When Mini Metro was released on Steam more than two years ago, the deceptively simple train-management game surprised a lot of us with its soothing gameplay loop and audio/visual design. When the same game came to mobile a year later, the translation couldn’t have possibly gone better. The simple touchscreen controls perfectly complemented its minimal nature. I’m pleased to say the Switch port is as good as ever. It’s calming, simple, engaging, albeit with a lack of compelling rewards and a less-than-fun extra mode.
The Little Engine That Could
If you’ve never played Mini Metro on the other platforms, the concept couldn’t be simpler: Keep your railway running as efficiently as possible and avoid clogging a single station with passengers. At the beginning of each round, you’re given three tracks and three trains to distribute across three train stations. Train stations and their passengers come in different shapes, so each passenger must be directed the station of their own kind. Simply draw with your finger between stations and you’ll connect two points. Continue the line to connect multiple points. The trains you place down on those lines will move accordingly.
It seems simple at first, but as with any good game concept the difficulty increases over time. Train stations pop into existence at random, requiring you to play whack-a-mole to connect your ever-growing network of trains. There are also a few rivers and other bodies of water you’ll have to cross. The number of tunnels you own dictate the number of times you can cross over a lake or river, so if you just have to get to the other side of a lake but don’t have any spare tunnels, you’ll have to re-route a track somewhere else.
Speaking of which, nothing in Mini Metro is permanent. With a touch of the screen, you can completely dismantle an entire track. You can also swap trains between tracks at any given moment. I constantly found myself challenging the structure of a track I’d built a few minutes ago, and I would almost always need to uproot an entire track at least once per game. The ability to remove stations and reroute them kept me on my toes, challenging my own strategies in favor of new ones.
An average round in Mini Metro will last anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. Throughout the course of those ten-twenty minutes, you’ll be drip-fed a series of upgrades that give you more building lee-way. An in-game week passes, and you get a new locomotive and a choice between either a new line or two more tunnels. This upgrade system is paced just far enough to save you from disaster at the last moment, without giving you too much power. However, I can’t help but feel there was a little more potential. After playing a dozen or so rounds the upgrades all felt very familiar.
Overall, however, I think that Mini Metro’s few systems are a positive thing – the simplicity contributes to its relaxing tone. In fact, everything about this game is incredibly relaxing. The simplistic RGB-palleted visual design, the ambient, futuristic, slowly-rising audio cues, the soothingly slow pace of gameplay put me at ease – I find it almost cathartic. If you play the game as intended, there are plenty of half-a-minute to minute-long breaks where you’re doing literally nothing – overseeing your steadily-growing locomotive empire, on the lookout for potential threats of failure – even to the last second.
Unfortunately, you’re able to sort of cheat your way through the last few minutes of any round. See, you’re never really supposed to have direct control over your trains – just drop them off and set them to their own business. But you can still move a train to another track at any time, set it in position, and let it go. So when a station starts to overcrowd and you’re running out of options, all you have to do is stop the in-game timer and move a train nearby. That’s not what you’re supposed to do, but by the very nature of Mini Metro’s design, it’s still technically an option. I always felt a little guilty about taking the cheater’s way out towards the end, but it certainly helped.
To put it bluntly, Mini Metro’s default mode doesn’t give you much reason to push forward. Sure, if you do well in a stage, you’ll get new cities like New York and Tokyo. But these cities hardly differ from one another. Aside from slightly different lake and river arrangement, London has the same aesthetic as Washington D.C., Seattle, and all the rest. I never felt particularly incentivized to push my high score and move onto the next stage… at least, not until later.
There are two other modes to play aside from normal mode. Endless mode takes away all passenger-restraints and lets you roam free. You unlock upgrades based on how many people per in-game week you’re transporting. Endless mode is great, and somehow even more relaxing then the normal mode is. The final mode, Extreme, is an entirely separate beast. To unlock a city’s extreme mode, you have to complete a very difficult challenge in normal mode. After completing over a dozen cities in normal mode, I absolutely adored these challenges – they taught me to play levels I was familiar with in ways I’d never attempted. But, as with a lot of Mini Metro, the reward wasn’t worth it.
Extreme mode is all but identical to Normal, except that any track and train you place is permanent. If you lay down a track and later change your mind… sorry? It’s there forever. One of Mini Metro’s greatest strengths is in how malleable everything is. To remove that aspect completely changes the game for the worse. It suddenly becomes less a game of relaxation and more a game of anxiety. It’s not fulfilling, and I would even go so far as to say it’s nearly impossible to get far in this mode. You would be best suited to complete the challenges for their own sake, but not to play extreme mode.
Mini Metro and touch-screen controls are the perfect pair, which is why it works so well as an iPad, iPhone, and now, a Switch game. The Switch’s touchscreen lends itself as a perfect way to connect train-systems quickly and efficiently – I would even say that it works the best if you take the Joy-con off the rails and use the Switch solely as a tablet. But one thing’s for sure: if you’re in search of a solid TV game, don’t buy this. Gamepad controls dimply don’t function as well as the buttery smooth touchscreen. Let me reiterate one more time: Don’t play this game with a gamepad!
While it may be held back slightly by its off-putting sense of progression and reward, don’t let that distract you – Mini Metro for the Nintendo Switch is one the most sublime, cathartic strategy/puzzle games made for a touchscreen. Its simplistic visuals, audio, and strategic elements excel higher than ever on Switch – Mini Metro is a must-own for any Switch owner.
- THE GOOD
- Simple yet deep gameplay loop
- Short, bite-sized rounds
- Compelling challenges
- Two out of the three modes are great
- THE BAD
- Extreme mode is sorely lacking
- Lack of differences between new cities
Mini Metro for the Nintendo Switch is one the most sublime, cathartic strategy/puzzle games made for a touchscreen, despite a lack of compelling rewards.
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