Gaming Nostalgia: ‘Theme Hospital’

11:30 am EDT, May 2, 2012

The date is March 31, 1997. We were calling Diddy ‘Puff Daddy’, Princess Diana was still with us, and Bill Clinton was starting his second term as US President. And on that day, Bullfrog’s classic simulation game Theme Hospital was released. In this column we’ll be recalling what made this game great, and whether it continues to shine after 15 years.

Theme Hospital is a simulation game with heart. Instead of being a dry, straight-faced micro-management game; you overlook a bustling hospital that deals with patients that suffer from rather peculiar diseases. Bullfrog’s classic black humor permeates throughout the game. Your GP might diagnose a patient with Slack Tongue – no problem, they trot off to the Slack Tongue Clinic for a date with the ‘Slicer’, a machine that wouldn’t look out of place in a medieval torture chamber. A quick turn of the handle; job done.

Meanwhile, you have to deal with epidemics, emergencies, and sickness waves. Your handymen will help you deal with the latter, of course, but only when their wages are in line with their peers’. Crazy diseases, grumpy staff and pompous hospital inspectors all need to be dealt with, or your carefully planned hospital will soon descend into chaos.

First time round

I first remember playing Theme Hospital in 1998. I was 6, but I’d seen my older brother having a go and figured it looked fun. We bought a second disk a few years later after the old one broke, and I remember reaching the end of the game at least once. After that, I’d tried installing the game again a couple of times, but without XP, Vista or Windows 7 compatibility I hadn’t had any success.

What memories did I have of Theme Hospital, a game that I’d last played about ten years ago? Extremely positive ones. I remembered the ridiculous but somehow endearing soundtrack, the incessant orders blasting out of the tannoy system (that you gradually became conditioned to), and, above all, the huge amount of fun that a relatively simple game provided for me. It was the game that I enjoyed most in my pre-teen years.

Original rating: 9 out of 10

Compatibility issues

Installing the game on Windows 7 is a little tricky. Inserting the CD that I’d bought in about 2001 gave me an error message, but a quick Google search provided a workaround that involved copying the files across to my desktop. The next problem was running the game flawlessly, without crashes or freezes; a problem I am yet to completely solve. Meddling with compatibility modes and other options brought variable results. Further, the results did not appear consistent each time I ran Theme Hospital under the same settings.

By right-clicking on WINMAIN, then going to properties, you can alter these settings. Try out different compatibility modes (98, ME, XP SP1-2 all worked for me on occasions). You can also have the game run in 256 colors, run in 640 x 480 resolution, and so on. It might take a few attempts to find the most stable settings for your OS and computer.

Sometimes on start-up the colours went crazy, but once I was into the game proper, they settled down. They might revert back to bright pink, blue and yellow whilst your playing, but if you switch to the bank manager or another screen that hides your normal game window, it should turn back to normal when you return.

Even with these tweaks, Theme Hospital does still crash frequently on my PC – usually every 10-25 minutes. If this happened with a more recent game, the long start-up time might deter me from continuing to play it after a crash. Theme Hospital, however, starts so quickly that you’re able to begin playing again within 20 seconds.

The return

Theme Hospital remains incredibly fun to play. As soon as a I started with the first level, it all came flooding back. Reception, check, GP’s office, check, pharmacy, check. I remembered I had to place fire extinguishers to keep the V.I.P. visitors happy, and plants to keep the patients happy. I knew I needed an army of identical handymen to keep the machines maintained and the hospital spotless. Even though it had been so many years since I’d last played, it might as well have been a day ago. The first few levels were entertaining but easy – I knew the best way of laying out the hospital, how to keep my staff happy, and all those other little tricks I’d picked up before.

With the introduction of epidemics in the fourth or fifth level, plus the sheer numbers of patients that you have to deal with, Theme Hospital began to get a little trickier. An ill-timed earthquake took out three of my rooms, and I even managed to lose a level. The increased challenge made it even more fun, with the numerous crashes barely denting my enthusiasm.

