25 Years Later, RollerCoaster Tycoon is Still One of the Most Addictive Games Ever Made

Go ahead. Charge money for the bathroom.

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There are popular video games, and then there are addictive video games. From Stardew Valley keeping farmers up all night in search of their next upgrade to Civilization becoming so infamous for making players say “Just one more turn” that the games now reference their own beguiling nature, some titles can sink their hooks into you and never let go. Amid this dubious pantheon, 1999’s RollerCoaster Tycoon holds a lofty position.

RollerCoaster Tycoon wasn’t the first amusement park sim — that honor belongs to 1994’s Theme Park — but developer Chis Sawyer established genre standards still seen today. Smarter and far more enthralling than EA’s predecessor, RCT is both a tribute to Sawyer’s attention to detail and an enabler of its players’ most meticulous desires.

Sawyer, a Scotsman, sold a few minor games in the ‘80s while helping make DOS ports of popular Amiga titles. His first major release, 1994’s Transport Tycoon, was a granular number cruncher about achieving industrial dominance, but it contained hints of RCT’s more accessible ideas. Flush with cash from Transport Tycoon’s sales, Sawyer traveled across the United States and Europe, and became enamored by the rollercoasters he once feared.

Two years of work on RollerCoaster Tycoon followed, with only a composer and a freelance graphic designer offering assistance. Plenty of things could have gone wrong. Solo game development was rare by the late ‘90s), Sawyer’s use of the archaic x86 assembly language was considered risky, and no one could accuse RCT’s graphics of being cutting-edge. But none of that prevented it from becoming the bestselling PC game of 1999, making $19.6 million that year alone.

While somewhat dated in 1999, RCT’s graphics have a retro charm that many early 3D titles now lack.

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The concept is simple. Each scenario puts the player in charge of a theme park, usually a dilapidated or empty one, and tasks them with hitting attendance and quality goals. You start small — maybe you build bumper cars and a hamburger stand — then use your profits to slowly expand. Rides take priority, but you’ll also need to hire staff, design efficient pathways, and beautify the landscape.

Some rides, like Ferris wheels and carousels, are static placements. Others, like log flumes and, of course, roller coasters, can be extensively customized. You can plop down a few prefab designs, but creative players can send a rollercoaster plunging through the depths of a mountain, intertwine a coaster with a waterslide to make both more thrilling, or plot an extensive monorail system that shuttles guests around the park.

The ability to transform an empty slab of desert into a personal slice of utopia hooked players. You can dedicate hours to ensuring your park’s shrubs are placed just the way you like them, or you can while away an afternoon tricking guests into riding rollercoasters that end in vomit and fire. Guest feedback helps determine what can be improved, and control over marketing, research, janitor and mechanic work habits, and the cost of every attraction gives you options without overwhelming you. There’s depth, but not pointless complexity.

March 22, 1999 proved to be a fortuitous release date, as fans could use the new-fangled “internet” to trade their creations and learn from others in a way that would have been difficult just a few years prior. From strategizing on optimum bathroom placement to building coasters that thrill (or murder) their riders in increasingly grandiose ways, RCT spawned friendly online communities and even pushed some players toward careers in theme park engineering and design. Like Minecraft after it, ogling the astounding work of other players was part of the fun.

Coaster design can get... complicated.

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RCT’s success gave the simulation genre a shot in the arm, but for as simple as its concept appeared, countless knockoffs set everywhere from malls to airports failed to capture its addictive appeal. The fantasy world of a theme park is a unique joy to build, but RollerCoaster Tycoon also catered to every level of obsessiveness. While some simulation games — Football Manager, to name a popular example — all but require you to spend hours watching YouTube tutorials before you’re comfortable pressing a button, RCT was equally accessible to players who wanted to perfect every pixel and players who just wanted to screw around with go-kart tracks.

Sawyer would iterate on his ideas for a solid if risk-averse sequel, but he only consulted on RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, which brought the franchise to the third dimension. In 2005, after suing Atari over a royalty kerfuffle and releasing Locomotion to middling reviews, Sawyer took a look at the gaming industry, saw larger development teams and more violent titles becoming the norm, and decided to step away from the grind. When he returned in 2010 he became something of a laid-back recluse, content to work on mobile ports that brought his old games to new audiences.

A variety of developers and publishers have since scuppered the Tycoon brand with lousy sequels and spinoffs, but other franchises have picked up the slack. Planet Coaster is RCT’s big-budget progeny, while Parkitect — small, lean, and modder-friendly — is its purest and most addictive inheritor. Sawyer’s titles remain available on digital storefronts, as fun as ever to sink entire weekends into. When asked why his games had endured in a 2016 Eurogamer interview, Sawyer suggested they were positive, nurturing titles that encouraged creativity. Anyone who’s stayed up all night trying to get their latest rollercoaster just right would agree.

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