There's a fire on the seventh floor, a stuck elevator on five, and those pain-in-the-butt tenants on three are whining about the rent again. Two hours into SimTower, a computer game that turns players into VR landlords, I'm suddenly overcome with sympathy for Donald Trump.
Created by the same folks who make SimCity 2000, SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimHealth, and SimFarm, this latest floppy disc program takes you deep inside the nuts and bolts of a modern office building which is a lot more fun than it sounds. Constructing and running your own skyscraper, you get to experience the sadistic kick of charging exorbitant rents, the heady thrill of mismanaging your maintenance fund, and the heartbreak of underestimating your parking needs. If you're really lucky, you might even get to watch in horror as a Simterrorist blows your high-rise to Simsmithereens.
Maxis introduced its first Sim game SimCity, in which players build their own micrometropolis in 1989, and the company has dominated the simulation field ever since. It's easy to see why: The ersatz power its programs bestow is intoxicating. Whether you're noodling with genetics in SimLife (how about a half-cow, half-parakeet?) or running the U.S. hospital system in SimHealth, the games offer the illusion of total control. It's as close to playing God as you can get without wearing a big robe.
The most ambitious of the bunch is SimEarth, in which you really do act as the Almighty. The game lets you create a planet, pour oceans, alter climates, and nurture life forms (there's even a 2001-style Monolith button to jump- start the evolutionary process). To keep the hubris from getting too far out of hand, SimEarth's creators have given the program benign New Age trimmings (a Gaia face hovers in the corner of the screen, smiling or frowning to let you know how your planet is feeling). Happily, there are still plenty of outlets for a wrathful God (I particularly enjoyed the Plague button, which wipes out cities while emitting moaning sound effects).
Those Simheads whose management style is more micro might be better off with one of the narrowly focused programs. SimLife is a nifty little number that lets you genetically engineer new forms of life and watch them evolve (or, as most of mine did, die off). You can easily lose months obsessing over the witty SimAnt, which makes you head bug in an ant colony. Skip SimFarm, though, unless soil depletion and crop rotation send chills up your spine. And for a vivid demonstration of just how complex and boring the health care crisis is, try spending a few hours with SimHealth, which lets you do what Hillary Clinton couldn't: design a successful national health care system.
But for the control freak's ultimate turn-on, there's SimCity 2000. As mayor/demigod of your own electronic burg, you not only build an intricate web of roads, schools, and hospitals, you also get to destroy them by unleashing hurricanes, tidal waves, and riots. Of course, you also have to deal with bond payments, unemployment, and annoying city council members, but 2000's 3-D graphics and not-mentioned-in-the-manual surprises are so adorable you almost don't mind.
SimTower is a sequel of sorts to SimCity 2000 it's like zooming in on one of your town's buildings and peeling away a wall. For the first time, it lets you meet your Simcitizens up close and personal (there's even a Stress Indicator to keep you informed of their mental health). Like all the Sims, its interface is user-friendly, its complexity impressive, and its graphics deeply cute.
Still, this game may be a tad too obsessive even for hardcore Simians. After hours of play, I still hadn't mastered the elevator controls and most of my Simtenants were so stressed out I kept looking for a Decaffeinate button. My guess is Trump himself couldn't keep this property running. SimTower: B- SimCity 2000: A SimEarth: B+SimLife: C+ SimAnt: B+ SimHealth: C- SimFarm: C+