In 1991, SimCity for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System was briefly seen at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show and noted in a short blurb in Nintendo Power magazine. It never actually made it to store shelves. Instead, a 16-bit version of the Maxis city builder would eventually be released for the Super Nintendo, while the 8-bit prototype became something of a game collecting legend. Last year, two cartridges containing the elusive game popped up, and The Video Game History Foundation got permission to digitize the code, analyze the content, and make it freely available to the public. Here is the result.
It’s a fascinating look at the collaboration between Will Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto. This version of the game features “Dr. Wright,” a mentor character that teaches players the basic concepts of digital city planning and serves as tutorial guide. Bank loans are first possible here, allowing players a way to get out of an early financial death spiral, or just bypassing the doldrums of waiting to amass enough tax money to move forward. Unlockable rewards for achievements, like special buildings for hitting population milestones, make their debut in SimCity for the NES.
While these innovations showed up in the SNES release, (and some would even become standard in later SimCity sequels) it’s here that we can see the initial fruits of Maxis and Nintendo working together to make SimCity more of an actual game that the console audience would appreciate. It’s stuff that we now take for granted, but the original SimCity didn’t even have an optimal end-state for its scenarios. It just trusted the player to load a setting like “San Francisco 1906,” set off an earthquake, then fix the damage to their own satisfaction.
Without comment from Miyamoto or Wright, it’s tough to say who came up with which design breakthroughs, but the result is gaming history.