Theme Park DOS review

Now, we’re just upping the ante, aren’t we? Still, it’s impossible to make a Bullfrog retrospective without mentioning another critical and commercial successful title, which is perhaps their most colourful game that also begun its own influential series. I’m talking about Theme Park.

Theme Park is a managerial strategy game developed by Bullfrog and published by Electronic Arts. It was originally released in 1994 for the 3DO, Commodore Amiga, DOS and Macintosh. The following year, it was ported to the Amiga CD32, FM Towns, Genesis/Megadrive, Jaguar, PC-98, Playstation, Sega Mega-CD, Sega Saturn and SNES/Super Nintendo. In 2007, it was remade for the Nintendo DS and in 2008, that remake was ported for the Playstation 3 and PSP and in 2012, it was ported for the PS Vita. In 2013, the original version was re-released for Windows and Macintosh. There’s also an iOS remake with microtransactions which was released in 2011, but it wasn’t as well received (I wonder why).

Whew, Theme Park might just be Bullfrog’s most ported title. But, like always, before we take a look at the game itself, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?

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This is perhaps the most famous cover and it’s quite adequate for this game. It could perhaps show more on the background, but you really don’t need anything else.

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If you saw my Populous review, this cover looks very familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a lot better than the original cover and it’s not only more colourful but also conveys better what the game’s about.

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Now I know this one’s just a image taken from the CD intro but it’s better suited for the cartoony and comedic look of the game. It’s perhaps not as busy as the previous cover, but I like it.

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Meh! Although truth be told, the design isn’t that bad, but it could definitely use more colour.

And now, let’s boot this sucker into the roller coaster, shall we?

The intro is from the CD-ROM version of the game and between the eerie music and the Willy Wonka lookalike, it feels like the start of an horror movie. And that hole at the end of the roller coaster? Believe me, it goes straight to Hell! The menu screen could use a bit more work. It reminds me a bit of Syndicate and it really shouldn’t. Perhaps a rounder font would be better suited.

When starting a new park (and game), you have quite a range of options to customise your gameplay: from the park’s name, to the difficulty levels and more. Your gameplay can be just focused to build and customise theme parks or it can have a lot more depth to it in the several managerial options (like buying stock for your stores, negotiating your employees’ wages or researching new rides and attractions). The fact that you can make your gameplay more or less complex, just bring a whole new level to the game itself, as it caters to both casual and hardcore strategy players.

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In building your first park, you have no other option than to start in the UK, because you don’t have any money to buy lands and in the UK, it’s free. So, you always have start there. At the beginning, you only have a few rides and stores to build. You unlock the rest as you play along or research for it (depending on the type of gameplay you chose). You even have the option of a mini-tutorial which explains the basic game mechanics. But to properly understand the most complex mechanics, I recommend reading the manual first.

You also have to hire employees to manage the rides and stores, including handymen to fix broken rides, mascots to entertain the public and janitors to keep the parks clean, among others. Every now and then, a new screen pops up and you have to play a minigame in order to negotiate the employees’ wages with their representative. Also a small hint: make sure to program your janitors’ routes to make sure they actually clean the entire park.

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The very start of the game.

Not only do you build and decorate the park, but you also have to micromanage every little aspect, like the ride’s efficiency, the tickets’ prices, the shops’ stocks, services, etc. And when building the big rides, like roller coasters, you can customise its length and altitude to your liking (even create unrealistic rides that would be too dangerous in the real world). The objective is to make sure that your park’s visitors always have a good time and leave satisfied (and hopefully, also with their wallets empty).

In case your park isn’t going well and the money starts running low, you can always take a loan from the bank, but of course, you have to be aware of the interests and if your park still doesn’t have any success (and no money to pay the interests), the bank can always take it away from you as payment. You also have to keep an eye in the stock market and make sure your stocks are high or else, one of your competitors can make an hostile takeover of your park. But these options are only available in business mode.

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Now this is more like it!

And after a few years, you have the option to auction your park for a hefty sum of money (if the park was successful) and start in a different country, whose location and land price determine the difficulty in building and manage a new park.

This is just a light review of the game mechanics, because Theme Park in business mode has a lot more depth and micromanagement to it, but because it also has the other two modes, it doesn’t scare away players who aren’t very good with this particular genre, making Theme Park a great entry for it.

Technically speaking, the game has good graphics and very colourful sprites and animation. You can even change the resolution ingame, but I don’t like the bigger resolution all that much (it makes the sprites very small, although it increases the view). The music is very obviously upbeat and the sound effects are also very good (although you’ll get tired of a particular sound sample).

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You can build your Roller Coaster any way you like.

