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Long play: SimCity 2000

They don't make 'em like this any more

This is the one. No subsequent sim-sequel has been able to capture SimCity 2000's primal management essence. This is the sim game upon which all others rest, like resource-pecking vultures on the bones of some perfect Darwinian entity. Isometric, it dragged us outwards and upwards from the original, inspiring us to such an extent that the old compulsion to build and zone and budget seemed flat and parochial.

2000's rich spine of management systems and statistics induces the weird urge in all gamers to become tight-fisted local governors. When it came out in 1994 we couldn't help but worry about how close the industrial zones were to our suburban housing, or about how much we were spending on road maintenance, or subways, or airports. That's still the case in 2007. Once unearthed, a city must be founded, expanded and maintained.

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2000 managed to be as easy to use as a set of child's crayons, and yet abyssally deep. An ideal scaffold for tactical imagining - like chess, or Elite. It was that sudden, perfect game, and the thing which threatened to consume hours, days, months, relationships, careers, lives. SimCity was a fine example of the 'emergent' game scenario. It started out with a simple set of things we could do - build roads, zone land for commerce or residence - and yet the possibilities that emerged from even the smallest decisions were vast. A butterfly beat its wings over there, and a deficit the size of a moon swelled up over here.

Like all great games, SimCity is what clever men call 'computationally irreducible'. This meant that no one can understand quite how it works without experiencing building a city for themselves. You might know what the game was about, or even grasp the programming that powered it, but you couldn't understand how it worked without spending those hours at your desktop. Games are more than the sum of their rules, and that's never truer than in the case of SimCity 2000.

Even more crucially: your goals could be understood at a glance. This was a game so clean and crisp, so immediate and detailed, even way back in the prehistory of 1994, that we knew things without having to ask. You could see neighbourhoods prosper, see roads congest and collapse, watch buildings fade into cracked dereliction, or be rejuvenated by fresh investment. It was a masterpiece of design - visual, simulatory, managerial.

Yet what we most readily forget about this ancient, Spartan game is just how hard it could be. To build and to have a balanced budget was tricky enough, but factor-in disasters and the stupendous costs of infrastructure and you'd be crying like an onion-eyed baby over your balance sheet.

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Failure, like all videogame failure, taught us that we had to learn, to master, to repeat and overcome. We learned that persistence was the only route to success, and that enough police stations would drive crime down for good. Eventually, we knew, we'd break the back of this thing, and place hospitals at just the right junction, or drive trade forward with a seaport or out-of-town highway. And then the cash would roll in, and the tiny skyscrapers would grow, and be replaced with finer, more expensive constructions.

Eventually, with our once small town expanded through a thousand iterations into a shining metropolis, we began to place the arcologies. The arcologies, alongside science fiction power-sources such as fusion reactors, represented SimCity 2000's cheerful poke at urban futurism.

Cities, it said, are where we're going to be living from now on. They're going to have to be the same, but better. One day, perhaps, our cities will contain super-cities of their own, and we will be wealthier and more sophisticated than in any utopian fantasy... 2000 did the whole grand sweep - from a Wild West Milton Keynes built on a railroad and no luck, to the kind of culture-crushing mega-conurbation that causes mountains to wilt.

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