Bullfrog’s much-loved management sim Theme Park was one of my first infatuations. On the humble Amiga to begin with, then on Mega Drive and finally on PSone and PC. The ability to create a theme park not only resonated on a personal level – especially at a time when most 16-bit games were limp licensed platformers, Street Fighter II clones and dull sports titles – but I was also fascinated with the differences between versions. I even owned an unofficial strategy guide, which ended up being so well-thumbed that pages started to fall out.
Frontier must share a similar passion with this genre-defining great, or at least recognise they owe an awful lot to it, as there’s a secret achievement for adding extra salt to fries – a legendary sneaky trick from Theme Park. Word had it this prompted customers to buy more drinks. Bullfrog – headed by one Peter Molyneux – were quite fond of tooting their own horn, so whether there’s any truth in this gaming myth is debatable. It made for amusing playground talk, at the very least.
With a back catalogue including Zoo Tycoon, Rollercoaster Tycoon, ScreamRide and Thrillville, Frontier are well versed with all the fun of the fair. This is the safest of safe territory, more so than even a new Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. Even if you’ve never played Frontier’s past works, the concept of a theme park management sim is comprehendible to most; this is a game where a single screenshot speaks a thousand words.
As such, Planet Coaster is how you imagine it to be. Presented in a fun and inviting fashion, you have full control over creating the park of your dreams, placing rides and fast-food outlets, designing rollercoasters, and hiring and firing staff. All the while, a careful eye must be kept on finances – make the park too big too soon, and you’ll quickly spiral into debt.
Sandbox mode lets you build without restriction, while the campaign is structured, teaching the basics and featuring increasingly tricky scenarios. That’s more or less it, in the nuttiest of shells. Scratch the surface just a little, however, and you’ll soon find that it excels all pre-conceived expectations. It goes way beyond simply offering what you’d expect and for reasons numerous.
Firstly, it’s packed to the rafters with stuff to build. Dozens upon dozens of items fill each category, including some colossal sized structures such as hotels and restaurants. The scenery list, in particular, is remarkably vast – there’s a dazzling array of things to decorate the park with, allowing you to put your stamp on things. Adding to this, buildings can be edited and decorated with extras, adding neon signs, posters and more. Secondly, terrane can be altered, adjusting the landscape to carve out new areas, water features, and to create picturesque backdrops that’ll wow.
Being creative is vital to success as each ride has a prestige rating dependant on its surroundings. Action scenes with animatronics and scripted set-pieces please the crowds without fail, while also being fun to create. The only downside to presenting such a diverse range of buildable structures and tools is that the menus are on the cluttered side.
The campaign does a good job of showing what’s possible with the tools available, with scenarios taking place in heavily decorated pre-built parks. Amusing backstories provide context, explaining why the park has fallen into debt, become a ghost town, or been left partly unfinished. It’s your job to work through tasks – ranked in difficulty – such as attracting a certain number of guests or obtaining a steady monthly profit. Challenges take a while to complete – a typical campaign mission took us around 1-2 hours, and there are loads to work through. Helping to maintain interest, the parks have different themes, including pirate, fairy, sci-fi and western, which are slowly revealed.
The workshop allows for further customisation, forming the backbone of the social hub. Here, pre-built coasters and facilities can be created, edited, and shared with the world, becoming part of the already bulging item list. Some are genuinely useful, from both space and timesaving perspectives, such as shops reworked as vending machines or entire pre-made shopping villages.
Planet Coaster is the unsung hero of the next-gen console line-up, offering a rich and polished experience with a wealth of content and a magnitude of possibilities. Once Spider-Man: Miles Morales has spun its yarn, every village in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has been pillaged, and you’re bored of terrorising Londoners in Watch Dogs Legion, Planet Coaster will be ready to absorb you into its colourful, slightly eccentric, world.
I’d like to think it’ll become an infatuation for a new generation; the next step for those weaned on Minecraft and Roblox. Step right up and let it show you some magic.