By Adrian Cybriwsky
Until recently, the closest most of us could come to driving a train
in Japan was to stand at the forward observation window and point at
speed restriction signals, hoping that our helpfulness would be seen by
the engineer by a reflection off the windscreen. Traditionally, this
has been less than satisfactory, what with the odd looks from fellow
passengers and the occasional run-in with the railroad police.
Fortunately, we're now in a renaissance of sorts, with technology
and interest converging at a point where there is a new abundance of
quality train simulation software, much of it modeling Japanese
prototypes. Just as we enthusiasts have different motivations and
interests, the various software packages available have different
strengths-no one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest overall. In
the following, I will describe the major programs that would be of
interest to JRS readers and hopefully make a case that railroad
simulators can be an excellent companion or alternative to the space,
time, and cost commitments required of model railroads.
Train Simulator and other "Movie" based Programs
Some of the earliest graphical attempts to simulate train driving operations on personal computers were "movie based", and often arose from companies that had previously specialized in ride videos. The Train Simulator series (www.ongakukan.co.jp) is perhaps the best known example of this. There are also a few such sims branded under the Tomix name.
What the creators of such sims have done is to take video out of the
front of a train and digitize it. They then typically combine this with
a front-end program that plays the video at a speed corresponding to
that of the simulated train, calculates braking pressure and momentum
physics, enforces virtual speed restrictions, plays sounds and
announcements, and so forth.
Such software is great in the sense that what you are seeing in
front of you is the real-world. Additionally, because, from a technical
standpoint, there's not much more to making a second version of such
software, such companies have been able to produce titles covering a
wide range of lines and operations, presumably just as fast as their
lawyers can secure the rights with the railroads. Also, because much of
the software is QuickTime based, much of it can work both on PCs and
Unfortunately, such software's strength that it is based on video of
the real thing is also its primary weakness. Digital video, even when
highly compressed, takes up considerable space, and is necessarily
frame-based. At slow speeds, you will notice significant "stutter", as
in moving one meter, the screen might only advance by one movie frame.
Additionally, the pixel-size of the movies, in order to save space on
the CD-ROM, is often small, meaning that you'll be viewing a relatively
tiny movie on your large monitor.
Video-based software is improving however. Some new titles are being
released on DVD, which will mean an increase in quality and the number
of frames available for those with DVD drives in their computers.
However, even this doesn't address issues such that because it is
video-based, the other traffic you see, the time of day and weather
conditions, and so forth are the same every time you run the program.
If you're interested in this sort of sim, check out RealRailway at
http://homepage2.nifty.com/rail/, where you will find free,
downloadable video-based programs. The quality isn't as good as
video-based sims available on CD, but it will give you a general sort
of feel as to what to expect from such titles. The RealRailway people
rotate the downloads they have available at any given time, though
usually it is a ride to a station or two of a western-Tokyo private
line. Getting CD-based video sims outside of Japan is difficult, though
you may have some luck with web-based merchants such as that at
Densha de Go
The Densha de Go (Let's Go by Train) series of software has been wildly popular in Japan. Developed by Taito initially as a full-size arcade game, versions have been produced for the Sony Playstation and other home gaming devices, as well as for the PC.
As of this writing, the following titles are available: DDG
(original), DDG 2, DDG Nagoya Tetsudo (Railway), DDG2 - 3000 / DDG -
Professional (both of which are combinations of 1 and 2 with some
additional features), Kisha de Go (which features steam locomotives),
and the very recently released Densha de Go 3 (for Playstation2).
The Densha series is the current champion in terms of interesting
graphics, sounds, and overall recreating the "feel" of being on
Japanese trains. When one plays a Densha game, one can not help but
marvel at the thousands of hours of attention to detail that have been
spent reproducing stations, buildings, trains, and the like by
obviously very skilled artists.
A wide range of routes is available. DDG Nagoya Tetsudo allows you
to ride the routes of the Nagoya Meitetsu private railroad company
(including express trains, a railbus, and even a zoo monorail!), and
the other titles focus on JR lines-everything from the Akita shinkansen
and the Yamanote line to backcountry single-track DMUs are modeled,
though in many cases the distance between stations has been
artificially shortened to enhance gameplay. Individual trains handle
differently based on size and weight, and it takes considerable timing
and skill to successfully brake in rainy or snowy conditions.
For many, however, gameplay is the major downside to the Densha
series. Train simulation purists tend to call the DDGs "games" rather
than "sims" because Densha seems to have largely been written for a
younger, action-oriented audience. They're largely games of keeping
within speed restrictions and attempting to stop at station markers
within one meter and within one second (!) of the scheduled time. If
you're late or stop incorrectly or do any of a dozen possible other
incorrect things, your points total goes down. Lose too many points,
and you'll have to start the level/route again. It's hard work, even
for this experienced gamer. Don't get me wrong-this isn't Pac-Man-but
it's not an industrial teaching simulator by any means.
