Build It, and They Will Queue

Some of the most infectious musical jingles I’ve ever heard have come from TV ads for amusement parks, like Niagara’s Marineland or Toronto’s now-shuttered Ontario Place. When I booted up Planet Coaster, the game’s soundtrack immediately grabbed me by the ears and dragged me back down memory lane, perfectly evoking those catchy old jingles with its lightness and cheer. It’s a fitting first impression because this isn’t a gritty, realistic simulator of actual park business, nor is it a wacky shenanigans generator where things go hilariously wrong. Planet Coaster is all about building amusement parks as they exist in the popular imagination and, for some of us, in memory.

The game’s career mode is a good starting point, letting you ease into the systems more or less one at a time. Each career map lets you muck around yourself with a new system of interest, while building on whatever previous maps introduced. These pre-built maps also showcase the game’s potential for impressive set pieces and lush scenery, as well as a remarkably diverse and compelling soundscape. You’ll hear guests chattering, gears spinning, bombastic music blasting from ride stereos, and all the sounds are solidly located in 3D space, so as you pan your camera around you really feel like you’re moving through an amusement park.

After a few maps, you’ll have covered the basics, and you can move on to the sandbox mode, where everything is free and without consequence; or the challenge mode, where you need to start a profitable park in an entirely empty lot.

Guests immediately descend on a brand new, barebones park in Challenge mode.

The various park management systems are mostly well-integrated into the overall fantasy Planet Coaster is offering. Rides are of course the key draw of a park, and the eponymous roller coasters have by far the most intricate customization options. Given the centrality of roller coasters to the experience, it’s clear the interface for building the things will need to be both immediately approachable and sufficiently complex. And it is! You’re given reasonable, optional constraints as you deliberately place one section of rail after another and, while it’s occasionally difficult to get the last few pieces to line up and close the circuit, for the most part it’s a remarkably painless experience.

Most other rides are just pre-built structures, and while it’s a bit disappointing they’re deeply customizable, it’s probably for the best since there’s usually so much else going on in a park, and too many complex controls to learn would be a hassle. The only persistent interface woes I had were with the 3D terrain manipulation system in conjunction with the path creation tool, but as with most of the less compelling parts of the game, you can safely ignore terrain manipulation unless your dream park really needs that extra touch.

Once you’ve starting building attractions, Planet Coaster makes great use of its vibrant, cartoony visuals by letting you climb onto just about any ride and experience it for yourself in first person, using your mouse to look around as your park whooshes past. It’s satisfying and looks great and, while it screams for VR compatibility, it’s still quite enjoyable on a flat screen.

But rides are only half the story — if you’re playing in career or challenge mode, you’re also trying to make sure your park is running smoothly as a business. This is where you need to keep on top of employee management, marketing, finances, and so on. Some of these systems are critically important; if an unhappy shopkeeper quits from a popular food stand, or an engineer runs off because they feel they’re being underpaid (and these engineers always feel they’re being underpaid), you can lose sales or suffer ride breakdowns that put a significant dent in your profits. Other systems are less critical — it’s not really clear why you’d want to hand-pick the toppings on each burger at each individual food stand, but you certainly can. Luckily, as with the terrain system, you can safely ignore many of these excessively detailed systems and just get on with running your park.

Managing your park's staff is critical to its functioning, and the interface provides a simple overview.

There isn’t much of a cohesive narrative wrapping the game together, even in career mode, but there’s still something to be said about the world Planet Coaster takes place in. All we know about the world outside is that it’s filled with diverse, wealthy people always on the lookout for new parks. Aside from that, your park exists in a strange sort of bubble, absent many of the business realities that could be involved in running a park. As the chirpy commercial soundtrack suggests from the start, Planet Coaster is about amusement parks as they appear in commercials and the childhood memories of today’s adults, not about the complex and changing realities faced by actual amusement parks.

Intellectual properties and corporate partnerships, which are proving powerful motivators for parks in the real world, play at most an aesthetic role; you won’t find yourself incorporating hotels or resorts as larger parks are increasingly doing. You have no competitors, and guests aren’t drawn or put off by the kind of fads or trends that animate real people.

Other factors are hinted at through shallow systems, but never really explored. Guests break down into three age demographics that seem to behave almost identically, and there’s little engagement with important factors like aging populations and changing trends in the origin and destinations of tourists. You can also conduct research, but you discover new rides that are functionally reskins of each other, not technologies or designs that will allow you to do new things. Real parks have always investigated technology and engineering to create novel attractions, including most recently things like virtual or alternate reality, robotics and innovative material sciences, or even digital-driven management practices like ride booking to reduce wait times. You won’t see that kind of innovation in Planet Coaster, though — just more rides with different props attached.

Being able to ride your own roller coasters is a great touch, and might be even more fun in VR.For better or worse, Planet Coaster takes place in the same idyllic fantasy as many older theme park simulators — a fantasy that’s beginning to fray around the edges. This is easy enough to ignore in favor of the compelling management simulation being offered, but it’s interesting to see how gaming’s idea of amusement parks remains static and isolated even as parks themselves evolve in response to a changing world that’s becoming increasingly technological and global.

Luckily, the foundation of the game is solid. From its charming graphics and its compelling, evocative soundscape to its mostly intuitive and well-designed interfaces, all the way down to the many interlocking business demands of running an amusement park, Planet Coaster is a well-designed experience that offers something for architects and managers alike. It has moments of clunkiness or aloofness from its subject matter, certainly, but it’s also a game where you can start with a food stand wedged between a pair of merry-go-rounds, grow your park larger and larger until you finally cut the ribbon on a huge roller coaster of your own design, then sit down in a coaster car and watch in first person as your now-enormous park zooms past. That definitely counts for something.