Theme Park review
Sluggish Management


Theme parks are fun. Experience rides that zip around faster than you can blink, enjoy entertainment shows put on by hard working performers and indulge in the variety of stalls for toys and food (potentially regurgitating that food depending on your actions right after). What if you got the chance to run your own park? Pick your own rides, choose your shops and provide the consumer with an experience to your tastes. Theme Park gives you that very opportunity, as you build and manage your own park.

When you begin the game you're presented with a world map with numerous dots representing different park site locations. Blue dots represent available locations, gold dots represent locations you've already built a park at and red dots represent locations you can't afford yet. See, simply acquiring a location means coughing up some dough, except for the UK spot, and since your starting budget is lower than any other location it means that the Uk is your only initial choice. As you play your aim is to earn enough cash to purchase the next location and thus make your mark around the world. Some of the locations are seriously overpriced though (20,000 for a spot in Japan?).

It's not just the startup price that differs though. Each area has its own traits to mark them as different to the others. The rides you can get access to changes depending on the location, and the customers are affected in terms of their maximum numbers and the money they bring with them. This can really swing the difficulty and make getting some spots a nightmare, as spending a large amount on a spot only for the customers to bring in chicken feed can be a problem.

Once you've picked a spot you can actually start playing. Regardless of where you go you are presented with a large empty field surrounded by a boundary wall, a ticket booth gate and minimal paths by the gates. The rest is yours to do with as you'd like, as long as your finances hold out.

So the first thing to do is to press start, which not only pauses the action but also presents you with the command menu, which is where you'll access all the options you need to build your park. The eight main icons are paths, queues, rides, shops, (landscape) features, staff, title and query. For the build options you can press B to open a quick menu displaying all your available choices, which also displays the name and cost price of the currently highlighted item. Alternatively pressing A will bring up a more detailed selection screen that takes longer to navigate but offers more information (except for paths, which just sets the default path to the tool instead). More often than not the extra information in unnecessary though so you'll find yourself on more friendly terms with the quick menu. Pressing C when the menu is not open will open a quick menu for the last build option you accessed, which is handy when setting down multiples of a certain build type.

Below those icons are two displays. The face display represents the overall mood of the punters, while the orange bars represent the number of punters on the bus and the number of punters in the park. The money displays obviously shows your current funds, but clicking on this opens the finances window, which not only provides a more detailed money report but allows you to adjust things like entry prices and research costs. Finally we have the bottom part of the menu, which actually changes depending on what has the current focus. It can show options for rides, shops, features, staff and even the customers.

Paths are fundamental to your park, as the customers are surprisingly polite enough to avoid walking on the grass until it's time to go home (at which point all sense of manners seems to go out the window). Basic paths are cheap and needed to direct the crowds around to the attractions. The quick menu also offers one-way spots and signposts. Both point customers in a certain direction, but while one-ways force punters to turn that way, signposts only advise them where to go (and are therefore utterly useless).

The main point of a park is the thrill of the rides, and so until you put your first ride in then nobody is going to come no matter how long your gates are open. You start off with a mere four rides, but by pumping funds into research you can open up more rides. Each ride has its own cost to build, as well as specific parameters like entertainment value and maximum capacity. Most rides take up a 4 x 4 square plus 1 more square at the edge for the entrance booth. After setting down the ride you then get to position the entrance booth (which can go at any side of the ride providing there is not something already there), and then the exit steps, which occupy a square within the ride and sit along the edge. Once done you need to connect the entrance booth to a path via the queue line option, which is set down much like normal paths.

Some rides differ greatly in that they have no set shape. Monorail, rollercoaster, tube ride and speedway all have custom tracks that are set down by the player. Space and funds permitting, the size and shape of these tracks are down to personal choice. The only real condition is that you must build a complete track and have a lateral flat part long enough to sit the entrance/exit booth by. Access the track builder must be done by selecting the ride via the quick menu. Building the tube/speedway tracks is easy, as each segment only takes up one space each. The monorail/rollercoaster is trickier, mainly because setting a corner involves dragging the cursor while holding A around a corner, but it's workable. Once the ride is finished you need to set the booth down (unlike other rides, these have a combined entrance/exit booth). The booth is accessed via the rides detailed selection screen and the size of the track laid down determines the overall cost of the ride.

There are a fair few rides on offer, from the simple stuff like bouncy castles to the more advanced like the shuttle. Of course, aside from the custom build ones there's little difference to you in what they do, but there are different parameters for rides. Set the focus on a ride and you can meddle with different settings, like the speed and duration. You can also adjust the maximum capacity (although not higher than the default) and turn the ride on and off. The ride status part of the main menu also displays the condition of the ride, which can indicate how badly it needs repairing (well, the black plumes of smoke should be a dead giveaway anyway, but the spanner meter is there just in case you have the urge to confirm the obvious). Fail to fix a ride within the often generous timeframe and BOOM, the ride explodes and leaves unmovable rubble where it once stood, which is perhaps quite the entertaining (if unintended) distraction if you ever felt like setting up a park just to watch it blow up.

Entertaining the punters with the rides is one thing, but how about relieving them of the burden of their money with a few shops dotted around? Like rides you only start with a few shops to build but can get more with research cash. There are three types of shops, consisting of food, gift and games. Food shops are almost required, as customers will get hungry and thirsty as they explore your park. Offer them refreshments but you have to pick the sale prices carefully. Although you don't want to undercut yourself you also don't want to deter punters with high prices. Some shops can even have effects on the customers, like coffee shops will make punters go hyper and rush around the park (handy for getting them to all your attractions faster). Alternatively the sadist in you can overload the burgers with fat and then direct consumers to the nearest rollercoaster.

