Buses, trains and (lots of) cable cars: A look at SF Muni vehicles in video games

San Franciscans have shown their frustration with, and love for, Muni in many ways.

San Franciscans have shown their frustration with, and love for, Muni in many ways.

Our city’s iconic buses have been immortalized in t-shirts, in paintings, and, in one case, even a throw pillow depicting a flaming bus after enthusiastic celebrations when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2012.

But for decades, under the radar, the joys and pain of Muni could also, quietly, be found in video games.

And as some readers rip-open their holiday gifts, video games that can be purchased in 2019 also feature Muni buses.

Yet even the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages Muni, does not keep any record of which games feature its buses, its streetcars, light rail vehicles (trains) or cable cars.

So the San Francisco Examiner has your inner-kid covered. If you’ve ever wanted to pick up a video game controller and drive a Muni bus, grind a skateboard across a classic cable car, or run an imaginary Muni train off a cliff —purely out of cathartic revenge for every late N-Judah arrival you’ve endured, we’re sure — here’s where to start.

Not every game lets you control a Muni vehicle. So in our list, we not only let you know the video game, its release date, and what video game console it is playable on, but also if that Muni vehicle is controllable, or just decorative.

Game: San Francisco Rush: Extreme Racing

Where to play it: Nintendo 64, arcades (even now — check out Emporium SF or Musee Mechanique)

Release date: 1996, 1997

Muni sighting: buses (retro)

What’s the premise? Rush is a classic racing game, and a staple of most San Francisco arcades for an obvious reason: It’s set all across The City. The game is a loving homage, however, with more local detail than just the Golden Gate Bridge — Race at the foot of Sutro Tower, down a faithful recreation of Market Street, and over the Presidio’s hills. One level even sets up ridiculous racing ramps across Alcatraz in the expansion Rush: The Rock.

Can you drive it? Nope. But in a break from most racing games, where Muni ephemera has oft been relegated to the sidelines, in Rush you can actually crash head-long into a Muni bus and watch your car erupt into flames. And for folks who have been in San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s, the buses are the classic orange-and-red “Sunset” color scheme from that period.

How’s the game? Awesome. Don’t even look at industry reviews. Just play it.

* * *

Game: Rampage: Total Destruction

Where to play it: Gamecube, Playstation 2

Release date: 2006

Muni sighting: cable cars

What’s the premise? Roam the world playing as Godzilla and King Kong knock-offs, scaling buildings, knocking said-buildings into the ground, and crushing cartoonish people underfoot. Rack up points by causing the most destruction.

Can you drive it? Nope. But while you can’t grip the handle of cable car lever, Rampage is unique among video games in just how you interact with cable cars. Whereas most have you dodging them in some fashion (like some racing games), instead, in Rampage, your Godzilla-like monster can grab a cable car off the ground, upend it, and gulp down on all the falling, helpless passengers like peanuts.

How’s the game? Absolutely silly, not terribly complicated, but fun with a few friends for a half-hour. Metacritic, an aggregator for video game review scores (like Rotten Tomatoes, for video games), ranks Rampage 57/100.

* * *

Game: Watch Dogs 2

Where to play it: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Release date: 2016

Muni sighting: buses (modern), historic streetcars, cable cars, more

What’s the premise? Play as Marcus Holloway, a hacker working to take down San Francisco’s advanced surveillance systems. This is an action game that takes place in a slick, detailed, fully-roamable recreation of San Francisco.

Can you drive it? You bet your rear mirror’s fuzzy dice you can. In Watch Dogs 2, players can hop behind the wheel of a real-deal modern Muni bus, which are manufactured by New Flyer. While lacking a Muni logo, they sport the gray and red color scheme as our buses do today, and can be steered from a first-person view (behind the wheel), or with the camera zoomed out far behind your bus.

Also making appearances: historic streetcars, cable cars, “red carpet” bus-only lanes, AC Transit buses (when playing in Oakland), and a parody of commuter shuttles, better known as “Google buses.”

Fun Fact: When you board a cable car, you unlock a PlayStation digital trophy titled “DedSec-A-Roni,” referencing both hacking and the famous Rice-A-Roni cable car commercials.

How’s the game? The PS4 version of Watch Dogs 2 has a MetaCritic score of 82/100 — folks called it flawed, but fun.

