One of the first things that I realised when I started playing Nostalgic Train was that I haven’t actually played any Japanese “walking simulators” before. Not that I can remember having played, at any rate. It’s a genre that seems to have either spoken to western developers in a way that hasn’t transferred across to the Japanese culture or (more likely), there are a lot of Japanese walking simulators that haven’t been localised. Either way, Nostalgic Train really is my first Japanese walking simulator, to the best of my recollection. It is just as well, then, that it is excellent.
The best way to think of it is a little like an indie take on Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (which is about as close to “blockbuster” that this genre comes). You have a small “open world” to explore, and within that you’re following breadcrumbs of a narrative around. Rather than being guided by a glowing orange ball (as in Rapture), in Nostalgic Train you can simply “blink” and the objects and spaces that you can interact with around you will be “lit up”. By coming into contact with those spaces, you get to enjoy the narratives of the people that occupied those spaces and used those times. In Rapture, which, again, is much the same, these little vignettes were told through animated and voiced cut scenes, featuring glowing apparitions. In Nostalgic Train, it’s done through simple text sequence that will share a short story or event over ten or so minutes of reading. It’s the low-budget way of doing walking simulator storytelling, it seems, and certainly, Nostalgic Train lacks the presentation quality of some of its brethren. This isn’t helped by the Nintendo Switch as a platform, which does a good job rendering the aesthetics of rural Japan, but it chugs along at a stuttering frame rate and has extensive texture pop in. Normally I’m not one to care, as it rarely affects my appreciation for what the game is telling me, but for this particular game and genre, immersion is critical, and that’s broken very quickly and frequently through the presentation.
The narrative of Nostalgic Train is beautiful and heartfelt, if more than a little melancholy. You play as a traveler that has somehow ended up in another dimension – an exact replica of the world, just without any other people in it. Your only company in this new dimension is the incessant droning of cicadas – which the narrative writers want you to focus on as one of the most nostalgic noises to the Japanese, as a strong reminder of summer to them. It’s important to the underlying themes of the game, see (which we’ll soon get to). Your goal is to get someone in the real world to “remember you” thus breaking through whatever dimensional barrier this is, and giving you a chance to escape, but since you can’t do much more than pick up items, your ability to do that is pretty limited. This might sound like the set-up for a puzzle or adventure experience, but really you’re just going to be wandering around experiencing the stories of the town. It is, ultimately, a storytelling experience first and foremost.
Certainly Nostalgic Train has a nostalgic quality to its storytelling. Summer is a time of warm memories to the Japanese, and is closely associated with youth. The game developers have structured the world and experience of Nostalgic Train as though it’s a diorama to explore, designed in the most picturesque, pristine way possible. And yet the stories that you come across as you explore are so often filled with misery or melancholia, and so while Nostalgic Train is certainly nostalgic, it also acts as a reminder that nostalgic generally remembers the positive, and papers over any parts of the memory of the negative. As you explore around the town, you are meant to remember the warmth of youth and nostalgia for “simpler times” (that’s where the rural Japan motif comes in), but you’re also meant to put into a sober, reflective mood by the stories that are being told back to you.
Heck, I didn’t even grow up in Japan, but I’ve spent enough summers there for this juxtaposition to weigh down on me. I know what rural Japan is like, and how the town’s tiny CBD grows up around the station. The first time I left the station in this game my mouth started to water for the little cafe that would inevitably be nearby, and where good coffee jelly/or a bowl of shaved ice awaited to take the edge of the heat off (alas, that was not to be this time). Ascending the stairs to the local shrine and getting a good look out over the town was a similarly nostalgic experience, as was walking across a low-flowing river and on the road next to small plots of farmed land. The game even has a weather system that shifts between states like rain, fog, and blisteringly bright sunlight, and while the transitions between the weather are far too frequent to be realistic, in the context of a short walking simulator, they all do continue to draw the player’s attention to the aesthetics of rural Japan.
Because here’s the thing: Japan doesn’t need to be exoticized, like a certain American developer did with a certain samurai game. You don’t need to turn the wind into a mystic force or drench it in so much high-contrast colour that black and white becomes a relief for the eyes. Japan’s natural landscape is distinctive and beautiful enough, and you can make the setting the primary character within the game simply by accurately recreating its sights and sounds. Nostalgic Train aims for photorealisim and doesn’t quite get there with the Nintendo Switch, but nonetheless presents players with a deeply evocative, honest and genuine world to explore, and the breadcrumbs of narrative it throws along the way is laden with mystery enough to maintain interest in exploring further.
I am surprised that this game got localised at all. So much of the impact of Nostalgic Train relies on its ability to resonate with a shared understanding of the Japanese experience. The potency of the train ride, the shrine visit, the sound of the cicadas, and so on are things that are enshrined within the Japanese psyche, and reflected on over and over again across all forms of Japanese art. For centuries. When that a deep but subtle quality is the focus of a work it’s rarely successful on localisation. A few years ago, a little game called Attack of the Friday Monsters was released in the west on the Nintendo 3DS. Most of the very few people that played it attributed it as an amusing little comedy adventure featuring giant robots and a card minigame. It was certainly welcomed warmly enough in that context, but most people (including the fans) missed that the real impact was how that game handled and worked with nostalgia for the youth experience in Japan.
Nostalgic Train’s headed to the same problem. The reality is that for most people it’s going to soar over their heads. They’ll read the in-game stories, and probably feel briefly reflective because those stories so often have impact, but that’ll be the sum of it. The stories are good (and the localisation consistently surprising for all the right reasons), but the real power of Nostalgic Train is if you go in also understanding what the nostalgia is, where it comes from, and why it matters to the culture.
Interestingly, this game participated in the Japan Media Arts Festival back in 2019 which, as far as I can tell, is quite well recognised across the broad scope of Japanese arts. It doesn’t surprise me that it earned some attention there though. Nostalgic Train is an art work first, and a game you play second. Beyond even the “walking simulator” quality, this game reflects on the Japanese experience of summer in a meaningful and deeply resonant way. It might be surprising that this got a localisation, but it’s a welcome one. Especially for people that are interested in learning something meaningful about Japan.
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