The massive surge in the number of simulation games over the past few years has been nothing short of baffling. Years ago, Microsoft Flight Simulator was essentially the sole attraction in this specialist genre, but now it seems virtually anything can and should be turned into a simulation. Road Works Simulator, Farming Simulator and — we kid you not — Woodcutter Simulator are all real pieces of software that you can buy. While it may seem astonishing that there are companies happily making games based around relatively menial jobs, the real surprise is that there are actual people out who are queuing up to buy these titles.
It just seems to be completely at odds with the Western world’s perceivable sense of self-entitlement; many of us are thankful for the delivery truck drivers who bring wonderful games directly to our door, but we scoff at the idea of ever doing this admirable duty for a living! No, we’d much rather spend good money on software and expensive equipment so that we can pretend to be one, rather than, you know, make money from doing the real thing? It defies all explanation.
However, as fascinating as this may be, we shouldn't let this train of thought derail us from the topic at hand: Densha de Go! 64, or "Go by Train! 64" as it literally translates to in English. Released exclusively in Japan for the Nintendo 64 in 1999, this is just one of many instalments within a long-running series of train simulator games, which has been hugely popular in the country for years. And as much as we may protest about the current state of the genre, it’s fair to say that Densha de Go! 64 delivers a wagon-load of off-the-rails fun. Designed with pure train enthusiasts in mind, this game aims to provide as authentic a train-driving experience as possible, albeit on a mere N64. When it comes to the software itself, Densha de Go! 64 succeeds in emulating the real deal to an astonishingly accurate degree. However, it's not just the software itself that makes this such an enjoyable experience, it's the bespoke controller that was specifically designed to be used with it.
This is essentially what sets Densha de Go! 64 apart from every other N64 title — and most other games for that matter. Sold as a separate accessory, the Densha de Go! 64 controller features two handles, one to control your train's speed and the other for the brakes. It may only be made of plastic, but it augments the novelty factor of the game tenfold; it even has its own contoured area for you to store a pocket watch for accurate timekeeping. It's delightfully niche, and certainly something N64 enthusiasts will want to get their hands on. It is still possible to play the game using a standard controller — which is just as responsive and functional — but it doesn't feel nearly as fun or as authentic if you do.
In fact, authenticity is a pretty big deal when it comes to overall experience in Densha de Go! 64. The goal is pretty straightforward: choose a train and route and complete a typical journey along it. It sounds simple enough, until you realise that operating a train service in Japan is actually very difficult. And by difficult we mean stupendously hard. From the moment you start your journey, Densha de Go! 64 requires the utmost precision and demands a level of accuracy rarely seen in video games.
That's because your virtual train functions very much like its real-life counterpart. Stopping and starting isn't like Mario Kart; your train comes with five acceleration settings, eight brake levels and an emergency brake, just in case. Learning to use all these elements in conjunction with one another requires a solid understanding of how your train works. For example, stopping at a station is something you need to start meticulously planning about half a mile before you can even see it; do you go in slow and risk being late or do you slam down the accelerator and hope you zoom right past it?
To make things even more complex, you have to keep an eye out for signals, temporary speed limits, hazards and, of course, the time, meaning that route memorisation is key to your success. Trying to simultaneously manage all of these things borders on absurd, and after only attempting a few routes you quickly gain a new appreciation for real-life train drivers and everything they have to deal with on a daily basis.
Making any kind of mistake results in a penalty, whether it be something minor like forgetting to beep your horn or a complete catastrophe like missing the next station stop. A counter at the top of the screen shows a number which decreases each time you make an error to reflect the severity of your mistake. It's essentially a health bar, but one which often depletes so quickly that it doesn't offer much in the way of comfort. Three seconds late arriving at a station? That's a penalty of six points (two points for each second). Missed the designated stop line at a station by a mere two metres? It's going to cost you points. If you brake too hard, a small animation pops up on-screen showing a passenger being flung from their seat, usually followed by yet another point deduction. It seems horribly unforgiving and cruel at times, but this is a simulation and an accurate one at that.
Thankfully, this particular version of Densha de Go! includes a beginner's mode to guide you through the basics. Unfortunately, this Japanese exclusive is quite text-heavy, but it's not too difficult to decipher what's going on, as it visually shows you what to do. The one area that non-Japanese speakers will struggle with is announcing the next station stop to on-board passengers; Densha de Go! 64 is one of only two games to use the N64 Voice Recognition Unit (the other being Hey You, Pikachu!), and in this instance you need to know how to pronounce certain words. Thankfully, it's not required to play the game, but nevertheless you can't help but feel you're missing out on a fun additional feature.
Given that it is a simulation game, Densha de Go! 64 strives to present its world in a realistic manner. Unfortunately everything looks horribly outdated by today’s standards, especially the character sprites, but it’s at least functional. Moreover, you never really need to be able to see far off into the distance; the various heads-up displays provide you with all the information you need to in order to do your job. The game fares a little better in the audio department, accurately emulating the sounds of real-life trains, but otherwise it’s pretty minimal.
How much replay value you will get out of Densha de Go! 64 depends more on your appetite for a challenge rather than your knowledge of trains. This game is rock-hard in terms of difficulty, even on the easiest route, and it certainly has a steep, unforgiving learning curve that requires patience. The different routes are varied in terms of what they offer, with local train services typically involving far more station stops and, therefore, better timekeeping skills. However, outside of this there isn’t anything else to do, so you may want to give this a pass if you find the thought of driving a train incredibly dull.
Getting your hands on both a copy of Densha de Go! 64 and its unique controller isn't cheap, and it begs the question: is it worth the expense just to drive a virtual train? Well to be honest, it is. That’s because Densha de Go! 64 is deceptively challenging, and you can’t help but want to have another go each time you mess up. In fact, the difficulty level means that this will appeal to a wider audience than just train fanatics. The gameplay provides an accurate representation of operating a real-life train, and while the visuals are now dated, they’re clear enough so that the game is still playable. Where possible, this should only be experienced with its special controller, as the standard N64 pad is nowhere near as fun or intuitive. Overall, Densha de Go! 64 is an acquired taste, but certainly worth giving a go; you never know, it might be a great way for you to let off some steam.