Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 131 / JULY 1991 / PAGE 126

SimEarth. (computer simulation game software) (evaluation)
by Gregg Keizer

Every player a god, every pixel a species.

That heatly sums up SimEarth, the expansive exploration of planetary management from Maxis. Like its ancestor SimCity, this simulation puts you in charge of life, lets you say who gets liberty, and even demands that you oversee the pursuit of happiness. But instead of lording it over a measly city, SimEarth sets you up as master of an entire planet.

SimEarth is nothing if not ambitious. It may be a toy compared to planetary models developed for climate and weather research, but it's a toy that's had to put down. Loosely based on the Gaia hypothesis--that our world is a living system that adapts to changing conditions--SimEarth includes everything from climate control and continental drift to evolution, mutation, and the quest for fire. All of these are integrated into an entertaining and educational look at the dynamics between a planet abd its inhabitants.

You can sit back and watch a world develop on its own, but the real fun is getting your hands dirty and messing around. You'll make a dozen decisions every minute, many under pressure, so ease of use is critical. SimEarth sports a graphical interface clearly taken from its Macintosh version (Maxis develops first on the Mac), so you'll need a mouse to enjoy the game. Though the interface proves more than adequate, PC users would've been more comfortable with a true Windows approach.

SimEarth offers up seven ready-to-evolve planets,, from Earth of the Cambrian Era to Aquarium, an all-water world. You can terraform Mars and Venus, build continents on Aquarium, oe even test the Gaia hypothesis on Daisyworld. Play with Earth of 1990 and see if you can motivate humanity to head into space. Or try to make dinosaurs the intelligent life form by manipulating Earth of 550 million years ago (they're not that smart; they still have wars).

The real challenge comes in letting SimEarth create random worlds. You canstart at any of four points in time, but the best place is at the beginning, when the world's a sloag heap. Customize continents with earthquakes, tidal waves, meteors, and more. As oceans form, you populate them with single-celled species and propagate life. At your whim you can extinguish some creatures while promoting the evolution of others.

As millions of years slip by, you'll evolve multicell organisms--it's not hard--and move to the next step, creating intelligent life. That's not always easy, for some planets seem stubborn about letting advanced life flourish. Fortunately, you've got a well-stocked set of planetary tools. Windows open to show you simplified models of the geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. A click of the mouse button slows down the greenhouse effect to cool off a hot world, speeds up mutations to push evolution, or puts a stop to continental drift to hold land in place. Changing a variable costs energy, the currency of SimEarth, but if you're playing in experimental mode, money's no object. In any other mode, energy is limited, and your options restricted to what you can afford. It's a nice break on out-of-control terragenesis.

Later, if your world matures, you'll get a shot at guiding the dominant species toward civilization and then through its technological stages. You set priorities for your wards in an attempt to stop plagues and wars (or promote them if you're in a bad mood). And you can try to nudge them to use more efficient energy sources, though the consequences--emissions from fossil fuels and possible radiation poisoning from atomics--are as well known to your random world as they are to our own.

Manipulating all this sounds daunting. It's not. Icons and buttons change the satellite-from-space view to give information about cataclysmic events, air and water temperatures, animal and plant distribution, and wind and water currents. Other icons open selections to place life forms or perform acts of God. Menus at the top of the screen lead you to the reports and graphs you need to keep track of your world's development.

Play SimEarth on a VGA-equipped system if you can--the resolution and colors add to the experience. The program also supports the Ad Lib, Sound Blaster, and Sound Master boards, so you can listen to qualify sound effects and music when meteors splash and new life evolves. You may have problems with mouse cursor ghosts in high-resolution modes, but the solution is simple for most, and Maxis' technical support is helpful. SimEarth is slightly unstable; the simulation crashed twice in as many days with no warning and for little reason. Memory requirements are high but not unreasonable for most systems, assuming you don't run TSRs or crowd RAM with device drivers. Even on a 20-MHz 386SX system, though, SimEarth seemed sluggish.

More than just a good time, SimEarth is an excellent example of transparent learning. You walk away from this simulation with a better understanding of global interconnections. Watch firsthand how planetary heat buildups snuffs out species, how high mutation rates make evolution leap like a Mexican jumping bean, and how technologies always have tradeoffs.

True, SimEarth makes assumptions not everyone agrees with. All SimEarth life is carbon based, worlds easily form oceans, and the game developers apparently take the Gaia hypothesis as gospel. No one said the world--even a made-up one--was perfect. On the other hand, you can play with ideological incorrectness if you want. Smash civilizations by eliminating moral barriers to war or obliterate entire species with the click of a button. It's all fun because none of it's real.

SimEarth may be less inviting than the boffo bestseller SimCity, if only because it's more complex, and the intricacies of the 'ologies--geology, meteorology, biology, and technology--are scary compared to simple city planning. On the other hand, although SimEarth demands more from you, it gives back much more in return.

This is a landmark PC program that everyone must play. Not because it's the morally correct thing to do, but because it fires your imagination like few other pieces of software. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, I plead guilty to addictive corruption. I've nurtured worlds, and I've killed worlds. Go ahead--indict me. Just keep your hands off my planet.