Trains are good. I don’t know how else to describe them other than, yeah, pretty good. But I’m not really into the serious train simulation or tycoon genres. No, I need something with more speed. Something with velocity. Something that lets me twist and turn, knocking rival trains off the rails in a death-defying, globe-spanning marathon. Lucky for me and my specific tastes, I recently found a little-known PlayStation 2 game called X-treme Express.
X-treme Express (Tetsu 1: Densha de Battle! World Grand Prix in Japan) ate up a good chunk of my free time over the last couple weeks. Although it never came to North America, folks in Europe got a chance to play this unique Syscom racing game in 2002 thanks to UK publisher Midas Interactive. Given the United States’ lack of enthusiasm for public transportation, however, skipping our backwards country was probably for the best.
I can’t for the life of me remember exactly where I first heard of it, but a quick scan of Twitter — that hellsite is where I find most of the weird things that pique my interest, sadly — suggests it was probably courtesy of a four-year-old thread by translator Tom James. I’ve since fallen head over heels for this magnificent little game.
X-treme Express has all the hallmarks of a great racer. There’s a lengthy grand prix mode that unlocks new courses and trains, side challenges like completing a race without switching tracks more than five times or bumping into opponents, and time trials for nailing down the more difficult courses. This is all presented in a way that’s very of the era, with bright, flashy menus full of chunky graphics and extraneous animations. A cheerful announcer is your constant companion, gleefully shouting, “Where are you fighting?!” during course selection and screaming at you to brake as you fly into turns so fast your train threatens to derail.
Of course, playing X-treme Express is a good deal simpler than a typical racing game thanks to the nature of its vehicles. Being on rails makes driving the trains a simple matter of going forward or backward, controlled with the left thumbstick. Speed management is the name of the game here; take a sharp turn too fast, and you’ll go off the rails, rumbling over the bare ground until your wheels find purchase again. According to the control options, the right thumbstick is supposed to allow some manual weight-shifting, but its usefulness is so slight as to feel non-existent.
I found much more success simply making use of my train’s brakes to maintain a safe velocity around curves. This provides a unique wrinkle to the usual racing experience, turning this literal balancing act into a life-or-death mini-game. As you optimise speed and poise on tight turns, your chosen train will usually make contact with the rails on only one set of wheels, like something out of the Fast & Furious movies, only to crash back down once the track straightens out. It got to the point where, sometimes, I was watching the balance metre more than my train, for better or worse.
But just as the rails make a lot of things simpler, they also throw in some complications. Throughout races, you’ll constantly be bombarded with on-screen arrows indicating when you can make use of a switch to change tracks (L1 or R1). This is where the “Battle” in Densha de Battle! World Grand Prix comes in. Depending on factors like speed and positioning, shifting to a different rail allows you to knock opponents off them, and naturally, they can do this to you too. I can’t count the number of times an opponent cruised up beside me and, before the intricate track layouts gave me a way out, derailed me with a vicious shoulder check. This can be frustrating, especially on higher difficulties when only first-place finishes unlock further progress.
On the bright side, X-treme Express provides lots of neat scenery to take in. While courses run the gamut from snowy tundra to claustrophobic subway, you’re often rushing through ostensibly populated areas with nary a human in sight. Every now and then you might see a small, two-frame texture meant to be a couple cheering you on or a UFO flying overhead, but for the most part, this is the trains’ world. Buildings sit silent and empty, railyards are overgrown with foliage, and sometimes you can even find hidden pathways accessible via careful management of your positioning on the track. I like to imagine the game is set in some weird post-apocalyptic future in which humanity mostly ceased to exist but trains became sentient. And rather than rebuild society for themselves, the locomotives just decided, “Hey, let’s race!” The bizarre premise is surprisingly evocative and creates a really cool world that I’d love to explore further.
My favourite aspect of the races in X-treme Express, however, is how they end. Unlike other racing games, in which matches finish as soon as you cross an invisible goal line, X-treme Express plays up the speed and power of these machines by asking you to end each race stopped at a small station. Trains, as you may or may not know, don’t stop on a dime, so it’s important to carefully weigh the potential costs of speeding down a straightaway toward the finish line. Zooming past the small area in which you’re supposed to finish means backing up, something else trains aren’t great at. I’ve won several races against CPU opponents not because I was the first one to reach the end of the course, but because I was the first to come to a complete stop. It imparts a unique kind of anxiety that makes complete sense alongside the subject matter, different than the nervousness that might accompany a photo-finish ending to a Mario Kart or Forza race.
While on the surface X-treme Express may seem super weir…ok, I’m gonna level with you, it’s still super weird after hours and hours of playtime. X-treme Express is the sort of game that’s only recently come back into vogue thanks to the booming independent marketplace. The game has a singular mission, letting you race trains, and it achieves that goal spectacularly. That said, I’m finding it hard to pinpoint exactly why it grabbed me so hard. Maybe it’s the way trains are divided by region, with unique locomotives for most major countries. Maybe it’s how the rumble in my controller accurately simulates the traditional “ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk” pattern of an actual railroad. Heck, it might even be something as simple as the relative lack of information about the game online, which made playing X-treme Express feel like exploring an ancient artefact from a bygone era.
Whatever the case, X-treme Express is a refreshing take on a genre I don’t particularly enjoy otherwise. Where most racing games are about imparting a feeling of weightlessness as you manoeuvre souped-up automobiles optimised down to the smallest screw to go as quickly as possible, X-treme Express gives its races a sluggish, almost exhausting heft. The trains you race aren’t sleek, aerodynamic machines, but harsh, rugged beasts of burden that have finally been unshackled from commercial responsibility and allowed to chase the wind. X-treme Express is like watching a moss-covered golem, abandoned by its creator at the end of the world, come back to life and learn to love again. If that awkward, borderline unhinged summation made sense to you, import (haha) a copy as soon as possible.
See you on the rails.