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Review: The Tower SP (GBA)

Many people are not aware of the history of this game. At first glance, most people would call it a “SimCity rip-off”. However, this is completely false! It is SimTower, with a few cultural differences between the Japanese and North American versions.tower1.png

The Tower is a construction management simulation game designed by the infamous Yoot Saito while his original company OPeNBooK Co. was around. During this time, SimCity was a critically acclaimed game and was a major factor in Will Wright’s popularity in the simulation game industry. Saito’s The Tower was published in North America by Maxis and the game was renamed to SimTower as a way of standing out better in stores and increasing sales. The name change worked to benefit Maxis, but never replaced the critical acclaim of SimCity. Again, I must stress that Will Wright had nothing to do with this game in any way.

After this, Saito retained all the rights to the game, with the exception of the name “SimTower”, and stuck with the name “The Tower”. OPeNBooK later joined forces with Sega, and made a new version of his game for the PC and named it “Yoot Tower”. In addition, he created The Tower for the unsuccessful console, the Panasonic 3DO, and was only released in Japan. These versions were more complex than SimTower with different types of buildings that had various effects on a residents stress levels (e.g. restaurants, restrooms, etc.).

tower2.PNGYoot Saito formed another company, Vivarium Inc., which is well known for the Dreamcast game, Seaman, a pet simulation where the player uses a microphone to speak with the character directly to interact with it in addition to regular caretaking activities. OPeNBooK later on merged into Vivarium Inc and continued to develop more games with Sega.

The Tower SP is another game made directly by Vivarium. It still retains the visual similarities with its previous versions and makes good use of the GBA hardware with better controls and a better interface. The letters SP is a reference to the latest revision of the Game Boy Advance, the SP version, which is more compact and opens like a laptop computer and the newer Nintendo DS. This is the first time I recall a GBA game adding the letters SP to its name, where other games would use the word Advance.

The player takes on the role of a constructor for Yamanouchi Construction and needs to construct a building that people can live and work in, while making sure that everything is easily accessible, in good condition, secure, clean and making profit at the same time. As the building gets a higher population, the player is allowed to add different things such as a hospital and a train station to accommodate different people. The final objective is to have more than 40 floors, a population of 2000 and a wedding must take place during a weekend to receive a 5-star rating and the label of “tower” status. At the time of this writing, I have a 4-star rating and a population that fluctuates between 500 and 1900 and I am starting to slowly redesign the placement of everything to make it less stressful for the residents so they people don’t leave so much. It’s very challenging.tower3.PNG

The controls on the GBA are much better than the PC versions since there are buttons mapped to functions such as construction, increasing the rate of time, saving, reading help documents about various structures and examining people and rooms. In order to speed time, the player needs to hold down the A button. At first, I had a problem with this, because I’d end up holding down the A button for several minutes just to watch people move in to empty condos and fill up offices, then I realized the reason why they force players to hold down buttons is because there are messages that show on the screen such as “Single 40s female demands restaurant” and “Elevator #3 too crowded” which may or may not have a fatal impact on people’s stress level causing them to leave the building completely and it is important that the player has a chance to deal with these issues.

In addition to managing stress, the player needs to ensure that they are always making a profit with everything in the tower. This part requires plenty of patience. If the prices are low, people will move in, but move out if it’s too expensive and the stress level rises again. A trick I love to use is to lower the prices of offices and condos, and slowly raise it as people move in. One thing I had to do often is after a lot of people move in, I hold the A button to speed up the time and simply wait and watch as my money grows to 1 million dollars or more so that I can spend more time expanding.

tower4.PNGAs the player’s building expands, it will need more cleaning staff. Every morning, they will go through each floor and clean as much as they can. If there are not enough cleaners, there will be rooms left dirty, cockroaches will grow, causing more stress, forcing residents to leave the building. The player is capable of directly taking part in maintenance in strange ways. For example, the player can select a dirty bathroom and rapidly press A to clean it, saving the cleaning staff time when they do their daily routine. When a new restaurant is made, sometimes the player can select it and press A to increase the chances of residents to buying food there. This is a very miniscule way to add more player action so that they’re not always just waiting for money to roll in every time.

