Planet Coaster Preview

While they may be mocked by the so-called hardcore gamer, there is no doubt that once upon a time, games like the classic Rollercoaster Tycoon had a period of incredible appeal and popularity. I know that I personally spent dozens of hours playing the first two Rollercoaster Tycoon games, crafting absurd, logic-and-gravity defying coasters and sprawling theme parks, with each trash bin lovingly placed and every ride guaranteed to produce maximum excitement (and usually vomit) from the guests.

The third Tycoon game (2004) brought the parks into full 3D, added a raft of new features, and allowed creators to walk the parks and ride the rides alongside the little virtual visitors. Unfortunately it was beset by some kludgy controls, framerate issues and crash bugs. Twelve years later, processing power and graphics cards have finally caught up with developer Frontier's ambitions, and the company is about to debut Planet Coaster, which is now in Alpha 3 on Steam in preparation for the full game's final release.

Frontier's coaster games have never been for the professional coaster builder -- those folks tend to gravitate towards the No Limits series -- but Planet Coaster still allows for some pretty amazing, sophisticated, and impressive coaster designs, while making the construction process as easy as possible. As each version moves towards the final product, new coaster types, scenic and architectural elements, shops, and special effects have been added and already the game presents a huge number of options. Thanks to Steam Workshop support and a fanatical fanbase, there are hundreds of downloadable buildings, coasters and complete parks to explore and YouTubers have filled channels with content. It seems clear that Planet Coaster is resonating with those who miss the Rollercoaster Tycoon experience.

As in the original games, players will be able to complete challenges, or build their dream parks in an unrestricted sandbox mode. Although only a couple of environments are available in the current Alpha, it is easy enough -- and a lot of fun -- to terraform and craft the landscape, adding a variety of plants, trees and water elements like lakes. Building coasters around and through the environment is easy enough and creates some dynamic and dramatic rides as the tracks plunge through mountains and splash through water. Add the game's colorful lighting elements and rides become multisensory experiences, especially during the game's night cycle. The park's "peeps" now have a much wider range of amusing and realistic behaviors and reactions as they explore and ride the rides.

Thanks to the available scenic and architectural motifs, designers can create parks and areas around such themes as a pirate-filled bayou, storybook village, or a medieval castle. Despite still being in Alpha, the only real limit to Planet Coaster is the user's imagination, but crafting consistent and believable buildings still requires a huge amount of time, attention to detail, and overcoming a bit of frustration with the game's not entirely elegant construction tools. In particular, building paths and ride entrances and exits takes more time, fiddling and fussing than should be necessary. Still, dedication and creativity will be amply rewarded by some stunning and enchanting parks.

Although the list of coaster types, pre-rendered rides, shops, and scenic elements is still far from complete, it's clear that Planet Coaster will very effectively fill the niche once occupied by Rollercoaster Tycoon, and will move the concept forward, thanks to current hardware. Those of us who enjoyed the original have much to look forward to, and let's hope that Planet Coaster will serve to initiate newer gamers into the fascinating art and craft of amusement park design.