Theme Hospital: This Hospital is no Walk in the Park

Despite “Theme Park” being one of the first PC games that I owned, I somehow managed to avoid most of the other big Bullfrog titles. My first PC gaming incarnation was during the mid-90′ which coincided with the golden age of the great amphibian developer so how I managed to steer clear of their work is a mystery …. sure, it’s not one that’s going to sell many novels, but it’s a mystery nonetheless. For anyone who doesn’t remember the gaming world of 20+ years ago, Bullfrog were responsible for a string of PC gaming success stories, many of which were ported to the consoles of the time, but given that most of their catalogue involved a mouse interface to some extent it was pretty obvious which market they were aiming for. They were responsible for the aforementioned “Theme Park”, the mesmerising 3D landscapes of the “Magic Carpet” games, “Dungeon Keeper”, and of course “Theme Hospital”. That final title is one that I only really knew from the odd “go” at a friend’s house, but it came across as a quirky cartoonish, slightly bizarrely toned, hospital management game that at the time I wasn’t remotely interested in because it didn’t involve a fast hedgehog or blasting some kind of demonic aliens; looking back I had pretty terrible taste in games at that age.

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I guess my tastes have now matured enough that an immature game featuring excessive pooping noises suddenly sprung to mind when I was trying to work out what to play last weekend following a stressful meeting and associated (typically) disastrous journey. Through the magic of GOG.com and DosBOX I was able to, not only pick up a copy for a reasonable price, but also play it pretty comfortably on my current gen PC.

… and if I had known in the mid-90’s that buying and being able to play a game just on a whim of “oh, that would be fun” would become so easy and almost mundane I think my  head might just have exploded…  

“Theme Hospital” is the spiritual sequel to “Theme Park”; players must successfully build and run a hospital. That fleeting thirty minutes of play at someone else’s house all came rushing back to me as I was dropped in to the first level: the quirky professor gesturing to the options on the title screen, the darkly comedic intro sequence showing a patient fail a credit check right as the surgeon is about to rip into them with a chainsaw, and the boardgame cinematic between levels representing game progress. Bullfrog manages to pack a good amount of humour in to what is essentially a game about sick and, more often than not, dying patients luckily all suffering from fictitious and hilarious ailments including fan-favourites bloaty head, slack tongue, and TV personalities.

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Each level starts with the player being presented with an empty hospital building, a pile of money, and a time limit until the doors open for business. Unlike Theme Park, Theme Hospital has a much more structured approach. Levels have specific goals for patient cure rates, reputation, or money and if you fall too far in to the red then expect to be forced to restart as you’re caught in some kind of scandal. The addition of these goals is certainly a welcome addition compared to the more meandering style of Theme Park; Not that long ago I discussed the merits of sim style games that leave the idea of progression up to the player, but here at least, I think having a clear target to work towards is a plus point.

In order to treat patients players must build diagnosis rooms, treatment rooms, clinics, and facilities. They need to hire doctors with the correct qualifications to perform different roles, nurses to tend to the patients, janitors (to water plants, fix machinery… but most often just clean up the piles of vomit), and receptionists to man the desk. Patients are always seen by the GP first before being referred for further diagnosis and hopefully finally to treatment. The player is bombarded with pop-ups requesting what to do with a certain patient; either their condition hasn’t been researched enough, or only a partial diagnosis can be carried out meaning that treatment might finish them off. The graphics are all jam-packed with charm including the memorable bloaty head clinic where the patients head of popped and reinflated to the correct pressure, the backless gown showing their butt as they walk to the operating table, and the various pooping faces they pull in the bathroom.

Of course added in to the mix are some other elements such as dealing with the salary and mental health of your staff, the odd visiting VIP who needs impressing, containing epidemics without the department of health finding out, and incoming emergency cases.

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As I began to sink in to an evening of play I discovered that it’s not a difficult game to enjoy. The pace seems to lie in that sweet spot of constant activity without being frantic or fatigue inducing, and progressing through the levels keeps the whole thing moving forward; there’s always something to do. In the rare quiet moment I found myself gravitating to watch the staff room, which I invariably equip with a pool table and arcade machine, just to see the doctors, nurses, and janitors enjoying some downtime usually whilst the Tannoy is frantically calling for attendance in some room or other. There’s a neatness to the entire game, it’s trimmed down to the essential experience and has a polished air about it despite the odd gameplay annoyance (I can’t ever seem to get the heating right).

Unfortunately, as my play hours increased, it was this streamlined game design that made me begin to wish that I was playing Theme Park rather than Hospital. I’m not detracting from the game: it is well put together, charming, and satisfying, but around the fourth or fifth stage is begins to get repetitive. The problem is a lack of freedom and variety. From a building standpoint the pre-defined floor space and minimum room dimensions make it restrictive and a lack of furnishing options really don’t encourage deviation from the minimum room size. There is only one option for each placeable item: you want to decorate your hospital? place a pot-plant; want to provide refreshment? vending machine. I found myself automatically placing a fire extinguisher, radiator, plant, and bin in each room because that’s all I could place. Likewise the opening of each level is build reception desk, GP offices, furnish corridor, and hire staff with the rest of the rooms pretty much following a pre-defined order as they are required. Each stage adds an extra room type, but that’s just not enough to make it feel varied. By contrast Theme Park gives you a huge plot of land to go nuts with; different tree types, fences, toilet options, shops, entertainers, build a custom roller coaster, add a lake… the list goes on. Sure it suffered from bugs and a certain drifting style of gameplay, but it also threw the player a whole heap of assets to make their dream theme park. As a management sim Theme Park also excelled when compared against Theme Hospital; in the latter there is the occasional pay rise to be dished out and that troublesome thermostat to keep fiddling with. However Theme Park had that funny little contract negotiation mini-game, tweaking of various ingame parameters such as the amount of salt in the fries, setting routes for the cleaners and, with the higher sim levels activated, buying shares and managing shop stock levels. Theme Park just feels like a more involved and more open game whereas Theme Hospital feels like a game that the developers polished and polished, but in doing so rubbed away some of the elements that made the first game so memorable.

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I didn’t really set out to write an article comparing the two “Theme” games, but having played both of them it’s difficult not to draw comparisons. They’re both great games in their own way but even if I’d have played it when it was fresh, I just can’t imagine that I would ever have been as excited about “Theme Hospital” in the same way that I was about “Theme Park”.

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