There aren’t too many bad things about this game, being that it is of the simulation genre. The thing I like the least about The Tower SP is the complexity of the rules. For example, a building can only have 4 elevators with a maximum of 4 carts and they cannot expand over 20 floors, people can take a maximum of 4 stairs at a time, there can only be 1 big elevator and can only be accessed every 10 floors, there is a limit to the number of restrooms, etc. The list goes on. Although, as the player gets a higher star rating, the president of Yamanouchi Construction will inspect the building once a year and give advice to make the building better.tower5.PNG

As a simulation game, it certainly lives up to the genre’s name. There’s just something about constructing a large building filled with little pixilated silhouettes that I find so appealing. Even with the complex rules and limited graphics compared to the PC versions it’s still a good game for anyone who is very patient and likes simulation games such as SimCity.

towermario.jpgWhile I was reading about this game, I found out that Vivarium Inc. made another sequel to this game for the Nintendo DS in Japan, appropriately titled “The Tower DS”. They did this to celebrate The Tower’s fifteenth anniversary. When The Tower SP for the GBA was released, most of the reviews for it were negative due to the fact that it is fairly long for a portable game and is still wrongly called a “SimTower rip-off”. The Tower is virtually unknown to most people, and the label “SimTower rip-off” causes so much confusion amongst people.

Due to the negative reviews, I don’t believe The Tower DS will ever reach North America in English. Reading text is a very important part of this game, and is nearly impossible to expand a building if the player is unable to tell what residents demand, so it’s not a game I can import from Japan and still understand. It makes good use of the dual-screens, so I don’t need to scroll up so high, since both screens display the tall tower better than on the GBA.

The only reason why The Tower DS was mentioned in some game news pages is because people saw the statue of Mario standing similarly to New York City’s Statue of Liberty, and there will be a point where the player can add rooms inside of the statue of Mario.

In addition, Sega did not publish The Tower DS. It was published by another Japanese company called DigiToys Inc. I don’t know if this is because Sega wasn’t interested in The Tower, since they were willing to produce a sequel to Seaman for the PS2 in Japan. It could also be due to the fact that The Sims and Spore are dominating the simulation game market here. Those are great games, and it’s a shame that Vivarium Inc. developed 2 games that we will most likely never see in English.

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Genre studies in scariness

A few months ago I played Penumbra: Overture, and wrote:

A survival horror game. I'm not sure why it's marketed as adventure. Perhaps because the technology isn't up to commercial survival horror games; the graphics are crude, the controls are clumsy, and there are only a couple types of creepy-crawlies.

The gimmick is a physics engine, on which some of the puzzles are based. Sadly, this is bad for the puzzles -- I spent a lot of time trying ideas which should have worked, but which I couldn't force the physics to comply with. And it's not great for the horror either. Rule of thumb: simulation engines lead to solutions which are emergent, surprising, and dull. You can kill nearly everything in the game by kneeling on a crate and flailing with your biggest weapon.

(from my web site.)

This week I played the sequel (and conclusion), Penumbra: Black Plague, and wrote:

This chapter fixes everything I complained about in the first game. The physics engine is now harnessed to serve the puzzles and plot, instead of the other way around. You still do lots of stuff, but your actions are now clear and definite when they need to be, analogue and simulation-y only when that's interesting. The combat is entirely gone; monsters may chase you, and you might even be trapped in a room with one, but you aren't flailing with a crowbar. You have to either run, or figure out how to use the environment to save your butt. More immersive, scarier, and far less dull.

Is this not interesting? ("You mean the way you reflog stuff from your website onto the Gameshelf?" Thanks, Steve, back in the crate please. We're doing Analysis, here.)

The interesting point, at least to me, is that the designers turned a mediocre action game into a good adventure game by taking things out. They took out the periodic attacks by zombie dogs. They took out the succession of weapons (broom, crowbar, hatchet). And they took the physics modelling out of many (but not all) of the story actions you undertake.

When we ask "what kind of game is this, really?" we expect the answer to be: whatever you spend most of your time doing. Overture had plenty of adventure-style puzzles and unique story actions. But they were paced out with zombie dogs. Furthermore, when you were wandering around exploring, you were watching for zombie dogs. (Which answers a slightly deeper question: what do you spend most of your attention on, in this game?) So Overture felt like an action game punctuated by adventure puzzles. Particularly since the action parts were flawed, and thus memorable. (Sorry! That's usually the way it works in reviewerland.)

