26 Feb 2018

Retro Review: Theme Hospital

After the recent announcement of Two Point Hospital, I had the sudden desire to return to a beloved game from my childhood. Theme Hospital was developed by Bullfrog Productions and released for PC in 1997 and on the Sony PlayStation a year later. The game had you take the role of the administrator of a privately-owned hospital, with your goal being to treat as many patients as possible while also making a profit as you manage your reputation and employees. With many people fondly remembering its comical edge and highly detailed graphics, it still remains a cult classic to this day.

You begin each level with an empty building with which you can populate with different rooms and props. I usually began with two reception desks, a couple of general practictioner offices, a pharmacy and a psychiatrist clinic. It's also important for you to add a staff room so your employees can take time to rest and a bathroom for the patients to relieve themselves in between appointments.

After the initial setup time has been used up, your patients will begin flowing in. There is a unmistakable dark sense of humour here when it comes to the types of diseases the patients will be suffering from. 'Bloaty Head Syndrome' causes the sufferer's head to be swollen to several times its size, and 'Slack Tongue' induces the patient's tongue to extend down past their neck. While you don't have full control over your patients - as they'll make their own way to their appointments - you can influence their actions when the staff give you the choice. For example, if a patient's diagnosis produces uncertain results, you may elect to send them home, to the research department, have them wait, or take a chance on a cure which has the potential of failing.
It's also important to manage your staff and ensure they're satisfied with their jobs. If they work for too long without a break or feel underpaid, they may demand raises or even threaten to quit. Doctors deal with most of the patients, but nurses will also handle some of the other treatments. You will also need to hire handymen to keep the hospital tidy. It's manageable at first but the biggest flaw I find with this system is the artificial intelligence doesn't work productively at times. Handymen will ignore messes on the floor that they should be cleaning up, whereas doctors and nurses will sometimes abandon their posts and roam the hospital when they're not treating someone, which can cause a problem when a huge influx of patients enter the building and find themselves with an empty clinic. 

The receptionists suffer from a different problem with them having almost no AI whatsoever. You hire one, they'll move to the nearest empty reception desk, and that's it. They won't take breaks or demand raises. You can practically forget about them. For a game that tries hard to have an employee management system, it's really weird that Bullfrog didn't add this in for the receptionists.
As you progress through the levels, multiple crises and hazards may present themselves to ramp the difficulty up. This includes emergencies, in which patients arrive and must be cured within a time limit or they will die, and epidemics, where a disease spreads rapidly and must be cured before the health inspector can catch wind of it. There are also earthquakes, which damage hospital equipment and may even render entire rooms unusable. I liked the idea of this but in practice it's more annoying than anything else. It meant that I had to babysit a lot of my rooms and ensure the handymen were fixing it very frequently. If an earthquake destroyed a room, it was permanently stuck in that state and I couldn't replace it. What began as a worthy challenge became more of a major nuisance by the later levels.

For a twenty-year-old game, I'm impressed that Theme Hospital has aged so well. The graphics look like something you'd see in a modern indie game and the amount of content ensures the game doesn't quickly get old. It's an easy game to just pick up and play at any time. If you wanted to enhance your experience, you can also download an open-source remake of the game known as CorsixTH, which provides higher resolution support and custom missions. Altogether, I think Theme Hospital is a fantastic retro game that is still worth playing in 2018.

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