When it was released on January 14, 2003, SimCity 4 had its share of problems. Its massive cities, for example, would freeze even on decent PCs, and its traffic modeling seemed to be 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 the SimCity games. If you are interested in simulation, scale, variety and beauty of urban space, this is also the best city builder.
Fantasy and medieval versions aside, the template set by the SimCity series remains the expectation of most city builders. As mayor of a fledgling city, you zone commercial, residential, and industrial districts, provide amenities and services to keep residents happy, and try to balance the budget as your city begins to take on a life of its own. Then, when you build a sprawling metropolis and are tired, you cause some natural (or unnatural) disasters and start over.
SimCity 4 did nothing to change this formula, but continued its logical progression. It features 3D terrain and crisp, crisp sprite-art buildings, which are part of the reason it still looks great today. It allows you to build huge cities and then trade with a neighboring city that you have built before. It has a day/night cycle so you can see your skyscrapers glow in the dark. You can bring individual Sims into your town, The Sims 1, released in 2000, and then follow their lives as they move from your polluted suburbs to their horrible jobs, then move out of town or die.
Perhaps most importantly, SimCity 4 included BAT, the Building Architect Tool, which allowed modders to create their own buildings and place them in-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 from the Simtropolis community site, including several new uploads in the last 24 hours.
Mods are the reason I believe SimCity 4 is the best city builder of all time. More specifically, it’s thanks to the Network Addon Mod. NAM started in 2004 to solve the traffic problems of SimCity 4, and as of the last update of September 2022, it has been expanded to include new UI tools, road types, railway and much more. Given that every modern urban planner inevitably comes down to working with road networks and mitigating congestion, NAM is essential.
To address the skyscraper in the room. I love cities. If you play Cities. Skylines and tired of it anyway, or if you don’t want to cough up for the next DLC, you should finish SimCity 4. The 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 likes of it again.