Coasting on Nostalgia

Rollercoaster Tycoon (RCT) was that game,  the one I just couldn’t get my hands on as a kid. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t secure my own copy. Our public library had one. I put myself on the waiting list to take it out, and never got the call. It was unattainable, ridiculously tricky to track down, and coveted unlike any other game I had previously experienced.

I was just getting into the world of gaming when it was released, finally becoming coordinated enough that games had transitioned from impossibly frustrating to a satisfying challenge. Looking back it’s hard to pinpoint if there was anything particularly special about RCT that caught my eye, or if it was just in the right place at the right time. Quite possibly, much of it’s appeal was because it was impossible to get. To be fair, I was eight years old when RCT was released. My criteria for game appeal was probably something along the lines of ‘this has bright colours and doesn't involve math.’ Let’s just say I was an easy sell.

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RCT was the game I played on my friends computers in their basements during sleepovers. Never playing long enough to truly be satisfied with my progress, always wanting just a little bit more. I vividly remember the first time I watched, awestruck, as a friend loaded up his park and demonstrated what would happen if he removed a piece of track in just the right place, at  just the right time, catapulting a car loaded with little pixel people off into catastrophic oblivion. The carnage was incredible. Then he showed me how to pick up individual people and drop them in the lake. Suffice it to say, I had never before wanted to own a video game so badly. And no, that desire wasn’t  just for the carnage. I wanted to be able to actually set up and grow my park a little bit. To be able to save it and come back to it day after day when school let out. Sure, being able to be the unstoppable lord of destruction has it’s appeal, but I craved real ownership over my theme park. I wanted it to be saved and safe when I was away, not left behind on a friends computer for them to take over once I left. Or simply closed, without saving, lost forever to everything except my fragile eight year old memory.

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I was nearing the end of high school before I got my own copy.  By then much of the glamour had already faded, but regardless I put a significant amount of time into RCT. Maybe it was an attempt to cling to my childhood a bit longer, maybe it was just a great time killer – probably  a combination of the two. Either way, my life moved forward and RCT didn’t hang on for the ride. I’d all but forgotten about it until the summer of 2015 when Planet Coaster was announced.  I was flooded with so much nostalgia that I knew I had very little chance at resisting it. This game got me right in the childhood. And as a responsible grown-up with my own income, and full control over how I used it, nothing was going to stop me from getting my hands on it. Not this time.

Planter Coaster images via Frontier Developments

Planter Coaster images via Frontier Developments

I did wait though, because I’m a sucker for a sale, and thanks to steam there was no risk of it selling out or disappearing off the market. Again,  as a responsible adult with full control over how I spend my income, waiting to save $20 gave me a feigned sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility effectively overruled the guilt of buying a time-killer game, whose  main appeal is that it was everything I wanted as a kid. No regrets.

Planet Coaster, for the most part, is exactly the game I hoped it would be. I lost hours desperately trying to make a few more dollars, so I could buy a new cool ride and upgrade my park. All things considered it’s an excellent game, and I can really only come up with one complaint about it. Despite an amazing trailer that shows a roller coaster car flying headlong into a massive line of unsuspecting pixel people – vacantly eating their cotton candy, and completely oblivious to the fate that awaits them at the hands of a rogue coaster car – you can’t actually murder your park goers indiscriminately like in the classic RCT. Removing a section of track puts your coaster into ‘test mode’ where the passengers are replaced with crash test dummies. The cars still fly off into oblivion, but then blink out of existence long before doing any harm to other patrons.  Meanwhile the park guests merrily go about their business, secure it knowing their existence is safe from any park related mishaps – intentional or otherwise.

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This does take a bit of the magic away, I have to admit. As horrible as it makes me sound. I’ve had a lot of fun with Planet Coaster, and I don’t see myself losing speed on it any time soon, but if I’m being perfectly honest, it’s missing out on one of the elements that made RCT so unique. These games can be incredibly frustrating.  When you’re just sitting there staring at your park profits, and crossing your fingers in hopes that nothing breaks down before you accumulate enough money to progress, sometimes you need to blow off some steam. I imagine the decision to remove the carnage was made to make the game more accessible to kids and less violent. A standpoint I both completely understand, but  don’t necessarily completely agree with. After all, we made our murder parks when we were kids, and for the most part I think we turned out okay. RCT made it’s mark because it was something completely different than the games that came before it, and part of that was the freedom of destruction.

Rollercoaster Tycoon images via RCT Wikia and NEDesigns

Rollercoaster Tycoon images via RCT Wikia and NEDesigns

Comparatively, Planet Coaster is a game that has been made very safe. It’s new, modern interface does wonders for the overall enjoyability of the game. It boasts an amazingly catchy and thematic soundtrack. The modding community and additional  Steam downloads make the possibilities almost endless. But, it isn’t different in the way that RCT was different for it’s time. It’s kind of just, more of the same, but in a modern package and without some of the bells and whistles that made RCT daring. It’s execution as a game is just as protected as the visitors to your park. It’s an excellent game, don’t get me wrong,  but it doesn’t take any risks, and risks – with subsequent consequences – are what made RCT stand out from the crowd. For a game that’s so steeped in nostalgia, it’s a bit of a shame to see it stray from the things that really made RCT one of the most fundamental games of my childhood.

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Planet Coaster ends up feeling a bit too safe, like everything is padded to protect you and your park from harm. I don’t know about you, but for me some of the best stories from when I was a kid come with scrapes and bruises and scars. Every mark is a lesson that’s much harder to forget, and I’m grateful that I got to tromp through my younger years with scabby knees and scraped elbows. These are the sorts of experiences we really learn from, ones that have real consequences and measurable outcomes. RCT was unique because it pushed limits, it stretched outside of the narrow box of the simulation games that came before it, and that’s what really defined it as a groundbreaking game. Planet Coaster, for all it’s nostalgia points, missed the underlying message of RCT:  that some boundaries need to be pushed in order to create something original. It’s not going to kill you to run a bit too fast, and end up with a few bruises.  However, it’s impossible to really discover our own limits if we don’t give it a try.

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