Theme Hospital was one of the best games I never got to play during the PC’s great strategy renaissance in the mid-nineties. When that special issue of PC Gamer landed, I played the limited demo of this game over and over. Then I never bought it. And it disappeared. And then it really disappeared, because like many of those strategy games, even the late ones, they simply vanished off the face of the planet as soon as they got a Value Software label. Well, now fifteen years later, GOG has provided the world with yet another gem that had been previously been lost to Abandonia, the land where PC games go to die. Last year, they brought us Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper and now I finally got to experience Theme Hospital game as it was intended. But has this design held up? Can this game work all these years later? Let’s find out.
The game’s title doesn’t make much sense this far removed from its predecessor, Theme Park, but long before the ‘Tycoon games ruled the universe, Theme Hospital cast you as the administrator for a hospital. You don’t need to have an opinion on health care to get this game: people come in, pay money for a diagnosis, pay more for a cure, and pay the vending machine when they’re thirsty. There’s no insurance meta-game or co-pays to worry about: you provide care, you get money.
The single-player campaign is illustrated with a large board game. You don’t have any choice in the matter, so the way out is through. Each new area treats you to new challenges, but to start at least, a cavernous space that you build all of your treatment rooms into. You see, real estate is part of the Theme Park puzzle. You’ll need a receptionist, you’ll need a General Practitioner’s office to diagnose issues, a few secondary spaces to fulfill some, and then specific treatment rooms. Each of these spaces must be a specific size, that the game doesn’t want to inform you much about, and must be built within the confines of the spaces given to you. Of course, you can purchase new spaces, but place critical spaces too far from each other and you run he risk of making your hospital supremely inefficient as your patients must now wander from one end of your complex to another.
Of course, building is half the task: you’ll need to hire a staff of specialists. Doctors are your bread and butter, some are specialized surgeons, other psychologists, and you’ll need to implement them accordingly. Sometimes this just doesn’t work out and it’s on you to figure it out or, as the later game approaches, find a way to train new ones. Of course, you’ll have receptionists that tender the exchanges, groundskeepers that mop up the vomit and fix your equipment, and nurses who dole out prescriptions and maintain other specific facilities.
At the start of each mission, you’ll be given a few minutes to lay out some basic structures and set up your diagnose/treat/eject workflow. You can’t pause this, so you’ll need to be quick to examine the space you’re given and optimize accordingly. As the patience roll in, complete with a variety of afflictions, you’ll need to manage them or find them facing a very similar situation to what happens in any real hospital: they sit around and get frustrated.
While you’re capable of researching diseases, cures, and new facilities, the way its done is abstracted. You assign specialists to a research room and they just seem to figure these things out. You’re not given clear-cut research trees and you’re having to start over from scratch each time (which makes sense as a game, but not so much in the real world of medical professionals, but whatevs). This means that, often, you’ll be stuck waiting for cures to diseases you’d figured out in previous missions and have no roadmap to figuring them out, even if you’ve built everything in the exact same way you had previously. Of course, it’s always cool to see the comical diseases that do pop up, with patients walking around with bloated heads or transparent skin.
And naturally, as you work your staff to the bone, they’ll get stressed out. But there’s no great mystery on how to resolve this: provide a nice staff room (all rooms are augmented by having more items in them) and pay them off when they ask for raises. I wish they’d modeled more of this, especially since staff will leave without notice, which can be extremely frustrating when you’re already working hard to manage your troops and their specialties.