by people we never meet or didn’t vote for, who choose the music made available on local radio stations through to the brands of soda sold in schools or on university campuses, computer games allow us to vent some of our frustration at our loss of personal power. At any rate simulation games remain stalwarts of the gaming industry, appealing as much to hardcore gamers as to those who don’t normally play computer games beyond solitaire or minesweeper. Though SimCity 4 has its flaws, it is a good game for all that, and if you have a fast Mac well worth a look. Earlier versions of SimCity are perhaps less intricate, but are just as much fun to play. SimCity 2000 would be one of my picks for permanent residency on the hard disk of any laptop, running just as well on a PowerBook 180 as on an iBook, and a great timewaster for those interminable hours spent in airport departure lounges.

  • Product: SimCity 2000
  • OS X: No
  • Classic: Yes
  • Publisher: Maxis
  • Category: Game
  • Price: Windows version around $5-15, Mac version discontinued
  • Product: SimCity 4
  • OS X: Yes
  • Classic: No
  • Publisher: Aspyr
  • URL:
  • Buy it at Amazon
  • Category: Game
  • Price: $50
  • Requirements: OS X Jaguar, fast G3 or G4, 32 MB or better graphics card

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