THEME PARK by Bullfrog/Electronic Arts

Reviewed by John Cranston


Let's cut straight to the chase. Theme Park could and should have been a great game. It is not. It is not so much a bad game, but a disappointing one. Why ? It's boring. BORING !

But wait. You don't know me after all, so let's put this into some kind of perspective by saying I find SimCity (any version) to be boring. BORING! SimCity's a great concept for a game that I wish a real game- playing game designer like Sid Meir would tackle. I don't have the room here to go on about SimCity, but I mention it so that those who feel differently can better compare their feelings about game design and gameplay and judge what I'm about to say about Theme Park accordingly.

Let's move on to the tech specs.


 Ea's recommendation: 386DX25, 4 M, VGA, MS-DOS 5.0. 
         Reviewed on: 386DX33, 64k cache, 4 M, 387 co-proc., ATI 
                      Wonder 512k, Soundblaster Pro, MS-DOS 6.0.
 Minimum recommended: 486DX33, 8 M. (makes all the difference, in fact,
                                     the game is optimized for 8 M)


Installation from six floppies is very simple, short and straight-forward. The docs state that 21 M should be free on your drive, but this is only the amount of room needed for installation. The program itself will take up about 15.5 M, plus about 600 K per save file. Which is the good news. From here on, for systems with only 4 M (regardless of proces-sor), it gets pretty grim.

The first thing 4mb RAM owners must do upon installation is choose to do one of three things: create a boot disk, rem the emm386 line in your config.sys, or F8 when booting.

Theme Park uses its own memory manager which conflicts with emm386, particularly on systems with only 4 M. If you ignore one of the above three choices, the game will load and work, but without sound effects. Small sacrifice ? Wrong. The sound effects are critical to gameplay.

Want to play in hires VGA ? On systems with only 4 M, you have to change the sound settings to none for both effects and music for VGA cards with 1mb or less of DRAM or VRAM. Worth it ? After all the trouble you just went through you'll find that the game becomes so slow and jerky, and the mouse even more unreliable (more on that later) that you will pro-bably revert back to lowres VGA. Besides, you need those sound effects.

If you have 8 M ignore the above.

If you have 16 M and a 16-bit soundcard, you get slightly enhanced sound effects. Otherwise you are reminded of your system's inadequacy with the message "Cannot load high quality sound. Trying low quality sound..." (or words to that effect), every time you load the game.


The manual, like a most manuals it seems these days, is minimalist to say the least. The only reason it's as many as 60 pages long is because it's barely bigger than a 5.25" disk. It covers all the basics, very basically. Discovering the why and wherefore of a lot of features will be a matter of guesswork or a phone call to EA (who quite often reply with "I don't know").

The sound effects (once you open the park that is) are so good at first that they will entrance you into believing for a few moments that this is a real park. Each ride has it's own musical theme and effects which you hear only as you scroll around your park. However, you might find yourself wishing for a little more variety in the sound effects - as good as they are - after a few extended hours of gameplay.

The graphics too are pretty good, or good and pretty. The park looks and sounds - in a cartoony sort of way - much as one thinks a real park should, which I think should summarise this section quite nicely.


Theme Park is a game of financial management built around an amusement park construction set. The game starts with a long and well drawn, but dim and out of focus animation, after which you enter your name (under which you are able to save up to 10 games - and there is no limit to the number of names you can use), set the game's parameters and choose a location to build your park. Each location on the world map (they range from the US to China with such locations as Alaska, Siberia and Antarctica as alternatives) costs a different amount to start in and offer differing economic environments. Finally, you're placed at the front gates of your park property and the clock starts ticking.

If you choose to play with all the options on (advisable, by choosing the lower levels of play first you will spoil whatever surprises are in store for you by the time you finally decide to play with all the options on), your first priorities will probably be setting the spending limits and priorities for your "research" department, and buying up all your stock from the stock market screen. Now you can start building your park.

At first, you have a limited selection of components (rides, con-cessions and "features" (walls, trees, washrooms, fountains and lakes)) with which to build a park (which is why it's advisable to get your "research" going immediately). Viewed from an overhead and slightly iso-metric angle, you're faced with a walled, featureless, rectangular bit of grassland, alongside of which runs a road for a bus.

