What happened to RollerCoaster Tycoon?

If you grew up in the early 2000s, you have fond memories of playing RollerCoaster Tycoon or its sequels. It struck such a chord with a generation that it continues to be played by those same kids, now college-age. The original game spawned multiple sequels before being put on a decade-long hiatus. The once-dormant series has gained some revival traction in recent years, but low quality releases and questionable handling have concerned the game’s followers. Is anything going to be able to right the (swinging) ship?

Chris Sawyer, a Scottish video game developer known for the Transport Tycoon series, wanted to create a sequel to his cult game series. At the same time, he became enthralled by roller coasters, which is when Sawyer shifted his focus to theme park rides. Originally set to be titled White Knuckle, Sawyer opted to keep the “Tycoon” name instead. The programmer did most of the work himself, only utilizing the services of freelance artist Simon Foster and musician Allister Brimble when needed. The original RollerCoaster Tycoon released in 1999 and sold four million copies. It got great reviews and spawned two expansion packs (remember, this is 1999) that turned 22 scenarios into over 80 situations to play out.

The actual gameplay and setup of RollerCoaster Tycoon was nearly perfect. It took an isometric view for a two-dimensional game, which simulated a three-dimensional viewpoint for creation. Though plenty of scenarios shared the same goal of park success after a certain time period, each park was different and had its own unique challenges. Some parks were completely undeveloped; empty canvases for players’ minds to run wild. Others involved partial development that needed to be expanded upon. Small changes were made to each park that enabled every setup to be unique and contain its own challenges that kept the game fresh and engaging. Rides couldn’t be too boring or too extreme. Prices for rides, food, drinks, and admission all had to be reasonable, otherwise monetary success was unachievable. And you couldn’t charge for bathrooms because everyone would complain.

For a game marketed toward children, its numerous intricacies and complexities made it seem higher class than the lowbrow and dark Grand Theft Autos and Resident Evils of the era. And for a game without much action or graphical je ne sais quoi, RollerCoaster Tycoon was able to hook young minds at an impressive rate. A sequel was released in 2002, which fine-tuned the already popular premise and setup of the original.

The popularity of the first two RollerCoaster Tycoon games allowed for a larger budget and more staffers to develop the series’ third game. Atari took over publication and development was moved to Frontier Developments, a company located in Cambridge, England. Chris Sawyer, who developed the first two games, acted only as a consultant. This allowed for more man hours and resources to put into the game. In all, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 was the first time the series evolved from the overall simplicity and antiquity of earlier releases. The game had impressive graphics for the time, with complete 3D and a lot more variation available. But the new coat of expensive paint didn’t mean complete improvements for RollerCoaster Tycoon 3.

In terms of scenarios, the changes that came with RCT 3 were mostly indirect. The parks themselves looked and felt familiar to returning players, but they added a tier system for objectives, each more challenging than the last. There was also a true Sandbox Mode for the first time in the series’ history, in which players could build up a park sans limitations or goals. Other changes included the addition of a day/night cycle, a “CoasterCam,” and customizable fireworks shows. The UI took some getting used to, but overall, the additions were taken positively. There were bugs, but the game as a whole was solid, and it went on to sell more than 10 million copies, a figure that surpassed the first two games combined.

Then came a lengthy hiatus. After two expansion packs for RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, nothing more was announced. PC game sales had slowed significantly, dropping 61 percent between 1999 and 2007. Console and mobile gaming took the place of computers. Save for an Xbox port of the original RollerCoaster Tycoon in 2004, the series was PC-only. Atari had elected to put the series on hold instead of developing a game for what was then a dying breed. The company was also dealing with continued financial trouble, posting major losses throughout the mid-2000s and eventually filing for bankruptcy.

It took until 2012 for Atari to revive the series, and it did not release the new game on PC. Instead, the new game was a spin-off, RollerCoaster Tycoon 3D, for the Nintendo 3DS. Developed by a small-time company with a history of low quality, the game holds an embarrassing 39/100 on Metacritic and has been scrubbed off the official RollerCoaster Tycoon website.

