As a child of the ‘90s, I recall a distinct moment in time when “Sim” games abounded. Every year brought further PC “Sim” titles from Maxis, the makers of the genre-defining SimCity, with increasingly esoteric names and premises: SimFarm. SimTower. Even SimAnt. Each had its own naive brand of charm and a little bit of the trademark Maxis humor—llama references in particular were never far away.
Today, the heyday of the “Sim” has long since passed. The only living brands are The Sims and SimCity, both of which suffered through critically derided releases with the last game in each series. Hell, the 2013 SimCity was unplayably broken when it launched, and EA’s The Sims 4 has been called inferior to The Sims 3 in nearly every way that matters.
Let’s escape into a friendlier past, then, to count down our way through the entire Sim series from Maxis, ranked from worst to best. Each series will only be included once, for brevity—The Sims entry, for instance, will include every Sims game. Which will come out on top? And which bizarre “Sim” games have you long since forgotten? The only requirement is that “Sim” must be somewhere in the title—sorry Spore.
SimRefinery is the lamest game Maxis ever made pretty much by proxy—it wasn’t a public release, but a corporate training tool for employees of the Chevron Corporation. It was described as “a simulation of their refinery operation, for orienting people in the company as to how a refinery works,” and I’m sure it was just as much fun as that sounds. One can scarcely imagine why it was never released on a commercial level.
An extremely detailed simulation of the U.S. healthcare system? Can it also have none of Maxis’ typical humor? Great, sign us up! But seriously, this game will give you a new level of empathy for your elected officials, poor bastards.
A children’s “software toy,” as Maxis always preferred to call their products rather than “games,” SimTunes is a strange little program where one can draw a picture, and depending on the colors used, produce different notes. You could almost compare it to something like the composer in Mario Paint.
Essentially a cheap rip-off of The Sims formula, SimAnimals instead does pretty much what you would expect—it lets you control animals. Including the noble llama, of course. It’s certainly not poorly made, simply derivative and unnecessary-feeling. There are games further up the rankings that are more haphazardly constructed, but few that feel like more blatant cash-grabs.
SimPark feels like a little bit more juvenile version of the more successful SimIsle, with a reduced scope and sense of importance. Perhaps slightly more focused on the “educational” side of things, it served its role as a fitting introduction of the idea of ecosystems for kids. But if you really want to play a game about managing a national park, this is pretty much the one you’ve been looking for.
You may be noticing a theme here—the titles that populate the bottom of the list are those ones that were more derivative of some of the earlier Maxis classics, even if they’re perfectly functional games. SimSafari is almost like an African version of SimPark, but the more exotic location may actually make it a little bit more interesting than the original. Can you deal with nightmare scenarios such as: “There are rabbits everywhere in this Serengeti wildlife reserve?”
SimLife is another one of those entries on this list where it’s hard to tell exactly who the audience was supposed to be. It presents interesting ideas, in its Spore-like options to design and create new life forms, but a proper game does require a certain amount of fulfillment of its mental ideas. Sure, it’s nice to be told what kinds of creatures you’ve designed, but on a certain level one needs to see it, and on that level SimLife tends to come up short, because it rarely offers any tangible link to the designing you’ve done. As the name suggests, this is a game all about ecosystems and evolution—it’s almost more interesting as an educational tool than it is as a game to be played for amusement.
SimTown is a bit of an odd concept—it’s as if someone said “You loved building a metropolis in SimCity, right? How would you like it if we drastically reduced the scope and complexity to have you deal with the operations of a small town?” That’s essentially what the game is, presumably aimed more at kids than adults, although it does have a certain genial goofiness—the burger restaurant shaped like a giant clown’s head comes to mind. In fact, with its tighter focus on each individual household, you could almost think of it as a very remote and early precursor to The Sims.
Not to be confused with the later Sid Meier’s SimGolf (we’ll get to that), the first SimGolf is a stripped-down set of tools for designing golf courses, without the management simulation at its core. You’re not running a golf course business here, simply designing holes, which you can then play through in the style of the old Links series. It’s a cute little diversion from the heart of the ‘90s, but it can’t compare to the fond memories that many players have of the later SimGolf.
Sim Theme Park is a pretty fun little management simulation and theme park builder, but it just so happened to come out a couple of months after another game by the name of RollerCoaster Tycoon, and overall it suffers in comparison. It’s graphical style is actually warmer and more inviting, and closer to a true 3D approximation than the sprites of RollerCoaster Tycoon, but the management tools are lacking and the rides you can build just don’t compare to the more serious nature of Chris Sawyer’s Tycoon series. Of the two, Tycoon has simply aged far better.
SimEarth is a game that few could understand, even fewer could master but all agreed was fascinating in its ambitions. It’s tempting to call it a “god simulator,” as the goal is to create a planet capable of eventually sustaining intelligent life, but the player is doing it all with very little idea of how to accomplish these aims. In reality, it’s actually more like playing as a member of an advanced alien race, a scientist who has arrived on a new planet that will be treated as a sandbox for genetic experimentation. The outcomes are almost always uncertain—if I bump up the oxygen level, will it spur or hinder evolution?—but there’s a real sense of accomplishment when (or if) things ever work out. Which they rarely do.
I have a weird nostalgia for SimAnt, despite the fact that as a child, I never had any idea of what the hell I was doing when I played it. It’s certainly one of Maxis’ more original ideas, to put players in control of an ant colony that is attempting to take over the backyard and wage vicious war on the other ants, but the learning curve and difficulty are both imposing. In fact, if you ever want to teach a child about death, just have them play SimAnt for a while, and they’ll be killed in more ways than you thought possible—torn to shreds by other ants, eaten by spiders, sucked into the blades of a lawnmower, drowned or simply squashed. It’s all in there, because ants are expendable. Now get in there and protect the queen!
