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Take The A-Train (MSX)

It actually turns out that A-Train for the PC was the equivalent of A-Train III from Japan. There were, in fact, two versions prior. The original A-Train, known as A-Ressha De Ikou (A列車で行こう) never made it to the western world. The next version, A-Ressha De Ikou II (A列車で行こう II) was released over here as Railroad Empire.

I've spent the last few days scouring the web for the right components to play the original game. It was released on the MSX, NEC PC-8801, FM-Towns and Sharp X1 Turbo. I've never tried to emulate any of these, so it was a steep learning curve!

Running A-Train on the MSX

Grab BlueMSX from here and then use your google-gu to find a relevant ROM. Load up the emulator, slap the ROM into cartridge slot one and then hit run. You'll be presented with the following...

atrain-1-1 atrain-1-2 atrain-1-3

Hit Y to start a new game. You're then asked Theme Music?. Is it asking me if I want to listen to music throughout the game? It turns out that it's actually asking if you want to sit and listen to the theme music play. If you hit yes then you'll be forced to listen to the standard 'Bolero' tune for 30s whilst it plays through. I'd recommend only making this mistake once.

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Basic controls and screen layout

From this point you're launched straight into the default map. That cute little A that you see is the A-Train. You have total control over it; it's your construction vehicle and it must move along rails. The numeric keypad arrows allow you to move the A-Train around the tracks, building new rails when you choose to move in a direction where no rails exist. You can switch to DEL mode (aka delete track) with the INS/DEL keys or spacebar. I joined the main track to two sidings and the trains crashed in to each other!

The main area of the screen displays the railway map. The right column provides current game information. The text down the right panel is as follows:

  • レール (Rail) with INS/DEL mode
  • A かもつ (Kamotsu/Freight) 250t
  • Q for Save (セーブ)
  • + to Build (Tateru/タテル)
  • - to Remove (Kowasu/コワス)
  • / for Report (レポート)
  • xx 日 (Day)
  • xx 時 (Hour)

So, our train, the A-Train is currently carrying 250t of construction material. This is used whenever you build new tracks. The cost of one new square of track is 10t. The map has a 'home base', being the station at the middle-bottom and you'll need to return to it when you run out of material to pick more up. There seems to be 4 piles there, at the start of the map, behind the station. Actually, there's only 2 as they are in pairs. Each pair is worth 250t and only one can be picked up at a time with the A-Train.

It wont always be convenient to retrieve material from the southern-most station, so the two freight trains in our yard will be able to deliver their stockpiles to intermediate stations once we build a railway for them!

Note that you can save the map at any point. You only get one save point and a floppy disk must be inserted to save the game. You can insert a blank one via the BlueMSX emulator.

a-train-save-confirm

The goal?

If you look at the bottom-left of the main screen, you'll see a two-car train with a flag and a star in its consist. This is a special train and, when the time is right and the tracks are connected, it'll join the rails and proceed through to the final destination.

Currently we can only see a single panel of the map. It turns out that the map is extended once you start to build rails north. You use the standard arrow keys to scroll the screen (see further down.) Up north there are more cities and more obstacles to overcome.

Playing the standard map

Quite a bit of the commentary below is based on my own trial-and-error in trying to work out how the game works. It is very easy to crash trains (later in A-Train III they removed the train crashing!) and, once this happens, the player usually needs to restart. Either way, here's the main screen. The background of the map colour-cycles through the 24-hour daily sunlight cycle. You can only build when the sun is up!

atrain-1-8

Looking at the map, we can see that we seem to have a very odd track layout to start with. There seems to be a yard to the right with ready-made consists that can't go anywhere. To get any of these consists rolling, the player only had to connect track. Once a proper track connection is made, the train in the siding will roll off in it's usual end-to-end procession. If we're in the way, or they manage to hit each other, then they crash and leave a mess. The train wont start at the exact moment that you connect the track; it seems to be 24hours after... but I'm still trying to determine the exact rule.

atrain-1-7

atrain-1-9 atrain-1-10 atrain-1-11

I tried something: from the bottom-right I attached a horizontal track over to the right, making a new station with the plus key. Over at the bottom right I hooked up the right-most freight siding. Once 10am came around, the freighter started moving. It made it all the way to my new station and stopped in the middle of the platform. It delivered the cargo and went to the end of the line, promptly reversing... but in perfect A-Train style it stopped at the station once again and picked the cargo back up! Grrrr....

If we don't want the train reversing, then we'll need a loop? Nope.. not enough materials... and I couldn't connect the last bit and get out of the way... so number 5 train rear-ended me. At this point I should have returned to my main station to stock up on materials! If I had done this then I would've made the re-connection to the main line.

