By Shaan Khan
For decades now, the simulation genre has solidified itself as one of the overarching cornerstones of modern gaming with a dedicated audience of consumers that not only allow the genre to ‘stay afloat’—but prosper.
Simulations are the antithesis of arcade gaming. It’s not a bombastic, out-of-this-world experience like your Call of Duty’s, Halo’s or Fortnite. Instead, Simulation games are defined by their realistic representations of many aspects of life.
What aspects of life does this entail? Well, mostly the exclusive variety that many people don’t get to experience. This includes professions that take years of training or exceptional talent to have real-life positions in, ranging from a race car driver to a spec-ops soldier or a surgeon.
Simulation games become our window into these unique parts of life. So, evidently, we want these video games to be as accurate as possible in their representation, not to feel cheated out of the unadulterated experiences. But what makes a simulation video game realistic?
The Controversy of Simulation Games on Nintendo Switch
The community of simulation gamers are more split now than ever before with the major leaps in graphical advancements over the years.
Think of it as a spectrum. On one side, at the far end, you’ve got your gamers with high-end PCs that exclusively play simulation games with the most realistic graphics and animations to feel fully immersed—even going so far as to crank up the graphic settings with the most extreme details and downloading third-party mods that go beyond the limits of immersion offered by the game in its vanilla form.
These types of gamers centred around realistic graphics are known to spend thousands of dollars on peripherals that enhance the immersion of games such as cockpits and virtual reality headsets for racing and flying sims.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have simulations that defy the notion of ‘realistic graphics being pivotal to a simulation game’. Where can you come across these video games? On the Nintendo Switch, a console with over 90 million sold units within its lifetime of 4 years, but arguably the least graphically intensive machine compared to any other popular current-gen consoles.
There’s debate on whether some of these Nintendo Switch games have the right to even claim themselves as simulations due to their unrealistic graphics. So, I aim to list and breakdown some of the most popular simulation games on the Nintendo Switch and explain why they have a place in the genre—hopefully opening an entirely new avenue of simulation games for you to try out!
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Screenshot Courtesy of animalcrossing_official on Instagram
If you commute on public transportation, then you must have taken a glimpse of someone playing this game, with its cutesy, cartoon-like characters and its addictive yet grindy gameplay mechanics. In fact, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is close to being the most sold game on the Switch while only being released in 2020—that’s a considerably less amount of time on the market than other best-selling games.
New Horizons was a long-awaited instalment in the series, with the prior Animal Crossing game being released in 2012. The beloved series is home to one of the most diverse demographics of gamers thanks to its casual gameplay style adorn by all ages, genders and people with varying levels of gaming experience.
The Selling Point?
Touted as a ‘Life Simulator’, for one key reason being, there is no absolute ending to the game. Instead, the passage of in-game time is locked to real life, so the virtual world made up of islands develops coincides with our own world, and the players are the sole developers of these islands.
Another cool simulated experience available in the game is weather and seasons represent and adjust to where you are located on earth in real-time.
A player is handed an island to which they control and develop, from agriculture to urbanisation. In other words, you play the role of an ‘all-hands-on’ mayor that oversees and physically conducts in roles such as architecture, farming, urban planning, interior design and so on. You choose how the land is used, whether it’s commercial, recreational or residential purposes.
Outside of the infrastructure work that builds a population for your island, the game features a slew of passive gameplay elements to represent that of a ‘lifestyle’. This includes:
- Scavenging for resources
- Catching bugs and fish
- Tending to plants and trees
- Mining resources
- Crafting Items
- Tourism & Travelling
The list can go on, but the wide array of features is somewhat expected from a game coining itself as a ‘Life Simulator’. The last point on the list is arguably the most rewarding part of the gameplay, since you develop your island for other players to visit online and rate/interact with your creation. The same applies to you as a player; you can leave your island and travel to other players’ islands, be entertained by their unique creations, and take inspiration from them.
So while there is much to do in New Horizons, does it meet the expectation of a life simulator? It’s the caveat of classifying itself so vaguely. The game undoubtedly showcases different slices of life that can be fitted into a lifestyle; the only problem is, the choice given for a lifestyle is far too limited compared to real life.
The next criticism is the lack of consequences in the game, since you would expect a life simulator to be revolved around survival, but your player can’t die in Animal Crossing, there’s no option for starvation or freezing, which arguably would apply more importance to your means of living.
Finally, it’s the art style and creative direction. Not only does the game have a cartoon aesthetic, but the NPCs that populate your island are humanoid animals that can speak. At this point, the game sounds far beyond being a life simulator and more in line with a fantasy game.
Animal Crossing inherently includes mechanics that mimic real-life such as the passing of time, the human development of an island, lifestyle choices and the operation of society—in a simple form, of course.
