How often have you have looked at a map of the London Underground, the New York Subway, or many other cities from around the world? Have you ever actually stopped a moment to appreciate the artistry behind those instersecting lines, perforated with little dashes and dots like some dense thicket of rainbow-colored morse code ticker tape?
Harry Beck’s 1931 map of the London Underground is taken for granted these days, and emulated by countless others around the globe. But once upon a time he was considered radical, so much so that he had to work hard to convince Transport for London to take his proposal for an Underground map of the whole network seriously. And while his effort became the iconic design that millions are now familiar with, it wasn’t until 1997 – 23 years after his death – that he was formally recognized for his pioneering work on helping Londoners work out just how the hell to get all the way from Highbury to Aldgate (hint: it’s quickest to change at Warren Street then change again at Embankment). For many years, his design was amended by others and his own revisions were ignored – first with the addition of the Victoria Line in 1960 by Harold Hutchinson’s, then by Paul Garbutt – which left poor Harry feeling betrayed by the authority he had once been devoted to.
So it’s pleasant to see Beck’s work form the inspiration behind Mini Metro, the equally-minimalist debut from wonderfully-named two-man outfit Dinosaur Polo Club. Forget driving an A-train across recreations of Western Europe, or designing intricate networks in the likes of Cities in Motion: in Mini Metro, your tools aren’t iron girders and steel carriages; they’re multicolored lines which weave and snake and take on a life of their own.
You’re still dealing with congestion and finding an optimal layout; but never are you asked to deal with leaves on the line holding up your trip to work, or trying to get through a barrier because the bloody machine won’t accept your Oyster Card despite having just topped it up and despite the growing line of sighing commuters behind you. The most you have to deal with in Mini Metro – originally known as Mind the Gap when it debuted at gamejam challenge Ludum Dare back in 2013 – is whether to expand the green line to accommodate the new station that has just appeared on the map, generating a new queue of passengers; or whether to throw caution to the wind, lay down a new pink line, and use your last tunnel to take it from roughly-where-Hammersmith-kind-of-is, across the Thames to sort-of-in-the-vicinity-of-Waterloo, then realize you’ve cocked up because people near-enough-where-Hampstead-Heath-is have decided to appear before the smallest bit of track has been laid, like those nutters who queue a week early outside of their local Apple store every time an iPhone is announced.
Each game starts simply – choose your mode, your city, and off you go. Maps are broadly equivalent to their real-life counterparts, with thin strips of blue designating rivers, and the set points at which destinations appear. London is marked by the squiggly line of the Thames; New York is marked by the Hudson, and so on. At first you only have three stops to connect and a single line to contend with; but over time, more and more stops appear which need to all be plugged into your expanding network. Slowly at first, but spaced far enough apart that you need to lay down a second line. Then a third. Then amend your layouts so existing routes cut through nearby points which appear just enough out of the way to lead to wholesale redesigns of your entire layout. Before you know it, you’re staring at the Game Over screen because an inexplicable amount of commuters were trying to get from sort-of-Clapham while you were busy trying to deal with might-be-London-St-Pancras and its connection to kind-of-like-Cockfosters (don’t laugh, it’s a real station). In a great touch, the order in which these stations appear is entirely random with each game; no matter how many times you play, every experience remains fresh.
What’s so wonderful is that Mini Metro manages to streamline what is, to many, a brain-hurting exercise in menu navigation and akward route laying, into an effortlessly simple drag-and-drop
affair where amending a route is as simple as dragging an existing section of line to accomodate a new desitination. Everything snaps into place seamlessly, the simplistic to borderline-non-existent GUI and no-frills presentation makes short work of what is often, in other sims, a complex and confusing 200-page manual filled with keyboard shortcuts, overlapping menus and an awkward camera that never finds a good angle. And it does so in a way that becomes enthralling to watch, your very own Underground growing before your eyes, rectangles shuttling along the routes you’ve laid, dropping off little geometric shapes and picking up new ones at their matching destination markers (triangle passengers need to reach triangle-shaped stops, and so on). Impressively, despite often expanding to feature upwards of 200 passengers on the the screen at once, they always know the most efficient route to their closest stop. They’ll change lines at the right place, they won’t board the wrong train by accident. No more having to backtrack because you took the Eastbound line and ended up in Bethnal Green, when you wanted the Westbound train to Ealing Broadway (and yes, I’ve done that too many times to mention during rush hour).
