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

When it was released on January 14, 2003, SimCity 4 had problems. Its huge cities, for example, could use even decent PCs, and its traffic simulation seemed completely broken.

Twenty years later – thanks to faster computers, the Rush Hour expansion and a huge modding community – SimCity 4 is the best of all SimCity games. If you care about simulation, scale, variety and the beauty of urban sprawl, this is also the best city builder.

Aside from the fantasy and medieval variants, the template established by the SimCity series is still the template for most city builders. As the mayor of a new city, you zone commercial, residential, and industrial areas, place amenities and services to satisfy residents, and try to balance the budget as your city comes to life on its own. After you’ve built up a sprawling metropolis and you’re exhausted, you trigger some natural (or unnatural) disaster and start over.

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

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Perhaps most importantly, SimCity 4 included BAT, the Building Architect Tool, which allowed 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 on the Simtropolis community site, including several new uploads in the last 24 hours.

I’m pretty sure I called SimCity 4 the best city builder ever because of the mod. More precisely, it is thanks to the modification of the network add-on. NAM was established in 2004 to fix SimCity 4’s traffic issues and has expanded since the last update in September 2022 to include new UI tools, road types, light rail and more. Given that every modern urban planner is inevitably concerned with patching up road networks and reducing traffic congestion, NAM is essential.

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To address the skyscraper in the room: I love Cities: Skylines, and if you’re new to the genre, you should start with Paradox SimCity Milkshake Drinker. However, if you’ve played Cities: Skylines and are tired of it, or if you don’t want to look for the next DLC installment, you should move on to SimCity 4. SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition (including the Rush Hour expansion, also released in 2003) is available on Steam and GOG. Considering 2013’s SimCity was a bomb and Maxis’ original studio in Emeryville closed in 2015, we may never see the like of it again.


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