Well, I’m running out of days to put this writing stuff off, so here we go! SimCity! Oh yeah!
SimCity was a launch title on the Super Nintendo, which is kind of weird to think about because it was one of those games that was so perfectly suited to mouse-and-keyboard control that it really didn’t belong here at all. Now, looking back, it seems bizarre to have built most of my Maxis-based metropolises with a D-pad and 4 round buttons (sure, shoulder buttons, too, but don’t ruin the metaphor). Apparently, there was also an NES version of SimCity that never saw release, so imagine playing with four buttons, tops!
Anyway, enough about buttons. Yet, honestly, there was a Super Nintendo mouse for Mario Paint, so why didn’t they make it work for SimCity? Well, technically, I suppose, the mouse didn’t arrive until 1992 when Mario Paint was published, and it likely wasn’t ready at the time of the SNES/SimCity launch. But then, they could have at least made the mouse backwards-compatible, right? Wrong, I guess. I have no idea. Anyway, I guess you can use the SNES mouse for a lot more games than I thought—including SimAnt (see this handy Wikipedia list), another Will Wright/Maxis classic—and Sid Meier’s Civilization, which also made its way to SNES (like SimCity, it was pretty much ported to anything with a motherboard in the early 90s). At least as recently as July 2019, however, there was a patch on GitHub allowing you to kind of use the SNES mouse with SimCity. However, notably, the “mouse buttons don’t work” and it’s a “purely visual” effect, so there goes that dream.
Wow, enough about those mouse buttons! I’m so sorry. I guess I’m obsessed with mice and keyboards versus d-pads and control sticks because so much of the software from my formative years is tangibly linked to the hardware we’d play it on. Playing Marathon 2 (don’t worry, we’ll get to that one later) on a big, chonky trackball was quite memorable.
Despite the whole controller thing, I never had any major issues handling Super Nintendo’s SimCity. Part of it was because there wasn’t a whole lot of pressure built into the game. You weren’t racing against the clock, like, ever. Even if you had disasters on, you could be pretty leisurely about putting out fires or rebuilding after floods. I mean, this neighborhood needed a facelift anyway, right? And if you were ever running of money, there was an easy cheat to refill the city coffers (or you could just check out and leave the system running for a while and collect three decades worth of taxes with no infrastructure payments—just like the real bureaucrats). When you moved from one city size to a larger one, tiny, animated Mayor Wright with his green-cotton-candy coiffure would wish you well and then vanish for another few days. He was the perfect politician! SimCity was self-paced, and like all great Maxis games, it was one of what Will Wright dubbed his “software toys,” programs with no real end goal or external pressure.
Somehow, though, SimCity was one of the first games to teach me a bit about min-maxing. Whether from browsing Nintendo Power magazine or checking out some off-brand player’s guide borrowed from the library, somewhere I found there was a strategy to how you built these simulated cities. So, one fateful day, my winding roads and quaint townships transformed into donut blocks divided by rigid black rail lines. The 8-building blocks, separating residential, commercial, and industrial zones, grew most efficiently, the magazines all said, and you could dump a region’s entire pollution problem by offering citizens railroads instead of automobiles. Somehow, none of the Sims minded my brutalist dystopias.
There was something of a goal in this purportedly objective-free game: try to achieve a population of 500,000 Sims in one city. So, I tried. Time and again, I cleared 100,000 citizens to create a metropolis, no problem. I started trying for efficiency, min-maxing even though we didn’t call it that back in the day. I picked the map with the least water coverage, the most usable land for building. I packed that place with more donuts than Springfield. And yet I could never quite get to the max. At about 470,000 or 480,000 people, growth would end, I’d run out of construction space, and the dream ended (I can still picture that ideal map, Map 61).
Before long, I was bored. The fun of city-building was kind of lost in the quest for efficiency, I had other SNES games calling for my time. The leisurely sense of a game without overt directions or responsibilities was gone, killed off by my need to win. And yet I never “beat” that challenge—it just kind of killed the game for me.
But at its peak, SimCity meant a lot to me, at the time a serious kid trying to make my way in a rigid world. Being able to control and plan an entire city or region offered a lot of power and joy to a middle kid in elementary school who never even had his own room, much less his own mayorship.
I loved the Sim games in general, at least the ones Will Wright put together. Because he knew that a video game was better if it wasn’t a game at all, but a toy, one you could play with in all kinds of ways. A real game is not a task to be completed or a path to a single goal. I wonder, if he would have known how frustrated I was at trying to min-max that stupid map, if Mr. Wright might have simply taken the Megalopolis designation out of the game to make it just a little more fun for me.
Even so, SimCity always offered something more to strive for, something more to tweak and perfect, and it promised that things tomorrow would be just a little better than today. And best of all, the goals you made were nobody’s but yours. Just, you know, make it work with a mouse next time, please!