It's been years since I played a Rollercoaster Tycoon game, but thinking back to it brings forth foggy memories of a challenging yet enormously enjoyable juggling act. It was a series that asked you to balance the value of an amusement park in both business and entertainment terms.
You had to build rides that were scary enough to raise pulses without triggering gag reflexes, and adjust the prices of goods to ensure punters didn't feel ripped off while still turning a profit. The layout was important, too - it was unwise to place food stalls near the exit of a corkscrewing coaster, but charging people a fortune to use the toilet afterwards was a guaranteed money-spinner. You couldn't just slap down attractions haphazardly - you needed to build practical routes to enable people to queue efficiently and get around without any trouble. Building the theme park of your dreams, in other words, required a good deal of thought.
There's no need to think about any of the decisions you make in Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile - not least because most of them have already been made for you. You're not a tycoon but a lapdog, following instructions that are usually accompanied by large pulsing arrows telling you exactly where to tap. You'll name your park, add a few attractions and facilities, build a basic wooden rollercoaster, and then the game grips your hand a little less tightly and you're left with three nominal goals - build this facility, plant some trees, lay some pathways, and so on.
Complete any of these goals and you're given some experience points, some cash and a pat on the back. It doesn't matter that your customers have to walk across a large field to reach the entrance to your rollercoaster or that your balloon stand is positioned immediately behind your 'welcome' sign, because both will attract foot traffic regardless.
New goals arrive to replace the old ones. Look, now it's time to build a gift shop. Where? Doesn't matter. You're doing a great job. Tap here to put it down. No, you don't need to build a path to it - after all, paths are now classed as 'decorations'. They have no function, they are merely a cosmetic concern. Isn't that great? Claim your reward. Well done! You pressed your finger against an icon with a big arrow saying 'touch here'. You are excellent! Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you're tapping the screen!
You're living the dream - except it's a waking nightmare. But this insidious language of positive reinforcement constantly tries to convince you you're having a good time. It's a psychological trick - not even a very good one, and certainly not subtle - to lure the easily pleased into feeling like they've achieved something. And all you're doing is following instructions a lobotomised sloth could comfortably keep up with.
I log in on the third day of playing and find my park's 'buzz' rating has been boosted by 18%. Wow! I must be doing something right, I think. No. I got it for nothing more than checking in on my park. My customers are more engaged not because I've made any smart decisions, but because I turned the game on. One tap and everyone's happy.
This isn't an uncommon tactic, of course; indeed, it's one employed by plenty of free-to-play games. Except Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile isn't free-to-play. It costs £1.99. That £1.99 gets you roughly 45 minutes' worth of cash and tickets (the game's twin currencies, because you can harpoon whales more effectively when you attack from two angles, right?) before they run out, at which point the waiting game begins.
First it's a few minutes for a facility to be built, then it's half an hour for a new ride. Then it's an hour, five hours, 11 hours, and the number of tickets required to speed up the construction increases in steadily larger increments, like a Fibonacci sequence invented by a total prick. Expand your boundaries, you're instructed. Except with each 'for sale' sign you tap, you have to pay more. Within minutes, you're paying three times the cost for the same area of land.
I discovered this when one of my goals was to build a new steel rollercoaster to join my two wooden ones. I decided to take a look at the prefab models, for reasons that will soon become abundantly clear. I picked a monster called Black Mamba having freed up a bit of land in advance. It was too big, of course, but I was still shocked to discover that I'd have to pay for eight new plots to fit it in, at a cost approaching the price of the ride itself.
It's time to build a gift shop. Where? Doesn't matter. You're doing a great job. Tap here to put it down. Isn't that great? Claim your reward. Well done! You are excellent!
So I opted instead to pay for a 4D cinema - a snip at 57,400 coins, or the equivalent of 574 taps of my ice cream stand, which at the time was earning 50 coins per minute with a maximum yield of 100. Yet with a potential revenue of 9840 coins per hour, assuming I was to touch all the coin icons to refresh the various amenities as soon as they appeared, I worked out it would take between five and six hours of waiting, watching and occasionally tapping before I could afford my sci-fi picture house. Not factoring in the build time, of course.
I soon began to sympathise with the builders, however, because manually constructing a rollercoaster is an equally tedious and long-winded process. In theory, a touchscreen should be ideal for this sort of thing, but instead of drawing a track and then adjusting heights and angles, it has to be done piecemeal. It's alarmingly limited, to. Sometimes you'll want to raise or lower a piece and the game inexplicably won't let you - perhaps because the ride would be too exciting, and your customers would be too happy too soon, boosting your earning power before you'd had chance to spend real money trying to hurry things along.
As I was close to finishing construction on my second coaster, I grew bored of trying to defy these bizarre restrictions and fashion a more outlandish design, and opted to use the 'auto complete' option so that the game could bring my misery to a swift end. Every time I tried, it would think about it but tell me to bring the start and finish closer together. This continued until the track was a single square away from the entrance. Still the game couldn't figure out a way to connect the two.
It's far from the only technical issue. There's no option to change the camera angle and no way to adjust the transparency of anything - so good luck if you were planning on building something behind your rollercoaster. At one point I located an errant piece of stone pathway only when a building inexplicably disappeared from view for a few seconds. This fairy house I've just added must be magic, I thought. But then it happened to a burger joint and my octopus ride. And my toilets, my hotel, my gift shop and my coffee stand.
There's no consistency to any of it, from the interface to the internal logic. I inadvertently turned my ice cream parlour into a hot dog stand while swiping to browse a menu, yet I had to confirm that yes, I really did want to get rid of that lone tree sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty square where I was planning to put a new attraction. At one point, I tapped on a speech bubble to see what one of my customers was thinking. "I wish they had a chain carousel ride," he said, as he walked past my chain carousel ride. Later, I realised there was no way anyone could reach the entrance to my second coaster without crossing the track. It wasn't long before queues were forming outside and it became my highest-rated ride.
And then there's the now-mandatory Facebook integration. I resisted the temptation at first, even with all the wheedling encouragement, but eventually relented for the sake of the review, not least because soon I was being nagged by a new goal. "It pays to be social," it claimed, and it evidently did - I earned a hefty wodge of cash and 15 tickets, the game promising it would only need to access my friends list and my profile in return. That was a lie, as I found out when I completed a hot dog stand, and I was suddenly whisked out of the game and into the Facebook app. "Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile would like to post publicly to Facebook for you." I opted to skip the game's offer to fill my feed with its nonsense. It didn't seem to take the hint, dragging me back when I completed another ride.
Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile's problems are pervasive, but most of them stem from a fundamental - perhaps wilful - misunderstanding of what made Rollercoaster Tycoon great in the first place. Rather than empowering you to build the park of your dreams, instead it invites you to clutter the place up with bonsai bushes and lampposts, without for a minute considering that you might not want to. Freedom comes eventually, as you level up and gain access to more rides and facilities, but at what cost? You either spend hours upon hours gaining hollow praise for your obedience or spend real money on virtual resources. And surely no amount of positive reinforcement can compensate for the steady deterioration of your soul.
About the only thing I can say in favour of Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 Mobile is that it accurately captures the experience of visiting a theme park: it costs too much to get in, the stalls are all overpriced, you have to wait ages for all the rides and the whole experience will leave you feeling decidedly nauseous.