With the new versions of Densha, Taito has recognized that some
people just want to drive the trains freely without playing the game,
as it were. DDG - Professional and DDG3 have a completely free-running,
Most of the Densha series were made for Sony Playstation game
machines that have been "regionalized" for Japan. That means that even
if you could get a copy of DDG2 for Playstation in the US, it would not
work with your US (or European) Playstation unless you had modified it
(in a way that might not be legal everywhere.) Fortunately, there is a
solution-software products like Bleem! (www.bleem.com) allow you to
play Playstation games on your Windows PC. I have found Bleem! to work
wonderfully-in fact, I don't even own a Playstation and I play DDG1,
DDG2, and DDG-Nagoya with no problems. As of this writing, there is no
emulator available for the Playstation2, so playing DDG3 is probably
out of the reach of most outside of Japan.
My copy of Densha de Go 2 - 3000 is a PC-native version. I was
pleased to find that it worked fine on my US/English language copy of
Finding Densha games in the US or Europe may be difficult. However,
there are a number of Playstation game importers on the web that may be
able to help you out. I found a copy of DDG2 for only $14 in this way,
and found my copy of DDG1 on eBay. As of this date, I have not been
able to find DDG-Professional, which is widely considered to be the
best of the bunch. If you do run a DDG on a Playstation unit that can
accept Japanese games, there are two special controllers (mascon)
available that look and act just like prototypical EMU controls when
used with DDG titles.
DDG has spawned a number of variants and spin-offs. SL de Ikou is a
steam-engine sim for Playstation similar to Kisha de Go that is
published under the Tomix name-you may have seen it in the Tomix
catalog. There are also a number of "Densha de Po" (Pocket) LCD games
out there whose value is purely novelty and fun.
BVE, Iida Line,
BVE features highly realistic train physics. All of the current sims
do a competent job of modeling forward and backward issues of
acceleration, momentum, and braking, but BVE goes further and also
models lateral and shock effects, so the trains tend to bob and weave
realistically. In the cab, ATC, ATS, and related systems are faithfully
reproduced as well.
What really makes BVE stand out, however, is that it is a fairly
open system. Unlike with Densha or the video-based sims, users can
design and share their own routes and trains. This has led to a wide
variety of routes quickly becoming available, and most of the routes
are of prototypical length. Branko (Barney) Spoljaric of Croatia has
established a website at www.crotrainz.com which functions as a
clearinghouse of sorts for BVE routes that will function on
English-language Windows PCs. Here, you can download many
Japanese-prototype lines, including a visually stunning Iida line and a
version of the Keio main line built by a Japanese enthusiast which has
been "Englishified" by yours truly. Additionally, you will find a
growing number of European and American prototype lines available for
download, as western users are learning how to make BVE routes of their
BVE has two running modes-free and annoyingly picky. In free mode,
one can essentially run at one's leisure (or hurry). In picky mode, a
violation of even one kilometer per hour over the limit will cause an
angry message to be flashed at you while the route ends and you are
forced to start anew. It seems likely that Mackoy will eventually ease
or modify the pickiness of BVE based on user feedback, but with free
software there are, of course, no guarantees.
Soon, possibly even by the time you read this, there will be one more major player in the Train Simulation scene-Microsoft is scheduled to release Microsoft Train Simulator in late spring, 2001. MSTS will differentiate itself from the sims previously mentioned in that it will provide a 3D environment in which the trains will run so that not only will you be able to have a traditional cab view, but you will also be able to position yourself virtually by the side of the tracks and watch the train go by. Of interest to JRS members, MSTS will feature Kyushu Railway's scenic Hisatsu line as well as Odakyu 7000-series "Romance Car" and 2000-series commuter trains between Shinjuku and Enoshima.
There are a number of other simulation programs out there that focus
primarily on western / European prototypes. You can learn more about
these, as well as participate in the Internet's premier discussion of
train simulation software at Trainsim UK (www.trainsim.org.uk). There,
you can also get English-language help for installing BVE.
One Japanese prototype simulator that I have not covered in detail
is the slightly-older, but freely downloadable, Jmechanik (and
Jmechanik2) by Iskandar, based on the venerable Polish Mechanik sim.
Use Trainsim UK as a starting point for downloading this sim.
It's a great time to be a Japanese train enthusiast with a computer. Using train simulation software is an excellent complement or even alternative to modeling. Additionally, by placing you in the driver's seat, you will likely learn much about Japanese trains that you might not have otherwise-signaling systems, for example.
If you're relatively new to computers, I must be frank-installing
some of this software, much of it designed for non-PC systems or
non-English Windows, may not be easy for you. However, the friendly
community at Trainsim UK will certainly help if you ask your questions
You will quickly gain an appreciation for the art of train driving
from such sims. But be careful-these sims can also be quite addictive.
You have been warned.