Theme Hospital may be close to the perfect simulation game, but I couldn’t help notice a few flaws that stopped it reaching perfection. First, the micro-management gets a little tedious – specifically when repairing machines. As the levels progress, you’ll need more and more machines (the Inflator, the Cast Remover, an Operating Table etc.), and as they deteriorate with use, you have to order handymen to repair them frequently. This is not a problem at the beginning of the game, but it soon starts to consume too much playing time when you get to later levels. Second, epidemics are equally tedious. The hefty fines attached to them easily become a burden upon your hospital’s finances, and I couldn’t help but feel irritated every time the tannoy shouted “Epidemic alert, stand by!” in nervous tones. Epidemics just aren’t fun to deal with.

Still, the rest of the game is so much fun that these issues barely matter. Take Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for example. It was my favourite Harry Potter film despite the awfulness of that one scene. You know the one – “HE WAS THEIR FRIEND!”. The rest of the film was so excellent that it almost seems unfair to mark it down because of it. The same applies to Theme Hospital. Even after fifteen years, its gameplay is among the best we’ve seen from any simulation game. Coupled with its dark comedic tone and hypnotic soundtrack, I’m not sure if I’d rather be playing anything else.

New rating: 8.5 out of 10.

What about a sequel?

If Theme Hospital was remade today, I would be very impressed if it could retain any of the charm of the 1997 game. Bullfrog Productions were long ago gobbled up by EA, and I’m not the only one to doubt them based upon their recent actions. We might see shiny new graphics so that our 30 handymen wouldn’t look like clones, or extra rooms offered as downloadable content. Maybe we’d get to use the classic doctor skin if we pre-ordered? None of these things would be right.

An indie games company might handle a Theme Hospital sequel with a little more finesse. The focus should remain on fun, addictive and challenging gameplay rather than graphics or revenue generation. Perhaps it could be done right. I doubt, however, that many Theme Hospital fans would welcome a sequel. The game is too precious for too many people; small alterations to gameplay would cause riots across Reddit, Twitter and 4chan. In an age where we are always wanting more and we always want it now, let’s take a step back and ask whether a sequel is really necessary.

I want to play!

If you’ve still got an old disk and are feeling adventurous, you can try messing around with the settings as I did above in order to play. GOG have Theme Hospital available for download, but you might need to run it through DOSBox for it to work correctly. Lastly, an open-source clone, compatible with recent versions of Windows, is being developed, but this requires a copy of the original to play.

Theme Hospital: still a must-play.

Feeling nostalgic? Share your memories below!

It looks like Ben Affleck will now be an important part of Justice League, both on screen and off!

According to a report by Deadline, Ben Affleck has signed on as the executive producer for Justice League in addition to starring in the film. This means that Affleck will be working alongside director Zack Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio.

The news probably comes as a relief to many fans who were disappointed by Batman v Superman. Hopefully Affleck’s added input will ensure that future films don’t make the same mistakes.

Affleck’s move to executive producer shouldn’t be taken as an insult to Snyder, as the report states that, “Affleck is doing this to be supportive of Snyder.” It should definitely be interesting to see what the film will look like with these two teamed together. We’ll remain cautiously optimistic until footage is released.

The plot synopsis for Justice League tells us, “Earth’s greatest heroes are assembled to form the Justice League, to combat a threat beyond each member’s capabilities.” It will feature Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Amber Heard as Mera, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Henry Cavill as Superman, Ezra Miller as The Flash, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and of course Affleck as Batman. Justice League is set to hit theaters on November 17, 2017.

Warner Bros. also had things shaken up recently on The Flash when they lost their director. Seth Grahame-Smith was set to direct the film and reportedly left due to “creative differences,” The Hollywood Reporter revealed. The Flash is currently scheduled for release March 16, 2018.

What do you think about the addition of Affleck as executive producer on ‘Justice League’?

Have you ever stopped to consider who in the Muggle world could actually play Quidditch in the air? There appears to be an answer, believe it or not: Skydivers.

A group of ’em jumped out of a plane recently, hopped onto some brooms, and managed to toss a Quaffle to one another — and then they got it through a hoop. Plus, they did it all while wearing Ron Weasley / Half-Blood Prince Quidditch gear. The Hogwarts Quidditch teams would be impressed! Watch below:

Quidditch has actually been played for years in the Muggle world, thanks in large part to the International Quidditch Assocation. They hold an annual World Cup which has been featured on Snapchat two years in a row.

