Maxis is no more. Electronic Arts has brought the shutters down on the studio after 28 years of service. Maxis invented Sim City, a game that spawned a thousand imitators and kickstarted the careers of a generation of city planners. Oh, and it also inspired a little-known life-simulation series called The Sims. You may have heard of it. We'll skip over that.
First released on October 3rd 1989, Sim City, masterminded by game design legend Will Wright, was a revelation upon its release. Giving you granular control over a top-down city's residential and industrial planning, you could micromanage the power grid and taxes, and even unleash a series of disasters upon your otherwise-utopian idyll.
Sim City went on to become a worldwide, franchised hit with multiple sequels. But its success also offered developers Maxis the rare opportunity to spin off a number of increasingly-niche titles under the same Sim banner. Some were great, some bizarre, some downright dull. We may be living through the age of video game sequels, but with the studio closing it's sad to think this selection may never get a current-gen makeover.
Sim Earth (1990)
Who wants to play at being a mayor when you can play at being a god? That was the premise of Sim Earth, a massively ambitious simulation that put you in charge of not just a town, but an entire planet. The game acted like a pixellated biosphere -- with control over everything from the cloud formations to volcanic activity to even the shifting plates of the continents, minor changes or oversights in one area of planet management could have disastrous effects elsewhere. Or, conversely, a perfectly balanced world could lead to the evolution of not just life, but intelligent, sentient life (which, in true Sim fashion, you could wipe out with a purposeful earthquake).
It was hardcore, which was probably why it never saw quite the same success as the core Sim City titles. But it was an excellent time sink, and was likely the inspiration for games including Universe Sandbox.
As an aside, it's worth checking out the more recent Spore, another ambitious Maxis release from 2008. Though it's far simpler in scope (saying something considering Spore is about testing the theories behind animal evolution) it's as close to a Sim Earth sequel as you're ever likely to see. [Download]
Sim Ant (1991)
The Sim franchise proved early on that its society-building template wasn’t limited to human civilisations. Rather than following up quickly with a rote Sim City 2, Maxis took a different tact in 1991, and pushed out the slightly bizarre Sim Ant. As the name suggests, the focus here was on bringing an ant colony to local dominance — one of the few Sim games that has an “endgame” goal in wiping out the area’s red ant strongholds and infesting a nearby house, forcing its human inhabitants out.
It was a fairly standard strategy title, though its insectile hierarchies and point of view focus (you controlled a single ant for the majority of the game) still sets it apart. If ever a Sim game could benefit from a current-gen update it's this one — the alien world of insects could look quite beautiful. Having said that, Sim Ant was the only game I can think of that let you engage in “trophallaxis”. That’s “anus-to-mouth feeding”, for the uninitiated. Perhaps that’s an activity best left behind with the pixellated graphics of the SNES and DOS. [Download]
Sim Farm (1993)
Long before Harvest Moon had you digging up turnips, marrying the local horse breeder and eyeing up an extension for your homestead, Maxis took a more studious approach to simulated agriculture with Sim Farm. It did for gaming what Countryfile does for BBC TV -- it sent all that played it to sleep. Our pal James Laird from Lifehacker UK shares his memories of the game:
Sim Farm was, well, a bit different. Instead of empire-building fun like slaughtering Native American Indians, negotiating with Stalin, and just generally trying to take over the world, Sim Farm encouraged you to spray appropriate pesticides to protect your crops, enter your best livestock in the local prize pig competition, and of course the standard Sim series fun and frustration of contesting with random natural disasters.
In all honesty, it lacked the excitement a 10-year-old craved in a game, even one who was geeky enough to enjoy simulations and vaguely educational games (here's looking at you, Oregon Trail) from a tender age. No, Sim Farm wasn't the best game I've ever played. But guess what? 20 years on, I still remember the first time a tornado tore through my newly built silos.
Sim Health (1994)
"The National Health Care Simulation". If that blurb isn't cardiac-arresting, I don't know what is. If you're the sort of person who finds simulation games dry, you'd probably need a few blasts from a defibrillator to get through Sim Health. With none of the humour or charm of Theme Hospital, you were put in charge of the entire US health care system in the mid nineties -- a time when so-called Obamacare was probably just a scribble in the current president's notebook. A UK equivalent today would be particularly apt -- just how few nurses does it take to run a hospital? Which immigrant group can you make the scapegoat for GP waiting times? And just how many backhanders can you get away with before privatising the entire NHS? [Download]