Gift shops are another way to pull in extra cash. Position them after exciting rides and convince the punters to give up the cash for a memento of their day. All the gift shops seem to give out balloons (I suppose showing other types of gifts on the small sprites would be rather hard) but these vary in cost price and the designs. This is the less risky of the two non-essential shop types. Game shops offer prizes for punters, but in addition to the game price and the cost of the prize you can also influence the chance of winning (see, these games are rigged). These shops tend to backfire more than anything though, because when a customer loses their mood drops, which isn't exactly good for your park. Of course, if too many customers are winning then you're losing money to pay for those prizes.

The final 'big' build options are the landscape features. Tress, lakes, lamposts, fountains. All manner of scenery can be placed around the park. From what I've observed this doesn't really seem to affect anything, but it's an element of customization that allows you to build your custom park. Well, there is one thing that affects the park here, which are the toilets. When customers have consumed food they will no doubt soon want to 'relieve themselves'. To avoid a public incident you need to have toilets nearby that customers can use. The cheaper toilets will require cleaning too. Like rides and shops, available features are affected by money put into research.

Alright, so you have rides, shops, pretty features and enough concrete to connect them all to keep the local builders in business for many years to come. What else? Why, the staff that help to run the park of course. You have four staff members you can hire. Handymen will pick up rubbish, clean toilets and cut grass. Entertainers will... well, entertain people. Mechanics fix the rides. Guards are there to toss out troublemakers. If only the staff AI was actually good this would be awesome, but to call them dumb would be to insult dumb people. Handymen are the worst offenders, as they will often wander around in random directions far away from where they actually need to be. Need a job doing? Sorry, you're going to have to actually direct the guy there, and in some cases you have to watch him like a hawk to make sure he doesn't just wander off again. Hardly helpful when you're trying to run a park. Entertainers also have a habit of wandering away from where you sat them, which is annoying because if I sit them by the gates then I damn well want them to stay by the gates. Even mechanics have the quirks of fixing rides that are working find (especially the band ride, which seems to be closed for repairs every five minutes if you let mechanics within a five mile radius of it). Only the guards seem to do their job effectively without aggressive management, but considering they do no more than toss out the very rare troublemakers then that is not too impressive. It's a royal pain because managing staff is irritating but they are a necessary part of any park. Without handymen the trash builds up. Without mechanics the rides will explode.

To be fair the customers aren't much brighter. The only real way to ensure they actually go where they need to go is to create linear pathways and abuse one-way panels. Offer freedom of movement and you'll find some punters wandering around in circles until they get bored to tears and leave.

The success of your park depends on the content and reputation. A good park will attract more customers. Do badly (like upset customers or let the trash pile up) and you'll hear a distinctive roar of a motorbike. A thug is on his way, but all you need to do is place an entertainer and a guard together by the gate to get rid of him quickly, so it's not a major aspect of the game.

At the end of each game year you are given the option of putting the park up for auction, with the starting price based on the content of the park and the reputation, but you can only take this option if the lowest amount you could end up with is at least equal to the cheapest available location spot on the world map. It's also worth noting that failing to add anything of significant value to the park in a year will cause the starting price to drop, which is meant to deter people from hanging on for a long time. When you do decide to auction the price will increase until the time is up or nobody wants to bid anymore (the second one is fairly rare in my experience). At that point you simply buy a new location spot and do it all again.

It's also possible to lose at this game. Depending on your outgoings you might find yourself going 'into the red', where your money actually goes into the negatives. Spend too long in this situation and you'll be greeted with a rather amusing CG scene where your character is apparently ready to leave the mortal plane to escape the debts.

An annoying aspect of the game is the password system. The passwords aren't too cumbersome, but in the 16 bit era I would have thought having a proper cartridge save system would be a simple matter.

So the game has a few flaws, but the biggest one is yet to come. Stuttering frames. Unfortunately this game just isn't capable of handling the action onscreen well at all. Moving the screen will often cause the different elements to stutter or shift awkwardly, which is far from a smooth transition that should occur. Build up a park to any reasonable size and things just nosedive even further. Forget awkward scene movement, everything now slows down to a crawl and moving around the park becomes incredibly sluggish. It is possible to increase the game speed, but this manages to make things worse as the frame rate gets destroyed by it. Characters in the park literally warp around when you try to up the speed. This flaw is a serious game-breaker, as tending to the needs of the park becomes frustrating when things stop responding accurately.

A shame, because graphically the game is actually pretty good when it's not running in slow motion or jerky-vision. The characters are exactly massively detailed but they express some wonderful emotions and there's some appeal to watching them scuttle around the park. The various park features all look very nice and have some neat animations, especially for the rides that signify that they are active. The park grounds themselves look nice, with different grass lengths and the outer wall well defined.

The music is quite atrocious though. I mean, it's certainly varied, as the current music depends on the active rides onscreen, and they all generally have that carnival feeling to them. The problem is the quality, which is simply horrible. I don't know if they screwed up the compression or whatever, but I know the console is capable of better than this, which ends up grating no matter which track is playing. Sounds effects are pretty minimal, with the happy or sad cries of the customers being the highlights of it.

Theme Park should have been a success. It's got all the right ideas and indeed some of it works, but terrible execution of other areas ruin what could have been a fantastic experience. The slowdown sluggishness makes managing the park a nightmare, and other flaws in the AI and difficulty only serve to add more dents to the package. Even if the concept appeals to you it may not be worth putting up with these flaws.

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