Curing Baldness and the Uncommon Cold in Theme Hospital
I wasn’t the biggest gamer growing up. We didn’t have a console until my younger brother bought an XBox with his confirmation money. As a result, the games I did play as a kid were PC based. In fact when I was 10, Santa brought me the Sims 2 on PC but our computer was so old that I had to wait for my parents to buy a new one before I could play it. I didn’t play too many games but the ones I did play still stick in my memory such as Sims 2, Simpsons Hit & Run, Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets and Lego Racers 2. However, none of these excellent titles quite compare to the game that encapsulated my childhood; Theme Hospital.
Developed by Bullfrog Productions and published by Electronic Arts in 1997, Theme Hospital took our small neighbourhood in Straffan, Co. Kildare by storm. Our next door neighbour Rohan was the first to buy it in the early 2000s and we used to hang around in his house just to watch him play it. We loved it so much that on a trip to SuperValu in Maynooth, we spied a copy in their ‘games section’ (a small rotating shelf) and insisted that Mum let us buy it. She did and to this day, I still have the original copy of the game and a version on my computer.
The aim was simple; design a hospital, cure a certain number of patients and don’t run into debt or kill too many people. In fact the simplicity of the game was what made it so attractive because you didn’t have to think too much. If you were me, you designed each hospital the exact same way. The GP’s office was always beside General Diagnosis and the Pharmacy. The Ward and the Operating Theatre had to be together, sometimes in a different building and your Slack Tongue Clinic was always a distant afterthought, sandwiched between your second batch of toilets and the Inflation Clinic.
Theme Hospital was one of the quirkiest games that I have ever come across. Patients could suffer from ‘Uncommon Cold’ which was treated with a simple potion from the Pharmacy to ‘King Complex’ where the patient dressed as Elvis Presley and had to be treated by a psychiatrist. My personal favourite was ‘Baldness’ where the patient sat in a chair you’d see at a hairdressers and have a mop of hair, not unlike suffers of ‘King Complex’ placed upon his dome. Not to be outdone by ‘Bloaty Head’ where the patient suffered from an overblown noggin which could only be cured by pricking the head like a balloon with a pin and re-inflating to the correct size.
Sometime you were asked to take a chance on a patient and attempt to cure them even if you didn’t quite have the know-how to. This often resulted in people with ‘Invisibility’ being sent home because their type wasn’t quite curable yet. Other times you’d take the chance and accidentally kill them meaning the Grim Reaper would arrive and open up a portal to hell where the unfortunate patient would end up. Sometimes a random earthquake would occur causing your more fragile machines such as the Inflator or the Operating Table to explode and take patients and medical staff with them.
The patients were only the half of it. The staff and their working conditions were something else entirely. Let’s start with the hiring process. When you needed a doctor, a nurse or a handyman you would go to the hire screen. Here you would be presented with some of the best personality descriptions I have ever heard. For example one Handyman could be described as ‘Enrages insects with deodorant spray. Twisted and resentful – burning up with hate’. Meanwhile a receptionist (who incidentally, once placed behind the reception desk never moved again) could be described as ‘Worships daytime television. Not bothered about the job. Bone idle’. Oddly some of the descriptions hold some level of truth to them, or maybe that’s just me.
Once hired the medical staff were also a bit nuts. They’d demand pay rises even if they were doing a crap job. You could never get both surgeons to be in the Operating Theatre at the same time because one was always in the staff room. The handymen never repaired the machine that you wanted them to and the psychiatrists insisted on doing jobs that weren’t theirs leaving those poor King Complex sufferers waiting.
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The gameplay was again unique. Each level presented slightly different challenges such as how valuable you could make your hospital (i.e. how much land you could afford which is a bit Protestant) or how great you could make your reputation. The reputation marker was tricky in itself as patients could dislike your hospital for not having enough vending machines which only sold drinks but were emblazoned with the Kit-Kat logo. Sometimes the levels insisted you could only hire junior doctors and no consultants, creating an accurate picture of our current health system.
You were also at the hands of some ridiculous VIP guests who would show up at your hospital just to have a look around. Sometimes your hospital could be running as smooth as anything and the King of the Netherlands would turn up and say ‘Not that impressive really’ and you’d suffer. Other times, the hospital could be covered in vomit and piss and some ex-Premiership footballer turns up and think it’s the best place ever. It really was never quite under your control.
While Theme Hospital taught me nothing about modern medicine, it did instill a sense of fun and nostalgia which I still get to this day when I play it. Given it’s 20 years old it’s a game quite unlike any other and stands the test of time. The little things such as a syringe for a cursor, the mad tannoy announcements (“Patients are reminded not to die in the corridors”) and the banker who always had stacks of cash but was reluctant to give you any made this game what it is; a truly mad and incredibly fun way to pass the time. Happy Birthday Theme Hospital, you’re the best gift 10 year old Rachel ever got.
You can buy Theme Hospital here for €5.09 for both Mac and Windows.