Imagine if you were really into a video game series, but no one released a controller that let you play it properly for 14 years. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the situation that fans of Densha de Go! found themselves in until recently. Taito’s quirky train-driving franchise has been around since the mid-‘90s across countless systems and devices, but it just isn’t the same if you can’t slam the brakes with a giant lever as you pull into the station 17 seconds late.
This month, though, a company called Zuiki came to the rescue with the release of an officially licensed Densha de Go! controller for the Nintendo Switch. It works with the latest version of the game, Hashirou Yamanote-sen, and it marks the first console controller to be released since the Wii iteration in 2007.
In fairness, the series isn’t even supposed to be a going concern these days. Ostensibly the last ever version, Densha de Go! Final was released for the PS2 in 2004. But various spinoffs and ports continued to appear, and the game got a full-on reboot for arcades in 2017, simply titled Densha de Go!. An adaptation of that game made its way to the PS4 last year as Densha de Go! Hashirou Yamanote-sen, and subsequently to the Switch in March. Until now, though, you weren’t able to play this version with a train controller.
The arcade reboot provided a solid basis, and Hashirou Yamanote-sen is a great addition to the series. It uses the Unreal Engine and is far more technically advanced than any other Densha de Go! title, with near-photorealistic 3D graphics. The game centers around the JR Yamanote line, the circular route that loops around Tokyo’s busiest districts, and the experience feels deeply authentic — buildings and station features are clearly recognizable, with an audio mix that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s ever visited the city. Really, the only thing that’s missing is the station-specific jingles that play upon departure.
The Switch version is not quite as sparkly clean as what you get on the PS4, unsurprisingly, but it acquits itself well enough. You’ll see the resolution drop visibly from time to time, but the thing about Densha de Go! is that you’ll mostly be concentrating on the icons and stats in the HUD rather than pixel-counting the graphics, and on the Switch the fidelity is decent enough to give a convincing impression of a train ride if you don’t pay too much attention. The PS4 version has VR support, though, which depending on your perspective could be more or less immersive than using a dedicated train controller.
So about that controller. As with the recent arcade version, Zuiki has gone with a “one-handle” design, as opposed to many traditional Densha de Go! controllers that have separate levers for acceleration and braking. With this one, you push up to brake and pull back to accelerate, with a thumb button to unlock the latter range of motion. It’s not unlike an automatic shifter on a car. Almost everything is plastic, but the controller feels high quality — it has a hefty build that won’t move around on your coffee table while you’re using it, and the handle has satisfying clunks between each setting.
Do you need it to play the game? No. But also... kind of? Hashirou Yamanote-sen has been out on the PS4 for almost a year without any controller support, but it was still well-received in Japan. When you use a PS4 or Switch controller, though, you hold an analog stick in position to maintain your speed or brake force, and the game recognizes fewer degrees of each. With this Zuiki controller, you get eight levels of brake power plus an emergency setting that requires more physical force to activate. The ratcheted stick design means each brake position stays where it is once you move to it, as opposed to a controller analog stick that springs back without constant pressure. Acceleration, meanwhile, has three levels that can be left as they are while you’re cruising, with two higher speeds that snap back if you don’t hold them in place.
The controller makes playing the game a much more physical, reactive, and satisfying experience. Densha de Go! is all about modulating your speed — you need to accelerate and brake at the right time between stations, and come to a perfect stop at the right point on the platform. You’ll be penalized if you get either wrong. It’s one of those arcade games that can be both relaxing and stressful, with a simple, challenging concept that provides immense relief when you pull off a great run. That feeling is only amplified when you have more direct control over the game.
I’ve owned various iterations of Densha de Go! over the years. From the Dreamcast version with the popular Type 2 controller, to the Osaka Loop Line-specific PSP game back when I was living in that city, to the oddly compelling monochrome WonderSwan port from 1999, all of them have had their own appeal. The Zuiki controller provides arguably the best home experience yet, though. I would have preferred a PlayStation-compatible version for the better graphics and VR support, and Hashirou Yamanote-sen doesn’t have the most content of the series, but this Switch release bodes well for the future of the franchise.
That said, this is obviously going to be a niche product. Zuiki says it won’t make any more once stock runs out, and at 14,850 yen ($135), it’s clearly targeted at converted fans. Taito released a plug-and-play controller with an HD port of Densha de Go! Final built in a few years ago for almost exactly the same price, which would probably be a better entry point for novices. The Zuiki controller doesn’t even include the Hashirou Yamanote-sen game, which hasn’t been released outside Japan.
Still, this is a well-executed product, and its existence is a welcome surprise. Hopefully it won’t take 14 years until the next one — or even better, hopefully this one gets 14 years of support. I know I’d be down to use it to travel beyond Tokyo’s city limits.