At the age of 6, a friend introduced me to a 2D game about creating roller coasters, building rides, and setting ridiculous bathroom prices. It was Rollercoaster Tycoon, the first entry in a franchise that defined the PC-sim genre in the early 2000s.
Created by Chris Sawyer and published by Hasbro Interactive in 1999, Roller Coaster Tycoon (abbreviated to RCT) was one of the first games to tackle theme park simulation. Players were given the keys to several small 2D fun-parks with the goal of revamping them into behemoth theme parks featuring stomach turning roller coasters that the players designed. On top of designing the rides, players had to hire staff, build bathrooms, and even set admission prices. The game was a hit and RCT’s pixelated shortcut became a staple on countless Windows 2000 desktops. Sawyer’s game focused on the primal enjoyment people get out of creating something from scratch. Sawyer himself said it best when he explained why the game was a hit in a 2000 interview with Computer Games Magazine.
I think it [Rollercoaster Tycoon] touches on two of the most fundamental elements of our human nature. We all like doing something constructive, where we can see that we are creating something from virtually nothing, and we all have a desire to nurture or look after things. This is what the game is all about.”
The game had two sequels (RCT 2 & 3) which expanded upon the ideas of the first and added new features. Regardless of the graphics engine or new gameplay mechanics, each title in the main series had the same heart present in Sawyer’s original. Playing a simulation game is like constructing a ship in a bottle: it’s a delicate process that requires time, an intense level of care, and the desire to work on a project that – once finished – will be nothing more than something pretty to look at. Once a park is completed in RCT, there’s nothing to do with it except run it or drown all the mascots and custodians (which everyone did at least once).
Another reason for its success was the level of freedom it afforded players, something competing titles lacked. It never told players how they should play, nor did it ever limit their creativity. For some, the game was about showing they had the skills to compete with Disney’s best Imagineers. For others, it was about designing a coaster that would fly off the rails and into a lake. Both were valid ways to play the game. Like a great theme park, the series gave players a range of activities to do and said: “Have fun!”
As with any simulator, the tools players used to shape their creations needed to be simple to learn but hard to master. RCT’s track designer was just that, dynamic, easy to use, and fun. But, there was a catch to designing rides. Players couldn’t construct an attraction with a 500-foot drop and expect guests to actually ride it. The game’s measurement of a ride’s intensity added a wrinkle to the gameplay. Make the drops too fast and nobody would ride it, make it too dull and it’d be equally dead. Each coaster type also had special rules and challenges players needed to consider when building to keep the ride experience from becoming nauseating. Rides ran the spectrum from teeth-rattling wooden roller coasters to 4D coasters with loops, rotating cars, and inversions.
Players were challenged to think both creatively and realistically when designing tracks, mirroring the brainstorming ride engineers went through each time they crafted a new experience for a park. Creating a detailed ride wasn’t a drag-n-drop process. If done right, attractions could take hours to build, again, mirroring the way theme parks add attractions in real life. When players finished making their steel-tracked magnum opus, there was a true sense of accomplishment in scrolling the mouse cursor back and looking at the completed project.
As the series progressed, the game’s designers realized that most gamers wanted to recreate the types of attractions found at Disneyland, not Six Flags. More decorative options were added, including theming for line-ques, setting-specific decorations, and expanded terrain options. They also left the game open for modding, giving rise to RCT 3’s incredible fan creation community. Modding in RCT 3 is a huge part of why the series still has a following. Type Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 into a Youtube search bar and the results will be flooded with videos of amazing recreations and custom experiences that would be right at home in The Magic Kingdom.
One of the best examples of this is a user-created ride inspired by a scrapped attraction concept Disney almost used in the 90s: a dark ride set in the Alien film franchise. The fan creation is a fully rideable “what might have been” that takes guests through the original film’s story, complete with a themed queue, monster effects, and a pre-show video that guests watch before boarding their cars. As impressive, is another users recreation of Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion which perfectly captures the entire ride experience (spooky announcer and all). Due to this type of community support, the game had one of the most active fanbases. However, like many once great theme parks, RCT has fallen far from its glory days.
The series continued on PC with Roller Coaster Tycoon World, considered by fans and critics alike as a massive failure. The franchise did find a new home in mobile gaming, with several titles released for smartphones. Still, none of the entries have been tailored towards hardcore fans the way the first three games were. The series remains popular in the sim community and can still be found on Steam’s top selling simulations list. Though theme park sims are now their own genre, they’ve never quite captured the magic of the RCT trilogy. Though the gaming world has moved on, the original Roller Coaster Tycoon and its two sequels are rides still worth lining up for.
Will Barboza is a freelance writer hailing from Kansas City, living and working in LA. He’s been featured in Playboy, IGN, and VICE. His hobbies include yelling about the Packers and petting his roommate’s dog. Find more of his words on Twitter: @WBarboza_Writes and on Instagram: wbarbwrites.