When it was released on January 14, 2003, SimCity 4 had problems. Its huge cities would even use decent computers, 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 what you care about is the simulation, scale, variety and beauty of urban sprawl, it’s also the ultimate city builder.
Fantasy and medieval variants aside, the template set by the SimCity series remains the expectation of most city builders. As the mayor of a growing city, zone commercial, residential and industrial districts, place 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) disaster 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 are one of the reasons it still looks great today. It allows you to build enormous cities and then trade resources with the neighboring city you previously built. It has a day/night cycle so you can see your skyscrapers twinkling in the dark. You can drop individual characters into your town – The Sims 1, released in 2000 – and then follow their lives as they commute from your polluted suburbs to their terrible jobs, then move out of town or die.
Perhaps most importantly, SimCity 4 included BAT, the building architecture 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.
The changes are why I confidently call SimCity 4 the best city builder ever. More precisely, it is due to the Network Addon mode. NAM set out in 2004 to fix SimCity 4’s traffic issues, and since the last update in September 2022, it’s expanded to include new interface tools, road types, light rail, and more. Given that every city builder these days inevitably boils down to tweaking road networks and mitigating traffic jams, NAM is essential.
To the skyscrapers in the room: I love Cities: Skylines, and if you’re new to the genre, Paradox’s SimCity milkshake drinker is where you should start. If you’ve played Cities: Skylines and are sick of it, though, or if you don’t want to cough up the next piece of DLC, then you should upgrade to SimCity 4. SimCity 4 Deluxe Edition (including the Rush Hour expansion, also released in 2003) is on Steam and GOG. Given that 2013’s SimCity was a bomb and Maxis’ original studio in Emeryville closed in 2015, we may never see it again.