Sim Earth

Apparently, it is supposed to look like this.

Before today, I had never actually played Sim Earth. I bet it was much better on PC. But based on Wikipedia and other internet sources, it was certainly interesting.  You could control atmospheric gases with percentages down to three decimal places, the rate of continental drift, reproduction and mutation rates, and so on.  You can place devices that change the planet’s development, like oxygen generators or monoliths. You can even produce, through manipulation of evolution, a sentient civilization which develops technology – and if it becomes dependent on nuclear power, it can annihilate itself in nuclear war if fuel becomes scarce. All of this depends on a finite budget of energy units you have available for fiddling with the planet, as deity or spacefaring progenitor race or whatever.

This is a game where sentient molluscs can battle carnivorous plants for supremacy. And if nuclear blasts destroy the highest technology level, you get a bonus civilization – machine life!

Well, this game sounds awesome.

It turns out that on this platform, it is inscrutable.

Most games in this genre and this era end up being pretty impossible to decipher – the constraints of low-resolution screen real estate, low memory, and control mechanism make it very tough to create a strategy or management game that is at all intuitive, or a tutorial that is at all effective.

Not only that, but game design at the time was not supportive of in-depth tutorials or explicit gameplay explanations of any kind. I would imagine the instruction booklet was helpful for this game, though, to some extent.

But about six button presses from turning on the game, I got stuck on a blue screen.  None of my buttons would allow me to retreat from the blank blue above the menu.

The game didn’t sell well.  A game where fiddling with the atmospheric composition of a planet allows you to tweak the evolutionary prospects of a variety of eukaryotes is probably not what the gamer demographic at the time was looking for. Sim City did way better.

I would love to see a real Sim Earth remake or sequel done with contemporary technology and design philosophy, but maintaining the same in-depth sandbox quality.  This is exactly the kind of thing that Spore was lacking – any kind of granularity, any kind of feeling of simulation, to give its superficiality some weight and impact.