With the upcoming release of Nintendo's Wii U console in just a few days, I know that there is only one thing on most of our minds: trains. Oh yes, the train, that glorious mode of long-distance transportation that unites all peoples and will never, ever be replaced, certainly not by some sort of aerodynamic flying voodoo box that defies the laws of both man and god. That is a preposterous idea and you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting it.
Did you know that the word train comes from the Old French trahiner, which means “pull, draw”, and that the first trains were pulled by horses? Did you know that France’s TGV (translation: "high speed train", gotta love the French propensity for naming things) has achieved a maximum speed of 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph)? Did you know that there is a train in India called The Flying Ranee that does not actually fly, because trains, unlike certain other forms of transportation that will remain unnamed, are smart enough to not spit in the face of the powers that be? Did you know that I am just pulling random facts from the Wikipedia entry on “train”?
Look at it. Just... LOOK... AT... IT!
Don’t worry, I’m not one of those creeps that has a huge model train set in my basement with a perfectly scaled city complete with meticulously detailed people and hundreds of hand-crafted trees. I wanted to be, but I’m not. There was a time many years back when my cousin and I had planned to do precisely that, build a wicked train set in our grandma’s basement, and we even drew up some over-enthusiastic plans for what our world would look like, but we ran into a stumbling block when we realized that model train stuff actually costs money. Money that could be better spent on video games. Also the fact that having a model train set in the basement would put us at the top of the suspect list if any of the neighborhood children went missing.
So it goes.
Anyway, enough chatter. Let’s talk about some games that are truly on-rails. Well, parts of those games, anyway.
If president Obama was kidnapped by ninjas and you were a secret service agent tasked with his rescue, what would you do? Work with high level officials to coordinate a response utilizing the combined resources of local law enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, the military, the FBI, and the CIA? That’s certainly one option. But have you considered “send out two white dudes in black, skintight wife-beaters to run around the streets and beat up everyone they meet”? If so, then you clearly were alive in the 80s.
I am in no ways trying to minimize the importance of this seminal work containing major breakthroughs in the representation of the complexities of US politics masquerading under the guise of a simple video game brawler by ignoring the rest of the game, but alas, this list is about trains. And of course, no good presidential rescue is complete without running across the top of a train and jumping from car to car while fighting hordes of evil ninjas, and Bad Dudes has precisely that. This is one of those scenarios that materializes fairly frequent in action games (and books, movies, TV shows, etc.), although I am fairly certain that it has never actually happened in the history of mankind, ever. I guess this is just a result of our collective consciousness realizing that it should have.
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Gamecube)
Maybe I could find a copy on the iPhone?!
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is a game from the obscure Japanese “Mario” series, a niche franchise starring an overweight Italian plumber which somehow manages to have multiple games despite the fact that no one I know has even heard of it. I couldn’t manage to find even a single Mario game in the Xbox 360 section of my local Gamestop, and when I asked the clerk where they kept the Mario games he laughed derisively at me and then sold me a copy of Call of Duty and a bottle of Mountain Dew. I am assuming that Mario games are one of those things that you only find in the basements of creepy old guys, right next to their model train sets.
Anyway, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is a pretty awesome and strikingly accurate portrayal of class dynamics, especially when you board a train called “The Excess Express”, populated by denizens such as a rich lying overweight slob named Heff T. (see what they did there?) and a whiny family that is overly worried about what to get their spoiled brat of a child, Bub, for his birthday. Lucky for us, Mario is a godless Communist and he soon sets them on the correct path. This train stage is also notable because it allows you to commit suicide by reading an evil book, much like our parents worried would happen to us when we read The Catcher in the Rye.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS)
The graphical choice was controversial, apparently people said it was too “mature” looking?
Probably the most well known and beloved games of The Legend of Zelda series are the three that were released on the Philips CD-i: Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda’s Adventure. These games received unanimously high acclaim across the board upon release, and were especially praised for creating a whole new standard of voice-acting in the video game industry. It is no exaggeration to say that the voice-acting of the CD-i Zelda games is still distinct among its peers, even to this day.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks does not quite live up to the lofty heights set by this triumvirate of excellence, although it has one thing that the CD-i games do not have: a train. Some people might argue that a train is too impersonal and therefore difficult to connect to in the way that, say, Epona the horse was, but they are forgetting one key fact: modern domestic horses have a life expectancy of only 25 to 30 years. Why bother growing attached to something that is just going to die on you anyway? And besides, can you ride a horse underwater? I didn’t think so.
Mega Man 5 (NES)
What were they thinking with these ugly graphics?!
Mega Man is yet another obscure Japanese video game series that distinguishes itself, at least in North America, by how terrible its in-game graphics look when put next to its stellar, industry-defining box art. The developers managed to take the very clearly human protagonist depicted on the cover and strip him down into some kind of lifeless robot, which should come as no surprise, because Japan turns everything into a lifeless robot.
However, one positive result of this is that Mega Man 5 has a boss that is a robot and a train at the same time, which if we are honest with ourselves, is exactly what we all wish that we could be. His name is Charge Man, thus named because his entire strategy seems to consist of charging directly at you over and over, which for anyone else would be quite moronic, but I guess that it is a respectable strategy if you are part-freaking-train.
Hmm. Nah, actually it’s still kind of moronic.
Resident Evil 0 (Gamecube)
The lines in the bathroom are BRUTAL!!!
