Wednesday, October 19, 2011

School Tycoon (PC)




Rating: 3 out of 5
Pros: Simple, kids may enjoy it for a while
Cons: Simple, natural disasters are frequent and annoying

Introduction

School Tycoon was developed by Cat Daddy games and published by Global Star Software, and it's just another face in the crowd of tycoon and simulation games. It's a few years old now, but even in it's heyday it didn't bring anything original or new to the table. That is not to say that it's a bad game either, it simply fails to differentiate itself from the masses of other games in the genre. These days it can be had for a couple dollars at places that sell used games and software. I had my copy given to me in a box of unsorted, pre-owned computer discs so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Gameplay

There really is no story in School Tycoon. You become a school principal, and for some reason this puts you in charge of building the whole school from the ground up. That's really all there is to it. The whole game game revolves around you creating and running a school. You can do this in an infinite sandbox mode, or complete a series of 24 challenges. These challenges are separated into 8 beginner, 8 intermediate and 8 difficult challenges. The challenges are varied, and all have some sort of time limit in which you must complete them. You can continue playing that particular map in a sandbox mode after the challenge is complete if you wish.

Beginner challenges are obviously easy. In one you will have to acquire 20 enrolled students and hire a teacher for each building, and in another you need to get student morale up to 75%. One challenge in particular, "Fitness Fanatic" requires you to obtain a 70% athletic rating and a 60% academic rating. When I started it, all I did was throw a fountain in the middle of the map and hire a couple teachers, and I randomly won in the first 2 minutes before I even started looking at what I was going to need to work on first.

The intermediate challenges are a bit tougher, for example enrolling 40 students and obtaining a 2 Star Rating out of 5 for your school, or keeping your facility conditions up to 90% while retaining at least 60 enrolled students. The difficult challenges are the hardest; one requires you to maintain a 95% athletic rating, 95% academic rating, and 95% facility conditions. Another requires you to earn $100,000 in 4 weeks, which often times involves playing right and then mass selling all of your buildings at the last minute to push yourself over the mark. Completing all the challenges does... well, nothing. You can try them again, or play the sandbox mode instead.

The sandbox mode allows you to start from scratch on a fresh map. You can choose to start on farmland, at the beach or in the city. You choose which buildings you wish to place, what staff members you wish to hire, and try to successfully manage your school. You need to make sure your students maintain good grades to keep your academic rating high and do well at sports to keep your athletic rating high. You also must have landscaping, janitorial and maintenance buildings along with their staff to ensure your school stays in good working order and stays clean.

The game is pretty easy for the most part, but as you get better and better it gets hard to keep up. I constantly find myself running out of money and going bankrupt for one reason or another, even if I was doing really well just a few minutes before. Natural disasters like tornadoes and earthquakes are the biggest factor in this, and they tend to happen way too frequently later in the game. If you go into the negative balance for 3 days, you go bankrupt and it's a game over. This can make the game pretty challenging sometimes -- but only in the annoying random way that no amount of playing better can fix.

There's a school newspaper that you can click on at the bottom of the screen that gives you some vague indication of how well the students think you are doing. Periodically there are also "coupons" in the paper that, while expensive, are really helpful if you can afford them. They allow you to have things such as parent-teacher conferences, pep rallies or science fairs. These events increase your academic, athletic or morale when you have them so the coupons can really help.

You have a report card in the bottom right corner of your screen where your school is judged on various criteria. These include academics, athletics, morale, discipline, as well as an overall rating. You get graded from A to F just like in school. In addition to the grade, your school is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars at the top of the screen. If you want to get a 5 star school, you're going to want to build every building, staff them with good teachers and coaches, and try to keep an A grade in every category on your report card.

You can click on individual students or staff members to see more details about them. For students, you can check on their progress in academics, physical fitness, obedience and happiness. You can also give each student individual commands, telling them to go to the nurse, detention, expelling them or telling them to goof off. It also tells you if they are healthy or not. Another tab tells you their general proficiency in athletics, their IQ, how friendly they are, whether they're good looking and how rowdy or clumsy they are.

The last tab is for students and staff alike, and it tells you their general comments. A student may say something like "Dude, there's nothing fun to do around here." or "My teacher is really cool!". Teachers may say "Someone control these students!" if the students in her classroom aren't well disciplined, or "Does no one like my class?" if her classroom is relatively empty.

