We thought with today being the 30th anniversary of the SNES we would share an excerpt from the Super NES Works Vol. 1 written by Jeremy Parish! If you like what you read be sure to pick up the Standard or Collector's Edition of the book while supplies last. Also available is the Virtual Boy Works Hardcover Book. Now without further ado check out the SimCity excerpt!

 

SimCity

シムシテイ • SimCity

Developer: Intelligent Systems / Nintendo

Publisher: Nintendo

Genre: Simulation

Release: April 1991 [JP] Aug. 1991 [U.S.] Sept. 1992 [EU]

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The Wright Stuff

The first three games Nintendo published for the Super NES at its U.S. launch neatly summarized the company’s ambitions for the platform. First, we had F-Zero, which approached the task of presenting an arcade-style racer by relying on the system’s Mode 7 technology. Then, we had Super Mario World, which could afford to take a slower and more methodical approach to the series thanks to the addition of battery-powered saves, letting players record their progress and affect permanent changes to the world as they advanced. 


Finally, there was Pilotwings, which also used Mode 7 tech to create a decent riff on the PC flight sim. While more limited in scope than something like Microsoft Flight Simulator due to the console’s innate memory constraints, it nevertheless presented players with greater gameplay variety than its PC forebears.


The fourth and final Nintendo-published Super NES launch title rounds out the company’s statement-of-intent for the system by giving players a great rendition of a hot contemporary PC gaming hit: SimCity. At the time of SimCity’s initial release on the Japanese Super Famicom, the original game was about two years old and was still selling like gangbusters on every computer platform under the sun. SimCity had not, however, appeared on any console. With its open, sandbox-style design and numerous moving parts, this particular endeavor felt like it would have been too demanding to run on a limited, closed-box console.


By bringing the game over to the Super NES, Nintendo was sending a strong message: This new console would be a step beyond everything that had come before. Sure, every other console could run PC titles like Soukoban and even Lemmings, but what other console would allow you to play this cutting-edge PC smash? In fact, Nintendo felt so strongly about SimCity that the company developed this conversion themselves, internally. When a company with control-freak tendencies as pronounced as Nintendo’s handles someone else’s property internally, you know they mean business.

Sim City

 

A look back at the early days of the NES can provide some additional context to help demonstrate just how much gravity this project had. Nintendo very rarely dealt directly with third-party properties, always preferring to focus on its own original works. The two instances I can find of the company taking on development duties for someone else’s game go back to the NES launch, with Kung-Fu and 10-Yard Fight. Both those games originally hailed from Irem, yet Nintendo didn’t simply publish the NES conversions in the U.S.—they developed them. Now, half a decade later, the company had plenty of reason to set its sights on SimCity as a proof of concept. The very first third-party breakout hit for its Famicom console in Japan had been Hudson’s excellent reimagining of Doug Smith’s Lode Runner, a game whose popularity on Nintendo’s console cemented Japan as the largest market for the series from that point on. Nintendo took an approach here very similar to Hudson’s Lode Runner conversion [see NES Works Vol. III: 1987 for further details]. The Super NES take on SimCity captured the essence of a fresh new PC release while adding embellishments unique to the console.


Coincidentally, the Lode Runner property itself belonged to Brøderbund, who had published Hudson’s adaptation on NES in the U.S. and Europe. Brøderbund also published the NES version of a game called Raid on Bungeling Bay, an inventive hybrid of shooter and real-time strategy designed by a young man named Will Wright [again, see NES Works Vol. III]. While developing Bungeling Bay, Wright realized that the act of playing through the final game itself wasn’t nearly so interesting as the creative process involved in laying down the cities and factories as a backdrop for the game’s action. 


Drawing on the DIY sandbox approach of Bill Budge’s revolutionary Pinball Construction Set, Wright began tinkering with the idea of a game that revolved around the act of building and managing urban complexes. The result, five years later, was a little thing called, yes, SimCity.

 

Of course, part of the reason why SimCity took a full five years to come to market was because Wright had trouble finding a publisher willing to take a chance on a game that didn’t obey the contemporary rules of gaming. SimCity didn’t have a hero or conflict; players took on the role of a civic planner, trying to create the most efficient and viable urban landscape possible. There was no proper ending; the closest thing to a victory condition was to establish a sort of financial stasis in which the city’s revenues and systems created a self-sustaining cycle independent of the player’s watchful eye. Eventually, though, the game made its way to market. It promptly became a towering sensation in defiance of its naysayers.


