SimCity (SNES)

One of the games that Stian challenged me to play was the classic city builder SimCity. Except, not the version of the game that I was familiar with. In an act of heresy, he asked me to play this PC gaming masterpiece on the Super Nintendo. Whether or not our friendship will survive this affront remains to be seen.

SimCity is a game that warrants little introduction. It’s a simulation game by luminary developer Will Wright in which you become the immortal mayor of a city. You start out with a stretch of lush, unsettled lands, which you are encouraged to transform into a bustling metropolis. Don’t worry, it’s easier than it might sound.

Rather than plotting down each individual building, you put down entire blocks that designate an area as being for industry, commerce, or residential purposes. Citizens then move into your city and construct everything themselves. This is affected by some factors, like how appealing a certain district is. Nobody wants to live right next to the power plant, but they also don’t want to live somewhere if it doesn’t get electricity. The picky bastards.

You expand your city as you place down more and more zones, which will eventually force you to cope with some bigger problems. It may sound convenient that the people will handle construction for you, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that being a mayor is a cozy job. You’ll have to sort out issues like traffic, pollution, crime, things catching on fire, or the occasional giant monster attack. And people will complain endlessly if you falter in any of these regards.

This is where the game gets difficult, because solving some of these issues takes a lot of figuring things out. Traffic. for example, congregates around places that people want to get to. An attraction like a stadium, for example, or from people’s houses to the places where they work. People absolutely hate getting into traffic jams, so they want more roads or public transport. This sounds logical, yet it doesn’t always feel that way. As an experiment, I at one point made a little enclave of housing districts connected to the inner city via a railroad. The thinking being that people could step out of their houses and hop straight unto the train to the big city. Instead, this little zone became a traffic hell as people drove in circles endlessly for no apparent purpose.

Crime is similarly opaque. It grows worse the denser certain areas are populated, but you can’t really do much about it short of putting down more and more police stations. One zone was packed with 3 fully-funded stations and still kept generating notifications that crime was out of control. It feels like the systems at play here are still a little too rudimentary to make the management aspect fully satisfying.

To top it off, you make incredibly little money. Your tax rate is very low and services eat up a bunch of revenue, leaving you a tiny bit of income that pays out only once a year. Once you burn through your starting funds, the game turns into a waiting game where you just sit around doing nothing. Just waiting for the years to pass so you can get enough enough money to make the next few changes. You keep getting alerts about crime or traffic, but you literally don’t have the money to deal with it. That gets annoying fast.

Still, those same issues applied to the home computer versions of the game as well. And while it can be frustrating, it is also very rewarding when you do sort it out. The buildings in your city will gradually improve as you sort out these problems and make your city more appealing. Residential districts fill up with little houses that eventually turn into fancy apartments. As the residents become more plentiful and wealthy, local shops turn into entire malls. It’s nice getting to see your city evolve like that. It makes the place look diverse and alive, while also giving you a visual indication of what zones are thriving and which ones may need extra work.

This is also the biggest strength of this port in particular. The Super Nintendo version matches the DOS and Atari ST releases in terms of graphics. It’s a colorful game with detailed art and a great atmosphere. I’d even go so far as to argue that the icons on the Super Nintendo are nicer than in any of the other versions I have played.

This version goes all-in on the cartoon appeal as well. The game now has a mascot in the form of Dr. Wright, who helps you out by providing advice throughout the game. Dr. Wright also stars prominently in the manual, which is now laced with jokes and weird stories. They even open up by encouraging you to use disasters to torment your citizens. Talk about knowing your audience. I also like what they did with the alerts and other notifications. These used to be dry pop-up messages, but now come with silly animations to liven them up.

All this visual splendor does come at a cost. While the game looks nice, it runs sluggishly at the best of times. The regular simulation itself is fine, but opening any of the menus takes seconds to process every single time. This is an issue, because navigating menus is a big part of the game. You are constantly browsing through graphs to monitor how your city is running or going into menus to make adjustments. On DOS, this is a almost instantaneous. On Super Nintendo, it feels like I really am getting this information send to me via fax.

You even see this problem in the map selection. The game has an impressive 1000 maps to picks from, but I usually just end up selecting one at random. It takes several seconds for each new entry to load, which makes the notion of scrolling through hundreds of them insane to even consider. If you don’t want to try your luck picking a map at random, then the manual does have a few recommendations in the back. Sure must have sucked if you lost that manual back in the day though.

Nevertheless, I am very amazed with the effort on display here. They really took a classic PC game and got it working on a 16-bit console. This port is far better than I had anticipated and it has enough added charm that I’d recommend it over some of the other versions. It is on par with the DOS and Atari ST releases in my book. Having Bowser destroy your cities earns the SNES port extra points, but you will have to decide for yourself if that is enough to balance out the dip in performance.

Good news for you Stian. You’re playing Yuppie Psycho next.

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