A-Train - In-depth Written Amiga Review With Pics
Amiga, 1992 (Original PC-98 1990)
*Game played/shown in its designed NTSC mode with 4:3 aspect ratio
On occasion the act of procuring the latest video game called for a bit of espionage. On weekends my father and I would often find ourselves in or around the local mall to watch movies at one of three nearby theaters. We'd arrive early enough to get in a couple games of pinball before the show, and when the movie was over we'd drop in at the precursor to Game Stop; Babbage's. This was the height of the 16-bit era, the Genesis and Super Nintendo kiosks luring eager gamers into the store.
While most of the small store's shelving space was dedicated to the various consoles, the great thing about Babbage's was that it also carried computer games, including the Amiga. While its selection was piddling compared to the independent dealers of the time, as well as the computer super stores which would arrive later, it was conveniently located inside of the mall and featured the joys of both computers and consoles under the same roof. New games would often appear there first, and I recall a few spur the moment purchasing decisions being made by my father.
On this day an intriguing box from a familiar publisher showed off a bustling city with an intricate rail system, featuring some of the best graphics I had ever gazed upon to that point. At nearly $70 ($135 today), the unveiling of this to my mother could prove a mistake. My mission; conceal the bag to the best of my ability while entering our domicile, head straight for the basement, and rendezvous with my father in ten minutes. On the horizon I could spot my getaway, Maxis' A-Train.
^Starting a new town
A slow paced title, things didn't start out as exciting as I might have hoped, even for your typical strategy game. I think I spent more time staring at the screenshots on the box than actually watching my father play. Things would change when I finally got the chance to spend significant time with the game myself, as the Amiga was moved to my room in 1995 to make room for a new PC. A-Train would grow to become my Harvest Moon, the type of game you can come to and chill-out with. Hours of time would pass as the game ran, while I kind of just grooved along either contemplating the situations in-game, or just random life musings.
You could never completely zone out of A-Train, as a game over was a mere tax assessment away. But I loved that combined aspect of being able to relax to a game while still needing to play it, where often those kinds of games can be ran indefinitely without your input. The manual proved a constant companion along the journey, and was likely the stumbling block to my enjoying the game when it had first come out. This is a very difficult strategy game with multiple main focuses, and while it's relaxing once you get a handle on it, it's almost the struggle in figuring it out which brings about the later satisfaction when propping your legs on the desk and watching the seasons pass.
You're not getting far without reading the 140 page manual, but since you're here reading this, I have faith in you. As the title would suggest, trains are a focal point. But it's more than a railroad game, it's just as much a city building game. This could have been the next edition of SimCity, and it's clearly inspired by it. Artdink designed the game in Japan, where it was actually the third in a line translated as "Take the A-Train", dating back to 1986. However the first two games bear little resemblance to this third installment. They were going in another direction here, and Maxis must have thought it a perfect fit for them to publish in America. SimCity 2000 would take the graphical look straight out of A-Train, and I'd argue that in terms of complexity it may have gone beyond Maxis' flagship titles. If that combo was not enough for you, finances seeps into every facet of the gameplay, with stocks, loans, and the most brutal tax system I've personally seen in a game. The manual is an essential but delightful read.
^Placing trains, construction materials
A-Train starts with a menu asking you to choose one of six scenarios, defaulting to the "Downtown Reorganization" map. That was the map I primarily played as a kid, as it's objectively the easiest. There you'll start with a large city and a well developed train line which is making you a profit. You can almost ignore the railroad aspect here, concentrating on building up the city and getting a handle on the finances. This was where I managed to win the game as a ten year old kid. If you're experiencing difficulties on the other maps, you can come here to see some of the fun on offer, without the heartbreak found elsewhere.
I'd imagine you're here to sow the seeds of a new empire, so it's "New Town" for us. The other maps are mostly a variation of the new town, offering a different landscape with less starting money, but a more built up (and valuable) city. Personally I wish it had gone more SimCity in the maps aspect, where there were countless fresh maps to build up from scratch. These predetermined starting locations certainly take a notch out of the replayability, but then again it took me until this year to finally conquer this first area.
