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by Robert Jung
Ocean, for the Atari Jaguar
So, you think Michael Eisner's pulling in easy money? Ever wonder how Six Flags gets away with charging $3.50 for a cup of Pepsi? Think you can do a better job? If so, then Ocean's THEME PARK for the Atari Jaguar is for you. This port of the computer simulation from Bullfrog Productions puts you in charge of designing and maintaining a world-class amusement center. Every aspect of park operation, from placing refreshment stands and roller coaster tracks to labor negotiations, stock trading, and visitor satisfaction is your responsibility. Plan well and you can amass a fortune by building parks throughout the world; plan poorly, and you'll go bankrupt soon enough. A number of options let you set the difficulty and complexity levels, and five different games can be saved to the cartridge.
The biggest strength of THEME PARK is its complexity, as the game offers an overwhelming number of features, options, and decisions. None of them are trivial, which provides plenty of room for strategies. But this also makes the game difficult to learn. Even with a sixty-six page instruction manual, a brief built-in tutorial, and your advisor's helpful hints, you'll need several short sessions before you learn all the controls and become familiar with how to activate all of the features.
One of the things that bother me about some simulator games is the lack of a concrete goal. In SIM CITY, for instance, there's little incentive to play it again once you've successfully built a thriving metropolis. THEME PARK avoids that problem by being very competition-oriented: in the full game mode, you're not only running the park, but also fending off hostile takeovers, investing in competitors, and trying to make your park the most popular worldwide. On the other hand, it's possible to play a less demanding game and avoid the problems that you wish to avoid.
While all this sounds wonderful, what keeps THEME PARK from greatness are numerous minor flaws that, taken together, hurts the experience. The controls are sometimes sluggish, selecting small objects is difficult, and option dialogues have inconsistent controls. The monetary unit is confusing; are you spending dollars, pounds, dimes, or yen, and why are guests willing to pay 180 of it to visit? There seems to be no optimization of the Jaguar itself, as a little slowdown occurs when things get frantic.
The biggest disappointment is the game save feature. The only time you can save a game is at the end of the year, and only after you auction off your current park. The only data recorded is your balance and the countries you've built parks in; when you restore a game, you're essentially starting from scratch. This means you need several hours of uninterrupted play during each game session (to build and develop a new park), and loses the feeling of accomplishment that makes other simulations fun.
The graphics on THEME PARK are merely serviceable, lifted directly from the computer game and don't take advantage of the Jaguar's capabilities at all. Rides and objects are identifiable, but the animation is simple. Scrolling is done in fixed jumps, which distracts a little. Most annoying, though, are the small graphics. Text and icons originally formatted for a high-resolution monitor comes out smudged on a regular television screen. I was able to find out what some icons did only with trial and error, while the text on a few buttons and screens still remains unreadable. If you don't have a large-screen TV or a monitor attached to your Jaguar, be prepared to do some deciphering of blobs and blurs.
The sounds fare better, though they're still somewhat sparse. The music consists of a variety of bouncy amusement park tunes, which play during the regular day-to-day operations of the park. Sound effects come from a wide series of digitized samples, like cheering kids to racing roller coasters and "disturbed digestion," which are sprinkled through the game. They're all very clear and amusing enough, but there's nothing that stands out, and often the game is simply mute.
THEME PARK on the Jaguar is a case of approach-avoidance: there's a fun and engrossing game here, but various flaws (most notably the save-game feature) keep the player from totally embracing it. This is a cartridge best recommended for the simulation buff who's looking for an unusual challenge and can spend several hours for each play session. For them, THEME PARK will easily provide months of entertainment, despite its warts.
Pity. A good first effort from Ocean, but the rough edges could have used a bit more polishing...
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