Impressions: Mini Metro

Sounds like an old British car, is in actual fact about designing underground rail systems. Basically, if you’d rather not play anything to do with transport, walk away now.

No, no, hey, come on, I didn’t mean that, let’s sit down and talk about this. I didn’t really want to play anything to do with transport either, but I’m glad I did. Mini Metro is about subway systems, but it isn’t really about subway systems.

It is! It totally is! But it isn’t about being a train gonk, it’s about movement. It’s about creating and maintaining movement. It’s about tranquil coloured lines, flowing neatly and being coolly reshaped into better flows still. It’s about going “bollocks, if I only I could stretch the red line over that river then a thousand people stuck waiting on that station over there wouldn’t want to kill me.”

It’s my favourite game about stretchy lines in a very long time. And I say that even though there’s no damn sound, which on the one hand is extremely distracting, but on the other encourages me to seek out my own, appropriate minimalist, ambient or otherwise dancing-around-the-candles-at-Glastonbury-at-5am soundtrack. Line-stretching is all that’s involved, other than occasionally adding extra carriages or locomotives to particularly busy stretch lines – the rest of the simulation plays itself. On paper, it sounds like there’s little to do; in practice, it’s moment-to-moment anxiety.

What it also does is make me think upon how many times I’ve sworn at unseen, nameless creators of the London Underground, damning their crazed logic for how it’s caused my journey from Grotty, Overcrowded Tube Station X to Grotty, Eerily Deserted Tube Station Y to take 20 minutes longer than it surely needs to. As I make mistakes and compromises in my own tube layout, as I frown at how I’ve inadvertently I’ve made the people on the blue line have to tour the entire perimeter of the system simply to reach a stop that’s basically just across the road from where they started, my annoyance at those ancient architects turns only to sympathy. Then it becomes panic, as a new stop pops into being which requires a wholescale rethink of my entire transport system if I’m to fold it into my fragile network.

What’s particularly intriguing is that my layouts broadly come to resemble the London Underground’s layout, and I don’t know if that’s because London is a geographic puzzle that logically can only be solved a certain way, or because my own memories of the place are affecting which coloured lines I place where, and in which shapes.

(Other cities are available, by the way, including Paris, New York and St Petersburg, with many more to come as Early Access rolls on, but broadly you’re having the same experience no matter which country’s public transport you choose to ruin. This is, for my money, Early Access done right. Mini Metro’s essential challenge and essential appeal is there, it’s solid, it’s smart and it turns a dry concept into a mesmerising challenge of logic and aesthetics. Sound and more cities and maybe a few new ways to lay a line can come later: what matters is there right now.

Mini Metro is very much a game you learn as you play, both in terms of how to actually control the thing, and how to be any good at it. I’m still stranded somewhere out in Zone 4 in terms of the latter, but the former didn’t take too long. Disaster is always waiting somewhere down the line, but I appreciate how beautifully Mini Metro turns to chaos. The black squares and triangles which denote passengers waiting at stations gradually increase in number, and a grey circle begins to fill at the busiest stops. If that circle fills, you’ve failed.

Basically, you’ve got a Clapham Junction, and no-one wants that. More likely though, you’ve got two or three Clapham Junctions. The wannabe passengers saying nothing, do nothing other than wait, but their impatience is palpable. It’s sympathy, perhaps: I’ve been in their weary shoes too many times myself. What to do? Wait it out in the hope this stage of the challenge will end, rewarding me with another line, train, carriage or tunnel, or take action before it’s too late?

Panic. Too many bodies, not enough choo-choos to carry them where they want to go. Dilemma. A minor adjustment to my elaborate network, or hit pause, tear down every line and start again to try and remove the choke points? Too late: it’s all over. Too many waited for too long.

A game that’s elegant even in disaster: just a few dots were all I needed to know everything had gone to hell, and just a few dragged lines were all that would ever have been needed to fix it. The spirit and the ingenuity of transportation management games of times past, preserved and even strengthened despite chopping away everything beyond ‘where does each train go?’

So I find myself in a rare situation: hoping that an Early Access game doesn’t expand too much further. Too many parts stacked on top of this cool, clean Jenga tower could upset its admirable minimalism, distract from its essential challenge of flow. What’s already here suggests a game that’s too smart and clear-eyed to fall into that trap. Whatever it might go in the future, it is most certainly ready to depart the station right now.

Mini Metro is out now on Steam Early access and the Humble Store, and so far has been receiving a steady stream of updates. Audio is promised soon, and the Zen mode Graham called for when he wrote about it a while back is already in there. The original prototype game jam version is available to fiddle with for free too.

22 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    As someone who lives 10 minutes walk from Clapham Junction, I agree no-one wants Clapham Junction.

    • BobbyDylan says:

      Indeed. Used it for 2 years on my daily commute. Now I’d rather cycle through wind, rain and show, risking death by man-in-van and the 170 bus than go through Clapham Junction.

  2. Premium User Badge

    SuddenSight says:

    ) <– Here, you dropped this.

    As for the game, I played it a little bit. I don't know about Early Access though, because I'm not sure what's left to add. As you mention, I wouldn't want any major changes to gameplay.

    Also, while the game works quite well with a mouse, the interface makes me wish I had a tablet.

  3. DrollRemark says:

    So imagine a multiplayer version of this, where each player controls a different section of the map. No drawing tracks outside of that section, and no sharing a track between two players. We’ll call it the British rail network mod.