You'll start this map with one line of tracks going from the upper left of the map area to the bottom right, with one station in the middle. Two trains (one freight and one passenger) which are out of your control will travel into your town from the outside world, stop there, and then exit your map on the other side. The freight train in this setup is essential to your early game, as it brings in construction materials from the outside world into your map. Practicality everything in the game requires not only money to buy, but construction materials to build. These materials must be relatively close to the area you're building at, so you'll need your own freight trains to carry the material coming into your town to other areas of your map.
It's time to get creative and start building! While you have enough money to build tracks to any location on the map, from my experience it has been unwise to start with grand visions. It can take over a year of doing everything right before you finally turn a profit, and the bigger you make things the more money it's going to suck up, and the longer it will take to grow. I built a small loop near the original station, and built one more station with the intention to build those two areas up, while having the ability to add more on the same line later. I bought a freight train and sent it along to pick up materials from the starting location and bring it to this new area. Land must be purchased near the station to drop the materials on, and if there are multiple stations on the same line then the train must be scheduled to pick up and drop off at the appropriate locations.
Complicated enough for you yet? Not everything in the game takes much brain power, and if you're wondering which of the numerous trains you should buy, there's only two which are normally worth consideration. The GP-40 is the only high speed freight train which can carry the maximum load of construction material, and the AR-III is the high speed passenger train with the maximum seating potential while having the ability to bypass stations and set departure times. While those two trains are the most expensive, it's difficult to turn a profit with many of the others, thus pointless in recommending. There's no benefit to a train going slower, and as profits increase with longer distances between stations, you'll often want to bypass certain stations to gain more revenue further down the line. Many of the passenger trains are forced to stop at any station they come to, which would leave large areas of the map undeveloped if you were to increase station distances with the idea of making more profit with those trains.
For a game with train in the title, it cannot be understated how awful it is that there's only two trains worth purchasing. It's not through trial and error in dealing with all of these trains which leads you to discover the usefulness of the AR-III, but from Maxis themselves reiterating countless times in the manual that it's the AR-III you want. When the publisher is blatantly ignoring 17 of the 19 trains featured in the game, they're doing that because they understood how frustrating it would be dealing with the others, willing you to heed their advice so you might enjoy the game. If only for a change in the train's color I'd normally be wanting to diversify, but largely felt compelled to only use the AR-III for passenger service. This noted; at the beginning I used a small and slow train because it was much cheaper, and there were few passengers to pick up. I switched to the AR-III once those smaller trains started to pick up more passengers. While this must be stated as a strong negative for the game, I nevertheless feel A-Train overcomes this aspect through its overall experience.
^In the black, but we still lose
The most intricate rail line is useless without building up the area around a station. Having moved a portion of the construction materials to a new station, it's time to enter the subsidiary market. You can erect standard buildings (covering one square) such as commercial, hotels, lease, and apartments, as well as larger projects (four or more squares) like amusement parks, ski resorts, factories, golf courses, and stadiums. At the start of the game the only buildings which will make you a profit are apartments and small lease buildings. Any apartment that's built immediately adds 525 to your population; if you build it, they will come. These people will need places to work, so smaller lease buildings should also turn a profit.
As you build up your initial areas the computer will enter the fray, clearing the surrounding farmland and populating it with residential houses, adding 60 people to a square, as well as numerous smaller workforce buildings which the player cannot build themselves. Along with those buildings unique to the computer, it can also construct its own apartment, commercial, hotel, and lease buildings. It's a good sign that you're making progress when you notice the computer building these advanced buildings, though eventually things will stall as it awaits your next population or business milestone. Hotels and commercial buildings will often be unprofitable until you've built up an area substantially, though it may be worth buying some to spur the computer onward.
