Back in the day, the “Sim” franchise was about more than just micromanagement of bizarre blue-fluid emitting automatons or the construction of vast metropolises. From SimAnt to SimCopter to SimFarm, if it could be simulated you could bet that it would have “Sim” slapped on the front and be sold to obsessives who in previous eras would have been really into model train sets.
SimTower, the game which was remade into The Tower SP, was one of these games and unusually not the responsibility of Will Wright but of Yoot Saito, a Japanese designer responsible for Seaman on the Dreamcast as well as being a contributor to the Guild01 3DS game compilation with a minigame based around playing an airport baggage handler. Basically, he loves his management games.
SimTower bridges the gap between The Sims and SimCity. As the name implies, the player owns and operates a skyscraper which begins as a single lobby. Throughout the course of the game, it will expand upwards, downwards and outwards to become a veritable city in the sky.
Gameplay essentially revolves around obtaining enough rent from tenants to expand the skyscraper and meet the needs of those tenants by maintaining security, cleanliness, a range of services and efficient internal transport. While the game starts out plotting office space, cleaning rooms and security patrols, things soon move up a gear and fast food restaurants, underground parking garages, luxury condos and medical services move in too.
It’s much more hands-on than the organic and basically automatic growth present in SimCity. Places offices is done manually as it almost every other task including extending lifts and floors, and even cleaning toilets with a bit of occasional button-mashing.
It feels exciting to watch workers and residents flood into the building every morning or start to populate a new location, and after a while it really does feel as if the titular tower is its own self-sustaining ecosystem. The expansion doesn’t come without difficulty, though. Lifts can struggle to keep up with the quantity of people and require adding new cars, and thefts or terrorist attacks can occur without sufficient security. This and the stress level of the residents (caused by unclean spaces and long travel times and which can cause them to abandon the building entirely) means it can be a real challenge to look after everyone at once.
The graphical style which dates from 1994, displayed in the Game Boy’s small resolution, means that managing a 100-floor building can get very busy and at times it’s difficult to spot problems as they occur. An ability to zoom in and out or move around different areas of the building quickly might have solved these issues, although they are mitigated by the cartoonishly bright and varied colours of different building modules. The occupants’ sprites for their size are well-made and easy to spot, and offer a visual indicator of lift waiting times by forming queues, which is both polite and handy of them.
There’s little to sustain the game once tower-building becomes dull, but like SimCity it’s a continuous project which can be tinkered with every once in a while. Additional features like a competitive multiplayer mode (players could compete to obtain an arbitrary money target) could be fun, but given the technology at the time didn’t allow for online multiplayer it’s forgivable that they aren’t included.
The Game Boy Advance played host to a number of games which rightly receive much publicity for their quality. But it was also home to lots of underappreciated games, which despite their appeal and ability to inspire nostalgia in those who played them never broke through into the mainstream. The Tower SP is one of those games. Absurdly hard to find now (only four English copies were available on Amazon at time of writing) it remains worth playing for fans of challenging management sims to delve into one of the most defining yet unknown examples of the genre.