Here’s a new twist for this column. Instead of looking at a game that takes its inspiration from a comic, film, television show, cartoon, or book, today I’m going to look at a series which licenses its game play from the best source on Earth: real life. In this case, miles and miles of railroad track laid out all over (and in some cases under) Japan served as the inspiration for the long-running Densha de Go! series. All it required was for Taito to go record dozens of real trains operating on actual lines; adapt the real rules and laws of the Japanese rail system, along with the physics of the various train types, to their 3D engine; set it in realistically-rendered locations; pop in some random inclement weather, and then convince players to spend real yen to simulate a job others get paid real yen to do in the physical world. Let it never be said Taito wasn’t up for a challenge.
Two things are important for the reader to understand before continuing. First, train culture in Japan, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, is huge. The ambition to become the driver of a main-line route, the desire to be the one in charge of sounding the horn as the train departs a station, affects millions of children every year. Books on trains sit in the Art section of Japanese bookstores. Photographers spend hours watching for certain trains to arrive at particular stations just so they can take pictures.
Second, driving a train for Japan Railways Group is one of the most stressful occupations on the face of the planet. Passengers expect watch-like precision from drivers; everything from overshooting a platform by a few meters to being more than a few seconds behind schedule is grounds for punishment by the employer. This can include anything from hand-washing the rails and scraping bird droppings off the station floors to scrubbing bathrooms and the humiliation of standing in uniform at the platform without actually performing any work. Conductors anxious to avoid punishment make costly mistakes: the 2005 Amagasaki rail crash was the result of the driver engaging in reckless behavior after falling behind schedule in the hopes of avoiding a second round of ‘worker re-education’.
Leave it to the Japanese to turn something so incredibly stressful in real life into an equally-stressful video game series that evolves into a decade-spanning, best-selling phenomenon. Enter Densha de Go! (which translates to “Let’s Go By Train!”), a candidate for this column because it licensed thousands of miles of actual train tracks.
Densha de Go! began life as a 1997 arcade game that used a special cabinet build to resemble a train console, with separate switches for acceleration and braking. Home translations followed shortly thereafter, beginning with the PlayStation version in December of the same year. While you could use the standard PlayStation controller to operate the train, Taito released several special controllers meant for use with their games (and literally nothing else) which would replicate the arcade experience, like this guy here:
From there, Densha de Go! spread to a slew of other home systems. The Saturn, PS2, Dreamcast, Game Boy Color, PSP, Nintendo 64, Wii, Nintendo DS, and even the WonderSwan and Neo Geo Pocket Color all received entries in this series. Train simulators are monstrously successful in Japan, but rarely if ever make their way out of Asia. Why might this be?
Well, for starters, driving a train in Japan is bloody hard work and Densha de Go! reminds you of this roughly every fifteen seconds. Arrive late (or early) to your appointed destination? You just lost points based on how many seconds you were off. Fail to reach a lower speed by the time the new limit is imposed? Kiss some points goodbye. Forget to sound your horn before entering a tunnel? Yup, you guessed it: point penalty. Slowing the train too early, blowing through a station and missing your stop, applying the emergency brake, and failing to obey stop lights will all likewise decrease your score by varying degrees. Screw up too often and you’ll be the one yanking weeds on tomorrow’s shift.
Second, until you’ve experienced it, the concept of playing a train simulator sounds like the most boring thing you’ve ever done since accompanying your little sister to her piano recital. Flight simulators at least make a modicum of sense: take to the air and enjoy the view of an actual satellite-mapped Australia zipping along below your plane without worrying about death by everything. Even driving simulators have something going for them in terms of the ability to steer your car pretty much anywhere and ramp off conveniently-placed scaffolding. Trains, however, are confined to their own tracks for a reason–trying to get one airborne is grounds for either psychiatric evaluation or multiple homicide charges, depending on how successfully you pull it off.
Densha de Go! understands this, and does little to spice up the deal beyond changing the weather. You don’t even deal with shocking real stress inducers like Sarin gas attacks or pedestrians falling on the tracks in front of you. The worst panic attack you’ll ever have playing any of these games is realizing you’re entering a station going far too fast and need to rely on the emergency break, thus pissing off your already-irate cargo. The learning curve is brutal, especially if you can’t read Japanese and don’t understand the difference between a sign telling you to stop at the next station versus one letting you know the track is starting on a downward incline.
And yet…there’s something mesmerizing about them. Go look up some Let’s Plays on YouTube and see what happens. While older versions of the game rely on polygon and sprite-based backdrops, modern versions use actual video captured by cameras mounted on the front of the trains to render the scenery, making this a more superior use of FMV than any Sega CD game ever made.
While I don’t recommend playing them for very long unless you’re an absolute die-hard train-o-phile, they’re something every gamer, especially Western gamers, should experience once in his or her life. And who knows: today it might be Densha de Go!, tomorrow it might be Euro Truck Simulator or some other oddly-addictive title. And if it winds up not jingling your bells, that’s fine too. Look on the bright side: at least you’re not tasked with, like, driving a bus or something dull like that. I mean, nobody would be dumb enough to make a game where you have to–
Damn it, Japan…