A special menu will provide you with details on all of your subsidiary companies. There you can learn the sales a company has made for the term, its profit (or deficit), and its market value. Companies which are making higher profits are not necessarily worth more. Even one operating at a loss could potentially increase in value if it's in an area of high demand, while one in a less built up area could be worth less even though it's making more profit. This presents a wonderful strategic element of which companies to keep and which ones to sell. You can also purchase buildings the computer built or which you have already sold should they be on the market, gauging how their profits or value might help your balance sheets. The city building aspect of the game combines wonderfully with the financial element, and has direct effects on the rail element as well.
^Stocks, multistory lease buildings
As the areas around stations build up, passenger numbers will rise. Offering service at certain times of day may maximize these totals and thus increase your profits. Early in the game it's often wise to have passenger trains depart stations at 8:00 AM, when your smaller population base is heading to work. By the same logic it can also prove fruitful to have trains leave at 6:00 PM, when those workers are heading home. Keep an eye on your passenger totals, and experiment with the different departure times. Ideally you'll be wanting to reach a state where many of your trains are running 24/7 with their maximum seating capacity, but it takes a lot of development in an area to pack in those seats at 3:00 AM. Even later in the game I found it useful to have certain trains which were covering the outskirts of my city leave at specific times. This was not only to make sure they were full, but so they'd reenter my main loops without interfering with other trains.
I double tracked my busiest lines, having one train for each station on the inner line and having them run with one hour stops once development warranted that. The outer line handled freight traffic as well as passenger trains which were traveling longer distances between various loops and the edges of town. I'd often have trains stop at every other station, since the distance traveled directly effects your profits. At no point in the game did my rail operations profit surpass my subsidiary profits, but my feeling was they may have been more important. As the railroad primarily incurs only one time fees and its taxable value is low, most of what you make is pure profit, meaning it will always be your bedrock in the game.
Financing is A-Train's other main focus, and while most aspects of the game are complicated, this one takes the cake. While my subsidiary companies had me in the black long before my rail line did, they'd also have me scratching my head contemplating if the $500,000 a company gave me in revenue and the $400,000 in expenses that same company incurred is making its $100,000 profit, which is taxed at 50%, worth its taxable land value of 5%. Should I sell the company outright for one million, only to have that profit taxed for $500,000? Has its land value increased over the cost of its initial development to justify selling it? This is the true rabbit hole of A-Train, the numbers.
For a good portion of the game the brutality of A-Train's tax system may go largely unnoticed. It can take multiple in-game years of knowing what you're doing before your railroad company and your subsidiaries combine for profits. When you've made less money than what you've put into your companies for a given year, your income tax is practically nonexistent at $100. Along with the easy to miss income tax is a 5% tax on all railroad and subsidiary assets, and although that can cause a game over in the first year if you're not paying attention, it seems like a fairly reasonable cost of business. Take out a small loan or sell a couple buildings and the 5% tax is taken care of.
Throughout the beginning stages of the game you'll naturally be pouring money into building up your city. Even if you could turn a profit by doing nothing all year, it would take only a few skyscrapers or a stadium to put your slim margins back in the negative without any real thought from you. At some point when peering at your balance sheets a smile might escape, pleased as you've started to rake in that dough. To say that smile is about to get slapped off your face would be putting it mildly, brace yourself for the 50% income tax. When the 5% variety is already approaching the regions of a million dollars, even a $200,000 profit will be adding $100,000 to your taxes. Once you're making two million in profits your income tax will be higher than your property tax, doubling the overall amount you need to pay.
A-Train now kicks into high gear as the ultimate tax fraud simulator! It's time to get acquainted with the tax assessment date, as you plunge your money into properties or stocks you had no intention on purchasing, so as to force your company into the red. Your carelessness with money is now to be rewarded as you greet the return of the $100 income tax! But to do that you had to buy millions worth of buildings... so you're still doing your part, right? As soon as the taxes are assessed you could go ahead and sell those buildings to bring your money back to where it had been before the taxes. Years will pass as you repeat this ritual, either patting yourself on the back for getting around the system, or sighing deeply as you lose your remaining faith in humanity.
