Home » Is Planet Coaster Better Than Roller Coaster Tycoon?

    Is Planet Coaster Better Than Roller Coaster Tycoon?

    An inverted plunge past a busy park

    There’s a moment that comes in every Planet Coaster session, whether or not you see it coming.

    Sure, the objectives change. Build a coaster of X length, with Y inversions, and a vomit grade somewhere under Z. More money. More guests. Fewer loans. Adjust as needed for the bronze, silver, and gold medal challenges. Earn

    But it still happens.

    Maybe when you’re tweaking the color of rosebushes to best complement the lantern light of a bumper car queue. Maybe when you’re sculpting the cave of a proper log flume splashdown and testing out which boulders look the most like teeth. Maybe when you’re fine-tuning the peak of that mile-high dive coaster so the trains glide through the next Immelmann like its fighting ace namesake.

    An inverted plunge past a busy park
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    You’ll forget all the objectives, all the complaints about bathroom cleanliness, and all the canvasses yet to come.

    Suddenly you’re an artist in a strange medium, left to your own devices and the lonesome folk soundtrack.

    It’s a high not even the immortal RollerCoaster Tycoon can match.

    Not that RollerCoaster Tycoon has been RollerCoaster Tycoon for a long time.

    Frontier Developments broke into the virtual theme park business in 2003, with expansion packs for RollerCoaster Tycoon 2. These releases, Wacky Worlds and Time Twister, marked the first time series mastermind Chris Sawyer wasn’t directly involved in the design process. As the prospect of a Part III loomed, Sawyer decided to focus on a new game of his own, Locomotion, and remain involved only as a consultant. RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, the franchise’s evolutionary leap to the third dimension, would be entirely Frontier’s baby.

    17 years later, the jury is still out on that one.

    So said GameSpot in 2004: “If not for some of the glaring bugs, Frontier would have delivered a truly excellent sequel to a beloved franchise.”

    Top-down drop of a wooden hybrid
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    It preserved the formula down to the grid-based construction and (now-optional) isometric view, but the suddenly infinite array of possibilities allowed for a suddenly infinite array of problems. Instead of the slow-building difficulty of previous titles, the earliest scenarios threw players in the deep end. Smooth terraforming didn’t play well with a landscape made up of little squares. Guest taste was more fickle than ever and money more scarce. The fact that it demanded comparatively luxurious hardware and still came bundled with a host of glitches did it no favors, either.

    RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 might’ve been just as much fun as its predecessors but, in just about every possible way, it was a whole lot harder to play. Reviews for last year’s Complete Edition follow a similar refrain – addictive as ever, but you kind of had to be there.

    Planet Coaster feels like an overdue, overhauled follow-up to that sequel specifically.

    A pirate flat ride at sunset
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    The lineage was supposed to be a lot clearer. Frontier called it Coaster Park Tycoon until a frank re-assessment of the subgenre changed course. Studio head David Braben put it simply: “It comes with too much baggage.”

    RollerCoaster Tycoon World, conspicuously released one day before Planet Coaster, is all anyone needs to see his point. Eurogamer, which gave Planet four stars to World’s one, called it, “a celebrity impersonator trying to sell his act at said celebrity’s funeral.”

    Tycoon is now Tycoon in name only, save Sawyer’s remastered Classic edition.

    The look lives on in Parkitect.

    The spirit lives on in Planet Coaster.

    From the opening Frontier logo ruined by the antics of globular mascot, King Coaster, the game takes it easy. RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 veterans will feel right at home with the sky-blue menus and cartoonish custom avatars. For any new to the genre, it’s still a breeze. Trust the sighing choir in the background.

    A great tree above a great park
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    If all else fails, rely on the tutorials, but it’s tough to get too stuck in career mode.

    All-in-all, there are seven chapters, each with three parks, all tied around one of Planet Coaster’s mascots. A pirate, a princess, a robot, a dinosaur, a cowgirl, the King himself, and a RoboCop hybrid of police officer and hamburger patty. New chapters only unlock with medals won in earlier scenarios, but it doesn’t take a flawless management record to see them all.

    Some call to mind traditional amusement parks – Oak Island, Miss Elly’s Tower – and others swing for the fences of suspended disbelief – Golem Rampage, a sci-fi sprawl in the wake of a petrified kaiju. They all have their charms and challenges. All of the playgrounds are more or less created equal, but players will soon discover which they’d prefer to keep developing past their objectives.

    I got pleasantly attached to more than a few.

    The Great Tree offers a fantastical plain in the shade of its towering natural centerpiece. Night Encounters is a heavily wooded parcel of government land that may or may not contain evidence of extraterrestrials and may or may not evoke the wistful suspense of Amblin movies. Festive Funlands, the only arctic scenario of the bunch, proves beguiling enough to make up for that oversight.