You could argue that the gameplay is what makes the game a life simulator, that if you look past the visuals and surface-level information and play the game, you will gain an experience that you will recognise as a life simulator.
The art style and creative direction make the life simulator more accessible and appealing to a younger audience, where they can receive some educational entertainment about adult life.
Screenshot Courtesy of stardewvalley.maps on Instagram
Another passively played game on the list that shares many similarities with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, seeing as they both are open-ended games with Stardew Valley simulating a smaller aspect of life than Animal Crossing.
Stardew Valley is not part of a widely-renown franchise such as Animal Crossing. The indie game was developed by one developer over the course of four years, and once published in 2016, the game became critically acclaimed and a commercial success, with over 15 million copies sold by 2021.
The Selling Point?
As mentioned, the game isn’t a life simulator, but a simulation role-playing game (SRPG) where you play the role of a farmer within a township. So as you would expect, the gameplay is dedicated to representing the lifestyle of a farmer.
You’ll find yourself using your time by:
- Growing crops
- Raising livestock
- Mining & foraging for resources
- Crafting items
- Selling produce
- Socialising with townsfolk
Stardew Valley also features multiplayer, allowing you to team up with three players and work on your farms together, with the option for more creative input from players joining other servers, while Animal Crossing is more restrictive in this regard.
Another simulation defining feature this game includes is the ability to marry and have kids, which ironically isn’t available in Animal Crossing: New Horizon—a ‘life simulator’.
The game doesn’t feature realistic passing of time, with one in-game day equivalent to 12.9 minutes in real-time and an in-game season equating to 6.2 hours. So your farm, players life and the world around you will develop much more quickly than it would in a life simulator such as Animal Crossing.
Unlike other simulator games such as Farming Simulator, Stardew Valley isn’t an immersive first-person experience. Instead, the pixel art game is viewed & played from a top-down perspective.
For a game presented as a role-playing experience of a farmer, the gameplay, I would argue, does justice in the representation of a farmers lifestyle.
The gameplay is where the heart of the simulator resides; the maintenance and progression of farming are felt once you continue playing the game past your first impressions.
The top-down perspective supports your ability to manage and organise by having a clear oversight of the farm from a distance, instead of the inefficient use of time by travelling to each area of the farm in first-person mode.
The art style is vibrant visual candy that’s pleasant and, perhaps, heart-warming to look at, especially after a dull day in the real world.
You could play Stardew Valley on multiple consoles, but I find that it’s a fitting game for the Switch due to the passive style of gameplay where sometimes you might just want to pull out your switch on the go to check out the progress in your farm or what the in-game wife wants.
RollerCoaster Tycoon 3
Screenshot Courtesy of rctwarrior200 on Instagram
The all-time classic now made available on Nintendo Switch, where you are in charge of planning, building & running an amusement park in this construction and management simulation game.
The Selling Point?
Unlike the other two games on this list, you have greater control of the in-game camera, where you can view this 3D world from all angles. You use the top-down perspective for more macro-management duties, then an angle that can closely mimic a first-person view when you want to be more hands-on and immerse yourself in the ride experiences.
The game offers you two different modes. The first is career mode, that’s more authentic to a simulator because your development is tied to real-world restraint and consequences that can grow or ruin your amusement park. Then there is sandbox mode that gives you full freedom over using resources to develop your theme park.
What this simulator can offer gamers is the complexities of running an amusement park which many people could find fun. This includes:
- Building/Removing/Customising objects & places such as rides, shops, scenery, amenities and general facilities
- Hiring staff
- Managing finances
- Impressing celebrities
- Receiving a positive park rating
- Coordinate fireworks
- Customise the theme of your amusement park
Seeing as the game came out in 2004, it has become a victim of poorly aged graphics that come nowhere close to reality.
What more realistic visuals and gameplay could offer is more advanced NPCs in larger quantities to mimic crowding at an amusement park and the consequences of not managing crowds well enough.
Realistic expressions and animation that give NPCs a more humanly feel could allow you to better connect with their enjoyment or distress felt at your amusement park—giving you a stronger sense of responsibility and satisfaction from your efforts.
Updated visuals could also allow you to better appreciate your creations with more rich detail to admire. Looking like the real thing gives you a sense of ‘I made something close to looking like what professionals in the real world can make!’
There’s a reason this game has remained popular over a decade later. It’s still the go-to simulator when you want to educate yourself on management and construction through interactive entertainment. The game is also one of the only places to learn in-depth about what it takes to run an amusement park.
While RollerCoaster Tycoon 3 might not allow you to see precisely through the eyes of a tycoon, it will enable you to understand what goes through their mind, from decision making, creativity and logical reasoning—this game is the closest you’re going to get, making it hard to recommend any alternatives with modern graphics.
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