Any public display of enthusiasm for trains immediately leaves a person wide open to ridicule: Whether taking joy in seeing a particular type pulling into a historic station, spending every free moment of all of your weekends crafting an intricate working model railway, or simply appreciating them as triumphant titans of transport, to admit you like trains is to place yourself in a social strata even below that of the stereotypical gamer-nerd – and that’s pretty low.
So what on earth happens when someone repackages a nerdy hobby for the benefit of a traditionally geeky pastime?
You end up having a heck of a lot of fun – you end up playing Densha de GO! 2.
The key to Taito’s twenty-five years of railway-based success all stems from one simple concept: Sincerity. The series honestly believes trains as modes of transport and train driving as an activity are fun and fascinating things everyone should be interested in, and because of this faith in itself the game never feels an uncomfortable need to make up for this unwavering focus on its outwardly uncool image. Densha de GO! 2 isn’t worried getting to drive a train is not fun, challenging, or complex enough of an activity to hang an entire game on, because of course it is. These elongated lumps of moveable metal carry random quantities of people through the hearts of bustling cities and straight across pristine rural rivers with ease, and when handled well by a skilled driver they can reach their destination with a timeliness that can be predicted down to the second – how is that not a difficult or stimulating task? Who wouldn’t be impressed if they managed to accomplish that? There are no half-joking “Yeah we know – trains, right? Weird.” attempts at pre-emptive self-deprecation to stick the boot in before anyone else does either – the game’s clearly proud of its subject matter and of itself, and when faced by this outpouring of passion it’s impossible to do anything other than to allow this wave of positive energy to sweep you along with it.
And so you soon begin to take an active interest not only in the main thing you’re supposed to be doing – driving a train well – but in everything else you can see and all the wonderful little details that go with them as well: The speedometers you see and voices you hear give out the platform announcements alter depending on the train you’re using, the oh-so-satisfying little psshh sound as you release the brakes for the first time before setting off becomes a familiar audio marker of a challenge just begun, and you’ll realise the signals and signposts by the side of the track are realistic visual indicators you can actually use to give yourself an advantage. You’ll zoom through the Japanese countryside, the rhythmic sound of the train clattering over the tracks as you go, and catch fleeting glimpses of interesting places in a big city – like the Osaka Dome – and really feel you’re experiencing that “reverse” side of these places you only ever see from inside a train; of familiar places viewed from an angle people aren’t supposed to see them from, gazing through fences, construction work, and car parks towards the civilisation beyond. Sometimes the view is simply beautiful: I honestly gasped after emerging from the end of a concrete tunnel and seeing my screen filled with gentle snowfall on the other side – and then cheered at Taito’s demonstrable love for trains as the model-accurate windscreen wiper automatically came on at the same time.
All of this adoration for the subject matter is more than nerdy window dressing – the variety of trains you drive and the routes they take has a direct impact on the experience you, not as a train fan but as the player of the PlayStation port of an arcade release, have as well: A sophisticated E3 Series powering past a dozen towns before reaching its only destination makes for a very different experience to handling a city workhorse stopping and starting at every station along the line, and Densha de GO! 2 embraces both of those extremes and all possible types of journey in-between with aplomb. And because the game’s such a stickler for the rules that bind these working transport routes together – observing every speed limit, every perfectly timed arrival, and measuring stopping points down to the centimetre – you really have to make an effort, to stick with it and practise each route over and over again. Easier difficulties may allow for more mistakes, but the game never pretends it is looking for anything less than perfection. The rewards for doing so are well worth the time spent: Managing your speed well enough to sail through a station (that you’re not stopping at) precisely on time or braking so perfectly you decelerate to a stop exactly where you need to is honestly as gratifying (and as difficult to pull off) as any 1CC shmup clear or fastest lap time thoroughly smashed.
But why bother fussing over all of these speed limits and strict timetables at all? Why not just blast through everywhere at top speed, pull on the emergency brakes just outside your destination, and then park up until it’s time to trundle in at your leisure? You can’t – and not because “it’s a game and that’s not how the game works” either. Charge through a 70 km/h zone at 120 km/h and the ATS – Automatic Train Stop – system kicks in, a real-world failsafe that brings a train to an emergency stop if (amongst other possibilities) a significant difference between the speed limit and the train’s current speed is detected. On the realism side of things it can only be seen as a reasonable response, and when considering this feature as part of a game it’s a clear (and often course ending) punishment for not attempting to play within the rules. This alluring mixture of simulation and one-play-per-credit gaming happens all the time in Densha de GO! 2, and it builds up into something of a revelatory experience: After just a few quick runs it becomes crystal clear why this arcade-born series about a single mode of public transportation has survived for a quarter of a century – it’s just a lot of fun to play. But by being realistic where it really matters Densha de GO! also creates an awareness and appreciation for the profession the game is broad-strokes recreating as well, practically guaranteeing players come away from their time with it as thoroughly educated as they are entertained.