Developed By: Hi-Bit Studios
Published By: 8-4
Category: Action, Arcade
Release Date: 01.23.2020
I didn’t grow up in the ’80s. Much of the glowing nostalgia of the decade we see reflected in Ready Player One or Stranger things is before me. However, I see the appeal: new wave music, DeLoreans, the innocence and wonder of an arcade. The style is instantly recognizable. 198X is a tribute to that era, a strong aesthetic over depth, and visual storytelling in favor of an original narrative.
As the title implies, specifics in a game called 198X aren’t important. The narrator is simply named Kid, a teenager living in Suburbia, with dreams of moving to City. To say it’s your stereotypical coming of age story is an understatement. Our androgynous protagonist dreams a lot, has a brief crush on the outcast at school, and experiences some kind of transcendental ego death by playing what the game is really about: coin-operated videogames.
The arcade is the back on which this game is built. It’s all about that sacred tradition of skipping school to head down to the local amusement arcade and lose yourself among its cacophony of lights. 198X uses the nostalgia of these former haunts as its reason for existing. Without it, there’s very little story to tell. It does a good job of recreating that sense of fading youth and early search for meaning while Kid takes the player on a journey through five games, each emulating the classic genre of beat-em-up, shoot-em-up, racing, ninja platformer, and rpg. Like the story, they don’t last long, but they act as a faithful tribute to a time when they were kings. However, like the story, they aren’t very deep.
About half the time you’ll spend in 198X will be in gorgeously animated cutscenes. The game goes heavy in visual appeal, lighting up the screen with bright neon colors reminiscent of the time. Animations flicker and sway back and forth using the bare minimum to express movement and the passing of time. It’s beautiful and backed up by an equally gorgeous synth-wave soundtrack that, like everything else, plays to the fashion of the era. It’s all really pretty to look at and listen to but the well runs dry quickly once you’ve breezed through the five games that serve more as interactive movies than actual games.
It’s hard to fault 198X for the shallow gameplay because it never felt like that was the point. It’s more of a throwback and that’s obvious from every minute of it drenched in 1980’s themed nostalgia. However, the story isn’t compelling or long enough to justify mini-games that act as flimsy narrative devices that are neither compelling nor long. It’s a shame that a game celebrating the joy of discovering games isn’t much fun to play. It has its moments, most notably in shoot-em-up Out of The Void and ninja-platformer Shadowplay, where gameplay felt tight and there was just the right amount of balance between trial and error and challenge. If I felt cheated it was because my time spent in either one was too short.
Instead of feeling like my actions had some bearing on advancing the plot, each game acted as more of a gimmick where only a series of timely button presses or simple memorization were required to advance. Thankfully, the boring gameplay was offset by the sights and sounds unique to each genre of game, with the final rpg being the only exception as the blandest and most repetitive to play. As each game finishes–some inconclusively by just fading back into the story–you find yourself back in another one of Kid’s long monologues about the troubles of growing up and how the boundaries of reality are slowly being etched away with each new game they discover.
Given 198X’s dedication to maintaining a pure recreation of the ’80s videogame aesthetic, it shouldn’t be surprising the writing, too, would be as one dimensional, yet it was often so on-the-nose in what it wanted to achieve that it was hard to listen to. The cliches and eye-rolling one-liners dropped by the voice of our mysteriously disaffected protagonist are, well, cringe. The script is read with plenty of emotion, which would be fine if it wasn’t such a living stereotype of a Spielberg film.
I don’t want to be too hard on the game, though. As I said, it’s clearly for (and by if you consider the Kickstarter used to make it) a specific kind of person, and that’s fine. I just don’t think it stands well as a game outside of that circle. It’s only part one, so maybe we’ll see some of its ideas fleshed out a bit more in the sequel. Gorgeous to look at and backed by an impressive soundtrack, 198X doesn’t run very deep. Perhaps it would’ve made for a better short film.