("Survival horror" has a bit of cognitive advantage in this comparison. It's a subgenre of "action game"; but "action" these days implies some adventure-style elements -- if there's any storyline at all -- which there usually is. Action games will have some puzzles, some environment interactions, that sort of thing. Certainly all the well-known horror lines -- Fatal Frame, Silent Hill, etc -- have these adventure elements. Whereas adventure games are quite allergic to action-style intrusions. When minigames show up, as in Next Life, or even jumping sequences as in Uru, many adventure gamers mutter darkly and wave incense.)

Now, I'm not saying that the improvements in Black Plague, the sequel, stemmed only from negative changes. I fully acknowledge that the designers put in good stuff. They were able to do this -- and, moreover, make that good stuff dominate the game -- by dropping the elements that hadn't worked before.

Here's my second example: the physics puzzles. In Overture, at one point, you're being chased by a zombie dog. You run through a door and slam it. The door, being a weight on a hinge, bounces halfway back open again. Great. Some crates are nearby, and the narration hints that you should block the door. You drag the crates in front of the door. The zombie dog leaps against the door; since it's a massive object, and the crates have finite friction, the dog is able to push the crates aside. Great. I reload (the dog has killed me several times by now) and try piling the crates on top of each other in front of the door. The dog now pushes through them more slowly, and kills me.

At this point I've died about five times, and the best solution I've come up with is to slam the door, run back into a dark corridor, and hope the dog doesn't see me when it makes it inside. Which works, but then why was I fooling around with all these movable objects? Why did the game present them?

I never once managed to kill a zombie dog by dropping a crate on it, or anything clever like that.

In contrast, in Black Plague when you're being chased, you run. Generally if you make it through a solid door, the chase is over -- and you're into the next phase of the plot, because the designers have planned it out that way. In one case the zombie starts pounding on the door, and the narration hints that you should block it; but when you drag something in the way, it works. Because the game is scripted for it to work. If you fail to drag something in the way, the zombie bursts in and kills you -- try again.

This is where the fans of simulationism start howling about linear plotting. But the simulation puzzle didn't work, and the scripted puzzle did. Why? At least in this instance, it's because simulation means multiple fuzzy outcomes -- and all of those outcomes have to be fun, engaging, and advance the plot. That's hard to do! You fail to block the door, you slightly block the door, you block the door for quite a while, you block the door completely. Are all of those satisfactory? If one of them is only mostly satisfactory, is the player going to try to think of something better, or is he going to go on with a weakened game position?

(Which he may not even know is weakened. Remember, multiple plot paths add no value for a player who is only aware of one of them.)

Similarly, in Overture you have to maneuver some things into careful stacks, or particular positions. In Black Plague, generally, you just have to shove something into the right region; the game fits it into place automatically. Which means you're engaged with your intent, not with mouse mechanics. If the challenge is physical manipulation, then the manipulation has to be challenging; if the challenge is thinking of the right idea, then the manipulation only has to be satisfying. In other words: in an adventure, you're not supposed to fail for trivial reasons.

(There are satisfying interactions with the physics in Black Plague. You drag crates around in order to reach the "right region." This is fun, for the same reason that walking an avatar around is more fun than "click to go there." But it's not overused -- for the same reason that walking an avatar around shouldn't be slow or awkward.)

This is where the fans of simulationism start saying... "Will Wright! He rules the universe!"

And, yeah, he does. I am well aware that The Sims has better sales figures than the entire adventure genre piled up. Different game goal, different player goals -- in fact, the player's goal revolves around the fact that there is no game goal. This is the opposite of the story game.

Can they be combined? Well, maybe. I've spent this post arguing that Penumbra doesn't combine them effectively. That doesn't mean it's impossible.

Wright sure hopes it's possible; it's Spore. Thus far we have no idea whether its simulation elements and its goal-oriented elements will fit together. I hesitantly advance some skepticis -- hey! Ow! ...Okay, okay, I'm sorry! I'm just a cranky refugee from the early 90s -- from SimEarth and SimAnt, neither of which were, you know, any fun.

I don't think simulation-based adventure games are impossible. What I think is that they're really hard, and require months -- years -- of rebalancing and player feedback. This is what all the MMO-RPGs are doing, right? In a sense. They aren't simulating physics, but they have these immensely detailed combat engines, with thousands of dials to tweak and (hopefully) dozens of valid player strategies. And they always get it wrong a few times first.

Hopefully Spore has spent its months and years of buildup time on that balancing work. We'll see.

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