Everything in your park is determined by your pathways. If the lifeblood of your park is the crowd of people that enter, your paths are the park's arteries which determine the crowd's flow and thus the general health of your park. Everything you can add to the park is simply attached to your network of paths and the crowd will take it from there. The construction set aspect of Theme Park is very similar to SimCity's in that the paths, rides and concessions serve the same function in Theme Park as the roads, zones and "utilities" do in SimCity. Just lay them out, sit back, and watch. The simpeople in both programs take it from there. There is much more to fiddle with in Theme Park, but most of that is in way of financial adjustments.

Everything is accessed by a simple icon bar along the bottom of the screen and (or) your typical menu bar at the top of the screen. It is all reasonably intuitive, with a brief tutorial and an "Advisor" to help you along.


Theme Park gives the impression of being a great game with a lot of depth, and therefore replayability, especially during the first few hours of your first park/game. It mimics quite well the sights and sounds, in a cartoony sort of way as I said before, of an amusement park, and you think you're having a lot of fun. Until things begin to go wrong. What these will be will vary a great deal from player to player because they are entirely dependent on your combination of processor, VGA card, sound card, mouse driver, and the amount of memory you have. There are a huge number of problems in this game, some of which are common bugs, others of which are directly related to your individual system configuration. I had four pages worth of bugs to report to EA, (way too many to detail here, but FOUR pages worth should be enough of a clue) most of which they could not help me with (a consequence of an unconcerned US distributor and a British developer I suppose).

Theme Park wouldn't be a good game even if it didn't have ANY bugs. It suffers from a symptom common to a lot of games, lack of replayability. Once you've built your first park, you've seen and done it all. The only variation between parks will be it's layout. Each park however will function in exactly the same way, regardless of layout or economic factors. The crowds always react in exactly the same way, regardless of where in the world you are (they dress the same for Antarctica as they would for California, they'll still want plenty of ice cream and cold drinks, even in Antarctica, and the rides placed closest to the park entrance will be your most popular - which means that in all of your parks the simple Tree House ride will be more popular than any Roller Coaster you build !).

The subgames within Theme Park aren't well developed either. One might think that a research component would add some variability to the game in that you would never know which rides/concessions you were going to get and when. But no, once you've built your first park, you've seen all the rides and concessions you're going to. They never vary in function, order of appearance, or number. The 20-odd rides and 17 concessions you get with the game is it. Why Bullfrog didn't realise that this limitation severely detracts from one's desire to play the game again is beyond me. It seems like such a simple thing to add a routine that would randomize the rides and concessions you would get at the beginning of each game. I would have much prefered to see the three disks (almost 7 M) that are wasted on the animations (after all, how many times does anyone ever look at opening animations ?) given instead to a whole bunch of extra rides and conces- sions, different kinds of food in appropriate areas of the world, diff- erent dress for the crowds where appropriate, and the extra graphics re- quired for each ride and concession (especially), so that you can rotate and place them anywhere you please, instead of the single facing Bullfrog offers (all concessions must have their entrance on it's south side, thus limiting their placement in your park).

The financial aspect of the game is equally disappointing in that it is as boring as any other spreadsheet style game, without offering the same number of options for those who enjoy this type of play, as in games like Detroit and Air Bucks. You can buy stocks for instance, and very easily buy out the entire issue of an opposing park's stock and, that's where it ends. What else can you do ? Well gee, you can sell them I sup-pose. What fun. Why did they bother ? Why didn't Bullfrog take this one step further and let you steal that park's ride designs, or 'borrow' it's cash, or even allow you to thereby create your own Theme Park empire, a la Walt Disney ? Instead, we have a stock market option which is nothing more than a nuisance (just buy all your own stock ASAP), and a static economic model that creates the pitfall of many a great game idea - a standard formula for success. Once you discover the right price point for everything in the park (heck, the Advisor will even tell you this), you never have to change it.

And that's the trouble with Theme Park. Once you've found the formula for success, much like an adventure game, there is no point in playing it again. Like SimCity, it's a great concept, reasonably well designed and crafted, but poorly executed.

And what is that formula ? The prices the Advisor will tell you about. You make the crowds in your park happy by placing a few "Entertainers" here and there and by turning on the fireworks. That's it.

If you still want to take a look at Theme Park, do yourself a favor and get a hold of the demo from PC Gamer and some of the British mags and play that instead (remembering that the same requirements need be met to run the demo as the full game). You will be limited to the same rides and concessions you start with at the very beginning of the full game, and all the subgames are disabled, but you will get a very good idea of what the game is like.

This review is copyright (C) 1994 by John Cranston for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.