So in general, I have to say that Theme Park is a very deep managerial game, but also very customisable, which is great for both beginners and veterans of the genre. If you want a fast and casual game, you have that option; but if you want a deep, slow micromanagement simulation, you also have that option. In other words, I highly recommend it, whether if you’re a fan of this genre or simply want an easy introduction to it.

Theme Park had an enormous success with both players and critics alike and spawned a successful series. Its direct sequel might have taken a different direction (Theme Hospital), but it came back to its original theme for the rest of the series. It also inspired the RollerCoaster Tycoon series. You can find Theme Park here at GOG.com.

So here ends our Bullfrog retrospective. I know some of you were expecting a Dungeon Keeper review, but like I said before, my work took a lot of my free time. But don’t worry, I promise to review it some other time. Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this retrospective and hopefully, there’ll be more to come. See you guys around and until then, keep on playing.

Syndicate DOS review

Well, this retrospective sure is going slow, isn’t it? Sorry for taking so long, but because of recent work issues, I no longer have a lot of free time. And it happened all of a sudden, without notice, so I couldn’t cancel anything or plan around it.

Anyway, today’s review is probably of my favourite Bullfrog title (apart from Theme Hospital and the original Dungeon Keeper, that is): Syndicate.

Syndicate is an action/strategy game developed by Bullfrog and published by Electronic Arts. It was originally released in 1993 for Amiga and DOS. It was ported the next year for the Macintosh, Genesis/Megadrive, SNES/Super Nintendo, FM Towns and PC-98. In 1995, it was ported to the Sega CD, Super Famicom, 3DO, Amiga CD32 and the Jaguar. There was apparently an Acorn Arquimedes and a PSP port also, but I couldn’t find any information about them.

But before taking a look at the game, let’s look at the covers, shall we?

63231-syndicate-amiga-front-coverThis is the European cover and I have to say that it looks cool, with a green map (that kind of looks like a computer schematic at 1st glance) and a futuristic looking image of a trench coat ninja in a Blade Runner-esque city background. I simply wished that the left image was bigger, like in the Jaguar cover:

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Apparently in the future, Youngblood’s Disease will become an epidemic!

Very nice, but the US cover is even better:

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This is definitely my favourite cover. It really conveys the cyberpunk atmosphere found in the game. And the back cover is equally awesome:

353-syndicate-dos-back-coverThis could perfectly be a comic book cover. And I would buy it.

But it’s about time we boot this sucker, isn’t it?

The intro’s really stylish and it definitely looks like something out of Blade Runner, but it doesn’t explain well the game’s backstory: you play as an upstart executive of a multinational corporation in a dystopian, cyberpunk future, whose objective is basically to conquer the world through several missions using cybernetic agents, which you’ll directly control on said missions.

The manual gives a more extensive background story, but basically what I just wrote in the previous paragraph is all the background you really need to know. Still, for those who like cyberpunk fiction, it isn’t a bad read.

You can start by customising your company name and logo (although the later doesn’t have many options) and then start your first mission in Western Europe. But before doing so, I suggest spending some of your initial money either upgrading your agents with cybernetic body mods, buying them better weapons or investing on research for better mods and weapons. You can even choose how much money you want to invest on research. The more money you invest, the quicker it’ll be finished.

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Customising your agents.

When choosing a mission, you can even spend money to get more information about the objectives and/or a more detailed map, which can be helpful in the later and harder missions.

There are few types of missions, but the most common ones are: assassination (where your agents need to infiltrate a certain place to assassinate a target), urban assault (where basically your agents need to eliminate all the other companies’ agents), persuasion (where at least one of your agents needs to equip a Persuadertron, use it on a specific target and bring it unharmed to a certain location for safe extraction), among others. The later missions are not only harder, but some even have a time limit to finish them.

Every time you finish a mission, you end up conquering the region where said mission occurred and you can even raises the taxes on said region. But be careful, if the population of that region rebels against you due to high taxes, you have to repeat its mission (which can be a pain in the ass if it was a particular hard mission, but a blessing if it was an easy one).

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On the field.

For each mission, you can choose up to 4 agents to control out of an initial number of eight in your company’s cryo chamber. If you lose all your agents (including those in the cryo chamber), then it’s an automatic game-over. But you can always recruit new agents using the Persuadertron during the missions on civilians or guards.

While controlling the agents on the field, you can manipulate their IPA levels. IPA stands for Intelligence (green bar), Perception (blue bar) and Adrenaline (red bar). You can inject drugs through your agents’ cybernetic chip by moving said bars to the left or right. Each direction you move the bars has its benefits and disadvantages, e.g.: moving the red bar to the right will make your agents run faster (and if they’re equipped with the legs mods, even faster) but at the expense of health regeneration; while moving it to the left will increase your agents’ health regeneration, but they’ll move and act slower. I highly recommend reading this part of the manual before playing because it can be the key to finish a hard mission successfully.

