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Railway-based business management sim from Japanese company Artdink, released in the US through Maxis. This is actually the Japanese Take the A-Train 3, the second was released in the US as Railroad Empire by Seika.

Despite Maxis' best efforts to talk about American railroading in this translation, the game is blatantly set in Japan. You have Japanese style buildings, houses, and the entire catalogue of available trains (bar one, the GP40 freight locomotive) are Japanese. It even runs in that weird high-res VGA mode you only ever see in Japanese games.

The objective, to develop the city and service its inhabitants, is simple enough, but it has a unique way of being done.

First you must lay tracks out into the countryside from the mainline station you start with. Then, build a station, and buy some land to store materials. Collect the materials deposited at the end of the mainline, and deliver them to the new station. Build some apartments there, and a few office builds or shops at the developed area where you started. Now, run a few cheap passenger trains back and forth, leaving the 'burbs at 8AM and the city at 6PM (or as close to these as possible, this is an art given the trains travel at 3 blocks per hour - their own length). Eventually new houses will start being built by the simulator around your new station, indicating people are now moving out of the city centre and commuting to work. Keep the supply of materials up and so more houses will be built, meaning more passengers, and more money. Then extend the line once the surrounding area is developed, and start again!

If only it were that simple. You also can buy and sell over 20 different types of subsidiary business, ranging from apartments and offices to stadia, ski resorts, factories and hotels. Some, such as the ski resort, are seasonal, so you can make a considerable amount of money during the winter but nothing during the summer - you may even bring on special seasonal trains to help increase profits by bringing customers directly to the resort.

The biggest bugbear of the whole game, apart from the crippling annual taxes (and the fact the game is so biased towards the AR-III train that all others are unprofitable) is the construction materials. The largest train only holds four of them, and eight are needed for the smallest building (apartment), with houses sucking up two EACH. What's worse, you can't stop the simulation nabbing them, so you will waste hours watching the AI-controlled trains (which will infuriatingly reverse direction and start carrying your stockpile AWAY if they bump against another train!) deliver materials only for them to be sucked up to build more crappy houses or put another five floors on a skyscraper, while you scream in frustration that the factory (which churns out eight) requires 16 whole blocks in order to be built. Worst of all, the simulation will NOT take materials from the factory's own yard to build stuff, meaning unless you move them out of the factory, they'll just sit and the factory will lose tons of money.

This was closely followed by the way the AI would randomly build subsidiary buildings blocking your expansion plans... and you'd have to hope the building came on the market for sale and you could afford it! Roads were also uncrossable (which was baffling, given in Japan the majority of urban railways have grade crossings) and you didn't want to block a road either (since they massively increased profits and land values), meaning the ideal shape of a city was a belt-line, with a station on each of the four sides, with a crossroads in the middle. Effective, but it also made citybuilding highly repetitive.

Once you got the hang of the game, you could manage some surprisingly and pleasingly complex operations, I had a few layouts six tracks across with trains crossing over between fast and slow, inner and outer tracks. Signalling does not exist, as does trains reversing anywhere but the end of a line, but a quick switch leading to a dead end:
can provide an ample solution. The trains are not controlled by AI, but instead you can set which path they take at each switch (which is fun when you have dozens of switches close together) and what time they leave each station.

Graphics and sound-wise, the sharp, clean, utilitarian graphics were given a nice touch by the time of day cycle, which saw a nice transition to night accompanied by lights switching on not seen in any other games for several years. The trains all looked virtually identical with just different colours, and the few other touches (the shipyards and airports) were all fairly basic. Each subsidiary industry had a representative manager face with happy, normal and sad expressions. The music changed by the seasons, with a few tunes for in-game events. The bank and stock market even had proper 9-5 working hours!

Finally there were a few easter eggs to spot on the map:

  • Santa Claus would race past on December 25th (the Japanese LOVE Christmas)
  • Migratory cranes would fly past at the start of spring and the start of autumn
  • UFOs would fly around randomly during the summer.
  • If your city reached a certain size, the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) would be extended through your city, and go racing past at blinding speed a few times a day.
  • Once, and only once, I got a sign talking about 'Raxsoft Lighting' appear when I clicked on the fields in the rural area. Weird!
  • The inevitable construction kit addon pack was released, which allowed you to completely customize your maps before you started play - I took this oppurtunity to reroute the rail links to the outside world that you started with so the two trains that intially ran outside would use proper double tracks and thus not suffer from their direction reversing. The rest of the tools were pretty limited, and its use as a cheat tool was limited by the fact whenever you loaded a game into the editor the date was reset to April 1, Year 1. Hey, at least it's a game where the passage of time doesn't cause the game to end suddenly!