^Cheating the system, human sacrifice
Eventually through limits on subsidiary purchasing and selling they'll be no escaping your profits, but even then it's about minimizing them as much as possible. Do nothing and even at the final stages of the game you can lose as your taxes exceed the amount of cash available. The financing system extends to loans, with your credit being a percentage of your assets to be paid back with varying interest rates after one to three years. Later in the game I attempted to wean myself off debt, and found it just wasn't practical. You need to borrow money throughout the game. Early on as the cash runs low, and later specifically so you can pay back the interest, lowering your taxes.
Stocks round out the finances, with numerous made up companies (some bringing a chuckle) that you can buy and sell shares of. It's actually implemented rather poorly, with the ups and downs of any company being easy to spot. Once every couple years the market skyrockets in value, only to crash a couple weeks later. Buy low, sell high, unless of course you're wanting to use your stock purchases in your tax schemes, then you'd buy high. Once a year you receive dividends on your stock, which might be enough to cover commissions from selling subsidiaries, so in the end that's a wash out. While the stock system is lacking, it's all of these financing elements tied together requiring your constant consideration which makes A-Train incredibly unique and challenging.
Not only are the focuses of this game individually deep with the railroad building, the city building, and the financing system, but all three combine wonderfully into each other. I could only sit on my success for so long before wondering if next year's taxes would be the end of me. I'd feel compelled to take out a loan and expand my railroad further, to build the city around that area and bring my overall assets higher. Business ethics aside, few games cause you to think quite like A-Train, and it does that in a never ending fashion from beginning until end. You can relax through much of it while watching the trains and seasons roll by, but inevitably you'll be forced to play or lose, and it's a fantastic combination to me.
^Stocks, bullet train, a winter's night
While not essential to a cities development, the creation of roads by the computer would be wise to consider and plan for. The land value for buildings around roads seems to at least double, while the crossroads in particular can more than quadruple the surrounding area. They can only be built directly behind a large station, and any advanced building (apartments/etc) will stop its construction. The only way to bulldoze an advanced building is to already own it or to purchase it, and I find specific buildings don't often come up for sale. Roads can extend a maximum of twelve squares from a station while still crossing with other roads, but smaller distances could allow for a crossroads with fewer stations. In addition to increasing land value as well as profits, roads appear to be the catalyst for the computer to build its own skyscrapers. Later in the game the Bullet Train will be built by the computer, providing a similar economic impact as roads but for the entire city.
As a kid I was always fascinated by the roads, as they appeared in stark contrast to a game like SimCity, where the roads were your primary mode of transit while railroads were rare and carefully crafted. While normally a great source of information, the manual does a poor job explaining how the roads work, and the game letting such an important aspect of itself be ruined by a single building getting in the way is not a plus for its design. If this happens to you I'd recommend getting a hold of the A-Train Construction Set and using it to get rid of any buildings in the roads path. Many things could be done with this expansion, such as creating your own maps or giving yourself enough money to win, but I just used it to deal with the perplexing roads. Considering I've quit the game in the past because of these issues, I feel it's worth mentioning.
Graphically I find A-Train to be a stunner for strategy games in the early 1990's, and it continues to hold up well. The first time I saw the days cycling into nights with that wonderful isometric view, I was wowed by what the Amiga could still do. While isometric views were not new, there certainly weren't as many as I would have liked at the time. Going forward into the mid and late 90's this would become the standard look for strategy games in particular, but other genres would use it as well. To have the seasons come and go along with the days and nights, it's a game inviting you to chill out with its 16-bit awesomeness, especially in its Amiga incarnation.
^Construction set, Amiga high res and DOS versions, more expansion
"Take the A-Train III" was originally released in Japan in December of 1990 for the PC-98, being developed and published by Artdink. There would be a handful of ports to other Japanese based machines, with Maxis purchasing the publishing rights for release in America and renaming the game A-Train. The first American port would come to DOS in the spring of 1992, which was as straight a port as you could get, being identical to the PC-98 release except it was now in English. The Dreamer's Guild would develop both the Amiga and Macintosh versions (published by Maxis late in '92), tweaking the game's interface significantly to offer a much better playing experience. They made it feel like an actual Maxis game, with menus that would have fit perfectly with previous or later SimCity titles. All versions appear identical with their colors, which makes me guess it featured a 16 color VGA (Not EGA) palette originally, though there's effectively more through the use of palette changes with the seasons and night cycles.