The follow up to RollerCoaster Tycoon 3D continued the numbered title tradition. RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile showed Atari was late to the mobile game train, though it had not missed out completely. Chris Sawyer, the series’ creator whose name was tied to prior installments, had zero involvement with the mobile installment. That makes sense, because this wasn’t a RollerCoaster Tycoon game; it was a free-to-play mobile money grab that used roller coasters as one of the many overpriced in-game items. Except, it wasn’t free to play, costing $2.99 before bleeding people dry with micro-transactions. The game, released in 2014, eventually became free to play after fan backlash, but it was still an egregious effort, “earning” a Metacritic rating of 35.

Until last week, only one RollerCoaster Tycoon game was available on mobile phones. With little fanfare, Frontier Developments decided to self-publish RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. It costs $4.99 and contains no in-game purchases, even being advertised as such. Frontier likely has done this to ensure separation between their game and the dreck of RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile that still languishes on the App Store. RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 for iOS contains a mobile-friendly UI and is available for both iPhones and iPads. Reviews have been positive, with most users giving the game four or five stars.

The branching off that accompanied the two mobile releases has expanded, with Frontier developing a new RCT-style game and Atari publishing another RollerCoaster Tycoon game. RollerCoaster Tycoon World is due out for Windows and Linux in the fourth quarter of this year; it has already been pushed back due to developer drama that could rival any game short of L.A. Noire. Originally developed by Pipeworks Software, Area 52 Games took over early on. At this point, a general release date was revealed as early 2015 and later, mid-2015. By the time March rolled around, a teaser trailer was released. It showcased graphics that were on par with the decade-old RollerCoaster Tycoon 3. This would be understandable for a game very early in development, but not for a game mere months from release.

An apology was made after poor responses from fans, but the entire situation painted Atari in a poor light. Soon after, development changed hands once again, this time moving to Nvizzio Creations. The production blog on the RollerCoaster Tycoon website has since deleted all posts from the Area 52 era, but it does mention that the trailer used one of their final builds. Nvizzio has since upgraded the graphics to an acceptable degree, but that came with another delay, this time to Q4 2015.

World isn’t out of the weeds just yet, however, as multiplayer has been pushed to a post-release update, a sign that development is not proceeding as quickly as hoped. Another delay would surely upset the fans, but releasing an embarrassment before the game is truly ready could all but doom the series. Atari has announced that they will be attending PAX Prime at the end of this month and that they will have a playable demo of RollerCoaster Tycoon World available at their booth. It will be Nvizzio’s first chance to shine as the game’s developer.

On the other end of the spectrum, no development drama has accompanied Planet Coaster, the spiritual sequel to RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 that is currently in development at Frontier. The game is scheduled to be released in 2016 and is being self-published. Originally titled Coaster Park Tycoon, the name was changed because of the negative reviews associated with more recent Tycoon games. Planet Coaster showed a trailer during E3, but there hasn’t been much since.

The video was fun and light-hearted, but had too much of a Thrillville feel to it. It seems like the game may focus as much on a story as it does on park building, a combination that didn’t work out in 2006 and will not work now. The graphics look like a cleaner version of RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, though the human models haven’t improved as much in the last decade. Even though RollerCoaster Tycoon World’s scheduled release date is before Planet Coaster’s, only the latter has a price associated with it. Frontier has the game available for pre-order on their store, complete with a discount for early backers.

It has been a long time since RollerCoaster Tycoon was a big-name game gracing our computer screens. Fans harken back to the halcyon days of Chris Sawyer’s original creation and its two successful sequels. The series went dormant, but has since returned with a handful of releases and now two new games in development at different studios. Neither looks like the savior fans are hoping for, and both could bury the genre once and for all, especially after the RollerCoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile debacle.

There may be a nostalgia factor in resuscitating the series years later, but neither RollerCoaster Tycoon World nor Planet Coaster look like they can revive the genre back to its former glory. The theme park of your imagination may be closing its doors forever.

About Alex Kaufman

Alex Kaufman is a News Producer at ABC6/FOX28 in Columbus, Ohio. A 2017 graduate of Denison University, Alex has been published on ESPN.com, profiled by SI.com, and writes for Awful Announcing and The Comeback.