  4. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I played the greenlight build and I liked it for a couple hours and got bored of it and will likely never go back. I feel the play to fail angle was the laziest and least interesting route they could’ve taken this game, I’d probably really enjoy an economy based endless mode where you could place the stations yourself based on a demand heat map, but I don’t get much from play to fail and even less when there isn’t much evolution to it, it’s like playing bejewled to fail.

    • Cinek says:

      I watched the video and that was pretty much my thought – must be fun…. for a few hours. If at all.

    • freakpants says:

      There’s at least a sandbox mode planned, and I don’t see why they couldn’t do even more different modes.

    • bills6693 says:

      A little bit different but Cities in Motion might interest you. The first one that is.

      Basically its a transport sim. You fun a public transport ‘company’ and basically implement public transport into a city. You make money from fares (and ‘missions’, i.e. random secondary objectives), you spend it to build the infrastructure, vehicles/trains/trams etc, maintain them, pay your staff etc etc.

      All in all its actually quite enjoyable in my opinion. Its really about moving people around as efficiently as you can, building around the existing city along the existing roads etc. As I said, might want to have a look (and it regularly goes on sale)

      • Aninhumer says:

        My experience of CiM was that it was completely broken. The road model leads to inevitable gridlock, because the cars don’t behave sensibly at junctions.

        • Cinek says:

          Same here. This game never should have gone out of the beta test version in a state like this, even after all of the patches.
          Or heck – probably should stay in alpha for at least one more year to actually turn it into something worth money.

        • P.Funk says:

          I can’t stand it when games have issues like that, where something that needed to be polished for months gets left unfinished and bugged forever so that it fundamentally ruins your enjoyment of every single other accomplishment of the game.

          OMSI is dangerously close to this. I found OMSI 2 to be particularly bad with respect to traffic, it was like they had bugs that made things worse than with OMSI 1 and I ALMOST gave up on it. Almost. Walk the line.

          Its a shame that so many of these neat little niche titles suffer form this issue.

  5. Aninhumer says:

    I found the random choice of 2 out of the 3 upgrades at the end of each week to be slightly frustrating. It sometimes leads to interesting workarounds, but quite often I ended up losing because it wouldn’t let me have the upgrade I needed for ages.

  6. shimeril says:

    I like the concept but found my fifteen minutes or so of play so far to be frustrating since there were no instructions whatsoever on how to do anything. I did have other distractions about so I’ll try again sometime when I am alone and don’t have a head cold like now and perhaps it will make some sense.

    • P.Funk says:

      In this day and age I suppose its alien to be confronted with a game that offers no interactive tutorial.

      I’ve rediscovered this experience, one which was all too familiar to me when I was about 10-14, before the internet ruined my bold explorations of success through failure with the endless supply of Walk Throughs and later lest plays.

      I had the same experience with Hotline Miami. At one point I got angry and said “this is too hard!” then I laughed and slapped myself and said “thats the point!”

      Even if it only lasts a few hours, I find a game that compels me to learn a new concept without help admirable. Too much is handed to us these days in the name of “accessibility”. Games like this are increasingly the only non-sim titles I play because they offer me challenge without a get out of trying hard free button.

  7. racccoon says:

    lol now this is funny & the graphics are amazing.

  8. AyeBraine says:

    It’s no wonder the game feels well-finished: it was essentially fleshed out as a free game about a year or more ago. There were no “real” city maps, but everything else was there. I think I had played it for a whole straight day then – a brilliant little game!

    • P.Funk says:

      I remember I found it through RPS’ first coverage of this when it was free. It changed a bit then though. They changed a number of balance features, but essentially it was just a random map with random stuff on it.

      If it was never free I might pay for it, but I know I have an older version of this on my computer (they let you download it as a flash prog). If its not really different its hard to part with cash.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    I played the free version. It’s frustrating when a game’s theme doesn’t fit with its mechanics at all. You might think that the optimal strategy is to make it as easy as possible to get from any one point to any other; but the passengers don’t want to go to a specific station, they want to go to any station at all with the right shape on it. You can have a thoughtful, efficient grid structure lose because the only pentagon station it gives you is over in a corner, and you can survive with two networks that don’t connect at any point as long as they each have at least one of each shape. It looks like a public-transit game, but it doesn’t play like one.

    • valrus says:

      That bothered me, too. I had to conceptualize the shapes as needs, like the cross people need to go to a hospital (but it doesn’t matter which one) and the star people want to go to a theater (any theater), and the stops fulfill those needs.

      Furthermore, none of these people has specific needs at any specific stop. They have no friends or family, that they can recognize, nor do they have favorite restaurants, nor do they have regular jobs. Every theater is just “theater”, every job is just “job”, every house is just “house”. They live an entirely prosapagnostic existence, each morning wandering into whatever business they find themselves near, working at that for eight hours, then wandering to a random residence where they sleep next to anonymous spouses with featureless circle faces.

  10. Syme says:

    I think what you need is to be able to plan slightly further ahead of time so more stations could pop up, but they start of much fainter to let you know it’s opening in a couple of days.

    Although I think what I want is a mode where I have all of London at my disposal from the start so I can plan the entire underground system from scratch.

    • Premium User Badge

      danoot says:

      Yeah, I’d really like a map that started with more lines and more stations, because by the time you get to that point in the game you can’t clear a line without someone getting impatient immediately.