Occasionally, Mini Metro can feel too simplistic, a victim of its own minamalism; rather than passengers needing to reach a specific desination, they simply need to reach the closest desintation of a certain shape. Stations aren’t named – whether automatically or via custom labels – and sometimes a little of the unique flavor of a city is diminished by their absence, despite stops appearing in around the right place as real life. And you can’t even name your lines (sadly my dream of renaming the Central Line to the Shithole Bottleneck remains unfulfilled). So really it boils down to trying to engineer your lines so that you have as many of those different symbols on the same route to minimize travel. At the end of every in-game week, you’re awarded an additional train and the choice between two upgrades (an additional line; a carriage to allow your existing trains to carry more passengers; or a tunnel, allowing you to add that river-spanning route you’ve wanted to create). It’s pretty simple, and failure only comes if you’re so neglectful that a station becomes overcrowded due to passengers having to wait too long – a sign that your route is either too long to begin with, or desperately needs an extra train.
Playing Mini Metro becomes so hypnotic, watching every carriage shuttling along and knowing that these little icons are getting to work on time or not missing little Timmy’s school play, that it’s easy to find yourself absorbed for hours when you only intended to fill a quiet ten minutes. Frequently, I reached the maximum limit of stops on the map; but rather than start over on a new map, or trying one of the three different modes available – Scenic, Commuter and Rush Hour, which are effectively just different ways of saying Easy, Medium and Hard – I carried on, taking pride in how my simulation would make Beck himself proud, or continuing to tinker until I was satisfied I had got my design just right and daily passengers were at their highest peak.
Mini Metro is currently in Early Access on Steam, thanks to development setbacks caused by flooding last year which saw progress being delayed for months as the devs recovered from the damage. But it’s remarkably stable – I’ve not encountered a single bug or crash; it has a healthy selection of maps to choose from; and it’s incredibly polished. The ability to name stations is still something that would be nice – if not essential – as would perhaps an “advanced” difficulty that sees passengers aiming to get to a specific point on the map, rather than the closest matching one. And it would be nice to see travel time factored in to your weekly evaluation, which at the moment feels like a guaranteed upgrade every 5 or ten minutes; all you have to worry about is stations becoming congested, something easily avoided by knowing the systems underpinning the design. Mini Metro does become stressful – particularly on certain maps and certain difficulties – but it rarely feels as though you’re having your skills pushed.
The biggest absence at the moment, which you’ll notice the moment you boot the game up for the first time, is the complete absence of sound. I initially thought something was wrong with my
speakers before doing a little google-fu and discovering that the soundtrack has yet to be implemented. I was hoping for the repetitive-yet-soothing clackety-clack of my trains rattling along, and the bing bong and ambient chatter as they stopped at each station, accompanied by the occasional humorous loudspeaker announcement. As mentioned, I kind of wish that you could name your stations, or perhaps design and share original maps via Steamworks or a simple seed number ala Prison Architect and Minecraft. The soundtrack is being worked on as we speak, and I was delighted to discover that it’s being composed by Disasterpeace – the same outfit behind the sublime soundtrack for Fez. A minimalist and artifical, yet oddly warm soundtrack to accompany a minimalist and artificial, yet oddly warm aesthetic; it’s the perfect choice. I still hope to hear those clackety-clacks and bing bongs, but I know that at the very least, with Disasterpeace on board, Dinosaur Polo Club (I do love that name) will end up with a game that sounds every bit as good as it looks. It’s a match made in heaven.
So if you’ve read all this – and I admit I’ve gushed a little and prattled on way too much, because I was genuinely taken aback by how wonderful a gem Mini Metro is – you’ll no doubt be asking two questions: “Is this worth me picking up now?”, and “How much is it going to cost me?”
Thankfully, the answer to the first question is an unequivocal YES; even unfinished, Mini Metro is charming, polished, stable and, despite its simplicity, feels wonderfully fresh. In fact, the only thing stopping me from slapping a score at the end of this text and publishing it as a Review is the fact that that it still needs the soundtrack adding. Other than that, Mini Metro essentially feels like a complete product.
The answer to the second question is equally positive. At time of writing, Mini Metro can be yours for the wallet-friendly sum of $6.99/ £4.99 – though it’s regularly available for far less than that.
It’s currently Steam only – so those of you wanting something free from DRM will have to wait and hope it pops up as a standalone download or appears on GOG.com, while a mobile version for iOS and Android devices is planned. But if that doesn’t bother you – and let’s face it, most gamers don’t even view Valve’s platform as DRM, despite it being the exact definition of it – then I thoroughly recommend giving it whirl.
You’ll never look at an underground map in the same way again.