Theme parks may be great places to visit, but they're rubbish places to work. Theme park jobs are invariably and endlessly tedious. They can also be quite dangerous as you'll know if, say, you spent the summer of 1997 selling hot dogs in a US theme park which you can't name for legal reasons, and can recall how they sent the British staff climbing up the rollercoaster tracks to check for cracks. Apparently they were better at this than American employees because their travel insurance included medical cover and they were less likely to sue.
There are no signs of track cracks or ethically unsound working practices in Thrillville: Off the Rails, so you'll be disappointed if you're after a realistic theme park game. But happily there's little tedium either, which means it's an enjoyable theme park game.
To be specific it's a theme park management game, but that's not all. Just like the original Thrillville, which was released last year, Off the Rails is also a rollercoaster-building game. And it's a collection of mini-games - more than 30 this time around. It's available for PS2, PSP, Xbox 360, DS and Wii, and we got to review the latter version.
The management element is the core of the game but it's the least absorbing. You don't start off with a blank canvas, as in many sim games, but with a theme park already semi-constructed and open for business. Having picked and customised a character you can explore the park from a third-person perspective, with some simple tutorials to start you off.
The mechanics will be familiar to anyone who's played a game of this type before. Your goal is to make your park as popular and profitable as possible. You do this by adding rides and facilities, adjusting ticket prices, running ad campaigns, training staff and so on.
At any time you can pull up an overview of how your park is doing financially and how satisfied your customers are. You can also walk up to them in the park and have a chat about how things could be improved. There's always a selection of missions to choose from and, as your success increases, your character earns new rankings and you unlock other parks.
At first things can seem a bit complex - there are an awful lot of elements to manage and extensive options to choose from. But it quickly becomes apparent this isn't a game aimed at hardened management sim fans. The emphasis is on improving your park and earning rewards rather than dealing with problems and achieving a complex balance.
In fact, it's not long before you realise you barely have to do any management at all. You can spend most of your time on the other elements of the game and the park will pretty much look after itself.
Roll with it
This is a good thing, because the other elements of the game are more fun. The rollercoaster builder is intuitive to use, allowing you to create ridiculously dangerous rides with ease. The Wii version lets you create turns, banks, drops and uphill sections of track by twisting the Nunchuk and the remote in the appropriate directions. It's a neat idea which works well in practice.
You can also use something called the Whoa Wheel, a new addition for Off the Rails, to add novelty sections of track. These include traditional loops and corkscrews plus more inventive stuff like flaming hoops and stunt jumps. There's plenty of entertainment to be had here, particularly since you can ride your creations once they're complete.
But the mini-games are the real highlight. As in the previous Thrillville, many of them are "inspired by" retro classics. Stunt Rider is an Excitebike-style 2D side-scroller with great physics, while Tank Frenzy is reminiscent of all those early '90s top-down shooters. Bandito Chinchilla, a 2D beat-'em-up, has a unique cell-shaded style and is brilliant in multiplayer mode.
Some of the mini-games pay homage to more modern titles. There's one where you fly through rings along a rollercoaster track with Rez-style visuals and music to match. There's also a Crimson Skies rip-off where you pilot a bi-plane and shoot down zeppelins accompanied by a sweeping orchestral soundtrack.
None of the mini-games are very complex but almost all are highly enjoyable. They feature straightforward, pure, frequently addictive gameplay, and simple but stylish visuals. In the Wii version most of them incorporate the unique functions of the remote and Nunchuk well. There are plenty of mini-games to play without having to go through a load of tedious unlocking. Add in the fact they're all multiplayer and Off the Rails is a great party game.
It's not a great management game, at least not if you like your management games challenging and complex. But for younger gamers it's a good introduction to the genre. Similarly, Rollercoaster Tycoon fans will find the coaster builder options a bit limiting, but there's plenty of scope for creativity. The mini-games are what really make the game worth buying, and what elevates it from kids' game to one which will also entertain adults.
It might be nice to see a realistic theme park game one day, perhaps designed by someone who spent the summer of 1997 selling hot dogs. The core elements would be tedium, and dangerous working practices, and perhaps getting off with lifeguards from the water park down the road. But it wouldn't be much fun, apart from the last bit. So in the meantime it's best to stick with Thrillville: Off the Rails. It's not complex, it's not challenging, but it's not trying to be. It's an enjoyable family game which also has appeal for retro gaming fans and drunk people. If that sounds like you, put Off the Rails on your list.