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“Planet Coaster” is split into three modes: campaign, sandbox and challenge mode.

There I was, sitting atop a 180-foot drop looking straight down the tracks of a coaster I’d built. The grip of the chains released as I plummeted and heard the screams of the people around me. It was a special moment, one that I’d been looking for since the old days of playing “Roller Coaster Tycoon” on my PC. 

“Planet Coaster” does a great job creating nostalgic moments like this with its new console edition. However, it’s a management simulator, and there’s much more to running a park than simply creating and riding roller coasters. Players will spend hours keeping guests satisfied, boosting staff’s morale and budgeting the park’s pocketbook. It's in these tedious moments that the game’s flaws are slowly revealed. 

“Planet Coaster” is split into three modes: campaign, sandbox and challenge mode. My personal favorite was the campaign. The mode begins with an introduction from the game's eccentric cast of characters that banter and narrate as the player starts the tutorial. 

After completing the basics, the player will unlock one out of the next of nine unique areas. Each area has multiple parks that differ in location, difficulty, size, problems and solutions. Normally, I enjoy exploring the systems and mechanics of simulators freely in a mode that doesn’t constrict me, like a campaign, but I found it to be the exact opposite with “Planet Coaster.” 

Each park I was thrown into was vastly different, offering distinct problems and challenges for me to overcome, whether that be accumulating a park’s population to over 1,000 while dealing with limited space, reaching a specific scenery rating for all of my roller coaster’s queue lines or simply having people not be afraid to visit my park because of the kraken living beneath it.

For each new park, the narrator would find some whimsical and absurd reasoning for my sudden appearance as manager. In some cases, it’s because a kraken had consumed the manager before me, and in others, aliens had abducted the entire staff. No matter how cheesy it was, “Planet Coaster” was clearly comfortable in its own skin and established this early on.

However, actually managing these parks is another story. The game has simple mechanics on how to make money and keep workers and guests happy. In the campaign, I rarely ran into the issue of not being able to maintain these basic necessities until I reached the section classified as Hard. Once I was there, there were some problems that’d become more apparent as I switched to the challenge mode. 

The challenge mode puts the player in complete control of a customizable park and gives them free reign on managing it. Players can pick the difficulty they want to play on, but other than that, the largest difference in gameplay is that guests are even more easily dissatisfied. 

After completing the campaign, I felt pretty competent on how to manage a theme park — turns out I was clearly wrong. After a couple hours playing on the normal difficulty, I started to lose money, and my guests began to claim they were thirsty and tired. 

Those should be easy solutions, solutions I’d solved 100 times before at this point. Yet when I placed four new drink locations and over 60 new benches and picnic areas to sit at, my guests' happiness didn’t change at all. In fact, it only got worse. 

To emphasize that one more time, I created 60 new areas to sit down at, but my guests only got more dissatisfied. That’s when the frustration began to set in, and the fun started to dissipate. I was also losing money, so to improve profit, I increased my ride’s prices and the park’s ticket prices. I didn’t lose a single guest for doing this, and somehow it made absolutely no difference in my monthly income. 

After exhausting my options to fix these simple problems, I began to lose hope that I’d return to play this park again. There was another moment when I had a ride that was losing $300 a month. So, I demolished it and regained the cost of building it, knowing that this would take away the negative cost of running this ride. However, once again, this didn’t change my monthly profit. 

Perhaps I was overlooking some key element, which I don’t think is the case, but even if I was, I’d already beaten the campaign. Whatever error I was supposedly making should’ve been made clear after finishing that section of the game. These issues dampened my experience with “Planet Coaster” and made me look back at the campaign wishing I had more to do there. 

Lastly, I switched over to explore the sandbox option. This is a stress-free mode where money is unlimited and building insanely ridiculous rides has no drawback. It was a breath of fresh air after dealing with the annoyances of the challenge mode and is probably where I’ll spend the majority of my time when I go back to play this game. 

“Planet Coaster” can capture the pure joy of building a theme park as one sits back and watches it grow into something spectacular. It can also be extremely frustrating, as some of the management mechanics seem to be counterintuitive and take away from the silliness the game presents so well. It’s the best theme park simulation game out there, but it doesn’t come without a couple rough edges here and there. 

Contact Daniel Carter at carte3dt@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.