Shake off the shackles, man!
Why are you just standing there in your black trousers and white shirt?
Is it because you’re jammed up body-to-body with everyone else like you and can’t move?
Well why are you in there at all?
Shake off the shackles, man! Choose life! What if you could DRIVE the train?
I could drive it really fast! Well, no, you shouldn’t do that.
I could drive it a little bit fast. Best not to.
I could go slow then, and savour the world around me! No, the train has to be on time.
To the minute? To the second, please.
Could I at least stop the train one centimetre further along the platform than usual – for larks? No.
If you are slightly wrong you will be criticised
You must start the train at the indicated time. You must accelerate at the correct rate. You must apply the break at the specified strength. You must arrive at the next station as scheduled on the timetable. You must stop at exactly the location the shirts and trousers expect – those sheep! Call that living? Every time you are slightly wrong you will be criticised, until you have been so imperfect at train driving that you are not allowed to do it any more.
No! How could I pursue this fantasy? I can’t imagine such freedom!
Well, now you don’t have to, thanks to Taito’s anarchic accelerate-do-nothing-then-decelerate-em-up Densha de GO! The exclamation mark’s part of the title!
A series of gently interesting train anecdotes
PUNCTUAL: Commuting to Shinjuku in the summer, it was too hot to be outside, but there was nowhere to shelter at my local station. I wanted to get to the platform just as the train arrived but no sooner. I was saved by an app called Eki.locky1. The Tokyo trains were so accurate that it could count down the seconds to departure and tell me precisely when to leave the house. Half-poached by hot streets, I would be welcomed promptly to the platform by merciful, refrigerated air falling from the carriage’s opening doors.
PROUD: One morning the train stopped a whole metre out of position at the Shinjuku terminal. The atmosphere onboard was uneasy; brows furrowed almost invisibly; no one made a sound. The doors stayed closed. The train moved forward to the correct position and we were released, but not before a deferential apology was delivered softly over the speakers.
DEPENDABLE: On very rare occasions the train would be late – usually due to earthquake, typhoon, suicide, or leaves on the line.2 In those instances a paper receipt would be waiting at the destination for commuters to present to their employers. Without that, no one would believe the train had been late.
Densha de GO!
You don’t merely GO! by train
So, you see? The anal-retentive requirements of Densha de GO! are not without foundation. For a while, I literally set my watch by the Tokyo Metro. (It was an old watch and lost time badly, but still.) Anyway, back to the game.
“Densha de GO!” (電車でGO！) Means “GO by train!” but it’s so much more than that. Well, it’s a little bit more than that in one specific way: you don’t merely GO! by train, you DRIVE! the train.
Densha de GO! through the ages
The list of different versions of this game is stupidly long. Look how long it takes you to scroll through it!
|1996||Densha de GO!||Arcade|
|1997||Densha de GO! EX||Arcade|
|1998||Densha de GO! 2 High Speed Collection||Arcade|
|1998||Densha de GO! N-Geji Collection||Arcade|
|1999||Densha de GO! 64||N64|
|1998||Densha de GO! 2 High Speed Collection 3000 Lookout||Arcade|
|1999||Densha de GO! Professional Method||PS|
|2000||Densha de GO! 3 Commuter Collection||Arcade|
|2000||Densha de GO! Nagoya Railway Collection||PS|
|2000||Kisha de GO!3||PS|
|2000||Densha de GO! That Travelling Feeling Collection||Arcade|
|2001||Densha de GO! Shinkansen Sanyou Shinkansen Collection||PS2|
|2003||Densha de GO! Professional 2||PS2|
|2003||Train Simulator + Densha de GO! Tokyo Express Collection||PS2|
|2004||Densha de GO! Final4||PS2|
|2005||Densha de GO! Pocket Yamanote Line Collection||PSP|
|2006||Densha de GO! Pocket Chuo Line Collection||PSP|
|2006||Densha de GO! Pocket Osaka Loop Line Collection||PSP|
|2006||Densha de GO! Pocket Tokaido Line Collection||PSP|
|2010||Densha de GO! Special Collection – Revival! Showa Yamanote Line||DS|
|2012||Couple by Card! Densha de GO!||Arcade (trading card game)|
|2016||Coupling! Densha de GO!||Android/iOS (puzzle game)|
|2017 (announced)||Densha de GO!!5||Arcade|
I have omitted the numerous mobile phone and smartphone games, LCD games, budget re-releases, medal games, pachinko machines, etc.
Why so many Densha de GO!s?
So why did Taito persist with this thing for a decade? Why did Square Enix revive it in 2010 after obtaining the rights from Taito? And why is it coming back to the arcade in 2017?8 Because it’s an institution. Even the train it’s based on is an institution: it’s the Japan National Rail 205 series, in service since 1985 and still going. If you have an image in mind of a train in Tokyo, it’s probably this train9.
And the transcendentally ingenious part is that the controls of the 205 series adorn the arcade cab, caging that animal spirit of decades-long establishment mundanity and adding a coin slot to the front. It’s the train you squash onto every morning and every night – the train that enforces your servitude to the desk, shooing you from your family with lashes of its whip – AND YOU CAN DRIVE IT10.
With a d-pad, it’s shit
The home versions also got those levers. Dedicated controllers, based on a range of trains or trams, were released for PlayStation, Saturn, PS2, and Wii. Much like Virtual-On, the controller is so much part of the game that in reviews of the 2010 DS revival it was deemed necessary to comment on the fact that the controls were on the touch screen and there was no dedicated controller available. That’s on a handheld console of which the defining feature is its touchscreen.
It’s understandable once you play it: with the arcade controls, you clunk levers into position and rest your hands on them ready for your next move, seeing the scenery charge past and feeling the tracks clunking through the rumbling seat. If you play with a d-pad then you push up a few times, then wait, then press down a few times. It’s shit. This is the power of the basic mechanical aspects of an input device, like Gorugo 13‘s weighty gun and optical scope, or the humongous joystick of Dekarisu.
Oafishly simple… but impenetrable
The sound is great, the graphics are brazenly quotidian, the cab is the business. Despite the interaction model being oafishly simple, though, it still manages to be almost impenetrably dressed in Japanese text. Drop in a hundred yen so you can say you drove the train, but it turns out being a passenger is not that bad.
Why are you sitting there so miserably in your train driver’s uniform with your little hat on and your little white gloves?
Well, it turns out driving carefully while following such strict instructions is not as fun as it sounds.
Strict? What do you mean? What about the pedal?
Holy shit you must be bored out of your mind! The pedal sounds the horn!
THIS IS THE BEST GAME IN THE WORLD.
Not leaves on the line. That was a joke for British people. Only earthquake, typhoon, or suicide.↩
“GO by Steam Train!”↩
Note the double exclamation mark↩
Arcade dates are often dates the machine entered into operation, with the title screen showing an earlier date. The source for these “operating” dates is not clear. In the case of the original title, a source is given which is a 1999 issue of what seems to be a trainspotters’ magazine. The magazine was not available online for confirmation.↩
– sometimes in a slightly demeaning way for fun (but “That Travelling Feeling Collection” is pure gold – 「旅情編」)↩
after work, instead of going home↩