While you could get used to the DOS version's interface, it is by no means intuitive, and is objectively a worse experience. For the interface alone it's worth pointing others to the Amiga and Mac versions, but the Amiga has one over the Mac as well, featuring a choice of either a 320x200 low resolution, or a 640x400 high resolution, where the DOS and Mac versions only offer the higher resolution. In the case of this game, I'd argue vehemently that it looks much better in the lower resolution. Sadly there were a number of early 640x400 or 640x480 games which felt like they had been designed for 320x200 displays only to redesign it at the last minute. Higher resolutions only work when you redesign the graphics so they feature more detail, and perhaps with 1.2 to 1.5 times more of the map being shown. Here all you're getting is a super zoomed out look (2x), as if you were looking out the window of a jet with less details. If you happen to prefer the zoomed out look, the Amiga has the choice along with the better interface, so I'd say that it makes it the best overall version. A comparison with the DOS and Amiga versions can be seen at this point in my video review.
While A-Train was not developed by Maxis, the reason most people know this is because of Maxis themselves. They made it clear to the magazines, where most devoted a paragraph to the Artdink/Maxis relationship. The manual featured a short history of the franchise, even pointing out a previous American release of "Take the A-Train II", released by Seika as Railroad Empire in 1988. As many publishers would lie or intentionally leave out information so others would point all the credit to them, Maxis deserves props for putting Artdink higher than themselves. Of course there can also be a difference between stating the truth matter of factually and leaving it at that, versus pushing it at every opportunity, which gives Maxis an almost defensive stance of "if you don't end up liking this, it wasn't our fault!"
^Well balanced city
A-Train features a handful of musical tracks which play throughout the game, unless turned off in the menus. I find the tunes themselves decent enough in sound quality, but they're 25 second loops repeating ad nauseam. Once in awhile, perhaps with the change of seasons, a different track will play for 25 seconds and loop hundreds of times before the next track takes over. Needless to say I never spent much time with the music on, and was surprised to hear Deck the Halls play on Christmas (Santa is around as well) while recording footage. Various games remind me of specific songs as I forged my own soundtrack. This one reminds me of some Blues Traveler and Hootie and the Blowfish songs, as they were getting a lot of radio play at the time. In addition to the games tedious musical loops, there is a whopping one sound effect which plays when a train moves! Turn it off!
The game is lost if your cash ever goes below zero, which is a constant threat from the beginning until the end. Don't confuse that with your company operating at a loss, which is something you want to do for as long as possible to avoid taxes. You're meant to hide your cash in property, which is why taxes can always leave you with no cash if you're not paying attention. You win by exceeding 50 million dollars, and while a worthy challenge, I think I could have gone for a little more fanfare in the ending sequence. It's strange because it seems like you either decide you want to win, or you accidentally win. The tax system being what it is, your cash will continuously get sucked to the beginning of the game year after year. To win I simply decided my experience had been full enough, and I sold all my stocks and some buildings, you could even use a loan to reach the 50 million. As a kid I accidentally won by selling too much in the late stages of the game.
My feelings are conflicted on if this is a good or bad way to end the game. I like that it's hard to reach the point where you can win, and that unless you want to win the tax system will continue the game until you're ready. I don't like that you can accidentally win, as I did as a kid, then after the end sequence plays you're plopped back to the main menu. In that situation I might not have been ready, and even winning shouldn't be an automatic end to a game of this type. I like that there's an end, but let me continue past that if I choose. In this case I was ready, I developed the map substantially and uniquely while leaving some of its rural charm intact, and felt completely fulfilled with the 22 in-game years I played.
