Everyone has fantasized, at least once, about running a theme park. Is there something more fun than freely trying all the rides and the greasy food? Sure, but then who’s cleaning up visitors’ bodily fluids and scolding the employees? Okay, point taken. But what about running a hospital? That’d be pure masochism. Leave it, then, to English developer Bullfrog to transform both of these experiences in some of the most entertaining simulations ever developed. Let us take a look at their greatest achievements: Bullfrog’s Theme Park and Hospital.
WE BUILT THIS PARK: FROM ENTEPRENEUR TO THEME PARK
In early 90s Europe, the management simulations proved to be quite a popular genre. It might have had something to do with Amiga being one very successul gaming platform, one of the first commercially successful home computers to feature a mouse. The “new” control scheme was a key in controlling many of the genre’s hits, like Germany which had cult classic TV management simulation Mad TV and soccer management series On The Ball.
What about the United Kingdom? Peter Molyneux, head of Bullfrog, despite having experience in the business simulation genre, was lacking an audience. His very first title in the genre, The Entrepreneur, a text-only business simulation, ended up being a huge disappointment with reportedly, only two copies sold. The developer mentioned the lack of fun in the mechanics as the main problem with that first attempt. For his next attempt, Molyneux was going to make sure it would be fun right out of the gates.
DOWN IN THE PARK
Theme Park’s Development took a year and a half, coming out in 1994 for PC, Amiga and 3DO, and it was quite a departure from the company’s previous serious strategy games like Popolous. The game allows the player to have a relaxed experience or, alternatively, bear the burden of full business responsibilities. The balance desperately sought after by Molyneux and his team was successfully achieved, since the game can be both a satisfying simulation and a relaxing “sandbox” experience. Despite several features being cut at the last moment (like multiplayer), Theme Park, almost thirty years after, remains a solid management simulation, even in its gamepad-controlled console versions.
Designwise, it feels animated by a different philosophy from its predecessors in the management genre. Everything is laid out with a point and click interface, allowing immediate control of all the different aspects of running a business: building rides, kiosks and enrolling personnel to clean the park and keep the rides in good working conditions. Perhaps its most successful idea was letting the player design their own roller coaster tracks. It will later be expanded upon, inspiring a full series of games which – perhaps – even outgrew the popularity of Bullfrog’s title, RollerCoaster Tycoon. For added immersion, it is possible to try the rides ourselves in first person via, umm, “possession” of an innocent visitor. Luckily we won’t need an exorcist priest to get out of that.
To keep the players’ interest beyond the first couple of hours, Bullfrog decided to keep some of the more wackier rides locked out. Research department, then, becomes an essential feature, with scientists inventing ways to improve our park, along with exciting new rides. Each management decision has consequences, so that many of the kiosks’ in-depth features can easily be used to our advantage. Looking to sell more sodas? Just put more salt in the fries! Just avoid going overboard otherwise visitors will stop buying them altogether.
It is possible to also have our very own TripAdvisor/Yelp experience by checking each visitors’ thoughts on the park. Their opinions are useful to adjust the entry tickets’ price, number of toilets and tinker with other park features. As this is a Bullfrog game, there’s several touches of insane humour, especially of the black variety: torturing visitors is something that the game allows us to do without consequences. It is fair to say that the English developer will have something more up their sleeves on that front…
TAKE US TO THE HOSPITAL
The critical and commercial success of Theme Park will be the basis for the next Bullfrog title in the “Theme” series. Also, the last, as far as new ideas are concerned. We’ll be the manager of a fully fledged hospital, tasked with building rooms, employing doctors, training them and trying to get patients cured, instead of letting them die in the corridors. While the idea for the sequel originated from Molyneux, he did not partecipate in the development, as he had his hands full with Dungeon Keeper.
Theme Hospital was designed by Mark Webley and part of the original Park team who actually mention how the game was almost set in the Victorian age.. The idea to feature real maladies was dropped almost right away, not just for obvious “sensibility” reasons, but also because – as opposed to theme parks – the developers saw little creativity in designing mundane hospital rooms. Making up fictional maladies would, instead, give them freedom to work in colorful machines and insane symptoms. Development took over two years, being released in 1997 for PC and, later, PlayStation.
