The eShop trailer for Densha de Go!! Hashirou Yamanote Sen (“Go by train! Drive the Yamanote line”) is just a guy singing “Densha de Go!” repeatedly while trains drive. For series fans, nothing else need be said. But let’s fill in the blanks.
Densha de Go! is a Japanese train driving series that started in 1996 as a glorious arcade cabinet featuring a shrunken replica of a real train dashboard. It has since hit just about every console, often with an expensive dedicated controller mainly comprising two levers. It has never been translated to English but has regularly garnered international attention, perhaps because it looks as bizarre as it does intuitive: you just drive a train.
But the Tokyo commute is special. You are crushed into a gel of compacted bodies oozing out of the doors at each station and, to get to work, must concede your agency and literally go with the flow. So, in a way, by letting you drive the train, Densha de GO!! lifts you up above life itself, to touch the very workings of the universe. OK, no, you do just drive a train.
The 20th anniversary arcade revival had a giant booth, triple-screen panorama, behind-driver commuter simulation window and, most impressively, a second exclamation mark in the title. And it’s 2017’s “Densha de GO!!” that this latest outing is based on. The Switch admirably reproduces the beautiful train’s-eye-views of Tokyo – subdued tracks and the behinds of buildings – and all the sounds of the daily commute. Just look away when you pull into the stations full of blurry, mushy, phone-staring people.
There’s a strictness that suggests a pedantic simulation, but Densha de Go!! is absolutely a game before it’s a sim. Each stage in arcade mode consists of a series of stops on a line. For each stop, you are scored on proficiency in the following: holding the brake, watching passengers board then pressing X when a light comes on, accelerating, matching speed limits, pressing X occasionally to show you’re paying attention to speed limits, dimming your lights for oncoming trains, sounding your horn only at certain prescribed times, using your windscreen wipers, remembering to put your lights back on, braking smoothly, arriving on time and stopping exactly where you’re supposed to.
It doesn’t sound much like a game, but that’s a lot of situational information to parse and respond to, and it’s ingeniously balanced, showing a quarter-century’s refinement. You feel the sheer mass of the train and its brutal inertia when you know you’ve acted too late and, although seconds may pass before the consequences come to bear, you can only stew in your futility. Every failure is an if only…, then just one more go.
Each intense, sweaty-palmed, frantically swearing arrival is also followed immediately by quotidian replay footage of a slow train stopping slowly in a boring place while people on their phones don’t notice. Hilarious every time.
The rote nature of the game keeps the language barrier low. There are fan-made guides online, and if you’ve understood it once, you won’t need one again. With international distribution having become so easy, it’s unusual to find a AAA arcade-style game with modest linguistic demands that doesn’t get a Western release. So Densha de GO!! is a special opportunity to do import gaming like the good old days – nostalgia boosted by the retro vibes of a 90s series.
In a gaming landscape of fantastical escapism, Taito have made a game where you drive a normal train on a normal track at a normal speed for a normal reason – and it’s a thrill.