Of course, the IQA teams don’t play in the air like these skydivers did. Maybe these guys should start a team for next year’s World Cup?

Revisiting the ‘Captain America’ movie from 1990: A lost masterpiece?

For a second there, Chris Evans almost tricked me into thinking Captain America was cool.

10:00 am EDT, May 6, 2016

Forget Captain America: Civil War. The 1990s straight-to-video version is where it’s at.

A week ago, I had the pleasure of watching Captain America: Civil War, the third movie in Marvel’s esteemed Captain America trilogy.

There is no denying that the Russo brothers have created a masterpiece. While I personally didn’t think it lived up to the expectations set by the phenomenal The Winter Soldier, the third installment of Cap’s story has everything you could ask for in a comic book movie: Beautiful people and special effects, great acting, incredible fight sequences, humor, conflict, and heart.

But enough about Civil War. We’re here to talk about another Captain America movie — a movie I wasn’t aware existed until earlier this week, when the Screen Junkies brought it to the attention of the world.

Related: 9 Bucky Barnes moments we want to see in future Marvel movies

Captain America was not a property that I, a little Danish girl whose closest thing to fandom growing up was Duck Tales, was ever exposed to. I certainly don’t remember seeing this American-Yugoslavian straight-to-VHS production at my local Blockbusters, if it even came out in Europe at all.

Honestly, this whole ‘Captain America’ thing would probably never have appealed to me if not for Avengers, in which I thought he was kind of funny (but not as funny as Thor), and later Captain America: The First Avenger, which genuinely moved me, and for a long time was the only comic book movie I had more than a passing interest in (Peggy Carter may have had something to do with that, too).

So color me surprised when, on a dare, I decided to give the 1990s version of Cap’s saga with a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes a whirl, and actually… maybe… possibly… liked it?

But wait, isn’t this the worst movie of all time?

Captain America 1990 sucks

Let’s get this straight: Cap ’90 sucks. It’s awful. It’s exactly what you’d expect a superhero movie made in the 90s with b-list actors would look like.

When The First Avenger came out, ’90s-Cap Matt Salinger (yup, that Salinger) did an interview with GQ in which he admitted that the new Marvel movie, “looks like what we had hoped ours would look like.” Heartbreakingly, Salinger went on to confess that he had asked Marvel for a cameo in the movie, which they didn’t grant him. (I feel like he’s my Steve now, so this hit me really hard. Love you Matt.)

But to be honest with you, I don’t really care that it’s objectively terrible. I sat down to watch this movie in an effort to educate myself on Captain America’s history (and to gain new appreciation for the MCU), and, maybe because I was expecting everything about it to be awful, I was honestly surprised by how much this movie got right.

All the moral ambiguity you want in a ‘Cap’ movie

Captain America 1990 Steve Rogers

After Age of Ultron, there was a lot of talk about Chris Evans’ Steve being too clean, too nice, too noble. ‘Real’ Steve Rogers fans recognized that the comics character has a dark side, that he can be selfish, that he’s human.

And, for all his buffoonery, Salinger’s Captain America actually, albeit possibly by accident, embodies a lot of the traits we look for in a flawed Steve. Twice he fakes carsickness (!), does a silly run (!), and steals an innocent person’s car (!), leaving them stranded on a deserted road because of some stubborn conviction that he doesn’t need their help (seriously, it’s so dumb and also hilarious).

He’s allegedly a patriotic soldier whose father died in the war, and who leaves his family to become America’s first supersoldier. In the movie’s first 20 minutes, he heads straight into battle with Red Skull and falls into a pile of snow before anyone even realizes he exists, then wakes up 50 years later and heads straight back into the same battle.

During their final confrontation, Red Skull tells him, “No one cares about you,” and Steve’s reply is, “I care.” The world isn’t aware of Captain America in this version of the story, and the values he’s supposedly upholding are irrelevant to everyone around him.

