SimAnt. (SimAnt: The Electronic Ant Colony computer game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by David Sears
Most people don't enjoy the company of insects. All that chitin; those faceted eyes; the furry, frantic legs--it"s enough to keep you out of the backyard forever. Now Maxis does the unthinkable and brings the nasty little arthropods inside. In SimAnt: The Electronic Ant Colony, it's the black ants versus the red menace. Once you get into the game, you'll show as much fealty as a worker ever showed his queen.
Like its other educational toys, Maxis's SimAnt provides a logical interface that players of all ages will find comfortable. Anyone who's played with another Sim-toy can start playing SimAnt immediately using the online interactive tutorial. Newcomers and old hands alike, though, should read the entire manual at some point. Besides the standard information, the colony management source book offers valuable strategy tips and fascinating data concerning the true nature of ants.
The goals of an ant colony vary from game to game. In a quick game, for instance, your colony must defeat the red colony. To do this, you forage for food so your queen and her subjects won't starve. The colony nest requires expansion; where will all those pupae fit if you don't dig extra tunnels? As tireless as your ant--the only yellow one--may be, however, he can't do it alone. Feel free to recruit five, ten, or even scores of ants to assist you in your raids on the enemy nest or daring expeditions into spider country. Using the triangular Behavior Control menu, you can determine how many ants nurse young, excavate, and prowl the surface looking for food. The similar Caste menu sets the percentages of eggs that will hatch into industrious workers, fierce but gluttonous soldiers, and lazy breeders.
Given time, your yellow ant will die a gruesome death. To the colony, the sacrifice matters little; your miniature alter ego will just reappear in the nest, reborn. Each death consumes valuable time, though, so use the Exchange Ant option to switch bodies from a weaker worker to a stronger soldier. You'll win more fights and live longer. If the red ants attack, make certain that your queen relocates to the deeper recesses of the nest; when she dies, the rest of colony usually follows.
Quick games are just that--quick. With only a few hundred simulated ants swarming around on a limited number of screens, the motion of the little devils seems almost natural; you may increase the realism by setting the simulation speed to Slow.
In a full game your objective is not only to secure your immediate surroundings but to conquer 70 percent of the ground inside the human's house--not to mention eliminating all of the red ants in the entire backyard. To do this, you'll have to start a mating cycle, and from here on, the simulation really begins to grind. After your young queens settle abroad to establish new colonies, they also grab their share of processor time. The red ants want to expand their territory as well, so as you watch the yard fill with ant outposts, you can expect screen refreshes to slow to ponderous on unaccelerated Amigas. For this reason, a full game can take hours longer to play than it should. Don't ask Maxis to apologize, though. With thousands of ants in the background, any foreground activity at all seems remarkable indeed.
Experimental games allow you to flip-flop your spot in the food chain and play human for a day. As a heartless but curious fan of the ant world, you can spray insecticides, erect barriers and mazes, drop erroneous scent trails, dig deep nests, and even strengthen ant armies. Then switch from human back to ant, and see what happens. Like the quick game, an experimental game ends when your black ants destroy the last of the reds.
Despite the best colony management on your part, SimAnt occasionally gives the bad guys all the breaks. Piles of foodstuffs might appear frequently on the enemy side of the surface map, for instance, while only a dozen pellets drop from the sky on your side. SimAnt might even send rain to wash away the scent trail to the nearest food, or it might dot your countryside with Ant Lion nests. Worse still, your yellow ant can't set foot (set feet?) outside the nest without fear of the dreaded lawn mower. And of course, the red ants take every advantage and multiply.
To give your army a fighting chance against a much larger colony, visit the Caste menu and choose to breed more soldiers. Meanwhile, lead a gathering party to a supply of food, ensuring that the colony will have enough to eat. The ants leave a trail to the nest and will return to the food supply. When your colony's health exceeds the red colony, summon all the workers and soldiers you can and attack. Go for their queen, and you just might be able to snatch victory from the mandibles of defeat.
SimAnt provides an online Ant Facts option that will explain the basics of ant anatomy and a bit of game strategy besides, though nothing you can't find in the manual. On Amigas with at least 1MB of Chip RAM and 1MB or more of Fast RAM, you can play the special hi-res interlaced version of SimAnt. This version looks dazzling, rivaling the appearance of a Mac II game. As always with Sim-toys, feel free to toggle the sound effects and music off and on. I leave them on, though--they really don't seem to slow the pace of events and add to the air of industry and malice. The recommended hard drive installation will speed load and save times, but it won't make much difference in actual simulation speed.
Neither too complex to master nor straitlaced enough to be boring, this simulation sets the stage for countless diminutive dramas. Already graced with the longest average lifespan of any insect (see the SimAnt manual for more surprising facts), the likable ants of your colony need only a fraction of your human intelligence to ensure their success.
Altogether more involving and comprehensible than SimEarth, SimAnt takes its rightful place beside SimCity as an Amiga classic.