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Theme Hospital Retro Video Game Review

Story | Gameplay | Graphics | Bang for Your Buck | Final Verdict | Comments

Story

In Theme Hospital you take the role of a hospital administrator. To begin every level you take over an empty hospital building and build it into a real functioning hospital. You need to build the various rooms needed for diagnosis and treatment, hire staff, train staff, perform research, handle emergencies, cure epidemics, and deal with earthquakes. Throughout the game you will encounter strange diseases such as bloaty head and you may even encounter some aliens.

Like most simulation games, there isn’t a whole lot to the the story in Theme Hospital. The story boils down to building a hospital and raking in the cash. Theme Hospital is not the game you play for its’ story though so this isn’t much of an issue.

Gameplay

Back around 1997/1998 I remember playing Theme Hospital as a child. I absolutely loved the game and remember playing the game regularly. Unfortunately I was never able to beat the game. To this day I still own the original CD copy that I used to play but due to the game being quite old it has issues working on modern PCs. So I hadn’t played the game in a long time since the hassle of trying to get it to work properly was not worth it. Recently Origin made the “updated” version of Theme Hospital that works on modern PCs one of its’ “On the House” games meaning that I could relive one of my favorite games as a child for the low low price of free. I was hesitant to try the game figuring that it would let me down like so many things that I fondly remember from childhood. I was surprised that the game still stands up very well 18 years after it was first created.

Theme Hospital is a simulation/strategy game where you build a hospital. You need to handle the finances of the hospital while building rooms to diagnose and treat patients. Unlike a lot of simulation/strategy games, Theme Hospital is quite accessible. The game is easy to pick up and learn how to play but also provides some challenge for players. You wouldn’t think building a hospital would be fun but it is. Once you start playing the game it is pretty hard to stop playing. Theme Hospital is not the type of game for everyone though. If you don’t like simulation/strategy games, Theme Hospital is probably not for you.

When I was a child I found the game to be somewhat hard. I was around ten at the time but I just got stuck at this one level and I could never get past it. Playing the game now I have to say that the game is not very hard. I ended up never failing a single mission. In order to play the game well though you need to be willing to micromanage the entire hospital. If you don’t notice or ignore issues with your hospital you are likely to lose. These are a few tips that I feel are very helpful:

  • Train, Train, Train. Once you get the ability to build a training room, you need to take advantage of it. In the later levels you will fail quickly if you don’t build up a strong training program.In the later levels you need a training program since you rarely get doctors above the junior level and its’ even rarer that you get one with specialties. You need to quickly get a consultant with two and preferably all three of the specialties. If you can’t hire one with all three specialties, use your training room to train up a doctor in all three. Once you have the doctor, keep him in the training room at all times to train your other doctors. Hire a bunch of cheap junior doctors and train them up and you will have a bunch of cheap doctors with all of the different specialties.
  • Keep your employees happy. Adjust your hospital policies to let staff rest when they reach 40% tiredness. This might be inconvenient with doctors always leaving to go to the staff room but it will pay off in the long term. Setting to the 40% level keeps your doctors happy and stops them from demanding raises. At this level I usually only had maybe two or three staff members ask for a raise each level.
  • Keep building GP offices. The GP office is your best friend. You can never have too many GP offices. In the last level I probably had 8-10 GP offices in my hospital. Build quite a few of them in the first building patients arrive in and also place some by your diagnosis rooms.
  • Separate you diagnosis and treatment rooms if possible. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, it is helpful in directing your patients through the hospital.
  • Minimize queues for rooms to at max four. When there are more then four people waiting for a room, it is time to build another of the room. Reducing the queue line lets people move through the hospital quicker which gets you money quicker and prevents patients from dying in your hospital.
  • It is okay to build up a lot of debt in the early game. To start every level I built at least one of every room available even if I had to take out loans to buy them. I also hired every talented doctor that was available even if I had no work for them since in the later levels talented doctors disappear quickly. Most levels I got up to $30,000-$40,000 in debt. Once your hospital gets going you start making money quickly and you can then pay off your debt.

