Why I Didn’t Grow up with Roller Coaster Tycoon
I remember once when I was little I thought I liked roller coasters. We were visiting family in Uruguay (I’m actually half-hispanic though I look and act completely White) and I wanted to ride a nearby roller coaster. I don’t have many specific memories of the incident, but what I do remember is a strong impression that has stayed with me to this day: I don’t find roller coasters too pleasant.
And believe me I’ve tried to enjoy them. I’ve been on Thunder Mountain. I’ve been on Splash Mountain. And that’s about as far as I’ve dared attempt. When we went to DisneyLand, I preferred riding Star Tours or the Indiana Jones ride. I’ve got a defensive personality. When my adrenaline kicks in, I get very serious about avoiding potential threats, or in many cases discomforts. It’s the feeling of falling I hate. I like being in control of my circumstances. That’s why I like video games so much. And the feeling of falling is one of the strongest examples of a situation where you’re helpless, where the laws of physics have committed you to something and you’re seeing it through until the end. Even when I logically know I shouldn’t be in any real danger, it’s hard to tell that to what my body is physically feeling, and it feels like it’s in danger. I’m glad for all of my friends who enjoy roller coasters and other similar rides, but I’m speaking from experience when I say that attempts to get me to come out of my shell and try out some new thrill and enjoy it have tended to be unsuccessful. At least for now.
Now let me also clarify I have played RollerCoaster Tycoon a few times before. I did enjoy it, and I totally see the merit of the game and how it laid the groundwork for Zoo Tycoon (fun fact: when I was younger I thought all games that said “tycoon” were part of the same franchise, which led me to be very confused whenever I happened to pass the games section at Staples). I’d love to take a more serious look at the series sometime. But let’s travel back to 2002. I was only seven years old, and I wouldn’t even have my own gaming systems until the holiday season came around. I started seeing commercials for a game about running your own zoo. My interest was thoroughly piqued. When I was a kid, I was massively obsessed with animals, and I still have a strong love of animals to this day. I loved nature documentaries and I loved visiting the zoo. Some of the first books I tried to read were wildlife guides; I would just look through all the different animals and read up on them. My parents tell me that the first book that really got me learning to read was the Reader’s Digest Guide to North American Wildlife. I was moderately aware that there were RollerCoaster Tycoon games at the time, but after seeing commercials for Zoo Tycoon I was convinced I needed it. Being able to run a zoo sounded like an absolute dream to me.
Zoo Tycoon was one of the first PC games I played for long amounts of time.
Before then, it was early age’s point-and-click games, usually educational ones. Reader Rabbit, Blue’s Clues, Magic School Bus (specifically the Animals and Dinosaurs ones), and Putt Putt Saves the Zoo (notice a theme?). In a way, Zoo Tycoon was one of the games that acted as a bridge for me towards more substantial PC gaming. Part of the reason that it appealed to me more than RollerCoaster Tycoon might’ve is that the core emphasis was more inherently interesting to me. Designing rollercoasters sounded like it could be fun, but being able to design a zoo sounded like a much more appealing and interesting undertaking. First of all, once you’ve created your exhibit space and added your animals, you need to spend some time tweaking everything to make it appealing for your animals, getting everything just right. And once your exhibit is done, it’s going to undergo a lot more dynamic change in the background while you’re not paying attention than a rollercoaster would. The population will increase, terrain will be trampled, waste will accumulate, or the animals might break loose if you’re not attentive to the fence quality. The interesting challenge of balancing the needs of all the animals, through hiring enough staff, making exhibits accessible and easy to navigate, balancing population with exhibit resources, and resolving issues that come up gives a sense that you’re truly responsible for these miniature simulated ecosystems. And the Marine Mania and Dinosaur Digs Expansions add even more possibilities and complexity, adding Sea World and Jurassic Park style additions to the game.
What’s funny is that when I was younger I didn’t even really understand that the game involved a complex economic aspect as well. I was wondering why I kept being unprofitable, not really paying attention to how much everything I was doing was costing. And then I learned that you can manipulate how much everything costs, down to each individual vending machine, and there are ways to track how well your zoo is doing beyond your own personal dream of running one, and I realized that there were upkeep costs involved that were causing the lost income, and that you could keep track of which sources of income were the most profitable and which were more costly than they were worth. Beyond the task of creating and maintaining exhibits and designing everything, there was a whole new layer of economic performance and strategizing and planning around the customers that I hadn’t even grasped when I first started playing it.
RollerCoaster Tycoon undoubtedly deserves the place it holds in video game history. Zoo Tycoon probably couldn’t exist without it. And maybe running zoo’s doesn’t appeal to other people as much. But while I haven’t played Zoo Tycoon too frequently in recent years, whenever I have played it again all that childhood nostalgia comes rushing back, and the game is just as great as I remembered it, if not better from the new ways I can approach it now. My sisters still love spending hours on it all these years later. While it may not captivate everyone, Zoo Tycoon has the right mix of complexity and accessibility to be worth hours upon hours of designing the perfect zoo’s, time flying by yet not feeling wasted. I hope someday the Zoo Tycoon Complete Collection gets digitally re-released similar to how Age of Empires II has been. If you get the opportunity to play it, I doubt you’ll regret it.