Back in the days before admission to Disneyland cost roughly the same as a compact car, the park ran on a souped-up State Fair model: you bought a relatively low-priced park admission, and then you bought a book of tickets. Rides were coded from "A" (basically, the merry-go-round) to "E" (Pirates of the Caribbean or the Matterhorn) and of course, your cheap-ass parents bought a selection of tickets that were awfully heavy on the first letters of the alphabet. As a result, you spent a long time agonizing over which rides you would use your precious E tickets on. Meanwhile, the perfectly good C-ticket rides (like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, for instance) were overlooked.
Thrillville is a C-ticket ride.
Now, I'm a huge fan of theme park/coaster sims on the PC, and although this is a somewhat niche genre for sure, it has seen its share of breakout megahits (Roller Coaster Tycoon 1-3) as well specialized, uber-realistic coaster builders such as No Limits. Playing these games can bring back that "child in the sandbox" feeling like no other. However, the consoles have seen relatively few sim coaster games. The myriad of design and economic options that drive most PC coaster sims are not exactly gamepad friendly, and the "typical" console gamer isn't probably that interested in setting the price of hot dogs or micromanaging the amount of ice plopped in the cups of soda served in the park.
Thrillville, published by LucasArts and developed by Frontier on its Roller Coaster 3 engine, simplifies the park management aspects a bit, limits the coaster design options, and introduces a series of minigames that not only are fun (mostly) on their own, but add a twist to the park development model. This is not a game for hardcore coaster simmers, who no doubt already get their inverted triple helix fix on the PC. Instead, it is geared for younger and casual gamers who want to tinker with coaster design (although its totally possible to play the game without ever dipping into the blueprint mode) and will enjoy strolling through the brightly colored parks and messing a bit with the guests, rides, and attractions.
The basic premise of Thrillville is that you are tasked with developing a series of five different theme parks, each with slightly different goals, themes, ride choices, and levels of challenge. Each park features unique themed areas in which you can place family-friendly attractions, coasters, and shops. Unlike some coaster and park sims, the locations for your coasters and other attractions are pre-determined. So, some of the work of balancing attractions and other money-makers is already done for you. You simply can't create a park of 40-story looping interwoven wooden coasters in Thrillville.
As you begin to add attractions and shops, you train employees by playing a series of mini-games (20 in all) such as go-kart races, shooting gallery target practice, etc. These are entertaining, replayable, and some have a number of levels and challenges, and completing them unlocks upgrades to your park and additional attractions. Most all of the minigames are inspired by, or even direct copies of, classic videogames. Just like the mission challenges, most of the minigames ramp up in difficulty as the game progresses.
Another gameplay mechanic, where you need to schmooze with your guests, becoming their friend or even their love interest, is annoying and if you think about it, a little creepy. Some of the dialogue is amusing but the choices are pretty obvious and repetitive. And would you want Walt Disney hitting on you while you slurped your sno-cone? Still, it's a great idea that the park designer should interact with and get feedback from guests.
The coaster-building sandbox (i.e. blueprint mode) is amazingly easy to use although, not surprisingly, there is a fairly limited number of actual coaster types that you can build. Also, other than running into the ground, there isn't much in the way of real-world physics to worry about. Whatever you build will run, impossible rises and neck-breaking curves be damned. Coasters built in the sandbox mode can be saved and imported into your park. Although you can name your coasters and attractions, their names will not appear in the park itself.
Graphics and Sound
Thrillville is bright and colorful and has a bit of a surreal feel to the design. People are the 3d, cartoonish caricatures like those of Rollercoaster Tycoon 3; not to my taste, but they certainly fit into the overall look and design. There isn't a huge amount of texture or detail to anything but coasters animate smoothly and riding the attractions in first person mode gives a fairly convincing sense of speed and motion, with smooth framerates at (literally) every turn. However, there are still some obvious limitations to the PS2's graphical power and looping coasters and curves look blocky and the guests are pretty pixelicious. The game purportedly looks a little better in the original Xbox version.
Sound in Thrillville is not at all terrible but not particularly remarkable. Ambient coaster and attraction sounds are well done, and the musical tracks are full of variety and lend appropriate atmosphere to the different parks and areas; unfortunately, there is no option to import music. Some of the voice acting is annoying but it all fits in with the exaggerated, sort of silly style of the game.
I was frankly surprised at just how easy and flexible the coaster construction tools were; and the mini-games that introduce training, ride and attraction types were a nice change-up to the usual sim/coaster model. I can see Thrillville appealing to the casual gamer who wants to play park-designer god for a bit and maybe experiment with coaster design, but I don't see anyone losing hours obsessing over the game the way some hardcore coaster lovers do. For one thing, there simply isn't the depth of play, options, or tools--and that's ok. If you accept the intentional limitations, Thrillville is a pretty fun ride, positioned somewhere between the kiddie coasters and the lose-your-lunch, hyperspeed megacoasters that only the fearless dare approach. So grab your ticket book, pull out a C ticket, and get in line.
Thrillville developer: Frontier publisher: LucasArts reviewed for PS2 also available for PSP and xBox.