This is handy, because when students leave the school they get red exclamation points over their heads. If you click on one, and his comment says "If I stay here I'll starve to death!", then you know you probably need to place more food buildings. A number of comments are stored, and there are up/down buttons at the bottom of the comment tab to scroll through them.

Academics

For academic buildings, you can only build portable versions of some of the classrooms. These include a library, English, math, social studies and biology buildings. They are basic classrooms that can teach a limited amount of students and only improve your academic rating a small amount, but they're very cheap and each different one you build will increase your school's rating to an extent. As you build, you unlock the portable versions of chemistry, computer, workshop, art and music classrooms that cost a hair more and improve your academic rating a hair more. They still only hold a limited amount of students though.

After building the portable versions of different classrooms, the medium versions are unlocked. They cost a lot more, can support more students at once and raise your academic score by an even larger amount. After the medium versions come the deluxe versions of the same buildings. They are far beyond the medium classrooms, supporting the largest number of students and raising your academic rating by the largest amount. They're pretty expensive, but worth it -- especially in a sandbox game where you're not being timed and can more easily spend enough time to collect the money to build and staff them all.

Athletics

To balance out the students' academic needs, you also need to address their physical fitness. You can build a gymnasium from the start and it produces a pretty decent boost right from the get go. As you progress into the game you can augment your athletics rating by building a sports field, tennis courts, baseball fields, basketball gym, large tennis courts and football fields.

The football field is the penultimate sports building, boosting your athletics rating by quite a bit and also supplying a morale boost to your students by having a school football team. The large tennis court is probably the most efficient because it holds a lot of students and also boosts your athletics rating by a large number. However, it doesn't provide the morale bonus of the football field.

Administration

Another important thing to consider is the basic upkeep of your school. A small janitor's office lets you hire 2 janitors to keep your school campus clean. Without janitors, trash builds up on your pathways. Students aren't happy walking through trash for some reason, so they'll start leaving your school if it gets too bad. You can upgrade to a medium janitor's office that houses 4 janitors, and there's a deluxe janitor's office later that is quite expensive and I haven't had the need to ever purchase at all.

Maintenance buildings are also important, as your other buildings will fall into disrepair, catch fire and burn to the ground. There's no way to put out a fire once it starts, you just have to wait it out and then rebuild a new building where the old one stood. For that reason alone it's important to have at least a small maintenance building. Like the janitor's offices however, through all the challenges and a few hours of sandbox mode, I've never had to build more than one small maintenance building in the entire game.

Small, medium and deluxe nurse's offices requires no teachers or staff. They tend to injured students and boost student morale. The medium and deluxe versions can tend to more students at once and provide a bigger morale bonus. Detention centers are another helpful building that boost your student's discipline. Without one, students get expelled from your school occasionally. With one, they get sent there to try and fix their problem first. The medium and deluxe detention centers can help solve more discipline problems to keep more of the students at your school instead of being expelled.

The last maintenance buildings are the teacher's lounge and the landscaping office. There are 2 teacher's lounges, the medium and large versions. They help keep your teachers happy so they don't demand extra salary. There's only one landscaping office, and it's useful for keeping your lawns, trees and bushes clean and maintained.

Other

Entertainment buildings don't need teachers or staff, and they hold a decent amount of students. They cost a bit, but they raise student morale at the school. You can build an arcade, small and regular half-pipes, a mini golf course, a go-cart track and a roller coaster.

Students will sometimes leave the school because they're hungry, and food buildings are the remedy. There are 2 different candy machines and 2 different soda machines, but they don't seem to help much. The more useful buildings are the classic cafe, a pizzeria and a burger joint. The burger joint costs the most, but provides a student morale boost as well.

The last important building would be the restroom. There are portable toilets that allow hold one student at a time, but like the vending machines they don't seem to help much. You can unlock medium bathrooms fairly early that help out a lot, and later large bathrooms that are practically required because they hold a lot of students.

Objects

You can also place various objects in addition to buildings. Trees and bushes make your school look better and students like them. A big fountain in the center of your school is a great boost to your reputation. Picnic tables (along with benches and chairs) give students a place to sit outside, which is especially useful near food buildings. Trash cans cut down the litter so your janitors aren't overworked.

