With the outrageous success of The Sims and its subsequent titles, it’s easy to forget that Maxis’s flagship title was preceded by a great many games where you could play god in other ways. While obviously, manipulating simulated humans to do our bidding—from following their dreams of becoming a hand model, to being locked in a cupboard until they meet the sweet embrace of death—has incredible pull, we mustn’t forget there were some great (and not so great) games that paved the way for us to be able to exercise our latent psychopathic tendencies on replicas of our enemies without fear of consequence.
I have absolutely no idea why I own SimAnt. I have no idea how I acquired it, and I can’t remember a time in my life when it wasn’t around. I know no one bought it new for me, because it had already been out for two years by the time I was born. Maybe it was a present after that? Perhaps some now estranged family member saw me as a baby and said “Yes. That boy will need an ant simulation computer game.” But regardless of how it came into my life or vice versa, SimAnt is nothing if it is not strange, and yes, as the title suggests, you take control of an ant. One that can sort of control the rest of the ants. But you’re also kind of all the other ants too? Yeah, it’s weird. You’re also reborn as a new omnipotent ant every time you die.
One of the most enjoyable things about this game (apart from the ant reincarnation) is how sci-fi it feels; in the same way that looking through a microscope takes you to different worlds. Seeing the ants up close and personal with the grainy, pixellated dirt makes them seem like gruesome aliens on the surface of some distant galaxy. The mechanics were pretty cool too: SimAnt had combat, recruitment, construction, stealth, mass-mobility. Honestly it was Pikmin, only over a decade before Miyamoto thought of it. My favourite part of the game though was all of those wonderful death scenes. From seeing a painstakingly crafted graphic of your precious dismembered yellow ant’s body after losing to a rival colony, to being told “your guts are dissolved and drained away as you are desiccated by the spider”, this is Maxis’s dark humour at its finest. These days, there’s a lot of love for SimAnt on the internet, which makes sense because really, there’s nothing else quite like the odd adventure it took us on.
SimCity 2000 (1993)
A couple of years ago, I revisited Sim City 2000 and had a lot of fun with it. I was at university studying architecture, and decided that Sim City would constitute more effective research into urban planning than actually reading my recommended texts. As it happened, I hated architecture anyway, so I’m glad I spent my time more wisely than trying to work out what the hell Le Corbusier was on about.
There are people who play SimCity and then there are people who play SimCity. I used to mess around a bit, and SimCity 2000 really taught me that I am terrible at constructing fictional cities. So I mostly just used to cheat, where I’d get unlimited money, unlock all the objects, build a heap of arcos—huge buildings that acted as self contained cities—then waste them all with that gargantuan cyclops alien robot thing. But there are people who spend vast amounts of time creating the perfect city - and keep in mind, this is not a bunch of people, each with their own talents, adding to the simulated city’s richness. No, this is in most cases, one person, creating complex formulas to build these distorted Utopias. Like this guy. It was at the point of reading the words “totalitarian buddhist who beat SimCity” that I conceded that perhaps it was not my destiny to realise any sort of functionality in this game. So I just kept wasting stuff with disasters.
This game did not work for me, but I don’t think it worked for anyone, really. These days, as someone who is planning a future as a health professional, I can appreciate it, but I appreciate it in the same way as I appreciate a pharmacology textbook: I’m sure it’s helping me learn, but it’s really making me want a valium. It shared its interface with other Sim titles, but the similarities began and ended there. It was released in 1994 during debates in the U.S. regarding the Clinton healthcare plan, as a way for anyone who felt like it (see: very few people) to create their own working version of the U.S. health network.
The game was received with criticisms ranging from negative to lukewarm, for both its unexciting gameplay and high difficulty. While it looked like a Sim title, the gameplay was dry and lacked the sardonic wit that was present in other titles. I would love to say its greatest moments are unintentional flecks of joy the player experiences upon witnessing the demise of their healthcare system, revenge on a society whose only sin was to inhabit such a boring game. But alas, I cannot. The highlight of the game is indeed at the beginning, where an info box tells you that you’ve been involved in an awful car accident. It’s the most action in the entire game, and if you play for any longer than 10 minutes, anything even suggesting the promise of death will sound like a pretty sweet deal.
Sim Safari is my shit. As a child I used to spend vast amounts of time refreshing the map to create a new park, constantly searching for that perfect balance of water and savannah to allow my animals to thrive. I had five star parks, a considerable feat for someone like me, as I am objectively terrible at most other Sim games. Something about the lateral thinking needed for SimCity was lost on me, but once Maxis added animals, I soared. My meerkat communities were unrivalled; my park-village relations warm and prosperous, and my naturalists and environmentalists were the most esteemed in all of Africa. This game was something I could get behind.
But, as is the mark of a truly entertaining game, it was also a hell of a lot of fun to play the wrong way as well. Want to make a park full of nothing but warthogs? Go ahead! Want to throw a cheetah in the middle of your savanna hare colony and watch chaos unfold? Hey, it’s your park! It even had the same “disasters” tool as Sim City employed, only this time, you could decimate the world of your creation with a plague of locusts. It’s semi-educational, and I use the term semi, because a lot of the actual African wildlife stuff is plain incorrect, but hey, we’re not here to learn, we’re here to create the best safari park on earth! As in, one that’s populated solely by warthogs.
Sid Meier’s SimGolf (2002)
My thoughts on golf are mixed. On one hand, I wholeheartedly endorse any sport one can play whilst holding a gin and tonic, but on the other, my thoughts are not dissimilar to the OC’s Kirsten Cohen’s; when it is suggested that “lots of couples play golf together” she replies with “shortly before dying of old age.” So could a sport which I thought balanced on the thin line between “fine” and “abhorrent” really captivate my interest when I was controlling its grounds in glorious pixels? Well, I definitely found it more enjoyable than playing real golf. And I could still do it with a drink in my hand.
The premise is obviously to create a functioning simulated golf course, but it’s a lot more fun played the wrong way, much like real golf. You can play on the golf courses you’ve created and create excruciatingly difficult holes that a bunch of hideously cartoonish NPCs can play through with you, and watch everyone get really, really pissed off. Once again, the beauty is in design rather than the gameplay, and the colourful courses are the perfect backdrop for some hilarious little vignettes to be woven between the NPCs playing together. The features it shares with The Sims—which was by 2002 already widely popular—somehow make the world feel warmer and more immersive. Who knew simlish sounded so much like home? Highlight: when your golf course is finally visited by Britney Aguilera.
After the popularity of SimCity and SimCity 2000, Maxis’s adoring public queried: “won’t somebody please think of the children?” And think of the children Maxis did, by releasing their smaller scale locale construction sim, SimTown; a game which was a lot easier for a younger audience to play than the hugely complicated SimCity titles. And it worked. I remember playing this at after school care after already having tried the SimCity games, and thinking how great it was that it was so much easier to understand how to play and how much I liked the bright colours and infectious music. Even the food had sound effects! Amazing! And I was no longer bound by the mortal constraints of currency, so I was free to build whatever I liked.
As mentioned, SimTown operates in an extremely similar way to SimCity however the increased accessibility was a savvy marketing move by Maxis. The buildings were gloriously goofy and apart from a few gamekeeping rules in place to stop it from becoming an unplayable free-for-all, it was pretty open to illogic and childishness. Chalets sit on the streets next to adobe clay homes, across the street from police stations with towering handcuffs as part of their architecture. Meanwhile, downtown, a child buys burgers from out a clown’s face before heading home to their medieval castle. What a time to be alive.
Cal rants on Twitter about the masterpiece that is SimSafari at least twice a week. Follow him here.