Densha de D Burning Stage: Hot [train] wheels

Densha de D: Burning Stage, the second game in this delightful (and unofficial) parody series combining Initial D and Densha de GO!, covers the characters and events of chapters 5-10 of the doujin manga of the same name. Don’t worry if you’ve not been keeping up with everyone’s favourite train-drifting tale though, because once again the game’s pre-fight intros (and post match outros too) use an energetic selection of panels taken directly from the manga combined with artistically staged 3D models from the game and enthusiastic voice acting to recap the plot. Familiarity has not dulled the impact or appeal of these dynamic scenes, and Densha de D’s execution of this woefully underexplored style remains some of the very best gaming has to offer.

Dramatic mode is once again the main event, although there’s a noticeable shift from Lightning Stage‘s more “honest” high-speed train driving to a focus on triggering special mid-stage events and thrill of the overall “experience” this time around. This is in part the inevitable outcome of Densha de D’s storytelling style: there’s no way you can have a “realistic” straight race between two wildly mismatched trains with the underdog—that’s us—winning with a heartstopping manoeuvre at the last minute if our opponent is clearly capable of outpacing our train on the straights and also far more stable during the curves. But this playful focus on the thrill of the competition is also down to Densha de D knowing exactly what it wants to be too, even if it might take its players a little while to catch up: Burning Stage never, ever, refers to itself as a racing game, or calls any of the events within races either. The main single player experience describes itself in the game and manual as simply following Densha de D’s story (in reference to the manga). The multiplayer mode lets you battle—not race—a friend. The main in-game UI is described as a battle screen. The front of the box, right next to the logo, calls this a “3D train battle game”. To complain this isn’t a true racing game is to fundamentally misunderstand Burning Stage’s purpose.

That isn’t to say that how well you personally do is of no consequence. Going as fast as possible while maintaining good control of your train is always vital to your success, in much the same way that although a movie hero will always escape the villain’s lair a few seconds before it spectacularly explodes, that doesn’t mean they can casually stroll out thirty minutes into a five minute self-destruct sequence while lightly adjusting their perfect hair. The effort needs to be there if you want to progress, you need to sincerely play the part of someone pushing their train to the limit if you want to cross the finish line before your opponent does.

The driving itself feels much more technical this time around, the trains more likely to come off the track if you don’t make an effort to slow down on tight sections or drift around those sweeping curves. It’s even possible to come clean off the rails during a sudden dip after a quick rise now too, making for a more lively and unpredictable duel.

The good news is Burning Stage has introduced a new technique to help keep your train under control: pressing down on the d-pad as you execute a drift activates a special rear wheel drift, the back end of the driver’s car, rather than the front, hopping across the track. It’s a small change that makes a big difference, allowing you to squeeze more speed boosts out of the lines and gain an advantage where previously you wouldn’t have had the room to slide across two sets of rails.

So you practice and push yourself and keep on winning and smiling at your triumphs… until chapter nine, the titular Burning Stage. The story here hinges on a classic plot twist: the lead character’s guts and bravery not being enough to see them to victory even though the “rules” say they should win. The stage starts off like any other, mood-enhancing Eurobeat accompanying another speedline-decorated blitz through urban Japan, and you’re sure that once more you’ll scrape a win against all odds and put an overconfident opponent keen on taking you down in their place, and then… the engine blows in an unavoidable event at the end. You really can’t win this one, no matter how hard you try.

Which is a pretty brave thing for a game to do when you think about it. The need for success is practically hardwired into the hobby, and yet here’s a doujin parody game tearing up the rulebook for dramatic effect.

As strange as it feels in the moment—you’re supposed to win, aren’t you?—this inescapable defeat perfectly sets up the endgame battle against the same opponent, the previous rule-breaking loss still burning white-hot in your memory. You grit your teeth and rush through Burning Stage’s newly redesigned train stations with their shiny floors and improved lighting. Cool manga guys appear in cut-ins and audibly gasp at your train battling prowess. The rhythmic clack of the train on the track and the electric whine of the engine as you push it as far as it can go can be heard over what is surely your victory theme.

And… yep, this time you win.

But it wouldn’t have meant quite as much if that enforced loss hadn’t come first.

And once it’s all over? There’s still plenty more fun to be had. As in the previous game you can replay any chapter you’ve already cleared with any unlocked train, allowing you to experience an old favourite in a new way or simply have the pleasure of utterly dominating what was previously a close run thing. Start Burning Stage up with Lightning Stage’s disc in your PC’s CD drive and you’ll permanently unlock two additional trains from the first game, just for fun. The museum section has been greatly expanded, and now includes the ability to closely examine the 3D model of any train (you can even turn their windscreen wipers on if you like), the chance to enjoy the game’s fabulous soundtrack as you please, and a few bonus manga to take a look through too. Free mode allows you to speed along any unlocked track without events or other distractions getting in your way, the game keeping track of (although not saving) the time taken in your chosen train. So, if you happen to fall in love with the game (and I’m sure you will), you’ve got lots of reasons to go back for one more battle, but it never becomes an overwhelming chore to see and do everything Burning Stage has to offer. There are five tracks to play, a few ways to play them, and the developers were sensible and confident enough to know that this was enough.

And they were right. Multi-track drifting isn’t a cute one-off novelty, it’s a way of life.

You can find the official Burning Stage website is over here for all your patches, playable trial versions, and similar needs:

[Ko-fi support made this article happen!]