* * *

Game: Bus & Cable-Car Simulator

Where to play it: Windows PC

Release date: 2011

Muni sighting: buses (retro), cable-cars, historic streetcars

What’s the premise? Just as the game’s title says, this simulates an incredibly realistic bus-driving experience. Flip all the necessary switches to start your bus, set your destination sign, turn on your cash-collection machine, and more. Drive the streets of San Francisco as precisely as possible to pick up your passengers without a hitch.

Can you drive it? Not only can you drive a bus, cable-car, or historic streetcar in Bus & Cable-Car Simulator, but unlike most adrenaline-pumping video games, this is about being as smooth an operator (cough) as possible. Just like real life, if you go all Grand Theft Auto on your passengers and drive off like a madman, you lose. It’s so detailed, you can even flip a switch to turn on the windshield wipers.

How’s the game? No idea. The game isn’t widely available anymore, and the reviews are scant, and perhaps non-existent. However a quick YouTube search yields a few gameplay videos of slow, methodical bus-action. If going zen building and operating a train set is your thing, this is the video game equivalent.

* * *

Game: Cities: Skylines

Where to play it: Windows PC, Mac, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Release date: 2015-2018 (various versions)

Muni sighting: streetcars (modern)

What’s the premise? Similar to SimCity, Cities: Skylines is a city-building game offering control over zoning, road placement, taxes, and yes, public transit.

Can you drive it? Not quite. Think of this game more as Build-Your-Own-Muni-Route, rather than a driving simulator. And, sadly, San Francisco’s Muni fleet doesn’t make an appearance in every version. Instead, Windows PC players of Cities: Skylines can build their own transportation vehicles and share them with one another. In this case, a member of the game platform Steam, who goes by the handle djantir, created their own Muni light rail vehicles.

These trains come in two flavors: The old Breda-manufactured fleet (yes, the one that breaks down often), and the new Siemens-manufactured fleet (yes, the one with mechanical issues that just hit the news, and seats that riders have complained are too tall).

How’s the game? Folks seem to enjoy Cities: Skylines, with strong reviews and the Windows PC version netting a MetaCritic score of 85/100.

* * *

Noteworthy Muni cameos:

Not every Muni sighting was eye-catching enough to make the list, but some are nifty, nonetheless. In the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater the “streets” level takes place around famous San Francisco skate spots, with cable cars rolling by as you grind. And one-upping themselves, in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 you can grind atop San Francisco’s historic streetcars, the same ones that click-and-clack down to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Modern video games are getting in on the fun, too, as a burned-out modern Muni bus can be spotted in the background as Thor fights soldiers on the Golden Gate Bridge in the trailer for the new Avengers game by studio Crystal Dynamics, which is slated to release in May, 2020. Orange-and-white Muni buses also make a low-polygon appearance in the PC game Vette!, a Corvette racing game that looks only slightly more modern than Pong.

Dodging San Francisco cable cars as unique-looking obstacles is a common video game trope, to the point where spotting them all is a nearly insurmountable feat.

Promotional video game Pepsiman where you play as a … man dressed in Pepsi logos … features cable car-dodging, as does a thrilling downhill sequence in Sonic Adventure 2 for the Dreamcast, and even Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch lets players duck and weave around cable cars on a San Francisco-like trackway. Cable cars also make an appearance in the infamous 2004 game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

One of the earliest instances of cable car-dodging we could spot in a video game was in 1994’s Skitchin’, a Sega Genesis game featuring rollerbladers who hang onto the back of cars to gain speed in street races.

Muni Posers

Some video games taking place in San Francisco feature buses roaming The City’s landscape, but are generic city buses, devoid of the colors or style demarking a true-blue (or in most cases, gray and red) Muni bus.

The multi-console 2011 action game Driver: San Francisco features off-color city buses, and 2016’s Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour lets players “kick-ass and chew bubble gum” (the title character’s catch-phrase) behind blue-colored buses crashed atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Jet Li: Rise to Honor,a 2004 Playstation 2 game, lets you fight as martial arts star Jet Li behind overturned blue buses that don’t resemble Muni much at all.

Did we miss a cable car, Muni bus or streetcar that you’ve spotted in a San Francisco-themed video game? Reach out and let us know in the comments, and we can add it to the ever-growing list.

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