Friday, January 21, 2011

Clueless Gaijin Gaming: A III

Artdink's A III (aka Take The "A" Train III) is one in a popular series of urban development simulations produced in Japan, where public train transport is a way of life.  US versions have appeared on the Sega Genesis (as Railroad Empire) and on the Playstation (as A Train), and the series is in its ninth major iteration today, for current PCs and videogame consoles.

This week, we're looking at the 1993 PC Engine Super CD-ROM version of A III, ported from home computers by the original developer, Artdink:

The gameplay is more-or-less manageable with minimal Japanese knowledge -- this is clearly a Sim City style game, with an icon-driven interface, wherein the player must build railroad routes and attractions in an effort to grow the tax base, keep the populace happy, and turn a profit.  The game's PC roots show in this straight conversion -- I'm using the standard PC Engine controller, but it supports the system's rarely-seen mouse, and I suspect it's a lot more playable that way.

The technical design keeps the disc available for frequent access, with all the background music rendered by the PC Engine's sound chip, though we can select from several music options with interesting English names (The Saboten Man is sort of a spaghetti-Western theme, saboten being Japanese for cactus):

We will spend most of our time panning around the map, observing the landscape, and building (or demolishing) various things.  Here, I am laying down some train track so the factory workers on a nearby island can travel into town more readily:

Now, I've built an amusement park to amuse the locals:

And here, I'm looking at one of several available real-time status reports -- I know the top line refers to some kind of money, I'm not sure what the other lines mean:

I don't personally find A III's play style compelling, mostly because it's not very goal-driven.  There are no competing railway barons, and while we can earn congratulatory messages for crossing certain goal thresholds, there isn't really much of a game here per se.  It's more of an electronic toy -- a virtual train set, really, with a relatively sophisticated simulation built around it.

The interface is a bit clunky -- even when we're trying to clear land to build something else, we have to select the specific feature that's already there in order to demolish it, limiting the possibilities for entertaining wholesale vandalism.  And on the PC Engine, panning around the map becomes painfully slow whenever we reach the edge of the current view, as we must click on an arrow to move the map a single isometric step in that direction, and it takes a moment to refresh.  We can use a handy Satellite display to jump more quickly to another section of the map, but it tends to break the flow of the game.

Once we've played with all of the controls, there isn't really much to see or do here.  The "A" Train series is an acquired taste under the best of circumstances; it's a gentle simulation, more ant farm than action.  There are more interesting urban development games, and certainly better implementations of the genre than this PC Engine version.

So by all means, Take the "A" Train.  Please!

I can't really recommend this one -- English-language versions are available if the gameplay appeals, and this version is technically sluggish -- but if you insist, the PC Engine title may be available for purchase here.

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