    A frozen kaiju in the sun
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    The few missteps in Career mode only stumble because of the game’s economics.

    Pirate Cove, the end of the tropical first chapter, offers a tantalizingly wide footprint in a crumbling Spanish fortress, but the trick is a tight checkbook. Players should expect to teeter on the edge of insolvency until, or rather unless, the crowds really click. There’s a clever way to earn more petty cash, hidden right there in the scenario description, but that only evens the odds so far. No amount of early hardship will help much with Cavernous Coaster, though, a jaw-dropping location that inevitably ends in a whimper, reducing park guests to capitalist agents of chaos.

    A smiling snowman over a sleigh ride
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    Tastes come and go. Rides degrade with age and, eventually, improve with nostalgia. But sometimes that brand-new B&M hypercoaster goes unridden simply because it’s on the far side of the park and, despite simultaneous marketing blitzes to all possible demographics, nobody feels like walking to it. Add that to the occasional glitch that prevents a gold medal from unlocking properly and it can be enough to take refuge in simpler theme park simulators.

    The other two modes of Planet Coaster split that difference.

    Anyone hellbent on becoming a captain of industry can start with a blank slate or existing scenario in Challenge mode. Without the usual objectives, the only rule is profit and every possible variable can be tweaked to make it as fleeting as possible. Less capital to start with and fewer attractions to spend it on. Pickier guests less vulnerable to ad campaigns. Gremlins in the gears of every roller coaster. The game shipped with three difficulties – Easy, Medium, Hard – but patched in a Harder option not long after.  The result has inspired endless forum posts on how not to go broke within a month.

    An alien overlooking a drop tower queue
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    Anyone who just wants to build the park of their dreams or most recent vacation can unleash in Sandbox mode. Like it says on the tin, the sky’s the limit. No money. No responsibilities. Every last animatronic and scenic package included with the price of admission. The lack of any to-do list may be a turn off, but there’s no denying the appeal of madness without method. Enterprising players looking for a little more structure can make their own scenarios and find many more customs on the Steam Workshop.

    The endless toybox at the heart of Planet Coaster is just as irresistible no matter how you play with it.

    Instead of abandoning or embracing the grid system of RollerCoaster Tycoon, Planet makes it conditional. Track rides can be bent and twisted to the limit of human endurance. Scenery can be placed, poked, and prodded at will. The grid only appears when erecting buildings or walling-in the cube-based shops. It’s an easy learning curve that never ends. You could spend an hour on a single hot dog stand, hanging ivy vines on the roof, adding wooded accents to each windowsill, and eventually throwing it all out to cover the thing in boulders. If you’re happy enough with it, buildings can be copied and pasted with two clicks.

    Concerns on how flexible Planet Coaster is as entertainment design Play-Doh should be assuaged with a single YouTube search. Creations range in eye-watering intricacy from recreated roller coasters to an eleven-and-a-half minute retelling of the movie Aliens. It is, with as little exaggeration as possible, the most robust creation tool of its kind outside of plain ol’ 3D modeling. Officially licensed playthings from Back to the Future, Knight Rider, and The Munsters can be purchased à la carte. The Ghostbusters DLC includes its own two-scenario campaign, complete with voice-work from original stars Dan Aykroyd and William Atherton. Other add-ons include, but are not limited to, spooky sets, shooting galleries, and backlot tours. Any design elements that can’t be kitbashed in-game can be imported as FBX files.

    The Ghostbusters Firehouse in the moonlight
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    But the beauty of the game is in the underwhelm.

    99% of people who indulge in Planet Coaster will not spend multiple days on a single attraction. A healthy percentage won’t even spend multiple hours.

    Either way, that moment still comes.

     All it takes is a carousel, a top spin, an antique car ride. Something small and plain. It’ll seem bare against the horizon or between that coffee shop and pizza joint. Taking whatever theming is on-hand for the scenario, you start filling in the blank. A red Nevada rock. A busted wagon wheel. Cacti with perfect posture. It helps the attraction’s queue rating, so the guests start admiring the view, too. But the props could use some rhyme and reason. Maybe that wagon was hauling coffins and crashed. It’s Old West poetry, but throw some foggers under the lids and it becomes a ghost story. What of the headstones? The open graves? You wonder if the Steam Workshop has a few good skeletons to round it out. You wonder if the wagon wasn’t carrying coffins at all but dynamite. What could it explode? What story would that tell and how would you tell it to the tiny digital people strolling past it?

    A pirate-themed coaster through the porthole of a Spanish fort
    Image: Jeremy Herbert

    Then the sun sets – never less than a perfect blush in Planet Coaster – and the white noise of the park quiets down. It’s just you and a little thinking music from Jim Guthrie and JJ Ipsen.

    Suddenly an artist in a strange medium.

    Not playing. Creating.

    There are plenty of games like Planet Coaster, but none that get the difference.