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SimCity 4, the greatest city builder of all time, was released 20 years ago

SimCity 4, the greatest city builder of all time, was released 20 years ago

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When it was released on January 14, 2003. SimCity 4 had its problems. Its massive cities would hold up even on decent PCs, for example, and the traffic simulation seemed downright broken.

Twenty years later – thanks to faster computers, the Rush Hour expansion and a huge modding community – SimCity 4 is the best of all the SimCity games. If simulation, scale, variety and the beauty of urban sprawl are what you’re after, this is the ultimate city builder too.


Fantasy and medieval variants aside, the template set by the SimCity series remains the expectation for most city builders. As mayor of a fledgling city, you zone commercial, residential and industrial areas, arrange amenities and services to satisfy residents, and try to balance the budget as your city begins to take on a life of its own. Then, when you’ve built a sprawling metropolis and are tired, you trigger some natural (or unnatural) disasters and start over.

SimCity 4 did nothing to change this formula, but continued its logical progression. It has 3D terrain and crisp, clear buildings with sprite art, which is one of the reasons it still looks great today. It allows you to build huge cities and then trade resources with the neighboring city you built before. It has a day/night cycle so you can see your skyscrapers flash in the dark. You can drop individual Sims into your town – The Sims 1 released in 2000 – and then follow their lives as they travel from your seedy suburbs to their horrible jobs, then move out of town or die.

Perhaps most importantly, SimCity 4 includes BAT, the building architect tool, which allows modders to create their own buildings and place them in the game. Custom buildings, maps and mods have greatly extended the life of SimCity 4 and at the time of writing there are over 21,000 files available from the Simtropolis community siteincluding several new uploads in the last 24 hours.

The mods are why I am confident in calling SimCity 4 the best city builder of all time. Specifically, this is thanks to the Network Addon Mod. NAM started in 2004 to fix SimCity 4’s traffic issues and since its last update in September 2022 has expanded to include new UI tools, road types, light rail and much more. Given that any modern city planner inevitably boils down to tinkering with road networks and mitigating congestion, NAM is essential.

To address the skyscraper in the room: I love Cities: Skylines, and if you’re new to the genre, Paradox’s milkshake-drinking SimCity is the place to start. If you’ve played Cities: Skylines and are bored, or if you don’t want to cough up for the next DLC, then you should switch to SimCity 4. The SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition (including the Rush Hour expansion, also released in 2003) is on Steam and GOG. Considering 2013’s SimCity was a bomb and the original Maxis studio in Emeryville closed in 2015, we may never see it again.




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