For those who want an overview, I've worked out a few game-play points:

  • You can only build during the daytime: 5am to 5pm. You'll get a little 'DEKIMASEN' (デキマセン / Cannot Do Action) in the bottom-right if you try building after-hours.
  • During the nighttime hours, any movement you make will be repeated until the A-Train comes to a switch. This is really handy to have the train return to the main station to replenish construction materials.
  • Hitting 5 on the numeric keypad will stop the A-Train when running in auto.
  • Other trains will continue moving throughout the night.
  • Other trains are REALLY slow.
  • If you run out of construction materials, then you will not be able to build a buffer stop at the end of your track. A standard train will CRASH if there is no buffer stop! You'll need to hurry and get more materials if there's a train to run on the track.
  • Switches will, by default, be set to the 'straight path' and not the spur.
  • A train in a siding will start 24-hours after you connect their siding to the main line.
  • As you build your rails further north, more of the map will be revealed. Once you've built north, try pressing the standard arrow keys (not the numpad!) to scroll the map.
  • Stations will only be built to the left or above tracks. Never to the right or below. Position your tracks accordingly!
  • If there isn't enough space to build a station (+ key) then you'll get the message: シキチ ガ セマイ (shikide ga semai). This means that the site to build the station on is too narrow.
  • Freight trains are really slow in reverse!
  • Tunnels can only be built in specific locations. I'm still trying to work out exactly where.

Once you connect tracks, trains will run everywhere. Even if you make points, there's no really obvious way to switch them! If your A-Train is in the way, then you're in a world of pain. I always create little construction sidings to keep the train off the main line. Switches follow the straight path, so make sure that your construction spurs are on the spur/curve!

atrain-1-10 atrain-1-12 atrain-1-13

Ohhhh...... Nighttime came along and I actually realised an extra menu option. It's a "dot", i.e. full-stop, and has P/S written next to it. If you manage to hit the dot at the right time then you'll get new menus for scheduling a-la-A-Train! From here you can set station departure times and change switches. This really is the pre-cursor to A-Train III and it's starting to make sense. You can do everything but build your own trains!

atrain-1-19 atrain-1-19 atrain-1-20

So, let's try and build a passenger railway? Turns out that if we build towards the edge of the map then we get to reveal more map. I found a city in no time. Let's make a track for the first passenger train. Note that, as that you can't build at night time, you can use the 'automatic mode' to return your A-Train to the main station which will replenish your building materials.

As you can see above, I then tried to build a passing-siding. It's actually quite difficult... harder when your train is already running. You need to make sure you're out of the way before 5pm, otherwise you can't build a siding to get out of the way. You also need to make sure you have the correct amount of construction materials. You also need to make sure that if you build switches, that the default direction wont send a train into you!

I ended up making a bit of a mess of the track above, so I started again with a simpler plan. Actually, during the time away from the computer I looked at YouTube and found a few good movies of people playing this exact game. This movie shows a good layout, but the player bombs out. Then there's this movie which shows how to win the level. Well, it shows you one way to do it... most of us want a cool and functional railway before sending the special train on its merry way.

Reading reports

Reports are accessed via the / key at any time. The basic screen layout is shown below.

atrain-1-18

The translation of each term is as follows:

  • カイシャ ノ キボ (Kaisha no Kibo) = Company Size.
  • レール (Re-ru) = Rail + count of many tiles of railway you have built.
  • ポイント (Pointo) = Point / Switch + count of how many.
  • エキ (Eki) = Station + count of how many.
  • コーテイ (Koutei) = Distance completed towards goal.
  • シャリョウ データ (Sharyou Deeta) = Carriage/Vehicle Data + a list of your trains and their cargo in people (人) or tonnes (t).
  • シキン (Shikin) = Funds
  • シキン ソウガク (Shikin sougaku) = Funds Total
  • ケイヒ (Keihi 経費) = Expenses
  • ウリアゲ (Uriage) = Profit
  • キョウ (Kyou) = Today
  • x 日マエ (x Nichi Mae) = x Days Earlier
  • シャリョウヲ カウ (Sharyou wo Kaou 車両 を 買う) = Vehicle Purchase
  • カエマセン (Kaemasen) = Not purchased/No purchases

With the details above, you can now understand the report screen. It's pretty simple. Basic company statistics top-left, train information top-right and money (including the all-important profit) area bottom-left. The bottom-right intrigues me as it indicates that vehicles CAN be purchased? But how....!?

As you can see, it's 3am on the 6th day and my trains aren't making any money. It's time to stop screwing around and build a real railway!

Layouts and Scheduling

So, watching the Youtube videos also showed me that cities expanded quickly once passengers were flowing. From this, I built a small loop and threw a train on it.

atrain-layout-1 atrain-layout-2 atrain-layout-3

I then got cocky and tried to just put another train on it. It worked in the video. Connecting the track was easy enough... starting the train wasn't. I can't work out the exact timing as to when the 'parked' train chooses to depart... of course it chose to at the exact time that my other train was turning the bend.