The movie may tell us otherwise, but in actuality, Captain America is just a guy with a grudge, a would-be hero who’d never make it round the block if everyone around him didn’t jump in to help him out. (This probably wasn’t the character flaws fans had hoped for, but it is a nice change to see a supposed superhero actually having to rely so heavily on his non-superhero allies.)

Captain America 1990 Red Skull

Meanwhile, the movie’s villain, Red Skull, is the one with the tragic past. This was back before Hollywood knew how to make interesting good guys, and so they poured all their characterization into the villain: The movie opens with him as an innocent child in the 1930s watching his entire family get murdered, and then he’s tortured and transformed into a monster.

Red Skull sees Steve as his ‘brother,’ and when we catch up with him in the 1990s, he’s gotten a plastic surgery overhaul, and is working with his daughter Valentina, who for all intents and purposes is his second-in-command. During WW2, Red Skull was working with the Nazis to bomb the White House (don’t worry, Steve rode that rocket all the way from Italy to Washington, and onward to Alaska!), but when that failed, he apparently decided to settle down in Rome and become a low-key Mafioso.

In 1993 (don’t ask why this movie takes place three years after it was made, that’s just part of its magic) he has this big plan to kidnap the President and implant him with some kind of control chip, and when that also fails, he decides to just blow up everyone.

Captain America 1990 piano

He stands by a piano — which is significant because he was playing the piano right before the Nazis made him watch as they killed his family — and tells Cap, “We are both tragedies. And now I send our two tired souls to rest.”

And Steve? He strikes a pose and declares, “Not if I have anything to say about it!” before using his shield to knock Red Skull off a cliff and possibly-very-likely slice the head off Valentina in the process. Subtle, this Steve is not.

But, intentionally or not, this actually leaves us with genuine Sympathy for the Devil, a depth which The First Avenger arguably didn’t allow for (Red Skull was pure, sadistic evil in that version).

It’s kind of feminist (no, really)

Captain America 1990 Erskine

I mean look, it’s the 90s and lead girl Sharon not-Carter totally gets locked in a cell, Ultron-style. But pretty astoundingly, none of the ladies in the movie — of which there are quite a few — are ever actually damsels.

The Erskine character played in the Marvel movies by Stanley Tucci is actually a woman in the movie, named Doctor Maria Vaselli. She starts out as a Nazi scientist working on the Red Skull serum, but when she sees what they do to the kid she rebels and, when they try to shoot her, escapes.

She begins working with the American government to improve the serum, and by the time Steve is all ready for his dose, she’s still around. She’s killed, of course, like Erskine is, but having a woman in such a position of authority in the 1930s, so matter-of-factly, just reminds me that the ’90s were a lot more chill about what we’d consider ‘progressive’ in 2016.

Captain America 1990 Bernie

Then there’s Peggy Bucky Bernie, Steve’s one true love who promises to wait for him “forever, and ever, and ever and ever.” You think she’s just a doe-eyed love interest until we catch back up with her 50 years later. Turns out Peggy Bucky Bernie did wait for Steve, but not forever.

When Steve finds her, she tells him she waited till she was 38, then basically said ‘f*** it’ and got married and had some kids, because she wasn’t actually gonna let her life pass her by. When she confesses that she feels old and ugly compared to him, he tells her she’s beautiful, which is also kind of neat, in this age of women being told they’re ‘too old’ to exist at age 26.

Later she dies, killed by Red Skull’s daughter, and we learn that even when her life was on the line, she never gave up any information about Steve — a hero, in her own, quiet way.

Captain America 1990 Sharon

And then there’s Bernie’s daughter Sharon. If you thought Civil War made it weird with Sharon being Peggy’s niece, oh boy — not only could this Sharon have been Steve’s daughter in another life, but the two women are also played by the same actress!

But Sharon, for all that she’s not the awesome, badass Agent 13-version of Sharon we meet in the MCU, is actually a pretty refreshing lead female character. For one, she’d never explicitly made Cap’s love interest, and she’s also got a very specific non-romance-related reason for tagging along with him.

