Bullfrog Productions’ and Electronic Arts‘ quirky management sim Theme Park remains a unique experience for anyone who wants to have a look behind the business scenes.
Theme Park (PC)
(UK 1994, developer: Bullfrog Productions (now defunct), publisher: Electronic Arts, platforms: PC, Amiga, 3DO, Mega Drive, Mega CD, Amiga CD32, Atari Jaguar, FM Towns, Sega Saturn, PS1, Super NES, Nintendo DS, iOS)
Building a theme park and pleasing visitors becomes hard business.
Nostalgic trips to theme parks
Anyone who has gone to various theme parks knows the feeling of what it means to get excited about the newest thrill or family rides, music in the air, and all sorts of beautiful scenery elements like flowers or fountains, everything adding to an unforgettable experience, especially for a child. But one might also remember the long waiting queues, litter on the ground, and even feeling sick after some fast roller coaster rides. Bad and overpriced fast food as well as countless souvenir shops might make you wonder if the price of admission was really justified, especially since it had increased each year and many attractions had to be closed due to renovations or repairs.
The reality of managing a theme park
All of these experiences are what makes Theme Park such a unique and personal game, for better or for worse. For the first time, one is able to see the inner workings of the business, because at its core, the game is a tough-as-nails simulation in which money rules and visitors are both a blessing when spending money or a curse when they’re not satisfied, which happens almost 100% of the time. Keeping customers happy becomes top priority, and the only way to achieve this is to offer lots of new attractions, food and drink as well as souvenir shops, while taking care of the cleanliness and safety of the park. Attractions have to be researched, staff for cleaning trash or toilets have to be hired. This also holds true for mechanics who might sit around eating their lunch boxes, but who are essential for repairing rides, while entertainers are also good for keeping up customers happiness in waiting queues.
As everything costs money, it becomes extremely difficult to find the right balance between buying new things or hiring people and keeping the park profitable. Despite looking and sounding like a cute cartoon, this is anything but an easy game. Running out of money and having unhappy customers becomes more common than one would expect. Even on the lowest difficulty level, one soon runs into money trouble, which is a shame, because it’s highly motivating to unlock the next big ride, build it, and watch people have fun on it. There is always something to do, and if one feels like a real business man or woman, it’s possible to crank up the difficulty even more by introducing competitive parks that can buy out one’s own if one isn’t careful enough. Investing in research can only be done on the intermediate level, as it works automatically (and slowly) on the beginner level. If it’s not already stressful enough to keep an eye on individual customer needs, broken rides, and revenues dropping, then one can turn on a simulation mode in which one has to buy and distribute stock for each food and drink store.
Funny and difficult
The mix of building and business simulation is as frustrating as it is fun. Despite being very much about economics, there’s always that special sense of British humor which makes it different from duller management sims. Building a food store close to the exit of a fast ride might not be the best idea, as one will soon hear the sounds of endless vomiting and actually see the human mess on the walks. Sometimes customers lie there unconscious because of rowdies having beaten them up, so hiring security personnel might be a good idea. But one has to be careful about managing staff, because there are regular negotiations about their monthly payments that are visualized by two hands reaching out in a tight time limit. If one doesn’t agree on the worker union’s terms, one will soon have a park with staff on strike, which results in a dirty and unsafe environment.
The customer is always right and annoying
As in real theme park life, customers can be rather picky and become very annoyed if there are too many things to their dislike. Watching them closely and analyzing their thought bubbles either on site or in statistics reveals what they like and what they want. Usually it’s about the selection and quality of food and drinks, but it can also be prices or waiting times they’re not happy with. Even if there’s an advisor who notifies the player when something is amiss, one is often at a loss how to improve the situation when one either doesn’t have enough money or the means to build something better. The short tutorial only introduces the basics, but most of the time one has to figure out how to solve problems, as the advisor doesn’t give many clues. Fortunately, one doesn’t only have to rely on entry fees or customers paying for food, drinks, and souvenirs, as at the end of each fiscal year, one can also receive rewards in the form of prize money, e.g. for the cleanest or safest park.
Building rides or fair attractions is rather simple if one plans in advance how much space they require and where to connect the entrances and exits with their respective waiting and sidewalk paths. Rollercoasters need a bit more hands-on fiddling with tracks, but one doesn’t need much creativity to keep them running. One can also adjust how fast each ride goes (which also has a negative effect on safety and durability). While some visitors wish for more excitement, others can become sick, especially if a burger stall is close to the exit, turning the path into a lane of vomit that has to be cleaned up constantly (or the ride/stall placed somewhere else). One can also use decoration elements like flowers, trees, fountains, and even lakes to boost up the park’s prettiness and reputation, although installing toilets (and upgrading them later on) is more important.
… and optimizing
Adjusting the amount of sugar, salt, and fat or caffeine in order to make customers more active, thirstier, or less tired is all part of a business plan, so that a hamburger or fries store might lead a customer next to a drinks stand or prevent them to leave the park too soon. A handyman has to be on site when it comes to clean up the mess, but it’s here where the game’s controls make the player realize that not everything works as planned. Picking up staff and letting them fall on the path they should go to or rides to repair is an exercise in patience, because the controls are so fiddly and the AI isn’t particularly bright. One has to click on the exact spot in order to make a handyman clean a path, as a few pixels away, he’s more likely to mow the lawn or often just gets stuck somewhere else in the park. Setting a patrol route is even more cumbersome, as one can only do this step by step (or pixel quadrant by pixel quadrant). Pausing the game and selecting the route isn’t possible, which is also true for building and taking care of park business.
Fortunately, one can decrease or increase the game’s speed, so that if things start to get too stressful (and they certainly will with bigger parks that become very difficult to manage) or too slow (like waiting for the next research goal), one can adjust it accordingly. However, setting routes, building paths, etc. remains frustrating, as it happens way too often that paths are set too soon and have to be erased. Quite a few system crashes are also annoying, even with the help of GOG and DOSBox settings.
Cartoon looks and childish sounds
Despite being over 30 years old, the pixel graphics are still very nice to look at, which is mainly because of the fun cartoon animations, detailed buildings, and generally great artwork, which can be seen with the over-sized heads of the guests. Sound effects and music fit the theme park setting, too, with each ride having its own soundtrack and the ambient visitors’ murmuring, laughing, and screaming effects adding to the atmosphere. However, listening to constant vomiting sounds makes one turn off the effects (or fix the problem in the park). The various CGI video sequences have obviously not aged well, but they’re still fun to watch, including a promo intro and a few on-ride scenes for the attractions, evoking feelings of nostalgia, but also having a humorous touch in each one of them.
A classic exercise in nostalgic loving and despairing
Theme Park is an easy game to love when it comes to its presentation that bursts with a cartoon and humorous charm. However, underneath it all is a very difficult business simulation that is often let down by some control issues. The lack of missions and therefore specific goals might put some people off, too. Still, if one wants to experience what it’s like to build and (more difficult) manage a theme park, there’s no better game than this, especially since its graphics are still lovely to look at today.
Buy the digital version for PC on