Taito’s Densha de GO! series has often turned up in all sorts of places you wouldn’t really think a train sim with a fondness for difficulty and rule-based realism would over the past twenty five years – arcades for starters. Nobody could seriously say the N64 was crying out for tightly scheduled locomotive action either. Or the Neo Geo Pocket for that matter. Or the WonderSwan. Or the Game Boy Color.
Surely there has to be one format Densha de GO! has left untouched? Like… ha! Like LCD ga-oh wait no, that’s somehow what we’ve got right here. How could something as small and underpowered as this hope to translate the intense into-the-screen action of the unlikely arcade hit into a portable monochrome experience, especially one so basic no object on the screen can ever overlap another?
There’s just no way something like this could be good… is there?
As it turns out there is, and I knew this tiny LCD game based on the mighty Densha de GO! 2 could accomplish everything it set its little digital heart on the instant it flashed up a curt “Game Over” message a mere 4m away from the platform because I’d rolled too cautiously into the station, stopped slightly short, and no longer had the time or the score to get back up to speed so I could roll my way to victory (this was the equally inept overreaction to sailing way past the stop line like an idiot on my previous attempt).
But before I get into the train driving itself I should probably talk about the physical aspects of the handheld first, as in enclosed devices like this they’re as much a part of the game as anything else.
Happily I’ve got no reasonable complaints here. The device is pleasantly thin – I’d say a touch thicker than a Game Boy cart – and the rounded corners on its shell make this 3 inch/8cm device easy to slip in a pocket and not feel like you’re stabbing yourself in the leg all day. There’s even a little hole on one corner to attach your favourite wrist strap or dangly trinket if you’ve got one. In spite of its compact size it’s still wide enough to hold comfortably, allowing your thumbs to rest on the face buttons without feeling too cramped. These pinkish protrusions come in varying sizes (the major buttons all being larger than the others) and have a rubbery texture, helping them to stand out against the case’s smoothness by feel alone, which helps to make them easy to find when you need them. There’s even a dedicated pause button on there, one of those handy little features you can’t always guarantee an LCD game will have but are always grateful for when it’s there. None of the routes you can choose from are especially long, but it’s nice to know if something suddenly comes up you don’t have to throw away a good run. It’s not as stylish as some of the other Densha de GO! LCD games available – I’ve seen some with teeny-tiny levers to push and pull – but it’s a practical setup and it works well.
The fold-out manual included in the box covers everything you need to know, taking you through every single feature on the screen via a crisp diagram as well as offering complete timetables for the first four train journeys detailing the distance between each stop, the departure and arrival times, and whether it’s a real stop or you’re just passing through. Most exciting of all it mentions an additional fifth challenge for those able to clear the others, a tantalising little not-secret waiting for those good enough to reach it. That will never, ever, be me so we’ll just have to take the text at its word there, but I love knowing it exists.
The graphics were never going to match any other port of the game but even so the LCD screen makes a valiant effort to convey movement and speed, and mostly succeeds where it counts. In play you can see the suggestion of mountains on the horizon and the station approaching to the side, of trees passing by as you chug along the tracks. You’re not heading anywhere in particular this time – the next stop is just “a station” – but I’d argue that was a savvy move in the game’s favour; there’s no point pretending the view here is a reflection of the Yamanote Line or anywhere else, so why say otherwise? In spite of the lack of detail you do at least get the impression of being in the countryside or the city as flowers, trees and buildings scroll by, and at this size and in this context – a game so small you could literally keep on your keychain – it’s enough.
Unexpected immersive assistance comes from the tiny mono speaker on the back of the handheld (my apologies for the quietness of the audio in the clip above), used to put out the sort of high quality sound effects you wouldn’t expect to hear coming from such a small and undeniably cheap device. The horn honks and the sound of the train on the track (a noise that cleverly keeps pace with your actual speed), all those little chimes when a speed limit change or another alert comes up – they all sound great and really help sell the portable train driving experience. Sadly the only volume choices are “on” and “off”, but this is one LCD game I found myself happy to keep listening to even when I didn’t need to.
Considering what this is – a toy based on something infinitely bigger, better, and more expensive than it could ever be – it’s remarkable how accurately this games captures the spirit of the original game. You’re still trying to get the train’s speed just right as you trundle through the countryside, you’re still hoping to pull into the station at just the right moment, smoothly slowing down to the perfect stop. The satisfaction of doing a tough job well is still in there, and it’s still enjoyable as ever.
It’s also still bloody hard too, and if you’re not already sure what it’s asking of you as far as speed limits and the Japanese rail network’s colour coded light systems go the representation here is perhaps a little too abstract to pick up on the hoof – don’t make this your first Densha de GO!, especially not when so many other games in the series are easier to get hold of and also far more welcoming (especially the latest one). But if you’re after a little something different from an LCD game, or if the thought of carrying a whole train sim around in your pocket it appeals, then this is a wonderful distillation of the real thing and a real joy to keep around.