Welcome to Import Horizons at GameCritics.com. Savvy gamers are aware of the gaming scene in Japan, but language, access and playability have been the bane of those looking for diverse titles from the East. Some games are so culturally idiosyncratic that players often give up in frustration. This semi-regular feature will bridge that gap with advice for those looking to import, and those curious to the world of gaming in Japan.
Identity in motion ("Honto no jibun ni ugoki")
California's Silicon Valley is home to one of the five worst commutes in America. Period.
Peak traffic is described as the slowest 90 minutes you'll ever spend in hell—and those are the good days. Add summer heat, blinding rain, or the urge to go after a triple latte' to the mix and road rage is pretty much justified. This particular Interstate (680) on Sunol Grade counts as one of the many signs of the apocalypse—for all those keeping score. But as the tradition goes in working America, this is par for the course. Traffic jams filled with SUVs form our identity as Americans. Our love affair with the private space of the automobile enforces our ideal of independence and freedom. Wear neon green spandex with little teddy bears to the dance club, no problem. It's freedom gone wild…even when surrounded in a 2-hour commute.
But switch tracks to the Japanese National Railways (JNR) system in urban Tokyo, and all that will change—dramatically.
Japan's rail system represents the mass transit of the nation. Japan is the size of Montana packed with 130 million people. Urban Tokyo, alone, claims 20 million commuters every day. Japan's light rail distinguishes them, not only from America's car fetish, but also Europe's love affair with cobblestone streets. Yet, it goes deeper than that. Japan's train stations provide shopping, tourism and entertainment. It's not the destination; it's the journey, stupid. And in Japan's case, trains also shape their identity and even help discipline a society.
Furthermore, Japan's transit system has shaped entire industries, including Nintendo's Game Boy and the Sony Walkman; by-products of a sardine can situation with a finite amount of time. So, with such an influential daily experience in Japan what are the chances game developers will create a title for such a captive audience? Like asking if the sun rises in the East, the successful video game franchise of Densha De Go was born.
Actually, Densha De Go! (Translated as, "Go by Train") already boasts a prominent video game lineage. Released in 1997, the successful Japanese coin-op arcade game spawned versions across many formats, including the PlayStation, Game Boy, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, NeoPocket, and the PC. So it's only fair for Import Horizons to ride the rails of this game franchise for our beloved readers.
Densha De Go 3: Commuter Train Version (DDG3) is the first PlayStation 2 (PS2) incarnation for the series. (It was followed up by Shinkansen [Bullet Train] in 2003.) The concept is deceptively simple. Get from point A to point B in a specific amount of time. But game developer Taito couldn't leave well enough alone—much like their infamous title, Power Shovel which made moving dirt from point A to point B equivalent to patting your head while rubbing your stomach. Playing DDG3 brought one thing to mind that we in America just might not understand. Conductors in Japan are meticulous beyond reason, but for good reason—their commuter trains are packed to the gills. Japan is notorious for "pushing" passengers into trains—often up to 250% beyond capacity. Thus, the plight of the conductor is crucial. This explains why DDG3 is like an unforgiving Old Testament God. I learned the hard way that a city block length of steel doesn't stop on a dime after exceeding 80 mph. But those are the obvious mistakes. DDG3 will also nail you when you're going too fast in a residential area, not fast enough when the clock is against you, or missed safety procedures at railroad crossings. Even after learning the feel of the controls I couldn't shake the helplessness when "coasting" downhill at 60mph into the upcoming station—and knowing there's nothing I can do but overshoot the entire platform. Combine that with the comforting thought of an overloaded train of commuters and I quickly realized that Japanese train conductors have something I don't…balls of steel.
Train conductors in Japan are heroes. Mythic legends. TV series (such as Popoya: Railroad Man) have been built around them and their rigid attitudes. DDG3 continues this legacy, even though the conductor is never on screen. This is intentional. The first person view puts the gamer in the catbird seat, and the weight of responsibility rests heavily on their shoulders. Not many games can sum up one's responsibility to society like DDG3.
But that steely attitude is not enough to master DDG3. This game can drive the most hardened perfectionist into fits of rage. When my arrival to a station is measured by the centimeter you better believe some cussing is going on when I'm off by half an inch—after traveling 10 miles! DDG3 uses a point system for advancing the game. Earn points by following safety procedures, setting time records and being on schedule. If the train is late each second ticks precious points off the score. If the train exceeds the platform each meter rolls points off the score. Emergency brake still engaged? Yep, more points off the score. The cussing begins when DDG3 starts gamers off with a painfully low 20 points. Make enough mistakes and the end credits will roll before pulling into the first station. Tough? Honto ni!
But while Densha De Go! 3 is unforgiving in difficulty it doesn't hold the line in other areas. Graphics are poor and often muted to death in close up situations. Sound is fine, which is adjustable in the options menu, but until I opened up new tracks and trains, my only company was the same theme song for hours on end. Voice work is distant, but hey I'm on a train—it's noisy. However, as with many games of this nature the Japanese don't scrutinize the wrapping paper on the present. DDG3 sports a real time clock concurrent to the PS2's internal time, which dictates morning (Asa), afternoon (Gogo), early evening (Yugure), and dead of night (Konban). Also, weather conditions can adversely affect track speed and braking.
Gamers also get a menu of 17 trains to choose from and various modes of play: "Family mode" for that arcade style, "the duty of driving the train" in "Game mode" (I'm not making this up), and "professional mode" for those aspiring masters of the rails. Combine all this with the actual track routes of Japan's Kyushu, Kinki, and Kanto rail lines and suddenly DDG3 isn't just about playing a game—this is sightseeing into another culture. Cruising the urban sprawl, or coasting through the low residential prefectures, DDG3 is a lesson in how video games reflect society, attitudes about public performance and dedication—if given the chance.
Importers may want to use caution when investing in DDG3, especially since it features very little English support. However, the "Simple Series" (one of the many versions of the "Greatest Hits" in Japan), has an attractive price point even for an import title. Furthermore, as of this writing, there are numerous train simulators in Japan. Taito has an entire franchise built around Denshu De Go!, and even Sony got in the act with its acclaimed full-motion video game, Train Real Simulator (no, I did not mix the words around). Many of these titles feature special controllers, which are often sold in bundles and boxed together in Japan. Some are game specific, such as, Densha De Go: Street Car Controller, Shinkansen "Bullet train" Professional Controller, and if you're lucky, the rare PlayStation DDG train controller - shaped like a PlayStation controller, but with levers and sliding dials instead of buttons. Prices for these peripherals can be high for importers, but then what price can be put on a glimpse into another culture?
Disclaimer: The PlayStation 2 Dual Shock was used in the impressions for this game.
Jim-san no tagami (Jim's Letters)
We want to try something new at Import Horizons, and you can help make it happen. If you have questions about import games, or want information about upcoming titles in Japan, then let GameCritics.com help you. Send us your inquiries and you might find your letter in the next installment of the Import Horizons. Sorry we're not a translation service, so please don't send URLs and graphic files. However, if you have a specific import title you would like addressed, or a suggestion for future installments feel free to contact Import Horizons and keep your eyes peeled on this spot.