Overall I really liked Theme Hospital but there are some things that really started to bug me:

  • The game has way too many earthquakes. I can see having quite a few earthquakes in the level that introduces them but after that they just get annoying. In some levels it seemed like there was at least three earthquakes every year. At least the game is nice enough to give you a warning before an earthquake is about to hit.
  • The rat problem is just annoying. You can keep shooting them or blocking their holes with drink machines but they never stop coming. After a while I pretty much started ignoring them.
  • If I never see another radiator in my life it will be a good day. The radiators/heat issue in Theme Hospital is in my opinion the most annoying gameplay feature in the entire game. The people in theme hospital are always cold and they always complain about it. You can have radiators cover every inch of your hospital and they will still complain about the heat.
  • The game does have some known bugs. The only bug that I encountered was when a surgeon got stuck in one of my operating theaters and when I tried to remove him a twin was created which messed up the game. I ended up having to reset my game to an earlier save. The bugs are annoying but if you save regularly they shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Graphics

Back in 1997 the gaming world was first exploring 3d games and generally they looked terrible. Theme Hospital decided to stick with 2d graphics with an isometric design instead of venturing into 3d. Some of these older 2d games have held up quite well over the years. Some of the Super Nintendo and Genesis 2d games still look great today. I don’t think I would put Theme Hospital in that category. The graphics are not distracting but they also don’t hold up that well either.

I remember playing the game as a kid and being impressed with the graphics. For their time period the graphics were pretty good. As a kid I really liked the bloaty head patients. The characters were cartoony in design and did a good job supporting the fact that Theme Hospital was not a serious strategy game. The game has a unique sense of humor to it. The unique medical conditions are still interesting now even though I wish the game had a couple more conditions that you could heal. The game also under uses the alien patients. They only appear in the last two levels and only show up in emergency situations. I would have loved to have had aliens roaming the halls of my hospital.

One problem with the patients and staff are that there is not a whole lot of variety in the character designs. For each illness there is between one and three different character models. Combine that with the fact that every receptionist, handyman, and nurse look exactly the same. The doctors also almost all look the same except for their skin color.  Back in 1997 there probably wasn’t much room for more character models but it would have been nice if there were more options.

Another issue with the graphics that drove me nuts was the fact that you could not rotate the screen at all. This was probably a technical limitation of the time period but it is really annoying now with modern games. You will only ever be able to see your hospital from one angle. This makes it sometimes hard to design the hospital especially when you need to build something that is blocked by the wall that you can’t see through.

Bang for Your Buck

At the time of this review the game is currently free on Origin. If this is still true at the time you are reading this review, you have no reason not to pick up the game. If you never even end up playing the game you really aren’t out anything.

If the free offer on Origin has expired when you read this post, at $5 you are still getting a good deal. The game includes 12 levels. The early levels probably take 20-30 minutes while the later levels take several hours to complete. The game probably takes at least 15-20 hours to complete. If you are interested in the game you will get your money’s worth. The game also tends to go on sale regularly for around $2 so you could always wait for a sale and get an even better deal.

One problem I did have with the length is that the later levels tended to drag on. In the early levels you are generally still busy building the hospital when the winning conditions are met. In the later levels you generally finish building the hospital and essentially have to wait around until you accumulate enough cash to win the level. I know you can fast forward which could cut down on the wait time, but I never did since you need to be ready when some emergency comes up.

The other thing that I really wished that Theme Hospital had was a sandbox mode. A sandbox mode where you could keep building your hospital without worrying about winning conditions would have been great. I could have seen using this mode well after beating the normal “story” mode.

Final Verdict

I loved Theme Hospital as a child and unlike most things it has actually held up very well over the years. The gameplay is not for everyone but it is fun and easy to play. The graphics have not aged well but they serve their purpose. At free or even at $5 you are getting a great deal for Theme Hospital if it is the type of game that you enjoy.

Now I just wish we could get Theme Hospital 2 (sadly it won’t happen since EA owns the license) or someone would actually make a good successor. I don’t count Hospital Tycoon since it has pretty terrible reviews.

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