My Favourite Art Style: SimCity 2000

I like to tell people that the brilliance of SimCity 2000’s art style rested on the fact that it was not isometric but rather used a technique called dimetric projection. In simple terms, that means the tiles were the same length in all directions horizontally, but they followed a different, flatter scale vertically. It created an iconic angular look and, functionally speaking, it was huge too.

It allowed you to see more of your city — more buildings and more of the map — which is essential to running it smoothly. And it allowed Maxis to allow toggling between four fixed viewpoints without anyone getting lost — because a quirk of this forced perspective meant building sprites could be the same on all sides (albeit mirrored on two of them) and somehow still look right.

That dimetric perspective lent the game a deeper aesthetic tone, too. As someone born and raised outside the US, SimCity 2000 cities looked American to me. They had repetitive architecture and roads, which were laid on a grid, were as wide as the houses were big. The police were blue and fire stations red. And jutting out of the concrete jungle or that endless, open emptiness around the urban center you had various parkland oases. It screamed America, which fit well because so did the simulation’s underlying philosophies.

Then there were the arcologies. They weren’t so much about capturing the essence of contemporary America as envisioning its wonderful or horrific future. The picturesque Forest Arco served as a sad reminder of deforestation while the Plymouth Arco was less a homage to the boredom of life in Plymouth than to the film Blade Runner and its imposing Tyrell building. You also had the dystopian but very cool­looking Darco and the utopian Launch Arco, which seemed set for a galaxy-­voyaging paradise world within a rocket­-equipped biodome.

Cities are changing, and these stylised arcologies reminded us we really should be thinking about how cities should look and function in a decade and in a century. Will our high-­density living be oppressive like a Darco? Or idyllic like a Launch Arco? Or nothing at all like either?


  1. JamesTheNumberless says:

    This “dimetric” thing is actually technically what you get in 90% of so called “isometric” games, certainly from the 90s onwards (including CIVII, Caesar, and Transport Tycoon), diamonds with a width 2x the height as opposed to diamonds with equal widths and heights. It’s certainly true of every tile based “2.5D” game I’ve ever worked on. This ratio has the dual properties of making conversions from cartesian to isometric space quicker and easier and also (because screens tend to have more pixels in width than they do in height) resulting in a look that’s closer to true isometric.

    • Michael Anson says:

      Actually, from the page linked in the article, you just described perfect isometric projection (which is an xyz viewpoint of 120 degrees each). Dimetric would be even flatter than that, so the diamonds would be more than twice as wide as they are tall. You may be thinking of military projection, which is 135/135/90, and has a 1:1 ratio between length and width.

      • ezbez says:

        He’s still correct that pixel art videogames almost never used a true isometric projection. That requires drawing lines at a 30 degree angle to the horizontal, which requires antialiasing to look nice. So instead they draw them at about a 26 degree slope which looks nicer since it’s exactly a slope of 1/2. See wikipedia on it. So most games are dimetric, not isometric.

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    Big Dunc says:

    I loved the arcologies too, and named all of mine after Mega- City One City Blocks.

  3. oyog says:

    “Fire dispatch at 148…”

  4. TillEulenspiegel says:

    I’ve got a lot of time for any art style that is clean and clear, where different types of things really stand out from each other.

    I rarely see much discussion about the functionality/UX side of art style, and IMO it’s the most import aspect. A strong art style actually helps a player understand the game.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yes, this. It’s one of the biggest things we’ve lost as Realism has sunk its fangs in deeper and deeper, and any time you end up with a highlight glow or big ugly HUD label is a concession that the visuals themselves can’t carry the burden of their gameplay obligations any more.

      Wind it forward enough and you get how obvious interactive things and pickups were in turn-of-the-millenium 3D games, vs the cluttered detail of now.

  5. nullward says:

    God, I loved Sim City 2000’s art. It’s like a world made out of Windows 95 desktop icons. Clean, colorful, and oddly familiar.

    The only change I ever made was a tileset edit to make the pine trees into bright green palm trees. To make it look more like California, I guess.

    • Napalm Sushi says:

      Interesting; that’s the exact same thing I did as soon as I got hold of SCURK.

  6. aircool says:

    I used to love making my Mayor House the best looking and most expensive plot of land on the map.

    The Arcologies were just awesome as well.

    • Blastaz says:

      My Mayor House always had its own island with a very small hill opposite the house for the statue to live on…

      • TheMightyEthan says:

        Yes, Mayor’s Island was always suitably isolated from the fires I would eventually start when my city had been running smoothly for too long. I was happy to see in the screenshots that I was not the only one.

  7. PancakeWizard says:

    Pretty sure our future is this

  8. TychoCelchuuu says:

    I played hours and hours and hours of SC2k as a child, and while I was in the midst of that, my family moved to Seattle. At least one of the artists for the game must have lived in Seattle, because all of a sudden I started recognizing all sorts of buildings from the game, but in real life. That was pretty trippy.

  9. TWChristine says:

    One of my fondest memories is of seeing an ad for SimCity2000 in a copy of Discover magazine. I had been pretty into SimCity for a while, playing it after school in the computer lab..and here was a picture of what I could only describe as a graphical revolution. I loved the detail of the industrial areas: giant water towers, oil tanks, spherical pods. The vibrant colors, and the fact that you could now have elevations! I don’t know if part of it was being a young teenager, the fact that I was first starting to really get into PC gaming or whatever, but the 90s and early 2000s is really the only time I’ve really felt “amazed” at the advancements in graphics. (To be fair, seeing the first “photo-realistic” pictures from Crysis were cool..but didn’t stick with me as much)

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  11. TobyByard says:

    ★ ★ ★ ★

    My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

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  12. deanamasterson says:

    My first job out of High School was at St Paul and over the next 5 years Iearned so very much. Seeing the hospital torn down tears a small piece of my heart out. The Daughters of Charity and the doctors and staff of St Paul Hospital will always be with me.

    Best Of Luck for new Initiative!