You can also lay down paths of different designs to act as your sidewalks, which helps guide students to the various buildings. There's also a semi-useless terrain tool that lets you place grass and flower beds and stuff, but it didn't seem to do anything for student morale.

You must sell any buildings to get rid of them, but you can destroy any objects in the game for free with the clearing tool.

Staff

Teachers are the most obvious and most important staff members. They earn the most money (along with coaches) of any of your staff, and you have to choose carefully. They have 3 statistics that are randomly generated on a scale of 0 to 10: fun, discipline and skill. Skill is by far the most important stat, as it allows them to teach better and garner you more academic rating. Putting highly skilled teachers in deluxe classrooms where they can teach the most students is a sure fire way to make your academic rating skyrocket.

A teacher's discipline rating boosts your students' discipline and makes them less likely to be expelled. You can skimp out on the stat though, as building discipline centers will accomplish the same thing and they only have to be built once, where teachers must be paid salary. The same holds true for the fun stat, it keeps students happy with a morale boost -- but the various entertainment buildings will accomplish that goal. Teachers with higher stats tend to want more money, so balancing them is key.

Coaches are a close second and work in the same manner as teachers do, except that they go to athletic buildings instead of academic ones. You need a teacher for each academic building for the building to be useful, and a coach for each athletic building. Cooks work in the cafes, pizzerias and burger joints. If your cook isn't very skilled, your students can get food poisoning. I was a few hours into a sandbox game where I skimped out and used a low skilled cook, then my students got food poisoning and half of them left so I went bankrupt. Don't be too stingy! If you don't like the stats on any of the staff, you can close the menu and when you open it back up all the staff will have changed and had their stats randomized. Take advantage of this to get people you can afford with stats around what you're looking for.

Janitors, maintenance workers and landscapers require less salary and have no stats. Janitors are the most important, because they are the only way you can clean up the trash on the ground, and ground litter delivers a big hit to student morale. Maintenance is next, as they keep your buildings, vending machines, etc. in good repair. They're most important during natural disasters such as earthquakes or tornadoes where multiple buildings take damage and need repaired before they catch fire. Landscapers are least important, usually 1 or 2 is plenty for the whole game. They keep the grass cut and take care of statues, fountains, etc. to help with morale.

Graphics & Sound

At the beginning of the game there's a quirky little animated sequence about a school principal who's fed up with managing the school and leaves the job to you. It's pretty neat, and the voice work was spot on. Unfortunately, it's the only place that had any voice work. There's also no background music in this game, leaving it a little lax in the audio department. The sound effects were decent and fitting, but forgettable. A bubbling sound when you click on the chemistry lab, cash register sound when you click on the cafeteria, toilet flushing sound when you click on the restroom, lots of school bells all around, etc.

The game is presented in an overhead isometric view. The graphics are nice looking and cartoony, but nothing spectacular. They are reasonably clear, but some buildings I have trouble telling apart unless I click on them and read what it is. When you click on a building you can see a small square at the bottom right of the screen that shows you a 3D peek inside the building (except for the bathroom). If you click the full-screen icon at the corner of that little square, it takes you inside the building full-screen where you can look at the occupants and click on each person inside to see what they're thinking. There are 3 different camera views of the inside that you can toggle with an on-screen button. I think the inside view looks better than the main part of the game.

Most of the game functions such as hiring staff or building classrooms is done from drop-down selection menus in an icon bar at the top of the screen, and the menus are easy enough to read and operate. I just wish there were more tool-tips to explain the individual bonuses each building gives in greater detail.

You can scroll around by moving the mouse to the any edge of the screen. You can also use the mouse wheel to zoom all the way in to an individual student, or all the way out for an overview of the whole school.

System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
128 MB RAM
500 MHz CPU
500 MB free space
DirectX 9 compatible 16 MB graphics card
DirectX 9 compatible sound card
8x CD-ROM drive
Keyboard & Mouse

Final Thoughts

School Tycoon is a decent game, it just doesn't stand out from the crowd of other tycoon and simulation games on the market. Since it's a bit of an older game you can usually find it for next to nothing, but unfortunately that's about all it's worth anyway. While not bad, it's merely an average game, so I'd say pass on this one and pick up Transport Tycoon, RollerCoaster Tycoon, Theme Hospital or any of the Sim City games instead.

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