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Retro: SimCity 2000

In keeping with our Sim theme, I thought I'd publish this piece which was originally written in summer 2007 for PC Gamer UK's Long Play series. This look back at SimCity 2000 invites the anger of fans of the subsequent SimCity games by claiming it was the best the series had to offer. Perhaps it's just me... Perhaps not. If nothing else I think that 2000 captures the quintessential essence of a City game.

This is the one. No subsequent Sim-sequel has been able to capture SimCity 2000's primal management essence. This is the Sim game upon which all others rest, like resource-pecking vultures on the bones of some perfect Darwinian entity. The isometric depth of this sequel dragged us outwards and upwards from the original SimCity, inspiring us to such an extent that that original compulsion to build and zone and budget seemed flat and parochial by comparison.

2000's rich spine of management systems and statistical paraphernalia induces the weird urge in all gamers to become tight-fisted local governors. Back in 1994 we couldn't help but worry about how close the industrial zones were to our suburban housing, or about how much we were spending on road maintenance, or subways, or airports. The same is true in 2007. Once unearthed and installed, a city must be founded, expanded and maintained.

2000 managed to be as easy to use as a set of child's crayons, and yet abyssally deep – and the perfect scaffold for tactical imagining, like Chess, or Elite. It was that sudden, wondrous game, and the thing which threatened to consume hours, days, months, relationships, careers, lives. SimCity was a fine example of the 'emergent' game scenario. It started out with a simple set of things we could do – build roads, zone land for commerce or residence – and yet the possibilities that emerged from even the smallest decisions were vast. A butterfly beat its wings over there, and a deficit the size of the moon swelled up over here.

Like so many great games, SimCity is what clever men call “computationally irreducible”. This means that no one can understand quite how it works without experiencing building a city for themselves. You might know what the game was about, or even grasp the mechanical programming that powered it, but you couldn't not understand how it worked without spending those hours at your desktop. Games are more than the sum of their rules, and it's never truer than in the case of SimCity 2000. Even more crucially: it could all be understood at a glance. This was a game so clean and crisp, so immediate and detailed, even way back in the prehistory of 1994, that we knew things without having to ask. You could see neighbourhoods prosper, see roads congest and collapse, watch buildings fade into cracked dereliction, or be rejuvenated by fresh investment. It was a masterpiece of design – visual, simulatory, managerial.

Yet what we most readily forget about this ancient, Spartan game is just how hard it could be. To build and to have a balanced budget was tricky enough, but factor in disasters and the stupendous costs of infrastructure and you'd be crying like an onion-eyed baby over your balance sheet. Failure, like all videogame failure, taught us that we had to learn, to master, to repeat and overcome. We learned that persistence was the only route to success, and that enough police stations would drive crime down for good. Eventually, we knew, we'd break the back of this thing, and place hospitals at just the right juncture, or drive trade forward with a seaport or out of town highway. And then the cash would roll in, and the tiny skyscrapers would grow, and then be replaced with finer, more expensive constructions. Eventually, with our once small town expanded through a thousand interations into a shining metropolis, we began to place the arcologies. The arcologies, alongside the science fiction power sources such as fusion reactors, represented SimCity 2000's cheerful poke at urban futurism. Cities, it said, are where we're going to be living from now on. They're going to have to be the same, but better. One day, perhaps, our cities will contain super-cities of their own, and we will be wealthier and more sophisticated than in any utopian fantasy... 2000 did the whole grand sweep – from a Wild West Milton Keynes built on a railroad and no luck, to the kind of culture-crushing mega-conurbation that causes mountains to wilt.

These days there are prettier, more sophisticated city games. SimCity itself has a string of sequels, each one mathematically more monstrous than the last. But are any of them actually a better simulation? Do any of them capture the idea and the processes of operating a city better than this? The answer, without only a molecule of room for doubt, is no.

And so SimCity 2000 has drifted into legend. As I researched this article I found a forum post (on one of those hidden tech forums accidentally unearthed via Google, internet places that you have never seen before and will never see again) where some innocent asked: “Is it true that if you build 35 arcologies they 'blast off' into space, thus ending the game?” It seemed unlikely, but I didn't know. I still don't. But hell, I intend to find out.

An Urban Vista

Oh, ferchrissakes! The Windows 95 version of Simcity 2000 has worked faultlessly on PCs since the dawn of gaming. Even on XP it ran with no real problems, not even requiring use of the compatibility mode (unless you were trying to run the original DOS version). On Vista, however, there's no way to make it work that we can discover. It simply won' work! Way to go, Microsoft you /history-butchers!/

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Jim Rossignol