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After winning a mission.

This is practically all you need to know about the core gameplay, which it’s more or less intuitive and easy to get into. But how about the technical aspects? Well, graphically the game looks awesome, with the initial menus looking like something out an 80s futuristic computer interface. But the missions’ graphics are even better. First, while playing the missions, the game changes to a better resolution with better graphics and colours than the menus, with an isometric view. The sprites, although being very small, are very well detailed in both the characters and the buildings. All the cities look like they were taken directly from Blade Runner with huge screens next to the square and oppressive dark buildings.

These visuals along with the soft techno music gives a proper cyberpunk atmosphere. Bullfrog’s developers really did their homework on this one and props must be given where it’s due. The aforementioned techno soundtrack is quite good with the slow beat speeding up everytime an enemy agent appears (which can be used as a warning sign). The sound effects are equally great, especially the voices, the sound of the weapons being fired and the explosions. The control scheme is exclusively through mouse (except in the console versions, of course) and with a good mouse at hand, you won’t have any problems playing the game.

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“He’s got the whole world in his hands”.

The only drawbacks I can think up are really more nitpicking than anything else, but I don’t like the fact that you can’t see inside the buildings. Luckily your mini-map (and the scanner item) can be useful in that regard. And you can’t change the camera’s perspective and angle (which was solved in the sequel). Also once you deplete a weapon’s ammo, you might as well drop it and pick up another one because there isn’t any ammo anywhere in this game to grab. But despite all these small drawbacks, this game is lots of fun and still one of my favourite games and needless to say, I highly recommend it.

Apparently the Sega and Nintendo ports have different levels with similar gameplay, but I never actually played those, so I can’t really judge for myself. If someone played them, feel free to post your opinions in the comments section.

If you want to buy a full-functioning copy of Syndicate now, you can buy it on GOG.com (it’s called Syndicate Plus because it’s bundled with the expansion American Revolt). But you can also play FreeSynd, an open-source engine recreation, free of any charge.

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After killing a guard.

And talking about the expansion: American Revolt was released in 1993 only for the Amiga and DOS and features new missions, weapons and even introduced multiplayer gameplay. But unfortunately due to the lack of time, I couldn’t play it and so, I’m forced to postpone its review to a later date. Maybe I’ll feature a month just to review expansions, who knows?

Syndicate gained a sequel, Syndicate Wars, a few years later (another review for another time) and a FPS reboot also called Syndicate in 2012 by Starbreeze Studios, which wasn’t well received by both the players and critics alike. But in 2013, a spiritual sequel called Satellite Reign was successfully crowdfunded through Kickstarter, which prompted its release in 2015 by 5 Lives Studios among several accolades by the critics.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the review and again I apologise for being late. Hopefully, this upcoming week, I’ll get less workload, which will free up some time for playing and reviewing. But since the month isn’t over yet, there’s still time for at least 1 more review for this retrospective. So stay tuned and until next time, keep on playing!

Populous review

Well, it isn’t too hard to figure out which Bullfrog game I’ll start reviewing for this retrospective. And it’s only fair that I start with Bullfrog’s first and possibly biggest success ever: Populous.

Populous is a managerial/strategy game developed by Bullfrog and published by Electronic Arts. It was originally released in 1989 for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS. The following year, it was ported to the Genesis/Megadrive, PC-98, Sharp X68000 and the SNES/Super Nintendo. In 1991, it was ported to the Master System and Turbografx-16. In 1992, it was ported to the Acorn 32-bit and the following year for the Macintosh. In 2011, it was re-released for Windows.

Peter Molyneux came up with the initial idea of Populous first by watching Glenn Corpes’ work and then by experimenting with the AI, in which small sprites (called “peeps” by Molyneux) travel through the land until they encountered water. And then, after increasing and reducing the terrain into flatland, the peeps were programmed to build houses that would grow in size the more flatland would be available to them. To help the team visualise the gameplay, they used LEGO blocks.

But before looking at said gameplay, let’s first look at the covers, shall we?

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This is the first and most famous cover and I have to say that it’s a good art rendition of the game itself. While it doesn’t give the players nearly any indication of what the game is really about, one can’t deny that it’s visually striking to say the least.

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Now this cover is a bit more ominous, but it also conveys what the game is about more properly than the previous one, I think. I simply wish it had more elements to it, though.

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This is the US SNES cover and it’s just a poor man’s version of the original cover. They tried to make it more compelling in order to convey action, but as you’ll see, Populous is anything but an action game.

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This is the Japan PC Engine cover and while it’s better and more faithful than the previous one, it still tries to convey a bit of action, although I do like the ominous background.

But let’s finally boot this sucker, shall we?

