Retro Gaming

SimCity: The Story of Pixels, Planning & Power Plants

From NIMBYs to nuclear disaster, SimCity inspired a generation to zone and govern their own virtual worlds.


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Sample SimCity with zones, traffic and rail

Released in 1989 to a market saturated with fast-paced action titles, SimCity defined a genre and launched a new game studio. The title swapped heroes and adventures with an open-ended sandbox simulating the complexities of urban planning. While it sounds like a tough sell, players quickly got addicted to plopping down zones and unclogging gridlocked roads. Gamers could choose to build up a metropolis or annihilate their creations with disasters.

SimCity’s Origin

SimCity welcome screen asking players to start a new city, load a city or start a scenario

The inception of SimCity can be traced back to the creative mind of game designer Will Wright. While developing Raid on Bungeling Bay, Wright found himself engrossed not in the gameplay but in the act of crafting the game’s terrain. It was this joy of creation that sparked the idea for a game centered around building and nurturing a city.

Embracing this concept, Wright sought to translate the intricacies of urban development into a digital experience. He envisioned a game that was less about winning or losing and more about the journey of growth and management. Yet, convincing the industry of the game’s potential was no easy feat. In an era fixated on scores and levels, a game that celebrated the process of creation was a hard sell. Publishers hesitated, uncertain of its commercial viability.

Undeterred by the mainstream’s reluctance, Wright joined forces with Jeff Braun to establish Maxis. SimCity was the company’s flagship title when it hit the shelves in 1989. Maxis and SimCity broke new ground together, offering gamers a sandbox that was as limitless as their own creativity.

SimCity‘s release was a watershed moment for Maxis, cementing its reputation as a studio that dared to push the boundaries. The game’s success validated Wright’s belief in the appeal of software games that didn’t follow a linear narrative, but instead allowed gamers to become creators in this new digital medium.

SimCity Gameplay

Gameplay with dense zones and lots of traffic across roads and railways

When starting a new city, players are presented with a blank canvas of terrain ripe for urban creation. This open-ended approach was groundbreaking. The game presents a map, complete with lakes, rivers, trees, and open lands, inviting players to bring their city-building dreams to life.

Zones and Government Services

The core of SimCity revolves around zoning—designating areas for residential, commercial, and industrial development. Each choice influences the city’s growth trajectory. Players must balance these zones strategically, ensuring the residents’ needs are met while fostering economic growth. Residential zones house the population, commercial zones provide jobs and services, and industrial zones drive the city’s economy — while adding traffic and pollution.

Establishing police and fire departments is crucial for maintaining public safety and order. These essential services work to prevent and quickly respond to crime and fires, ensuring the well-being of the city’s inhabitants and the protection of its infrastructure.

Power and Transit Infrastructure

Infrastructure plays a crucial role in a city’s success. Players must construct essential services like coal or nuclear power plants, lay roads, and set up public utility lines and railways. Infrastructure supports the city’s growth and maintains its residents’ happiness. Balancing the budget is key, as financial missteps can lead to urban decay or stunted growth.

For large a large metropolis, airports and seaports serve as vital hubs for trade and transportation. These ports expand the city’s reach and boost its economic growth. They increase connectivity, attracting tourists and business, and provide income streams to the city’s treasury through increased commerce.

SimCity challenges players to think like urban planners. They must consider various factors, such as traffic flow, access to services, and the city’s overall aesthetic appeal. As the city expands, new challenges and opportunities arise, keeping players engaged and invested in their urban creations.

This gameplay dynamic makes SimCity more than just a game; it’s a simulation of urban management, demanding foresight, planning, and adaptability. It’s this blend of creativity and strategy that has cemented SimCity as a classic in the gaming world.

When Disaster Strikes

SimCity scenario with fire disasters and nuclear radiation spreading across Boston in 2010

SimCity broke new ground as Maxis’s first simulation strategy that introduced an element that would captivate players for decades to come: disasters. These unpredictable events quickly became a hallmark of the game, proving that some players indeed just want to watch their virtual world burn. Earthquakes, fires, and even monsters tested players’ resilience and redefined gameplay, allowing players to test worst case scenarios while setting a precedent for future titles in the genre.

Managing these crises requires foresight to invest in preventive measures and a strong emergency infrastructure. A well-placed fire department can be the difference between a small incident and an urban inferno, while proactive policing can keep crime at bay before it escalates. Disasters in SimCity add a layer of complexity, challenging players to build cities that are not only functional and beautiful but also resilient and secure. It’s this unpredictable element that keeps mayors on their toes and ensures that no two cities are ever the same.

In a way, disasters showed how Maxis let the city itself become part of the user experience. Instead of dialog boxes telling the player that an area of the city lacked adequate fire coverage, the simulation might just start a five-alarm blaze. This metaphor would evolve in later SimCity titles, further making the city behave like a living, breathing thing.

Worst Case Scenarios

SimCity game scenario selection screen

Players not interested with building from scratch could instead explore the game’s included scenarios that tested their urban management prowess. These scenarios, set in diverse cities across time, provided players with objectives and constraints to push their planning skills to the limit.