Admittedly, SimCity’s success on its own terms didn’t prevent Nintendo from making a few embellishments to increase the game-ish nature of the Super NES port. SimCity begins by providing the player with an empty patch of land, a palette of construction options, and some cash. From there, your task is to put together a functioning city. You allocate land according to three categories: Residential, industrial, and commercial. SimCity mostly consists of a balancing act. You have to concern yourself with matters such as access to utilities, feeding each cluster of commercial or residential construction with power from industrial zones. However, industrial zones create pollution. High population density results in crime and fire. You can install police and fire departments to combat these issues, but maintaining them costs tax dollars. Raising taxes too high is one of many ways to create disgruntled residents who angrily depart your city for less expensive homes. Citizens will also become annoyed by other factors as well, such as traffic congestion. And even once you have everything else in hand, natural disasters will hit your city from time to time, throwing your hard work into disarray.

A surprisingly complex simulation emerges from this handful of play factors. SimCity challenges players at their own pace, requiring them to balance the mechanisms of running a city with the demands and happiness of its citizens. It’s a startlingly accurate management simulation: Making pragmatic choices to keep things plugging along inevitably results in angry citizens. While such a frustrating recreation of reality hardly sounds like the most relaxing way to kill a few hours, SimCity manages to make it work. There’s something weirdly engrossing about watching your tiny imaginary city come together and evolve into an efficient little machine. 


The game offers guidance as you need it, especially on Super NES, and you can pull up helpful data to inform your choices. It also provides a handy object lesson on the relationship between industry and pollution—coal power plants cost less than nuclear but create far more waste—and on the importance of mass transit for easing the strain of commuting in high-density populations. A game of SimCity played well inspires people to look at actual cities like Washington D.C. or Los Angeles and wonder why the real world can’t get its act together.


Nintendo’s version of SimCity carries forward all of these elements, but it throws in a few changes. Some of these are superficial fan service. For example, the Godzilla-like monster attack natural disaster event now features a marauding Bowser, and a booming city will erect a Mario statue to commemorate its critical milestone. Also new to this version of the game are a handful of special structures that allow for more efficient play, possibly to help mitigate the memory constraints of the Super NES. Features like the Police HQ and Fire HQ offer better coverage with fewer installations—a boon for gamers, but also a subtle way to reduce the number of object for the CPU to remember. Several Super NES-exclusive elements make the game easier, too. You can build properties that increase land value and annual income, while a bank can provide a loan to help kickstart your city’s growth if you find yourself in a financial pinch. 


If there’s a downside here, it’s that SimCity for Super NES made its debut before the arrival of the console’s mouse, which wouldn’t debut for another year. Thus, everything has to be managed with a D-pad. It’s not an unreasonable inconvenience, though; Nintendo overhauled the game from top to bottom to better fit the Super NES, and that included the user interface. On top of that, the graphics have a little more personality here, and the status update screens feature a green-haired fellow named Dr. Wright: An homage to SimCity designer Will Wright who poses and emotes as he relays the latest info about your progress as a virtual mayor. Meanwhile, the music, written by future Super Mario Kart composer Soyo Oka, gives this take on SimCity a relaxing vibe like no other rendition of the game while showcasing the Super NES’s audio abilities.

Nintendo’s efforts here paid off. SimCity proved to be every bit as big a hit on Super NES as Lode Runner had been on Famicom, entering the ranks of million-sellers and becoming a permanent element of Nintendo canon. Dr. Wright has put in appearances in a number of games, including The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Super Smash Bros. Furthermore, Nintendo followed up on this rendition of SimCity twice in the following years, though those later first-party SimCity titles never left Japan. First, SimCity was reworked for the BS-X Satellaview download service to become a competitive take on management called BS SimCity Town Planning Competition. A few years after that, the handful of people who bought the Japan-only 64DD add-on for Nintendo 64 enjoyed the ambitious SimCity 64, which probably would have done well had it not been tied to a failed peripheral that never left Japan.


Sadly, the only way to play the wonderful Super NES adaptation of SimCity nowadays is to hunt down the original cartridge. Nintendo made it available on Wii Virtual Console for several years, but it’s since been delisted and hasn’t shown up anywhere else (presumably due to licensing issues with SimCity owner Electronic Arts). The original Super NES cart is worth tracking down, though. Nintendo crafted a totally unique rendition of the classic city management simulation for Super NES, and it shows off the potential of the console in a totally different—and decidedly less flashy—way than games like F-Zero and Pilotwings. Those vehicular action games made for entertaining tech showcases, SimCity and Super Mario World truly speak to the direction Nintendo would push its console: Bigger, more intricate, slower-paced works than had been seen on the original NES. SimCity for Super NES is more than just a statement of intent. It remains as addicting and entertaining as ever decades later.


Release History

Personal computers (1989)

Super NES (1991)

BS SimCity Machizukuri Taikai (1996)

Wii Virtual Console (2006)

August 23, 2021