^Making money, switch lines
A-Train received overwhelmingly mixed reactions from the magazines of the era, fueled in my opinion from their insistence on comparing it with Railroad Tycoon, a name I'm only mentioning to point out their writing crutches. Amazing Computing said there wasn't much to dislike about the game from a technical standpoint, but that "after 15 minutes of play I suddenly had the urge to jump tracks to... Railroad Tycoon". Amiga World said that it marries SimCity and Railroad Tycoon, borrowing from each game (naming no instances of what it borrows) but is bound up with financing. Adding that the Amiga lo-res mode gives intimacy to the "cold" IBM version, and that while tougher to master than Sim and Tycoon, it is rewarding. Dragon Magazine put it in the first paragraph of their review "... we continue to prefer Railroad Tycoon because it has more of a personal feel to it." They ended by reiterating their preference but saying that A-Train ads additional features that make it a "different railroad building simulation" and giving it four out of five stars.
Compute called it "a highly complex, intensely challenging game..." saying there were many similarities between it and Railroad Tycoon but only naming one, that they're about trains. Computer Gaming World said it would be impossible to talk about A-Train without mentioning Railroad Tycoon, yet went on to say it stood on its own, that it was not a clone. The reviewer loved the financial element but felt the finances meant many players would not rate the game as fun, though they would be missing out on a fine program. Overseas the Australian Commodore and Amiga Review was the only magazine with the integrity to not mention Railroad Tycoon, calling A-Train "... a first class game." With delightfully detailed 3D graphics, that it was easy to learn but difficult to master, out-simming SimCity.
I feel SimCity is a fair comparison, as there's an intricate city building aspect with many of the same types of buildings present. I'd refrain from calling one better than the other, but A-Train is inviting those thought processes, especially since "Take the A-Train III" was the first in the series to offer city building, and it came after SimCity. Railroad Tycoon, on the other hand, has nothing in common with A-Train other than being about trains. It's a complete failure of imagination for these magazines to say that the games are completely different, while simultaneously conveying a sadness that it's not Railroad Tycoon. If there's no reason to compare them, then don't! It's insulting to see writers who were all told this series predated Railroad Tycoon to act as if that game should be the only one that dares get into the topic of trains. Railroad Tycoon is a great game that deserves its own review (it will get that from me), and so is A-Train!
Lackluster reviews aside, A-Train managed to garner some awards as well as nominations. Compute nominated it for best simulation of 1992, though it did not win. In Japan "Take the A-Train III" tied with SimCity in Logan magazine for the best game of 1990. PC magazine named it a best of 1992, and the Software Publishers Association named it 1993's best strategy program. Finally in a retrospective look at the best games of all time, the European edition of PC Gamer placed it as the 46th best game of 50.
It would appear to have been a success for Maxis, despite Wikipedia and several YouTube videos stating (with absolutely no proof) that this was their first failure. I managed to collect actual evidence which suggests otherwise. Computer Gaming World had A-Train cracking the top 20 in PC games sales multiple times as early as May of 1992, and as late as August of the same year, getting as far as #11. In July of 1993 Computer Gaming World listed it as #2 in the Amiga sales chart. The One listed it as #6 in the Amiga full price top ten, and Computer and Video Games listed it as #9 in its Amiga chart. Finally when covering the construction set, Amazing Computing referred to it as "an add-on for the company's best selling railroad and business simulation game, A-Train."
Of course success is relative, perhaps Maxis spent a fortune on the rights and thought it would outsell SimCity, thus anything less than that becomes a failure to them. We don't know this and others offer no proof of its failure expect that they never personally saw the game. I'd imagine what they haven't seen could fill the cosmos. While what I found does not definitively define A-Train as a success, it would appear to support that conclusion, and it's more than anyone else has offered. I feel A-Train is an intensely intricate game of multiple focuses intertwined exquisitely. It will not appeal to everyone, but for those who can get into it, they will love it. You can relax to it, you can obsess over it, you should see what you think and play it. I hope you'll check out my video review, where I show many of the magazines mentioned here, read from the manual, and much more. Readers of this article may also enjoy my looks at SimAnt (Amiga), Civilization (Amiga), Marble Madness (Amiga), or my video only review for SimCity.