Aliens blew up my garbage dump!

SimCity is back -- and managing municipal utilities has never been so much fun.

By Andrew Leonard
Published February 3, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I knew I was hooked when I didn't think twice about sending in the cops to kick some hippie ass. How dare those freaks set fire to my toxic waste plant!

Suddenly, I knew exactly how Rudy Giuliani feels when some namby-pamby bleeding heart starts whining about the barricades in front of City Hall. It's not as if I didn't care about the risks involved in converting nerve gas into extra creamy peanut butter; sure I did. But that factory was generating precious capital for my budding city -- the kind of dollars that pay for schools and hospitals and homeless shelters. And now it was on fire!

I listened to the sound of the police sirens I had summoned with grim satisfaction. I was pissed.

And, if I may zoom out a meta-level or two, I was also relieved. As a game reviewer, I had committed the unprofessional, partisan sin of badly wanting SimCity 3000 -- the latest installment in Maxis' hugely popular city-building simulation franchise -- to succeed. But before even popping the CD-ROM into my computer, I feared the game was bound to fail.

The original SimCity and its sequel, SimCity 2000, had been just too much fun. How many hours had I joyously squandered way back in 1993, showering my beloved citizens with marinas and museums and a subway system that beggared description, watching with glee as intricately detailed airports and skyscrapers blossomed on my computer screen?

SimCity occupies a special place in my heart. Even as I waited for SimCity 3000 to load, nostalgia overwhelmed me. In 1993, the possibilities offered by this brilliantly realized simulation game -- in its then-latest incarnation as SimCity 2000 -- seemed to symbolize a particular kind of excitement inherent in the personal computer. For me, it was all happening at once. When I wasn't building seaports and cold fusion plants, I was discovering the joys of e-mail and alarming my wife and sister with grandiose blather about the revolutionary potential of my brand new 486 IBM clone. And heck -- in late 1993, the World Wide Web was beginning to take off with all the exuberance and breakneck acceleration of a thriving SimCity!

So great was my fanhood that I wangled a freelance assignment to profile the company Maxis -- headquartered just over the Berkeley Hills in beautiful Orinda. I remember being charmed when Maxis co-founder and CEO Jeff Braun told me he had chosen the company's Orinda location precisely because it adjoined a subway station. The incentives to public transit in SimCity weren't an accident -- they represented the fundamental beliefs of the company's founders.

SimCity, at heart, was more than a game, it was a lesson in the inter-relatedness of things. Sure, some of the underlying assumptions seemed based on Reaganesque supply-side theories: If you raise taxes, industry flees. But it wasn't quite that simple. Pollution control, traffic relief, education -- there were good reasons for taxes, as well.

So I was a bit nervous in 1999. First, SimCity 3000 was long overdue, years late in the making, and had backed away from a much-publicized plan to transform the game into a 3-D extravaganza. Second, Maxis itself was no longer a scrappy little independent company. Infatuated with its own success, Maxis had gone public, and then released a string of failures, lost millions of dollars and been forced to merge with a much larger game company, Electronic Arts. Braun was now a vice president, and the company headquarters had moved up the highway to Walnut Creek, a city that is the epitome of everything I wouldn't want in my SimUniverse -- bland and corporate. And finally, the personal computer revolution had also lost some of its mid-'90s glee. E-mail was old hat, and the daily news flash about the latest mega-stock swap between absurdly overvalued Internet companies seemed less a harbinger of a new order than a reminder that nothing, really, had changed at all.

Few games, no matter how well produced, could live up to that kind of pressure. As my nascent city began to grow, I shrugged at the markedly improved graphics -- after five years one would hope that the graphics would be dramatically better. I had to admit that the level of detail was extraordinary, and the variety of units -- buildings, airplanes, yachts -- significantly expanded. But still, there was no sense of a breakthrough. Yes, the addition of actual Sim citizens scurrying through the streets and Sim cars and trucks getting snarled in traffic jams was pretty cool -- but it also strained the limits of my Pentium 233MX processor and graphics card.

The interface is easier to use, and the addition of "landmarks" -- exquisite renderings of actual real-world architectural wonders like the Arc de Triomphe and the Empire State Building -- is welcome. But as I struggled to get the balance of industrial, residential and commercial zoning correct and set up my water pumps and police stations and schools, the experience seemed so familiar as to be blasé. Nothing new to see here; move along, please.

Then a rampaging band of aliens materialized out of nowhere and nuked my waste-to-energy conversion plant. And I had a big garbage problem.

First of all, I didn't zone for landfill early enough, so I was playing catch-up from the get-go. After I caught on, I hustled to build a recycling plant and an incinerator, way out at the outskirts of my town -- SimCity 3000 citizens are especially picky about where they live. Finally, I scraped together the funds to build an expensive waste-to-energy conversion plant. But I was still living on the edge of garbage disaster. And suddenly, a swarm of UFOs was rampaging through my atmosphere, taking potshots. Boom -- there goes the conversion plant.

Of course, at this point, I had no cash reserves, since I'd spent it all on a huge science-park boondoggle. I zoned for landfill frantically, but the heaps of stinking trash filled the available space faster than I could create them. My citizens began to complain, and I couldn't blame them -- their homes and businesses were disappearing, replaced by mounds of stinking trash. I had to bite the bullet and take out a couple of usurious bank loans immediately to be able to buy two new conversion plants.

Only now I was running a major budget deficit in order to pay back the loans. No matter -- I was ruthless. I roamed across my poor city, blowing up schools and hospitals, even a fire station or two. I had no remorse. It was all for my citizens' own good. Oh yeah, and I agreed to let a somewhat sinister character build his sarin gas disposal factory in my old downtown. Hey, man, I needed the cash.

And then those damn hippies rioted. And then the aliens invaded, again. And took out one of my conversion plants, again.

Hmmm. Was there a pattern here? The aliens were going straight for my garbage chokepoint. The citizens were rioting over environmental threats. And me? I was completely sucked in. My city was a living, breathing organism that needed me to steer it to prosperity -- or into the dumps.

The true spirit of SimCity lives on: Garbage disposal über alles. And that's a good thing.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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