The game doesn’t have a story per se. You’re simply a god given a few followers and your objective is to make your followers grow enough so they can kill the other god’s followers and conquer the world they’re in. Pretty simple objective, don’t you think? Well, it’s in the execution that you’ll find the core gameplay.

In the title screen (that features 2 angry guys, one blue and the other red, locked in a staring contest), you have 3 options to choose from: Tutorial (where you can go through easy levels just to get the hang of the gameplay mechanics), Conquest (the single player mode, where you have to conquer more than 500 levels or worlds, as the game calls it) and Custom (where you can design a level, customise all the options, even the AI, or simply play a multiplayer game through a modem).

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Sometimes this fellow appears and starts shitting mountains across the map.

But whatever the mode you choose, you end up in the main gameplay screen where you have an isometric view of the current world in the center, a book in the upper left corner that shows an overview of the world, an horizontal scale, a coat of arms in the upper right corner that shows your mana level and the followers’ info and several icons in both lower corners, the left with your commands and the right with the game’s options.

Although the icons are all pretty self-explanatory and the gameplay is somewhat intuitive, I still recommend reading the manual before playing to get a good idea of each icon and their function.

The objective in each level, like I said before, is to grow your followers and defeat the other god’s followers, but here’s the gist of the game: you don’t actually control your followers directly, but the world they’re in! What do I mean with this? Well, you can only control the terrain, the weather and your followers’ leader to an extent. The only control you have on your followers is that you put on a giant ankh anywhere on the map and tell your leader to go there (which subsequently your followers will follow suit) and also you can order them to attack the other followers.

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Everytime you finish a level, this fellow appears and challenges you to conquer a new world.

To deter the other god’s followers, you have access to several natural disasters, ranging from creating inhospitable swamps to flood large portions of the map, but the most powerful the calamity, the more mana it needs to invoke it. And the more followers you have, the more mana you’ll get. Also, you need to be careful that you won’t hurt your own followers when invoking the catastrophes.

Also, the first levels all occur in green areas, but later on you find yourself playing in snowy, desert and lava environments. In fact, the more inhospitable is the environment, the harder it is for your followers to grow and expand. And the 3 expansions, The Promised Lands (originally released in 1989), brings 5 new landscapes and 500 new maps, The Final Frontier (also released in 1989, but only for the Amiga and Atari ST), brings 1 new alien-looking landscape and even more 500 new maps and the World Editor (released in 1991, again, only for the Amiga) gives you the opportunity to build and edit your own worlds.

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From The Promised Lands: welcome to the Wild West. No giant mechanical spider included.

But it’s due to the high number of levels (even counting the expansions) that it’s almost impossible to actually finish it. And although the console versions have an ending of sorts, the computer version simply repeats the same animation after finishing each level. Populous is one of those games that simply repeats itself (but harder each time) until the player is satisfied or until he/she stumbles on a really hard level. So, there isn’t any actual ending to the game per se.

But on a technical level, the game is undoubtedly pretty, with colorful graphics, despite the sprites being quite small. The animation is also pretty good, although the natural disasters could benefit from better animation. The sound effects could also be better, but are important to the gameplay (as a warning to the AI’s actions). The title theme is quite good (especially on a Roland MT-32), but it’s the only musical theme on the entire game. And if you decide to play with the music on, it plays over the sound effects for some reason.

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Maybe building a house next to a river of lava, might not be that bright…

In conclusion, I found Populous a bit repetitive (although the expansions do bring some variety, despite being only the cosmetic type), but the gameplay is without a doubt addictive, because I always end up trying to fill the entire map with my followers and it’s a time-consuming game, meaning that before you know it, you’ll end up playing it for several hours without realizing. So, despite not having aged all that well, I still say to give it a shot, especially if you enjoy these type of games.

Regardless to say, that for bringing such innovation to the managerial/strategy genre, Populous was a groundbreaking commercial and critical success, so much so, that Bullfrog and Peter Molyneux became famous almost overnight. The “god genre” (as Molyneux himself coined it) became extremely popular and influential, especially in the 4X genre and in Sid Meier’s Civilization series, among others.

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Bit Land from The Promised Lands. Probably my favourite landscape.

It even spawned two sequels (Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods and Populous: The Beginning), which we’ll review on a later date. It was remade for the Nintendo DS in 2008 by XSEED Games (simply titled Populous DS) and it also had two spiritual sequels: Molyneux’s Godus (which the lesser said about it, the better) and Reprisal Universe by Electrolyte and Last17 and originally released in 2012.

So, where can you get your hands on Populous? Well, you can buy it here on GOG.com (along with the expansion The Promised Lands).

Anyway, did you enjoy our first review into our Bullfrog retrospective? Well then, be sure to stay tuned because next time, we’ll be taking a look at one of my personal favourite titles made by Bullfrog. Until then, keep on creating more flatland and on playing.