A Timely Review of SimAnt (MS-DOS)

Back in the nineteen hundred and nineties, Maxis released a game for PCs that I thought sounded like a lot of fun: SimAnt. I had played and been impressed by the original SimCity, so I was enthusiastically looking forward to a game that did the same thing but with an ant colony. Having had nostalgia for old games recently, I found a free version to play online, right in the browser, in order to feel the thrills I believed I once knew.

Screencap of the old Sim Ant title screen, which has an ant emerging from a triangle.

My inner science nerd was way more advanced than my inner city planner, and I wanted nothing more than to control an ant city located deep underground. Designing the tunnels, the pupa rooms, the food storage rooms, the great chambers that hold the aphids which are used by ants as livestock which they milk and farm, hiding from terrifying parasitic predators — you know, all of that wildly spectacular stuff that ants really do!

I immediately had lofty ideas for how this game might be. I remember vividly my excitement as I considered the probable options I would be presented with:

  • Would you choose the Bullet Ant colony of South America? Would you have a sound button used to rally your friends and call them to battle? Would you have a fiercely venomous bite and your only enemy is people belonging to various tribes who collect you for their own coming of age rituals?
  • Would you choose a Leafcutter Ant and dismantle the trees around you? Would you busy yourself with climbing and meticulously cutting bits out of leaves? Would you find peace in following a thick line of fellow ants over what seems like miles and miles in the jungle? You could develop fungal agriculture as an ant of this sort. It could become an ant version of a farming simulator!
  • Perhaps you would choose to not live underground at all and be an Army Ant of Africa: the scourge of ALL in your path! Inspire whole villages of human beings to flee. Skeletonize some rats or cows. Make bridges with your bodies, and maybe travel all across the continent.
  • You could be a Pharaoh Ant and use all of your cunning to invade the kitchen of a house. The game would offer up different buildings each game so that you can figure out new ways to infiltrate. Live in a vast colony with multiple queens so that your takeover is swift and efficient. Get in that breadbox, nest in that wood floor, be discovered in the unlikeliest of places! Further along in the game, you could circumnavigate all of the poison and ant traps set out. Listen to the wailed lamentations of the average suburban family and know that you are the cause.
  • Or will you merely select the Little Black Ant and live a small life quietly under a human’s lawn?

Unfortunately, you can pretty much only choose to be such an ant as that last one in this game. Although hopefully they will bring out a SimAnt 3000 or something that will have all of the biology-science and variety that I continue to crave. SimAnt VR! Maybe a developer from that game company will see this article and steal my ideas! In just this one instance, I will allow it. I demand it!

What I got instead of all that scientific ant fact and natural ant wonder was a game that I couldn’t immediately understand how to play. There were all these charts and graphs and little details to comprehend and tweak. I just wanted to play-pretend being a little ant, not be plunked down and expected to understand controls that had the complexity of rocket science, I assume.

A small screencap of the playing screens. There are four of them. They are difficult to understand, in my opinion.
Genuinely, I don’t know what I am doing. I can’t even figure out how to start my colony in the full game. I am ashamed.

As if that weren’t dismaying enough, there were these other ants that were red being aggressive jerks to me. I knew how to dig tunnels and gather a little food, but that was not enough to allow my struggling colony to survive more than a day in game-time.

If I am just really really bad at games (which is a well-documented trait of mine), and the charts in this game were actually simple instructions — and that IS a possibility — I do have another excuse: the spider.

The SimAnt spider was the worst of the SimAnt Enemies, and there were plenty. The first time I encountered it, I shouted some expletives in confusion. I was baffled by how horrifying it appeared to be. Baffled and terrified. It was a pretty scary spider even for my human size. It is large on the screen with long spindly legs, and it moves in a way that fills me with a deep unreasonable dread. But, when I was sitting there pretending to be an ant, trying to get by in an ant’s world, thinking my best ant thoughts — that spider took on much more horrifying proportions in my imagination. It towered over me. It was fast. IT WAS HUNTING ME.

Screencap of the dreadful sim ant spider with his long mandibles and long long legs. Yuck.
I’m deleting this file from my computer right away.

So SimAnt swiftly took me through the most terrible emotions I could experience: disappointment at the lack of variety, dismay at the dawning comprehension of my own stupidity because of the controls and goals and general game play not being immediately clear, stark arachnid terror, and the hollow sense of failure that follows just plain giving up. There was no way I could keep my mind clear enough to learn what I needed to do in order to succeed in that game because I was too apprehensive to leave the ant nest in order to forage. Sometimes I would just exit the game as soon as the spider floated onto the screen. I wouldn’t think, I would just turn it off and flail a little.

I consider this game to be a considerable flop in terms of bringing joy and entertainment. But I suppose as far as a game encouraging physical exercise via psychological terror, it is top of the line.

A screencap of the game with a close up portrait of a spider face and the game message of: "Your guts are dissolved and then drained away as you are desiccated by the spider."

Hmmm. With current game technology and graphics as they are, maybe they SHOULDN’T make a new SimAnt. My fragile mental state couldn’t take the strain of living the simulated life of a simulated ant, and yes that is a personal fact which will haunt me for a good long while.

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