Imagine a future in which the population of the human race reside in huge Arcologies – integrated cities contained within massive vertical structures so as to conserve as much as the surrounding landscape as possible. Imagine then “the exodus” in which three hundred of these Arcologies launches into outer space in the years following 2051, so that their inhabitants can form new civilisations on distant worlds alien to our own.
This isn’t the plot of James Blish’s classic science fiction quartet Cities in Flight – in which entire cities launch themselves into space to escape an oppressive world regime – but the “victory sequence” of SimCity 2000 the 1994 sequel to the earlier Maxis classic Sim City. Though not an end game sequence in itself – the construction cost of the Arcologies returns to your coffers and allows you to rebuild the city anew, it was chosen as the ultimate reward for the player in perhaps the greatest city building simulation ever made.
The original game, designed by Will Wright, a designer with an interest in urban planning, was originally made in 1985 for the Commodore 64, but wasn’t released until 1989, when it was published as one of the launch titles for Maxis. Wright included a number of scenarios which sought to highlight Wright’s advocacy of mass transit and his criticisms of nuclear power. The Five Mile Island Disaster still fresh in the memory, Wright included a scenario in which the player had to rebuild Boston following a nuclear meltdown, as well as one in which the player has to introduce a mass transit system to Bern, the capital of Switzerland.
Maxis had launched a slew of Sim titles in the late 1980s and early 1990s in an effort to replicate the success of SimCity – SimFarm, SimAnt, SimFarm, SimEarth and even SimHealth, a management simulation of the US Healthcare system release to coincide with the debates on the Bill Clinton Healthcare Plan. SimEarth concluded in a similar method, with the Earth’s cities moved into rocket-propelled domes that leave to find new worlds, leaving an empty planet behind. But nothing had equalled the success of SimCity, which sold more than a million copies, and years later, would be inducted into the Library of Congress as culturally significant following a campaign by The New York Times.
The cover art to the original release of SimCity is a quirky design, highlighting the fact that you are a God, sitting in front of an elaborate and quirky city building machine, of which the cover art is the interface. In a style akin to the eccentric machine designs of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, the population dial can be turned, the disaster buttons can be pressed, and the energy levels can be monitored. On the view finder is your city, being ravaged by a tornado, giving you a hint of the challenges that await you once you’ve loaded up the floppies.
A sequel was oft-demanded, and five years later Maxis obliged SimCity took the original title and updated it to reflect advances made by other godsims such as Bullfrog’s Populous, which utilised an isometric view. New features included wastepipes and subways, prisons, schools, libraries, museums, marinas, hospitals, and the aforementioned Arcologies. Players could also create highways, roads and railways, and zone areas for airports and seaports, chose different modes of power generation (once it is invented), and also connect to neighbouring cities to improve links. They also have greater access to budget and finance controls. And again, Maxis included recreations of real life events, including the Oakland firestorm of 1991, the 1993 Great Flood of Davenport, Iowa, the 1989 Hurricane Hugo in Charleston South Carolina and the 1970s economic recession in Flint, Michigan, and also fictional events, such as an alien monster destroying Hollywood.
Coverage on life in your city was provided to you in the form of pre-written newspapers, including relevant stories about new technology, your aging power infrastructure, local disasters, opinion polls that highlighted problems with your city management, and joke headlines advertising bald radios and frog conventions. This feature is unique to SimCity 2000, and isn’t included in the sequels, replaced by an inferior news ticker. Another unique feature was the manual, which was filled with essays on the concept of a “city” and basically acted as a Will Wright style treatise on urban planning.
Though Maxis didn’t provide a specific depiction of the event in its box art of the game, the artwork hints towards a utopian future city scape of gleaming towers spanning a riverside. And in a corner, an indicator towards the possible otherworldly future of our planet when we immediately discover that interstellar travel is possible, or that we are not alone in the universe. Maxis had a very business-like style to their later game boxes, and SimCity 2000 is the best (the re-release of SimCity, on the other hand, is dull).
Much like its predecessor, SimCity 2000 was lauded on its release, and sold into the millions, and is consistently placed in “Best Games of all Time Lists”, most recently at 13th in Time’s “50 Best Video Games.” It is one of 21 games on permanent display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, alongside another Maxis classic The Sims. What still makes it the best title in the SimCity series is that it struck just the right balance of difficulty and complexity, something that was lost in subsequent games that increased the realism. The game would teach you how to play the game through prompts, and your advisors would give you advice, but the smaller mechanics never overwhelmed you. Often, a little abstraction, in the case of the fabled city on the box, makes for a better gaming experience.