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Review: Theme Hospital

Doctor needed in the Slack Tongue Clinic, as it’s time for a review looking at one of the classics of video gaming: Theme Hospital. Contributor Timlah looks at what he considers to be a gem.

Tim, contributorSome men just want to watch the world burn – but that quote certainly doesn’t fit the eccentric Timlah. Geek culture has completely consumed this chilled-out cosplaying conundrum. Regularly smiling and keeping it geeky over on GeekOut South-West, he’s hugely fond of indie games and alternative gaming systems.


Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Theme Hospital
Developer: Bullfrog Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release date: February 1997
PEGI rating: 12
Platforms: PC, PlayStation
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

England is a seriously important place for in history of video games and if you don’t believe me, then how about we talk about a classic British developer such as Bullfrog Productions? These behemoths of the gaming industry were active between 1987 and 2001 and brought some highly-praised franchises to the market, such as Dungeon Keeper and Populous which still influence releases even to this day.

So let’s move on to Theme Hospital, the game that positions you as the manager (and for some reason, building planner) of a fictitious hospital. Brought to us in 1997, it included a lot of humour and micromanagement; statistics and figures, sales reports and the bank manager are all waiting within. Patients with inflated heads, invisible people who are recognised as a hat and Death itself also make an appearance. Finally lazy, good-for-nothing, snarky receptionists make announcements over the PA system – this release has all you can expect from a medical simulation.

This was the successor to the highly successful Theme Park, which was the first game to allow you to build an amusement park for visitors. It’s still going to this day under the guise of Rollercoaster Tycoon, proof that it wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan concept: it’s an idea that has helped other titles in the genre really evolve and expand. It was truly an innovative part of gaming history and today, in 2015, we’re going to look back at Theme Hospital and see how well it fares.

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Plot

As soon as the player has achieved the requirements for the hospital they’re managing, they’re taken to the next establishment as a manager on higher wages.

You are the manager of a hospital which is opening soon, and it’s up to you to bring reputation, cash flow, research and staff through its doors. There’s really not too much more to say about the premise as the plot is an afterthought. As soon as the player has achieved the requirements for the hospital they’re managing, they’re taken to the next establishment as a manager on higher wages.

Being a simulation game Theme Hospital doesn’t really have a storyline as such but if it did, it would probably revolve around the emergency mechanic (more on that later). It would explain the emergencies more and perhaps even tie them into the winning / losing requirements for the level. Really though, it seems a tad excessive; after all, you’d not have a plot for The Sims – except for those you make up yourself.

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Gameplay

This game sees you both as the manager and the building planner of a hospital as previously mentioned. It’s honestly a wonder how the person you play as is able to do so many jobs without having a nervous breakdown: you a set an amount of money with which to build the rooms, staff them and equip the establishment with the correct facilities. On top of all this it’s necessary to manage colleagues who get tired of working for a certain pay packet, your heating system, and even how efficiently your researchers study different drugs to administer to the patients.

Keep your life-to-death ratio acceptable, keep hygiene up to scratch, and schedule regular maintenance for the machines you use – such as the always-hilarious Bloaty Head Clinic.

Simply put, Theme Hospital is a title of stats and figures with preparation and planning being key, as well as being reactionary to emergencies and visitors. You need to maintain the standards that are expected of a hospital: keeping your life-to-death ratio acceptable, keeping hygiene up to scratch, and scheduling regular maintenance for the machines you use – such as the always-hilarious Bloaty Head Clinic.

There’s a slight problem however. People will vomit here and there… and they’ll drop dead if you leave them standing around (for some reason – but they do stand there for months on end). Pesky rats will appear which seriously undermine the integrity of your medical establishment. And of course, patients will get annoyed, frustrated and sometimes cold, often with dreadful new dental bills thanks to your uncanny penchant of giving all of them nothing but fizzy drinks.

You’ll find that people will come into the hospital and some are more patient than others. I guess this is a fair representation of patients in the real world but certain characters want to do nothing more than throw-up everywhere and be impatient about your staffing levels, so players need to ensure they don’t overwork their staff and make them tired. You don’t want an abundance of colleagues either as you need to be sure you can manage paying your employees and meet certain requirements set for you during the game…

You need to keep on top of increasing the value of your hospital whilst keeping your cash-flow steady and your employees looked after.

Speaking of requirements, when you start a level you should always read them. They explain how many patients you need to save and how much money you require, as well as how much the hospital should be worth. The latter is determined by how much you have added to the establishment, from each room to benches and even plants – all of go towards your total. Couple this with earning money from operations you perform, you need to keep on top of increasing the value of your hospital whilst keeping your cash-flow steady and your employees looked after.

Finally, there are the emergencies. When you get to the hospital with the Helipad, you begin to get pop-ups in the notification corner of the screen – red boxes with flashing blue emergency beacons. It’s in your best interest to take on the emergencies only when you feel your hospital is capable of doing so. They help you reach your goals much quicker but they also pose a serious risk: if you don’t perform well they can dramatically affect your reputation. Along with with requests for visits from very-important-people (VIPs) who need to be kept entertained, you have a lot to manage! But so long as you handle these events well, you’ll be on your way to finishing the level much faster… either with a win or a lose.

