On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl disaster tragically destroyed countless lives when one of its reactors went into meltdown causing the worst nuclear disaster in history. Almost a year later in 1987, Cosmi brought out a sim game called Chernobyl: Nuclear Power Plant Simulation which puts you in the hot seat of controlling a nuclear reactor. But is it even Chernobyl?
The ad’s scary headline “The Chernobyl Syndrome” plays off of “the China Syndrome” which was a term coined to describe the fanciful idea that a nuclear core in meltdown would fission its way through the planet and out the other side. It was also the name of a 1979 movie starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as two reporters out to get the real story behind the near failure of a nuclear plant when they witness an incident. The movie also came out twelve days before the Three Mile Island accident.
Cosmi’s game keeps things simple by giving you the basics to running a very plain nuclear plant. You have a text parser through which you enter commands to get around and do things like raise and lower control rods, read gauges, and power up or power down the plant. You’ll monitor things like valves, open and close them if you need to, and even do things like SCRAM the reactor if things get out of hand.
Aside from that, there’s nothing else to actually do in the game aside from getting a general idea of what goes into running a nuclear plant. There are graphics which show the rods rising and lowering and a neat display for the core area showing the flow of coolant as little black dots bubbling through solid colors that change as the temperature rises. The faster the dots move, the crazier things are going in the core. There’s even a whining sound that hums along as the reactor’s generators spin up. But you never really have to worry too much about what is happening in the world outside of your text commands.
In other words, the sim is pretty boring. I’m not sure if it was the emulation or not in keeping certain things from happening, but there literally was nothing else to do but stare at screens and wait. Watching the little animations and flickering colors in the core area got boring after a few minutes even as the core went white hot after raising all of the rods. The whole thing seemed so generic that it could have been any other nuclear plant in the world although as its developer, Paul Norman, notes on his personal website, the title wasn’t his idea and was the “kiss of death for the program.”
So why Cosmi decided to call this “Chernobyl” is a mystery other than they apparently wanted to cash in on using it. Even the ad below tries to sell it as something that it clearly isn’t by boasting about putting you on the edge of your seat with every fuel rod dropped into the core. There’s no feedback to doing well other than in generating electricity for phantoms.
Without any scoring, special rewards, or anything else to make you feel like you’re actually accomplishing something other than staring at a screen, it also feels like a missed opportunity to meaningfully expand on having the player deal with things outside of the plant that might impact it and the people around it. Cosmi’s sim doesn’t do much else other than try to scare you into buying it with the radioactive fire exploding on its box.
Today, Cosmi is still around and they still make and publish low-cost games and apps. And if you want to fool with nuclear reactors, there’s are plenty of ways to do that on the ‘net from browser-based sims like this one (which can also be downloaded to a Windows PC or Pocket PC) which takes an introductory approach to those that are based on real-world examples like these that are hardcore about the detail.
There’s even one aimed at young students at Furry Elephant, though it’s a timed demo and will nag you for an email address, fake or not. But at least that one lives up to actually being educational.