Thanks to higher resolution graphics than its predecessor, carefully positioning each room in the hospital comes easily, along with furniture and items which are basically eye candy. Naturally, we are still required to try to get the least weird people possible to work for us (easier said than done…) as doctors, receptionists, handymen. Research is still very much a thing, especially because many new maladies will not have a cure available right away.
There are still mangement decisions that can be taken to ensure a stable flow of money in our hands. While unfortunately fries are not healthy enough to be sold at a hospital, there are radiators that can be strategically positioned (and regulated) to ensure overheated patients will regularly make their way to the soda machines. But, unfortunately, this time it will not be possible to try in first person the various cures that we offer to the suffering population. Well, “unfortunately”…
The team was on the right track when they realized they really couldn’t make death fun, at least not the serious, hospitalized kind. So, Theme Hospital feels slightly more serious than its predecessor, while still featuring a trove of weird and wacky ideas. Along with the many crazy sicknesses like Elvis impersonations and bloated heads, there’s a fair share of gross-out humour in the sound effects. Also, let’s not forget the secretary, her announcements in the usual deadpan voice, with classic “irritating” English accent, does add a lot of flavour to the proceedings.
The gameplay’s main issue seems to be how difficult it is to keep at bay the increasing number of patients checking into the hospital, especially when they start dying all around and one is struggling to keep up. While the game was, perhaps, less successful than the original, it still went on to sell great numbers and be appreciated by many. Electronic Arts, though, never seemed what to do with it, so the series just lay dormant.
DIMINISHING RETURNS OF DIFFERENT FLAVORS
While Bullfrog only released two different Theme titles, Electronic Arts seemed to reckon that Theme Park should be the one having sequels, developed without the original designers’ input. The first was 1999’s Theme Park World (also known as Sim Theme Park in North America) which did not introduce significant changes to the formula, except for a new 3D engine. Overall, it was a decent update to the original and provides an okay alternative to its isometric 2D graphics.
Finally, in 2001 came Theme Park Inc., a PC exclusive, which had the dubious honor of being the last game bearing the Bullfrog logo before Electronic Arts would dissolve the studio for good. The new game improved on the 3D engine, while putting greater emphasis on the business and management aspect of the simulation, along with providing a fully fledged rollercoaster editor. Again, an okay sequel which changed a bit the overall approach, but not the formula.
NO I DON’T WANT TO GO BACK TO THE OLD HOSPITAL
We mentioned how Theme Hospital never had an official sequel, which is understandable considering the overall topic and the less successful sales numbers. Still, years after the dissolution of Bullfrog and with Electronic Arts not seemingly really doing anything with the series (after 2001 especially), there have been not just one, but two games inspired by the original: Two Point Hospital and Project Hospital.
While they are, overall, fine reintepretations of the idea (with the first being slightly more humorous than the second), and Mark Webley is back working on Two Point Hospital together with Sega, they seem to lack the spark of the original. Perhaps it’s just that Theme Hospital still felt very much a 90s game, with its gross-out humor and insane ideas, while Two Point Hospital errs on the side of caution and ends up being not very funny. Or, well, trying to replicate the same gameplay mechanics, many years down the line, rarely seems to bring to the players that very same sensation of wonderment.
Still, Bullfrog’s Theme Park and Hospital, 25+ years down the line, still represent the most brilliant examples of classic 90s management simulations. They expertfully balanced the serious (boring) aspects of running a business with the more entertaining factors of building rides/curing sick people. While the games failed to create a “franchise”, they sure created the basic recipe for management simulations (which the original 90s simulations failed to do), which was later replicated by titles such as Game Dev Tycoon and Prison Architect.
Surely even a tiny fragment of the DNA of The Sims can be tracked back to Bullfrog, the best thing about Will Wright’s “life simulation” game was really walking that delicate thread between micromanaging someone’s existence and having fun with its more humorous aspects. Games that still stand as eternal testament to the great vision of Bullfrog’s Theme Park and Hospital, how they could turn the boring and mundane in endlessly entertaining quirky management simulations.