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An illustration shows kids riding on an elaborate roller coaster Illustration: Kyle Ellingson for Polygon

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RollerCoaster Tycoon taught me to be a ruthless capitalist

One 30-minute session at a time

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One fateful day in sixth grade library period, the monotony of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing was interrupted by a life-changing announcement: This unit would be dedicated to playing RollerCoaster Tycoon. Concepts like profit, price, and loans were to be teachable moments, we were instructed. In pairs of two, the first team to beat the assigned objective — paying off the loan and becoming consistently profitable — would get extra credit.

I was thrilled. I’d loved all of the other games we’d played at the school library, with two or three kids per computer screen. Logical Journey of the Zoombinis was a blast. A few of the computers had Adobe Flash, which I typically used to make animations of Kirby eating other Kirbys. I’d never played a simulation game before, but as soon as I slapped my first pathing tile onto RollerCoaster Tycoon’s virtual grid, I was completely hooked. It was my early gateway into the world of management sim games, a genre that has since become a staple in my life. I credit much of it to my love of this classic tycoon game, and the library computers I first played it on.

That semester we got half an hour of RollerCoaster Tycoon time several days a week. Class would breeze by. While the boys designed whimsical coasters doomed to failure — a thing my best friend and I also did, but on a separate save file during after-school hours — we were hellbent on getting that sweet extra credit. We became ruthless capitalists, and we noticed we could charge more for rides that had high excitement without too much intensity. How excitement is calculated in RollerCoaster Tycoon games is actually pretty complicated, but as kids we spotted a pattern: Make rides longer, throw in scenery, and have the track cross over itself, go above water, or underground. Avoiding intensity meant avoiding “G forces,” whatever those were. We knew intensity meant attendees throwing up, which required hiring more handymen. We decided the solution was not making any “scary-looking” coasters.

By the end of the month, our park looked like a disappointing pile of spaghetti. There were lots of rides with simple figure-eight shapes layered really close to each other, speckled with trees, random pyramids, Roman columns, and giant mushrooms. Where it was cheapest to do so, we added occasional squares of water, which we usually colored orange because it looked so sick. Then we’d stick a paddleboat ride in there, which was marginally more exciting because it was underneath another ride. We upcharged magnificently. Then we picked a handful of rides to cycle through promoting within the game’s marketing menu. Drunk on power, we also jacked up the price of umbrellas when it rained and deleted paths to force sprites to pay for bathrooms or immediately queue into a ride right after leaving a different one.

An isometric view of a Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 styled amusement park game. The screenshot focuses on a rollercoaster that is space themed. Image: Texel Raptor

We met our financial goals earliest in the class in a way that frightened our teacher, who was nonetheless obligated to reward us for our behavior. We won that extra credit. And then we went on to beat the game’s actual scenario. We ended up min-maxing our way through that save file, and laughing at the other kids whose amusement parks kept cratering deeper into debt.

More than anything, games like RollerCoaster Tycoon made me feel like I could sit still, focus, and create something special. I spent a lot of time in school wondering why my body felt filled with gears that wouldn’t stop grinding. Teachers would often check my desk and my notes to make sure I wasn’t fidgeting or doodling. Running those silly parks and ushering my Zoombinis through their puzzles helped me feel like I had something to offer besides completing worksheets, writing book reports, and teaching my classmates how to graph a penis on a TI-83. I was allowed to play these games because they were “learning.” They made school more tolerable.

That year, and several thereafter, I begged my parents to buy me the RollerCoaster Tycoon games. I loved playing them. And I loved that they slowed the turning gears in my head. I still have the CD-ROMs for all three titles, and I still own an early 2000s IBM laptop that runs Windows XP so I can play the originals. I also own most of the games in the series that are available on Steam, as well as some of their contemporaries, like Planet Coaster and Parkitect. The latter is a favorite because it feels like RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 but multiplayer — and I’ve made up for lost years by creating numerous creative coasters and visual abominations in multiplayer save files.

Management sims more broadly have become a staple of my adult life, and something I gravitate toward when I need to decompress. Playing these games, especially those with goofy or high-stakes fail states, is incredibly entertaining and makes me feel powerfully competent when I pull off a good run. I’ve been known to stay up until the wee morning hours playing Frostpunk and shouting “Eat your sawdust gruel!” at my unfortunate 18-hour-shift workers trying not to die in the ice. I have charted pipelines and electrical lines in a separate notebook for Oxygen Not Included runs. I like how things look and feel when they click together.

A wonderful side effect of playing more games has been trying genres I might otherwise not have picked for myself, and learning I love things like visual novels, roguelikes, and deck-builders. When these new games suck me in, I’m often reminded of that type of childhood excitement of playing RollerCoaster Tycoon in the library. It’s a simple pleasure, being able to trace a personal interest back to its first inklings. Every time I boot up a management sim game, I get to tap into it again.

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