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Visuals and audio

We need to be aware of the year that Theme Hospital was released and other games around at the time. As I’ve previously mentioned, it was the successor to Theme Park; Bullfrog produced other titles also and all of fit in with the visuals of the opening cinematics.

In Theme Hospital, we only have the game-over screens and the opening animation to go by; and this is slightly disappointing.

These were really visually impressive in 1997. The developer became very well known for their Dungeon Keeper series which featured full cinematic openings and had some videos of the minions doing silly things in between levels. In Theme Hospital then, we only have the game-over screens and the opening animation to go by; and this is slightly disappointing as Bullfrog managed to create more from older titles.

The quality of the graphics is pleasing for the time but it’s not the visuals which defined the generation in gaming either. However, the one point to take away from this is that PC gaming in 1997 wasn’t particularly big – at least not like it is nowadays. It had to compete graphically with the PlayStation, N64, Sega MegaDrive and many more consoles so it had it rough. The graphics really weren’t anything special but did look quite nice and fit the theme of the game beautifully.

The music on the other hand is ridiculously catchy and I was able to memorise the entire soundtrack. The weirdest thing is that none of tracks were actually all that great; they were just nicely written and made the game quite iconic. If there was any bad point about the audio it’s the constant sound of cheering whenever you save a patient and jeering whenever you kill one: if it’s not bad enough that you failed, you do so to a crowd booing you. Also, the receptionist can get on your nerves after a while. It’s cute hearing “Patients are reminded not to be sick in the corridors” for the first time, but when you hear it during every level… it’s quite infuriating.

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Replay and innovation

It’s up to you ultimately to sort your hospital out, win the level and move on.

Let’s start with the easier part first: replayability value. What would you think a hospital management simulation would be like in terms of how replayable it is? There’s nothing procedural in this title and the maps are always the same. You get your alerts to deal with and sure, they appear at somewhat different points I believe, but it’s up to you ultimately to sort your hospital out, win the level and move on.

The developer did increase the replayability value during the very last update of the game. Theme Hospital used to be a single-player but with the ability to play via a local area network (LAN), so you could go head-to-head with friends by rigging your machines up to see who can build the best hospital first. During the final update however, they made it so you could play over the internet – a great final amendment for a classic release.

You could say that this game wasn’t all that innovative. I mean, it was the second instalment in the Theme series so the management simulation genre was already live and kicking… but it was the only hospital management title of its kind, especially during the year of its release. Whilst this is nothing major to sing about, it’s a nice point and it was excellent to see how satirical it was. Satire aside however, the only truly innovative point was the fact that it was set in a hospital.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

If you like a bit of silliness and almost-slapstick humour then you’re going to have an absolute blast with Theme Hospital.

‘Disappointing’ is the word I want to use for the summary of my review here. I’ve looked at this game from all angles and would consider it to be one of gaming’s greatest gems. If you like a bit of silliness and almost-slapstick humour (hello Hairyitus!) then you’re going to have an absolute blast with Theme Hospital. It’s daft and it knows it’s draft.

But considering what else was around in 1997, it wasn’t really all that special. So how is it that this little title from Bullfrog became such a classic? The power of nostalgia? Or was it because the developer had such a loyal fanbase (clearly myself included) that it of viewed this game as one of their greatest pieces? Theme Park, Populous and Dungeon Keeper aside, Theme Hospital stands out not only for its clever use of wit but easy gameplay.

Sure, it wasn’t visually special and it certainly didn’t have any real story to sink your teeth into, but there was something so pleasing about the fact that you were saving (or losing) lives in the hospital that you had to plan. You couldn’t alter the walls, but in later levels you bought extra parts – not too dissimilar from buying land plots in Theme Park. You had a lot less room to create the buildings, but a lot more time to worry about what was indoors rather than the exterior. It was a great, fun title and I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a go.

I can honestly say that I wouldn’t include Theme Hospital on future 1001 lists.

With this in mind, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t include Theme Hospital on future 1001 lists. Give it a try if you get the chance – with websites like GOG out there, there’s every opportunity to and you’ll likely regret missing out on it if you don’t. Excuse me, I have to leave for my appointment now… “Doctor, attend in psychiatry please!”

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game from GOG for £3.99
Positive: A simple concept with catchy music
Negative: Occasionally-daft artificial intelligence (AI) – along with some pesky rats
Score: 40 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Theme Hospital, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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2 thoughts on “Review: Theme Hospital

  1. I remember trying to catch those fucking rats with my PS1 controller stick and failing every damn time, became so much easier on PC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you killed enough of them, you got the secret bonus rat stage. I always felt like it was a kind of insult to get that stage, if I’m being honest! A good kind of insult though.

      “Hey! You had a dirty hospital! You’d better kill LOADS OF RATS to make up for it!” “Yes game 😦 /grabs shotgun/” Haha 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

      Like

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