Captain America 1990 women

“We get our orders from the Red Skull’s daughter”

When Bernie dies, Steve mourns for about 0.1 seconds, but Sharon is obviously devastated. She follows Steve to Rome in order to confront Red Skull, and learns that Valentina is the one who killed her mother. Sharon finds herself up against Red Skull’s daughter several times (and the two even have a few conversations that earns Cap ’90 a pass on the Bechdel Test), before she ultimately punches her in the face. Cap might be the one to kill Valentina, but Sharon definitely got her moment.

At one point, Sharon also pulls Steve’s own silly car stealing trick on him, basically sacrificing herself by letting Red Skull’s henchmen catch her so Steve can get away (if you’ve seen Civil War, this might ring a bell).

Okay but it’s still awful, right?

Captain America 1990 Red Skull 2

Oh don’t worry, it’s terrible.

For one, the movie does absolutely nothing to explain what the serum actually did to Steve, other than cure his limp. He’s stronger and can throw a frisbee with deadly accuracy, and that’s about it… but in fairness, I guess that’s kind of true for Evans’ Cap, too. The lack of a physical change — he’s a dopey dude and post-serum he’s still a dopey dude — really diminishes the effect of him, however, especially considering the dorky costume they make him wear.

Also, Cap freezes in the ice within the first 30 minutes, and beyond being mildly wary of tape recorders seems completely unperturbed by the world of 1993. There’s no Black Widow, or Bucky, or Howard Stark, or any of the other people the MCU have taught me to assume would of course be present in a Captain America movie.

Captain America 1990 kid

“Pictures don’t lie and neither do best friends”

There is however a President Kimball, a super sympathetic Al Gore-type environmentalist, who ends up helping out with the whole saving-the-day thing (this is a movie about Captain ‘Murica after all).

Tom Kimball actually saw the rocket-surfing Steve back in the ’40s, and the transition from the ’40s to the ’90s is done through newspaper clippings showing how Tom went from a boy who dreamed of being the president, to the actual president (that part was actually really cool, even if they made a really obvious spelling error — see below).

Captain America 1990 newspaper

He also keeps up with his childhood best friend Sam, and their friendship through the film actually feels genuine, amidst all the terrible stunt coordination and one-liners.

Sam, who helpfully drops a Human Torch reference (Chris Evans, it was meant to be), continues to believe in Tom’s Captain America, even after Cap leaves him stranded on a highway. And when Sam is killed, still in an effort to protect Cap — who gives no f***s — he leaves Tom some kind of decoder locket thing he’s had since they were kids. #ImagineYourOTP

Captain America suffers from spectacularly bad production value, and some misguided (and half-assed, to its benefit) attempt to make Captain America a stoic, square-jawed Superman rip-off. The punch sound effects are taken straight out of a cartoon, some of the backdrops are laughable, and Steve’s actual character arc is non-existent: He’s a good soldier who wants to be a good soldier and continues to be a good soldier — his only real personality trait is that he likes to pretend he’s gonna barf and then steal people’s cars.

Captain America 1990 woman

But around the epic fail of the hero himself, there’s actually a semblance of an interesting story. There’s a tragic villain ripped from his family and forced to become a monster, raising his daughter to be a leader in her own right. There’s a strong-willed girl who loses a parent and follows the one man who may bring her justice, and there’s a president whose faith in this mythical Captain America may be an expression of his faith in a better world — a faith which, if the desperation and ill-contained frustration of our contemporary Captain America is anything to go by, we’re collectively beginning to lose.

Am I giving this movie too much credit? Absolutely. It’s cheesy, badly made, and not very much fun. But it’s also dark — a child is tortured, a family is gunned down, and Red Skull’s daughter has to listen to a recording of her grandparents being killed — and, of course, there are cool chicks doing motorcycle stunts. At the end of the day, there’s a lot to enjoy about the 1990s version of Captain America.

As someone whose knowledge of Cap pretty much begins and ends with Chris Evans’ MCU version, I was actually pleasantly surprised by this supposedly-and-actually-awful, but still surprisingly solid, Captain America movie.

“Listen to me!”
“No time, Flyboy.”

With lines like that, what’s not to love?