Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA Japan Studio
Release Date: June 19, 2007
SimCity DS is one of the few games produced by EA’s short-lived Japan studio, and the second to see US release. It’s, uh, an unusual take on the classic SimCity franchise to say the least. While games may expect it to bear a resemblance to the Nintendo-published SNES SimCity that many a young console gamer cut their teeth on, Nintendo is completely uninvolved the creative content of this title. So while SimCity DS is brimming with odd and distinctly, well, Japanese features, they’re not exactly the features a retro console fan might expect to be there. A PC fan may find the title, at first blush, nearly unrecognizable.
SimCity DS splits the gameplay between the DS’s two screens. The upper screen lets you see a view of your city with all the 2D graphical bells and whistles on, and features a newscrawl that constantly carries updates on the condition of your city. You can also check vital SimCity stats there, like population and the amount of money you have on-hand. The bottom screen is the “constructing” interface, a screen that’s usually broken down into an isometric grid to make placing buildings and roads easy in your crowded city. You can sort through a variety of other sub-menus for performing other tasks. All the while, a blonde assistant character who was certainly Japanese in the original version gives you explanations and hints about what you’re trying to do (or need to do).
It’s unknown whether Will Wright’s cameo as an assistant in the original Japanese version will be retained in the English version. The interface appears to be designed primarily around the stylus, which is used mouse-style for dragging, dropping, activating icons, and swapping from menu to menu. While the graphics are purely 2D, they’re so detailed and so jammed with animations and information that brief load times during major gameplay transitions aren’t unusual. It is, in many ways, very impressive.
Just as the interface is split between the two screens, the gameplay is split between two modes: Build City, and Save the City. Build City is traditional Sim City sandbox-style gameplay, where your only goal is to build a city on a plot of land and make it as prosperous as possible. Save the City is effectively a mission mode, where you go into certain pre-constructed cities that represent locales all around the world. Each city has a problem you need to solve, and solving it rewards you with particular monuments and other decorative buildings called landmarks you can put in your own cities or trade with other players via Wi-Fi. There are fifty-six landmarks in all, representing the various nations you help in Save the City mode, which players can choose to examine in Museum mode. To trade items over Wi-Fi with other players, you need to unlock a type of building called a Post Office. Like most SimCity building and town upgrades, it’s unlocked when you reach a certain population level (in this case, population 500). You can also save histories of your own original cities, and swap them with friends to compare notes or point out neat events.
Finally, a player who simply wants to cheat can use the Password function, which serves no other function. SimCity DS’s developers are forthright about the game being meant as an introduction to SimCity for young, new, and very casual gamers who may not be at all interested in playing a challenging video game. Players who just want to cheat and get instant gratification have the tools for doing so built right in. For players who enjoy actually learning the ropes, there’s an extremely comprehensive Tutorial mode that lets new players brush up on any specific function or set of rules that might be confusing them.
Many of the simplifications from SimCity 3000 to SimCity DS were the result of intentionally trying to smooth out any gameplay elements that could be excessively stressful or unpleasant to a player. These changes were made in the interests of customizing SimCity DS to the DS’s “hardware identity”, essentially to make sure it was a very accessible game and also one easy to play in short bursts despite its basis in the intricate and meticulous simulation genre. So Build a City mode was designed to be easier and lower stress than, say, its PC counterpart in SimCity 3000 originally was, and the 3D graphics were stripped out explicitly to simplify the interface. The 2D graphics roughly resemble SimCity 2000, but again, very simplified.
The core buildings and SimCity gameplay functions are basically unchanged, if streamlined. Some more advanced gameplay modes like the terraforming God Mode are gone, as are water pipes and certain transportation options. Managing your city is still much the same as it’s ever been. You make power plants to give your city electricity, residential blocks so your population has somewhere to live, commercial blocks so they can shop, and industrial blocks to generate revenue. The three types of blocks need to be balanced, and sometimes you have to appease your citizens with entertainment-oriented buildings like sports stadiums and civic centers. You can also build Stations to help coordinate your public transportation system, and Police and Fire departments to keep crime and fire damage under controls. The specific engine SimCity DS is based on is SimCity 3000’s, so its game balance can be expected to be similar to that title’s, at least without respect to the intentional simplifications. The one concession to DS hardware wackiness in the core gameplay is an ability to help put out fires more quickly by blowing into the DS microphone.
Although SimCity DS is a simplified SimCity, it’s certainly not a castrated one. Managing your city’s money alone can involve wading through multiple spreadsheets, and planning your budget is certainly not overly easy. The various types of information you can get about your current city is dense and obscenely detailed, and you can go through dozens of spreadsheets, tables, and charts trying to process it all before making your next move. Effectively, the pressure to make your next move is minimal, and a single move is unlikely to screw you over, but you’ll still gain full benefits from playing the game wisely. So while it would be fair to call it the easiest SimCity title, this ease is there purely to create more freedom and fun for players of all skill levels.
SimCity DS is full of other whimsical touches purely there to enhance fun factor, similar to the ability to build and trade landmarks. There are, for instance, seven random events that occur to help you gain money more quickly. Each event is a simple, action-oriented minigame. The one at the demo involved catching presents dropped by Santa Claus as he flew over your city on Christmas Day. To catch presents, simply tap them with your stylus as they fall onto the bottom screen. Events occur every ten minutes to help break up the otherwise slow-paced, meticulous process of managing your city. Note that time stops in menus, so “every ten minutes” isn’t as frequent as it sounds like it might be.
SimCity DS may not be the game that some long-time fans of the series want, but it’s certainly a strong effort to bring SimCity’s increasingly sophisticated gameplay to a portable system without resulting in a frustrating, slow-paced mess. At the same time, while streamlining SimCity down to its core components, it also doesn’t sacrifice the inherent, traditional complexity of the game. In some ways, SimCity is a very elegant port, although some of the concessions to the DS’s light-hearted image and odd hardware can feel like a bit much. Whether or not it will please SimCity fans and general DS users remains to be seen, probably when the game streets in just under two weeks.
More articles about SimCity DS