Resurrection: Theme Hospital
‘Resurrection’ is a regular feature in which we lose ourselves in a darling game of the past. This week: Theme Hospital, and why it’s still worth a crack today.
Increasingly maligned by the high street shops, PC games have over the last several years seen the retail space available to them declining consistently. Many of us now find ourselves wandering into our chosen games establishment, only to find the PC games section has not only moved but has also been miniaturised again. Sometimes it seems as though PC retail will disappear altogether.
It’s not as though we can’t still get hold of the games we want – most PC gamers use Steam after all, and if not there’s always Good Old Games, Direct 2 Drive or conventional online shopping. Throughout this whole process, though, it has seemed to me that there is one particular game which has defied the trend. No matter how much the shelf space has shrunk, one game refuses to budge. Even in more general shops, which have long abandoned selling games seriously and now deal only in a swivelling display rack populated mostly by dire poker games, one game seems to be a constant presence: Theme Hospital.
Ask a group of even the most ardently non-gamer people you can concievably come across whether they’ve played Theme Hospital, and you’re bound to be surprised at this game’s incredibly penetration into society. It evokes so many fond memories in people, and 13 years after its release, its catchphrases, humour and soundtrack are still memorable. Its developer became defunct in 2004. What explains the impact this humble game has had?
By way of any needed explanation, Theme Hospital is a 1997 management game developed by Guildford-based developer Bullfrog Productions, long one of the British games industry’s shining stars. In a spin-off from Theme Park, the player is tasked with building and then managing a series of hospitals catering to patients afflicted with a number of darkly comic fictional illnesses, including Elvis-themed King Syndrome and bloaty head disease. Starting with a hollow shell, the player must fill this husk with various rooms and departments, staff them with hopefully competent doctors, nurses, handymen and receptionists, and try to complete a series of objectives to please the health ministry enough to get promoted to an oppurtunity to tackle the next, even more chaotic care establishment. It’s notoriously addictive, a merciless hour-eater of a game, and it’s one of the only management games I’ve ever played.
Theme Hospital exists in a strange twilight world for me. I first played it years ago, when I was a kid, and quite frankly if I hadn’t done, there is no way I’d buy it today. Generally speaking, management games have never appealed to me. Too often they are based around a niche interest (like football), or something interesting but too dry to make an interesting game (politics). Compared to most genres, management games are sedate and sterile (no pun intended), and yet Theme Hospital is strangely gripping, something to which its many fans can attest.
Devoid of wars, space marines and in fact almost any traditional gaming clichés, Theme Hospital is instead a fun evocation of something really real: the process by which hospitals seek to make people better. The game succeeds partly by staying true to this noble process, challenging you with budgeting sensibly, keeping up a steady rate of research, and headhunting and training skilled and versatile doctors.
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