Theme Hospital was the brainchild of Bullfrog Productions and released in 1997 on PC and PlayStation. In a sense, it was a kind of spiritual successor to Bullfrog’s other hit game, Theme Park. The game play and setting were vastly different but both games shared a very British sense of humour, creating a tone which unites both games.
My first experience of Theme Hospital was at a friends house (that friend is no longer with us and when I think of this game, I often think of him too). My friend was trying out the demo when I stopped by for a visit. I took to it instantly, and my friend did not. For a while I would pester him to play the demo on each visit to his house. Luckily for him, an issue of PlayStation magazine soon revealed that Theme hospital was going to be released on the console in the next few months. I remember this because I kept the article. I kept it in a metal tin which also gradually filled up with paper round money over the next couple of months. By the time the game was released, I had the £40 ready to buy it.
Lets back track a bit to Theme Park, a fairground management sim which I had already played to death on my Amiga 600. I loved that game. I even played my own version of it at school by drawing out the rides on grid paper and connecting paths etc. I later developed a dice system to allow me to earn money and expand my park. A few years later, the great Roller Coaster Tycoon franchise launched and would soon become one of my favourite gaming series of all time. But it was Bullfrog’s title that originally got me hooked on the genre. It is sad that a studio of their talent is no longer making games.
Bullfrog Productions was founded in 1987 and are best known for the titles Populous, Theme Park, and Dungeon Keeper. The company’s publisher, Electronic Arts acquired Bullfrog in 1995 and it was eventually absorbed into EA in 2001, marking the end of the studio.
“Bullfrog’s work has been termed some of the most innovative by industry leaders, and it’s pioneered different genres of software” – GamePro
My immediate memories of Theme Hospital are not of Bloaty Heads being popped, nor Elvis impersonators being given psychiatric treatment or invisible people being brought back to the world of the opaque by a dour nurse. No, my first thought is that of the reception’s voice who periodically narrates on the events inside your hospital in an appropriately wry English accent. “Doctor, attend in Psychiatry please!” is a phrase which I am sure any player will remember instantly. Every player had a game plan for how they would set up their hospital. Which rooms to start with, how big they should be, what goes in each one etc. And each hospital genuinely felt different to the last. The game had a great learning mechanic where it introduced just a couple of new facilities or illnesses each level, so you were always building on your knowledge and facing new challenges as you progressed through the game. Best of all though, as I mentioned earlier, it was the humour that made the game unique. It could have been a straight up simulation of running an every day hospital. However, creating highly creative and ever more bizarre illnesses, but treating them like they are true life ailments was a master stroke by Bullfrog.
Theme Hospital was a huge commercial success, selling over 4 million copies. It has also received universal acclaim and has a meta critic score of 9.0. This makes the question of why there has never been a sequel even more puzzling. I feel that if EA set a small team aside from their usual AAA blockbusters and sports franchises to develop something under the Theme Hospital IP, they could not only be making a sweet little profit, but also pleasing old and new players of all ages. It’s definitely something which I would be interested in, and probably 4 million others just like me.