Resident Evil 0 is a hunting simulator created by people who have clearly never seen animals outside of a book, because they made them all like twenty times as big as they are supposed to be, for some inexplicable reason. There are many questions to be asked about the storyline of Resident Evil 0, the most pressing one being: why would anyone go hunting on a train? Isn’t that sort of thing potentially dangerous to the other passengers, and illegal in every state except Texas? Oddly enough, all of the other people on the train appear to be sleeping the whole time, except when they get up to groggily lurch themselves to the bathroom and back, at which point it is for the best to just stay out of their way. Trust me on this.
Unfortunately, the train setting only makes up the first third of the game or so, at which point it turns into your run-of-the-mill hunting simulator, except for the part where it turns into a piano playing rhythm game. Yeah. It’s a truly bizarre experience.
WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$! (Game Boy Advance)
On the left, what it looks like. On the right, what it feels like.
Holy hell, who would have thought that stopping a train at a train station would be so difficult? This is assuming that the train mini-game in WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$! is an accurate simulation of actual train operation, an assumption that I don’t see any reason not to make.
Forget police officers and firefighters, I now have a great deal more respect for train conductors, the true heroes of America.
Final Fantasy VI (SNES)
Have YOU ever tried to suplex a train?
Final Fantasy VI is the first and last game ever made in the Final Fantasy series, hence the incredibly fitting usage of the word “final” in the title. What the heck does the VI stand for, you ask? That... is a very good question. I’ve never thought about it. Victorious Illumination? Vicious Ingrates? Does it really matter?
In this game you control a plucky young orphan from a small village which soon gets destroyed, leaving him as the only survivor, at which point he discovers that he is actually the chosen hero, and the only one who can wield the blade of destiny which is the only way to defeat the dark lord. Or maybe something completely different happens, involving a day at the opera and some crazy dude destroying the entire world. I can’t be expected to remember these things.
But we’re talking about trains here. The “Phantom Train” section is actually super cool, as not only do you first ride on the train, but you then discover that the train is sentient and does not want to let you off, at which point you must suplex the train into submission. Unfortunately this is not a valid strategy if you are stuck on a real train and want to get off, as I have never had the chance to personally discover, because who in their right mind would try to do something like that? On a completely unrelated note, have you ever been hit in the face with a train conductor’s whistle? It hurts a lot more than you might think it would.
Blast Corps (Nintendo 64)
Not quite Rocky IV, but close enough.
Blast Corps is one part commentary on the grotesquely ludicrous nature of the Cold War and the folly of the nuclear arms race that it spawned, and one part riding around and smashing the heck out of everything in sight. In other words, it is pretty much the best damned video game ever made.
Blast Corps is also one of the few games that I have played that lets you actually control a train, with all of the depth and breadth of real-live train operation, including exciting choices like “move foward”, “stop”, and more! And by more I mean “occasionally move backwards”, of course.
Whenever I would play Blast Corps, I would deck myself out in full conductor gear, including the spiffy black hat, and make believe that I was riding the rails out in the heart of the country, instead of burying myself in my room to escape the endless, soul-crushing grind of city life. The only thing that Blast Corps is lacking is a button to control the train whistle. It has always annoyed me that there is no button to control the train whistle.
Apparently train tracks don’t even need to connect to anything...
SimCity is a game that lets you build an entire city from scratch, from parks to roads to hospitals and more, and then send in Godzilla to utterly destroy it all, the only just reaction to your citizens’ constant demands for an airport. I believe that this is the purpose of the game, although I have always been a little bit unclear on what my ultimate goal was supposed to be. I guess this makes it into an apt metaphor... for life.
SimCity was also one of the most forward-thinking games of its time, because it proved how useless roads are when you can just have a single train system that covers your entire city. How awesome would it be to have a train that picks you up and drops you off at your front door? The answer is “very awesome”, and don’t try to tell me that it isn’t feasible, because when I replaced all of my roads with train tracks in SimCity, the only thing that happened was that my citizens stopped complaining about traffic and pollution, and my city prospered immensely. What other proof do you need?
Alas, it will never happen, because corrupt politicians are too busy taking bribes from the automobile industry. I hope you’re all going to enjoy it when gas hits $10 a gallon.
Star Fox 64 (Nintendo 64)
I think Star Fox 64 also started the whole Chuck Norris thing.
Even if you have never heard of Star Fox 64, you are almost certainly familiar with a famous line of dialog that comes from it, which has spawned a very popular meme that spread like wildfire across the Internet. It comes at a pivotal point in the game, when enemy fire is all around you and the only logical way to survive the onslaught is to find some way to generate a protective shield by rolling your ship like a barrel, at which point Slippy Toad finds out that the woman he betrayed Team Star Fox to protect has died for no apparent reason while birthing his twin children, thus rendering his betrayal purposeless, and he screams out a very poignant:
Yes, Star Fox 64 created this meme. I bet you didn’t know that.
Star Fox 64 is also the first Star Fox game to have stages in which you ride around in tanks, which is pretty sweet. In one of these stages, on a planet named “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, you are tasked with following a large train through the stage, fighting off both enemies on the land and in the sky, as well as dodging the volleys that come from the train. If you shoot 8 switches before the end of the stage, you can surprise the enemy train conductor and switch his track at the last moment, and the long, thin train slides forcefully into the tunnel of the enemy base while a monkey screams “I can’t STOP IT!” to ensuing explosions. This is clearly meant as a powerful metaphor for the inebriating effect of sexual desire, although I’m not entirely sure how the monkey fits into that.