Back in the early 2000s, “RollerCoaster Tycoon 2” (2002) was a blast to play. One could design rides with just the right amount of corkscrews, helixes and inversions to get park-goers’ adrenaline pumping. Until now, few roller coaster design and theme park management games have achieved the same level of innovation and mechanical depth. Even the sequel, “RollerCoaster Tycoon 3” (2004), didn’t do enough to improve on its predecessor in a meaningful way. This was a well-documented phenomenon for many titles in the early 2000s, as developers made the switch over from 2D to 3D and began focusing more on graphics rather than the quality of gameplay. Along with the rise of consoles, this caused the genre to sink into relative obscurity.
“Planet Coaster” (2016) may very well be the chosen title to bring theme park games back into popularity. Made by “Elite: Dangerous” (2014) developers Frontier Developments, it’s the first game that truly lives up to players’ high expectations after “RollerCoaster Tycoon 2” in terms of gameplay depth, polish and (hopefully) longevity. As with other games, the goal is to create a theme park that attracts huge numbers of people and earns enough profit to fund more outlandish rides and decorations. But the depth in these games doesn’t just come from building roller coasters or doing exciting things like managing park finances and listening to customers complain about their inability to find the exit as the player dispatches armies of handymen to clean up their vomit. Using rides to tell narratives and designing the entire park to create an immersive, exciting experience for every customer from the moment they step into the park until the moment they leave — that’s what amusement parks are all about, and that’s what “Planet Coaster” lets you do.
Whereas players previously might have plonked down a couple of rides, used pre-fab coaster parts to piece together coasters, scattered a few props and plants here and there to liven up the place and then called it a day, decoration in “Planet Coaster” is a far more thoughtful, intricate process. The game gives players far more freedom in terms of terraforming options and décor customization. Anyone who’s played one of “The Sims” (2000-present) titles knows how many hours one can spend building and furnishing a house to get it just right; managing the actual Sims’ happiness is mostly busywork in comparison. This game has the same feeling of design freedom but on a far larger scale. Whether it is making one’s roller coaster wind through a medieval fortress or a giant moose, the player has the technology to do so.
Designers also have more reason to rejoice, since “Planet Coaster” supports user-generated content and allows players to upload their own designs and download those of others, helping players improve their abilities and be recognized for their hard work. Browsing through everyone’s creations is a lot of fun in itself and shows how detailed an attraction can get if players exercise their unbridled imaginations and push the game to its limits.
The enormous potential in “Planet Coaster” makes the game’s Sandbox mode far more fun than its Career mode, as players never need to compromise on their creative vision as they have unlimited expenses. It feels disheartening to have to choose between giving customers what they need, like sufficient bathrooms, while a half-finished Euthanasia Coaster sits high above the park skyline, gathering rust. Limitations on creativity in such games seem like afterthoughts to satisfy the people who enjoy panicking at the end of each month when players have to pay all of the park employees’ salaries and pray they don’t slip into the red. Some people like that high-stakes experience of trying to bring a struggling theme park back from the brink, but for those who simply wish to relax and create, “Planet Coaster” is the game that gives the creative freedom to do so.