Sure beats having an ant farm
Definitely one of the more off-the-wall Maxis titles, SimAnt lets you take control of one of nature's most ubiquitous creatures, the formicidae family. During your lifetime you've probably crushed them, swatted them, sprayed them, trodden on them without even realising and fried them with a magnifying glass. And now you get to be them.
While it isn't as educational as SimCity, SimAnt is just plain fun. The novelty factor of playing as an insect, combined with the Maxis flair for great gameplay, results in an absorbing and rabidly addictive game that more than holds its own with more modern releases.
You control ants via the mouse, with optional keyboard support. Games start out with you having a tiny nest and a single queen, and as eggs hatch you can take control of a worker ant and begin hunting for food. Once you've found food, ants automatically begin picking it up and stockpiling it in the nest. Once your colony has reached a certain size, you can begin breeding soldiers.
Soldiers are essential for survival, as they are hardier and stronger than normal ants. And believe me, in a peaceful garden it's amazing how many dangers there are. Spiders roam around, killing and eating any ant they find, ant lions set crafty traps that you rarely see until it's too late, and there's even a human who has an annoying habit of running over your nest with a lawnmower. Despite these dangers, SimAnt isn't really a challenging game. Your ants do most of the work themselves, your only task is breeding new queens and soldiers, finding new food sources, and leading your troops into battle.
It seems that a colony of red ants is living next door to you, and the garden isn't big enough for the two of you. Once the reds have started breeding soldiers, they will start attacking your nest in an attempt to kill your queen. Fighting back against them is one of the most interesting parts of the game. Thankfully, the combat interface is relatively easy to master: you select a "general ant" whom soldiers will automatically gather around, and can issue commands such as "attack" "scout" "defend", etc. The sight of two ant armies clashing is a spectacular sight, and since battles can literally involve hundreds of ants the shattered carapaces and mangled bodies can almost obscure the screen.
Fights between ants are entirely random. Each ant has a 50/50 chance of winning against an equal opponent. Between a soldier and a worker, it's 75/25. I have strong memories of several memorable battles, such as the time my whole nest was saved by a single worker. My main army was away elsewhere, and a group of red soldiers broke into my nest. Between them and my queen was only a single tunnel with a worker in it, and since I realised there was no way my main army could make it back in time I grimly ordered the worker to attack. Guess what? The worker valiantly defended the tunnel for a full thirty seconds, killing three red soldiers before perishing and buying me enough time to get my army back to rescue my beleaguered queen. I'm so proud of the lil' guy. Er...girl.
But once you've annihilated the red nest, why stop there? Breed some males and some younger queens, and start up colonies elsewhere in the garden. And ultimately, invade the human's house. The game ends in victory for you when you succeed in conquering the entire house and chasing off the human.
SimAnt is full of atmosphere. The game's graphics are superb on an artistic level, with bright colours and fluid animation giving the feel of a living, breathing world. The audio side of SimAnt is also spot-on. The game has quirky, catchy music, the sort of thing that gets stuck in your head and doesn't go away for ages. The sound effects are some of the best I've ever heard in a game of this period: the spider makes disgusting, slurping sounds as he feeds on an ant, and the deafening roar of the lawnmower as it approaches you is warning enough to get your ants underground. And (typically of Maxis) the game has more than its fair share of humour. Comic-book style thought bubbles will occasionally appear over your ants as they voice their thoughts. "Life's tough carrying eggs around", "Oh no! I think I'm turning male!"
Lastly, the game includes an editor. You can shape the landscape to whatever you want, adding rocks, sticks, ant lions, spiders, red and black ants, and whatever else you want. Whether you want to play a game with a pre-made nest rather than having to start one yourself, or you want to play a game where there are ten spiders to make it extra challenging, or you're just a bloodthirsty type who wants to see two armies of ants slaughter each other, there's something in it for you. The editor provides almost unlimited replay value.
It's difficult to fault SimAnt with anything that isn't either a technological limitation or a decision to improve the game's realism, but there are a few things I thought shouldn't have been in this game. It's a rather cheap detail how the human is constantly in the same area as you, regardless of where you decide to set up your nest. And why does it take less time to create a soldier than it does to create a worker?
The game's AI isn't the best. The red ants pose a challenge at first, but once you figure out their weaknesses they're easy to beat. If you station a few soldiers over red's food source, they will never try to take it back from you. They just keep sending unescorted workers to get killed or chased away until they starve to death.
And even with the editor (which undoubtedly saves the game from being repetitive) SimAnt doesn't have the replayability of SimCity. Each game is basically the same as another. Build a nest, kill the red ants, take over the house. Some alternate game modes and some more options would have done wonders.
The Bottom Line
SimAnt is a true classic. While it lacks the technical polish of Maxis' later titles, it still remains my favourite in the Sim series. Prepare to experience the entomological wonders of another world...