It's a solid effort for this DS edition.
Some things inexplicably belong together and never was this more so than in console land. An example, you say? What about Mario and Nintendo? Can you imagine Mario on a PlayStation? And Sega and Sonic? Would Sonic have been Sonic if he started out on the NES? Especially considering that when Sonic did eventually leave the comfort of Sega exclusivity, venturing out into the wide open vistas of the multi-platform landscape, the quality-to-quantity ratio deteriorated significantly. Similarly, would Halo be Halo if it wasn't for the Xbox? And SimCity on a handheld? Even if the handheld in question is the DS? Is this a case of peanut butter and jam? Or chalk and cheese?
Time was when a high-end PC was needed to run SimCity. In fact, there was a even a time when EA had little more than a passing regard for Nintendo hardware! How things change. It is a measure of the advances made by hardware manufactures and EA's game designers that they are now able to squeeze the complexity of SimCity DS - and complex it is. A living, breathing, sprawling mass of a game but can the tiny touch-screen handheld do it justice? Serving as if only to emphasize the size of the task, observant players will notice the 'Now Loading' screens that appear whenever a new map is loading. Seeing as this is a cart-based handheld, one can only presume that significant amounts of data is needed and being uncompressed.
The first stop for new mayors (especially those new to SimCity in general) should be the tutorials. These take the form of look and listen lessons, where your advisor guides you through the basics, occasionally requiring you to take up the stylus and place buildings and roads exactly where you are told. Informative? Yes. Effective? Not really. Surely this is not the best way to disseminate the vast amount of knowledge required to reasonably play the game. With this wonderful new interactive entertainment media of ours a two-way street of information would be better, where the player learns each small aspect of the whole by doing and building a city under the watchful eye of your advisor. In other words, more like a game instead of a classroom. Ah well.
Upon graduation then and the next stop is either the free-form Build A City mode or the task based Save The City. The former will allow you to select from basic, easy, normal or hard starting conditions containing varying amounts of land and money. The latter pits you as mayor of a failing city charged with turning around its fortunes and rescuing it from crisis. These are invariably more enjoyable than the former as the majority of the city is in place plus there is a pre-defined end condition. Although of course, the joy of building a city from scratch and planning every minute detail is not to be underestimated.
A game as complex as this lives and dies by its interface, so how does SimCity hold up in this regard? Well, the top-screen is an isometric view of your city whilst the bottom is your information and menu screen. A number of different sheets can be selected via the touch-screen, from your budget (where taxes can be raised and expenditure cut) to your data sheet (a kind of heat map of the city showing various factors such as quality of life, crime, pollution and congestion hot-spots) to a standard graph sheet (showing increases or decreases of various statistics over a 1, 10 and even 100 year period). The most important sheet by far though is the build sheet. This is a representation of your city as flat coloured tiles and is where you mark your residential, commercial and industrial zones as well as build your transport network, parks, power stations and other such structures. The build sheet moves in unison with the top-screen, with scrolling working as expected, one level of zoom but unfortunately no rotation. This scrolling though is sluggish at times with occasional yet noticeable pauses. The top-screen ticker text also scrolls along excruciatingly slow and can't be sped up. This is unfortunate as it often provides useful tidbits of information about your city should you bother to sit there and read it.
Whilst placing buildings on the build sheet is typically trouble-free, laying down chaining structures such as roads or power-lines can a little hazardous as often you find your stylus wandering off into neighbouring tiles. This is not too much of a problem and can be corrected by a shimmy of the stylus or by tapping the undo button immediately after building. Annoyingly though once something has been selected and is being dragged around on the map there is no easy way to cancel without building the structure first. Another annoyance is that undo works for everything except demolition, so should you find yourself bulldozing the wrong section (quite likely seeing as there is no visual representation on the top screen to indicate where your stylus is positioned) then it's tough luck. Roads, power-lines and other items that are placed by drawing out their path have to be placed piecemeal should you want to keep your city nice and tidy. Otherwise the game will simply use the shortest route between where you start and where you end up. If the path is blocked by other buildings then it won't be built at all. A better alternative would surely have been to click the left shoulder button or similar to place a 'corner' and then continue tracing your desired path. If the Romans had no problems building straight roads all those centuries ago, then why not make it easier for 21st century games players to do the same?
On hand to help you should things go awry is your ever present advisor. The first time you play the game you are asked a series of questions which helps in determining which character will take on this role, thus providing a pseudo-level of personalization. To call them an advisor though is a bit of a misnomer - pain in the ass would be more apt - as their only real use is in constantly popping-up to tell you that people are in your office waiting to speak to you. Should you get into any difficulty such as your population failing then asking them is as useful as a toothache. Is it because of the lack of roads? Are the taxes too high? Not enough schools? Ask and typically ye won't receive, instead being given a stock answer that you didn't want to know or don't really care for at that point. "Thanks to adequate police funding, police morale is high." Well, gee that's just great but why is my city stagnating?!
One of your more regular visitors is Professor Simtown. Upon reaching certain criteria and milestones he will pay you a visit and reward you with gifts. These typically take the form of new buildings which can then be placed into your city. Other little minigames exist too, such as the end of year fireworks display which sees you having to set them off at the right time via a tap on the touch-screen. A nominal monetary amount is added to your funds for each firework you manage to explode. This is indicative of the game as a whole - there are little pieces of joy and 'a-ha' moments of understanding which make the game seem worthwhile but then you hit frustration whilst you try to work out why your city has plateaued again. Unfortunately the latter moments outweigh the former and whilst not a total failure, a bit more careful planning and building work could have turned this much-loved but ailing town into a utopian paradise. So, SimCity and the DS - a match made in heaven? Almost, but not quite.