Boston scenario challenging players to beat a nuclear meltdown

From the earthquake-stricken streets of San Francisco to the monster-ravaged Tokyo, each scenario required a strategic approach. Disaster recovery and city rehabilitation were critical elements of completing a scenario. The scenarios weren’t just about rebuilding; they were about improving, learning how to mitigate disasters, and enhancing the city’s resilience against future disasters. These engaging scenarios added depth to the gameplay, offering a compelling twist on the free-form building experience of the main game.

Expert SimCity Strategies for Aspiring Mayors

In the intricate world of SimCity, every budding mayor must learn to juggle the complexities of urban management to succeed. Start by focusing on the essentials: provide your citizens with power, water, and access to emergency services like police and fire departments to keep them safe and satisfied. As your city expands, monitor your budget closely, because financial health is the backbone of any thriving metropolis.

In the gameplay, remember that residential areas need commercial zones for jobs and industrial areas to drive economic growth. Keep an eye on pollution and crime rates; they can quickly tank your city’s reputation. And don’t forget about leisure—parks and recreational facilities go a long way in boosting your city’s appeal. With careful planning and a watchful eye on the city’s various needs and metrics, mayors can turn a modest town into a sprawling urban center.

Finally, be mindful of traffic. As your city expands, always have the next move in your mind as you plop down additional zones. if possible, offer multiple routes, and as your city grows, consider leaving room for rail that can greatly help improve traffic to your city’s center.

SimCity Cheat Codes

In SimCity, even the most astute mayors may fall prey to corruption or seek an occasional shortcut to success. Lucky for less than ethical mayors, SimCity included cheat codes; a tradition that was passed down to virtually all Maxis titles that followed.

Instant $10,000

Hold down Shift while typing the word FUND and $10,000 will immediately be wired to your city’s account. Be careful though: triggering this cheat three times annually will trigger an earthquake; and the code can only be used eight times. The $10,000 must also be eventually repaid as a loan with interest.

Maximizing Your Loans

Following the above cheat, use the instant $10,000 code up to eight times before you build anything. This will ensure you don’t receive any earthquake damage, and can immediately build with a rich city treasury to jumpstart growth.

Minimizing Monsters and Tornadoes

The instant you’re hit with one of these disasters, immediately pause and save your game. If you do so quickly enough, the disaster should be gone as soon as you reload the saved file.

Digging into the Data: SimCity Charts and Maps

SimCity data map showing power grid information

In SimCity, the success of your urban empire is reflected in the metrics: the lifeblood of your city’s growth. Population spikes drive your tax base, funding the infrastructure that keeps your city thriving. It’s a delicate dance, balancing residential happiness with the bustle of commerce and the hum of industry.

City graphs showing population, crime, industry and commerce over time

As mayor, you’ll need to keep an eye on the data that dynamically changes as your city evolves. Monitoring crime, managing pollution, and maintaining cashflow, are just as crucial as laying down roads. These metrics were a groundbreaking addition to simulation games, painting a vivid picture of the city’s health and guiding the mayor to make data-driven decisions.

Information is power. And understanding the data behind your city’s needs means the difference between a booming metropolis and a ghost town.

Reception and Legacy: How the Original SimCity is Remembered

SimCity 2013 gameplay of a busy street with traffic, street cars and realistic buildings
SimCity 2013 was the last true franchise title developed by Maxis and released from EA.

Upon release, SimCity was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. It quickly became a beloved classic, spawning five direct sequels and inspiring Maxis to increase the simulation genre dramatically. Reviewers praised its innovative gameplay, which combined the thrill of creation with the challenge of city management. Gamers were drawn to its sandbox style, reveling in the autonomy it provided. This was a game that didn’t just entertain; it sparked imagination and strategic thinking.

The impact of SimCity was profound, influencing a host of simulation games that followed. It introduced an open-ended formula that many tried to emulate but few could match. The game’s mix of meticulous planning and unpredictable outcomes set a new standard for the genre. Its blend of education with entertainment made the game accessible to all ages. Because of this, it’s no surprise that many first encountered SimCity in the school computer lab.

Wrapping Up: How SimCity Remains a Beloved Classic

City Skylines II promotional screenshot from 2023
Cities: Skylines 2 (2023) elevated the simulation genre with lifelike graphics and gameplay. [Steam]

SimCity didn’t just pave the virtual streets of its own world. It laid the groundwork for Maxis and an entire genre of simulation games. SimCity was the cornerstone of a new gaming genre. Its success and momentum were clear. When SimCity 2000 launched in 1993, it was met with critical acclaim, cementing the franchise’s place in gaming history.

With each new title—SimCity 3000, SimCity 3000 Unlimited, SimCity 4, and the series’ final chapter, SimCity 2013Maxis continued to innovate. The team delivered enhanced graphics and deeper gameplay elements, embracing the advancements in technology to offer more sophisticated urban simulations.

While the SimCity series has not seen a new release in recent years, its spirit lives on. Cities Skylines is seen as the spiritual successor to the franchise, captivating fans with modern graphics and intricate gameplay mechanics.

For those yearning to revisit the origins of city-building simulations, the original SimCity is easy to play today. DosBox versions of SimCity and SimCity 2000 run remarkably well, ensuring the games’ legacies continue on both PC and Mac. In the digital realm of gaming, SimCity stands as an enduring monument to simulation and strategy.