Review: Tiny Tower

If you’re here because you want to know if you should buy Tiny Tower, there is no need: the game is free. If you have an iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad, you can get it right now for absolutely nothing. There really is no cost to you: the hard-drive footprint is negligible and the game doesn’t demand much of your time. Tiny Tower is meant to be played in the slivers of time between other, more pressing matters. Waiting for the bus, for instance. Or killing time before a meeting. In this regard it satisfies. You will get more out of it than staring blankly at a wall, or reading old issues of Time with Ayatollah Khomeini on the cover while waiting for your physical.

Tiny Tower‘s clearest antecedent is SimTower, a gem by the underappreciated Yoot Saito. Build a tower, populate it with people, build new floors, add shops to make you money to build more floors, to populate it with more people, to add more shops to make more money. SimTower sounds like a modern nightmare, but the game created enough short-term objectives to keep you occupied, and the promise of a 100-floor tower in your name is powerful.

Tiny Tower lifts the basic rhythms, simmered down to the bare bones. Build up, restock shops, and make money. There is some strategy involved in what tenants work what jobs—their stats can make stocking items cheaper—but making money is just a matter of time; so this type of micromanagement is unnecessary. Every task runs on a real timer: building a new floor can take a number of hours, while restocking a shop can take as little as a minute. The timer runs in the background, so you can take calls or play the original SimTower and be content to know that your health-food store is a few minutes closer to filling its shelves with gluten-free cookies.

A lot of the game is waiting. Waiting for shops to restock themselves, or waiting for construction projects to end. Set a construction project going at night and by morning it’ll be closer to completion. You can go into the game and have nothing to do. Sometimes you see that a store is a minute away from being restocked, so you wait and watch. That minute feels like the longest minute of your life. Your only reward is a little ding when you finish. Then you set up the next thing to wait for. Over and over again.

Sometimes you see that a store is a minute away from being restocked, so you wait and watch. That minute feels like the longest minute of your life.

This can be sped up with Bux—the secondary currency in the game that is occasionally doled out, but can also be purchased with actual money (Yoot Tower, the sequel to SimTower, can also be bought for real money on the App Store). While you wait, you can ferry different Bitizens (the little folks that litter the game world) to their destination. You’re not completely passive; you can play as a glorified elevator operator.

Tiny Tower wants there to be some joy in waiting. A lot of attention is flourished on the Bitizens who scurry around in the tower. Each Bitizen has a “happiness” rating. There’s a “Bitbook” feature that shows status updates from different Bitizens. It’s cute—but like every interaction in the game, it feels insubstantial. The tower seems weirdly glacial, even when it is teeming with life. It’s not just the long wait times. What’s built is largely out of your hands. And no matter how the stage is built, the actors react the same way. All that is determined is how long you wait.

Lack of substance is the game’s real problem, and it’s by that measure that the game fails as an experience. The primary action is inaction; most of what you do is wait, and try to buy more opportunities to wait. Tiny Tower is too slight, too inconsequential, even by the standards of iOS gaming. It’s not meant to be a full experience in and of itself, but that almost seems to be the point: Tiny Tower is what happens when you’re making other plans.