Greatest Game of 1993: Sim City 2000

“Reticulating splines”

When I was in junior high and high school there was an odd family that lived up the street from us that, for whatever reason, was a part of many firsts for me.  The sons were some of my first friends on moving to Illinois.  The daughter was the first girl I ever French kissed (at an embarrassingly late age).  Their kitchen was the first place I learned the words to Grace, despite growing up with Catholic parents.  Their upstairs computer room was the first place I ever saw the internet (Prairie Net!) and the first place I ever played SimCity 2000.  I’m starting to get a little weirded out by how much influence this family may have had on me so let’s keep moving.

A bit about me before we talk SimCity.  Last year, I received my Bachelors of Science in Land Use (think Planning + Environmental Science).  I had a great time in my second round of college studying how and why we shape the world around us every day.  It is entirely possible that my enjoyment of this topic dates back to my love of SimCity 2000(SC2K), possibly my most favorite game of all time.   I sunk more hours into this game than any game before or after it, with the possible exception of World of Warcraft: the biggest time suck of all time.  SC2K came out in 1993 on 3.5 inch floppies (mine was on CD-ROM) and I was still playing this game until my last PC died and I switched to a Vista (boo!) machine.   I played it even after having played and given up on SimCity 4 as too needlessly complicated compared to its streamlined predecessor.   Wikipedia also tells me that I was playing the 1995 Special Edition, which included several scenarios and the Urban Renewal Kit (more on those in a bit) since the ’93 version only ran on DOS.   That’s right, I was playing a game that originally only ran on DOS well into the 2000’s.

Bow Before Me, Tiny Virtual Citizens!


SimCity 2000, like SimCity before it, is just what it sounds like, a simulation of a city.  A city where you, the player, were a sort of immortal dictator-slash-zoning board.   You pick where the roads go, how the land is zoned, you decide how fast the city grows (not too fast!),  where the power plants  and transmission lines go, you build airports, and sea ports, and bridges, and your city’s water pipe network, you build schools, and police stations, and hospitals, and libraries, and parks, and zoos, and stadiums.   It is, in short, all up to you. Maybe one of the defining features of SimCity is that there is no goal.   You’re not trying to reach a particular size, or earn x amount of tax revenue (rates adjustable by individual zoning type), you are simply creating and shepherding a city to whatever end you feel like.

The mechanics of the game were both fairly simple and quite deep.  Build your roads, zone a little residential here, a little commercial there, some industry over there. Build some water pumps and a power plant and you’re off and running.  As time goes by and your city grows new power plant types open up, the style and look of your buildings changes, and new wonders like the Llama Tower (a bizarre llama themed Eiffel Tower that reflects the games odd obsession with South American camelids).   SC2K also comes with a whole suite of infographics(!), maps(!), and charts(!) to compliment the host of advisors to help you guide you city, in short a civics nerd’s wet dream.

There was even a real time component in the form of disasters.   Randomly throughout the game (or at your own god like whims) a disaster can strike your city, floods, earthquakes, fires, and even alien invasions.   Should a fire break out your fire engines are dispatched and you must work to contain the blaze.  You only get one engine per fire house, though, not enough fire houses and you may find yourself bulldozing sections of your city to keep the fire in check.   The SimCity 2000 Special Edition also came loaded with a series of cities and scenarios; you could try to manage the after math of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, contain the Oakland wildfires, or just run great cities of the world like New York and London.

The thing that kept me coming back to SimCity for over a decade though was the creativity it allowed.  Your first step in starting up a new game allowed you to pick a randomly generated map based on a set of criteria set by the user (hilliness, river or cost lines, lakes etc) or you could design your own landscape. Here I would create all sorts of scenarios for myself, maybe this city will have a big island on a river, or maybe it will be in a steep sided valley like the mountain towns west of Denver, anything I wanted. Then as you built you city you could do whatever you wanted, want to leave a huge undeveloped hole in the middle of town? Do it.  Want to create a near crimeless police state? Put a police station on every corner.   What to tax the bejeezus out of industry? Go for it, see what happens. Want to unleash a series of brutal disasters on London and put the pieces back together? Done and done.

Much like the geographic information system software I use today, SC2K contained a query tool that would give you information about the object you had clicked on, sometimes this would allow you to adjust settings or give statistics about you city. The player could also click a “ruminate” button to open up quotes and essays about whatever had been clicked on.   This included an essay by none other than Neil Gaiman.   You can find the whole thing online (editor’s note: or, look at the pretty picture) but here’s a little taste:

“There are good cities- the ones that welcome you, that seem to care about you, that seem pleased you’re in them.   There are indifferent cities- the ones that honestly don’t care if you’re there or not; cities with their own agendas, the ones that ignore people. There are cites gone bad, and places in otherwise healthly cities as rotten as windfall apples.  There are even cities that seem lost- some, lacking a center, feel like they would be happier being elsewhere, somewhere smaller, somewhere easier to understand.”

And for you, as the mayor of SimCity, they are all there for you to create, to shepherd into the future, or to smash into dust. Civics has never been so much fun.

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