From here it was obvious that I needed to schedule the movements. I built another loop and let the first train onto it. Watching its speed, I noted that it took 1 hour to traverse 2 tiles. Waaaiiittt... sitting and watching has its blessings! When you connect the track to a siding, you get a little message bottom-right with the start time of that train. So that means that any train you connect will start 24 hours after you join the tracks.

atrain-train-start

That message above reads 13時 スタート which means 13:00 Start. I took the shot milliseconds after the clock switched to 14:00... so the timing is now + 24-hours to start the connected train. In the shot you can see that I fluked getting two other trains onto my railway... the third was going to cause issues. Unfortunately I was too busy editing the screenshot to move my A-Train and Train 2 quickly crashed in to it.

So, you can now determine when trains will jump... the issue then is counting how far the train has to travel prior to joining into the main railway. In this case, it had ~8 tiles to hit the point just before the horizontal station. This means 4 hours. If we wanted it at the horizontal station at the instant this shot was taken then we'd need it to travel another 2 more tiles. So, 5 hours to get where we want it. The time of the shot was 14:00, so winding back the 5 hours, we want this train to jump at 09:00. This means waiting until the day cycles to join the tracks. Connect them just after 08:00 has ticked.

Notice the strategy that is now required? Joining the tracks up in this manner is required if you choose not to schedule your trains. It is therefore recommended to schedule where possible, to make your railway work like clock-work. If we put a station right before a train is to enter a main line, then we can choose a departure time for that station, allowing the train to slot in at an appropriate moment. We could even use the station that we are given at the start as such a waypoint. If we make sure the track is routed into that station first, then we can hold the train there. Note that the train will traverse the station twice and will therefore take a lot longer than 24 hours to depart!

a-train-schedule

So, the screenshot above is starting to get complex. I couldn't make a sharp enough curve for the first siding, so I skipped it and went to Train 2. Here, the train will have to go into the main station to start with. It'll then proceed to the end of the line, turn around and re-visit the original station. This is annoying, but I haven't worked out how to prevent it yet without building a loop (which is impossible for this station!)

We can now set a departure time, as shown in the screenshot below. When the map goes black (aka. nighttime), the P/S option will appear and you'll need to hit full-stop. In this menu, you use the arrow keys (not the numpad!) to navigate around the objects on your map. Get a feel for the navigation, remembering that you have a very limited amount of time to configure the schedule before daybreak. Left/right will move between objects on the screen and up/down will scroll the map. When a point is selected the list will show what the point will do for each train. Likewise when a station is selected then the list will show the departure times. At the bottom of the departure times is マチ (Machi) with a number. This is the name/number of the station.

a-train-schedule

For this scenario, we want Train 2 and Train 3 to wait at the main station until 06:00. Firstly, use the arrow keys to select the original station. Then use the number-keys (top row of any keyboard) to select the train number and then enter to toggle the departure time. In the end you'll want to hit 2 and then press enter once. This will get you a configuration as per the screenshot. You then want to do the same for Train 3. Do not connect the tracks to Train 3 until Train 2 is out in the loop!

a-train-loop-1 a-train-loop-2 a-train-report

Look maaa! A loop with two trains! Winning! The report in the middle even shows the income! Is that raw profit? Or do you need to subtract the running costs above?

I had picked up the last supplies from the base station and knew I'd run out soon, but I thought I'd build north and extend the loop. With trains running, you need to move your A-Train in unison and not collide. It's a slow process. One major warning though: when night falls, a single movement will continue to the end of the track (this is that automatic-mode I was talking about before.) So... if there's a train in front, as per that last screenshot above, then you'll hit it without warning. So, take your time!

Finding the goal

We know that our Special Train is waiting down in the bottom-left to be given a path to its final destination... but where is that? We'll need to build to find it. To do this, we'll need to get our freight trains operating on a station that's on a loop so as that they don't just pick up and carry the construction materials away again. Note that any station they deliver to can only hold 3 tiles of materials, so visit them often and collect what has been delivered.

a-train-freight-halfway a-train-freight-delivered a-train-to-end-1

a-train-to-end-2 a-train-to-end-3 a-train-to-end-4

a-train-to-end-5 a-train-to-end-6 a-train-to-end-7

Hahaha... fail. I tried building, with freight waypoints to stop me from having to return to the start each time... but I ran out of money? Time to do this all again... this time with a passenger railway to support me.

To be continued...

This has become a mammoth post and I'm hereby going to split it into two. I'll post another report shortly once I've mastered the game. The above article is enough to get you started and playing, so I'll make the next post just an end-to-end completion of the map.

Stay tuned.

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About stevenh

Trains... trains... trains... + Electronics + Japan.
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