SimIsle is a beautiful little concept, and one that would be copied with a bit less charm in the Park series. Your goal is to manage a series of tropical islands, developing the land both for human use and ecological preservation. Unlike a game such as SimCity, you’re removed somewhat from having as much direct control—rather than simply being able to plop down a building, for instance, you need to hire specific agents with different skillsets who can carry out your instructions. It’s a surprisingly deep management simulator—you really have to oversee your staff and train them in all the skills it takes to successfully operate the island. It might not be the most purely entertaining Maxis product, but it’s unique enough to be memorable.
Essentially the next logical step from Sim Theme Park, SimCoaster may actually have managed to eclipse the RollerCoaster Tycoon series for a brief time by expanding its options and especially the ability to design rides. Aesthetically it explored some uncharted territory by going into the true third dimension three years before Tycoon did the same, although the graphics are much more cartoony and child-friendly, making preference a matter of taste. This series will always live in the shadow of the other one, but in terms of enjoyability, this is the best theme park game with “Sim” in the title.
Years before Farmville ruined the good name of farming games, there was SimFarm. The word for it is probably “charming,” which it is in its limited scope and hokiness—unlike so many other Maxis titles from this period, it’s not an overly complex, jumbled mass of numbers and sliders and statistics that you only vaguely understand. Perhaps that’s the source of its simple pleasures: Despite essentially being a work simulator, there’s gentle good fun to be had in raising a crop of lucrative strawberries and especially in tending to the livestock, building a barn and feeding the polygonal little horses and cows bales of hay. Just be careful not to let them out, unless you want to pry up little flattened pigs that have been run over by the tractor (this actually happens).
SimCopter isn’t really the most engaging thing to play in 2015, but at the time of its release it had a few things going for it. First, the concept of being able to import your cities directly from SimCity 2000 was a stroke of genius. Second, the bizarre menagerie of Easter eggs hidden in the game provided almost as much entertainment as the actual gameplay. There was the infamous “gay” easter egg featuring “himbos” (male bimbos) with glowing nipples, who would show up in large quantities on certain dates. One could even trigger a nuclear meltdown if there was a nuclear power plant in the city. As a flight sim, it’s nothing particularly interesting, but as an inside look into Maxis’ twisted sense of humor it’s a classic.
Where something like SimTown feels restrictive in its dialed-back scope, SimTower is instead enlivened by taking a SimCity-like formula and reducing it to a microcosm, that of a single high-rise skyscraper. A lot of that has to do with freedom—technically you’re supposed to build a tower that is capable of earning five stars to “win” the game, but you’re by no means required to do so. Want to build a tower that is just filled with restaurants? Go for it. Want to be a slum lord? You can do that too. “Elevator management” may not sound like the most exciting style of gameplay one can imagine, but the catastrophic events (including all-too-relevant terrorist attacks) keep things lively. It’s one of the most beautifully open-ended games that Maxis ever released.
Streets of SimCity followed SimCopter and also allowed players to port their SimCity 2000 cities into the game, albeit significantly more successfully. The rendering of the cities is much better, and there’s something simply relaxing about going for a cruise around the place you built, more satisfying than the flight in SimCopter. Once again, the “vehicular combat” portion of the game isn’t all that notable, but it serves its purpose. Streets of SimCity is much more about the freedom to simply drive, tool around and do what you want. You can imagine being the mayor of your SimCity town, out for a joy ride.
Shocker? Perhaps. The Sims series was revolutionary at time of release, no doubt about it. I remember the hype when it first came out, and how excited I personally was to play it for the first time. I remember the joy of constructing a shoddy home for my first group of Sims. But eventually, the game starts to wear on you. “Okay, so to get promoted I need to improve my social skills and have at least six friends, which means I need to invite this guy over to socialize. Better stay home from work so I can get that socialization done—but wait, did I just lose my job for missing work?” Etc, etc. As it turns out, the fun of the game was never in playing but designing, whether one is building houses or designing customized, unique characters in later installments like The Sims 2 or The Sims 3. Great things have been done with The Sims; the game has been used to tell narrative stories and simulate hilarious AI interactions. But at its heart, The Sims is always more fun in the designing stage than in the playing stage.
It’s odd to think that a game was once created by both Sid Meier and Will Wright, both Firaxis and Maxis, but that’s probably part of what made Sid Meier’s SimGolf such a classic. It doesn’t seem like the type of game that would make a lasting impact, especially considering that Maxis had made a similarly titled game six years earlier, but SimGolf was a beguiling combination of management sim, sports game and design project. It’s hard to pinpoint what made it go so right, but simply listen to the fans online who continue to wax nostalgic about the tranquility of plotting out a nice dog-leg par four. The graphics and presentation fit the game style perfectly—it’s simply the kind of game you unwind with after a long day. The fact that some people are still playing it 15 years later is a testament to that.
You knew what it would be. The SimCity series got Maxis off the ground, and of course it’s their greatest creation. Even with the botched launch of the newest entry, there’s just so much nostalgia here. The Godzilla rip-off monster of the original SimCity. The beautiful “arcologies” and incredibly angry advisors of SimCity 2000. The generally forgettable nature of SimCity 3000. And of course, the staggering and unexpected difficulty curve of SimCity 4. Everyone has their favorite (mine will forever be SimCity 2000), but it’s hard to find a gamer without fond memories of at least one SimCity. For many of us, it was the series that made us realize we’d always rather enjoyed the idea of playing god.