198X (Switch) Review
Every now and then a new indie game comes out with a retro style, aimed at delivering a unique spin on classic genres while also depicting itself as a ‘love-letter’ to a bygone era. 198X, by Hi-Bit Studios, is such a title which strives to do all of this, while also portraying the life of an angsty teen who finds solace, and a connection to reality, in video games.
198X describes itself as “an arcade epic”, which is entirely the opposite of what it is. The game tells a coming-of-age story about a teenager called Kid, who feels disconnected with the world around them in a way that’s familiar to anyone past their formative years. Kid is a loner, living in the ‘80s, and being typically moody about growing up. One night they stumble upon a dinky parlour filled with beepy melodies, cigarette smoke and neon lights: an arcade. The discovery of these machines provides Kid with doorways to new worlds and thrills they otherwise haven’t found in the monotony of real life.
The game spares no time in launching its thematic romanticism of the arcade era. 198X begins with a Streets of Rage-esque beat ‘em up, complete with the expected tropes; mohawked street punks, baseball bats, et al. It’s here where Hi-Bit Studios begins showing off its talented pool of pixel artists, with bespoke animations and stage design; the game looks fantastic, but I’d argue the fidelity of the arcade games is higher than their actual counterparts, especially for the ‘80s. The story also features a sci-fi shmup, a highway racer, a side-scrolling ninja slasher, and a first-person dungeon RPG – all of which play and feel exactly as you’d expect, and somewhat fit thematically within the narrative’s framework. ‘Out of the Void’ (shmup) and ‘The Runaway’ (racer) particularly stand out for their replications of R-Type and OutRun, respectively, despite becoming easier renditions.
For all its meticulous design in art and sound, 198X doesn’t take the narrative anywhere that feels especially satisfying. Much like Kid, the game spends its hour runtime meandering aimlessly between arcade stints. The moments of playability are relegated to the arcade remakes, each only providing a handful of stages at the most. Art, sound, and gameplay are so incredibly executed it’s hard to find any fault among them apart from their lengths. 198X does so well at delivering a taste of most of what’s offered, but I couldn’t help feeling bummed there wasn’t more of any of it.
Between each arcade visit, Kid’s story unfolds in beautiful pixel-art cutscenes reminiscent of anime films like Akira (Kid even closely resembles Kaneda), with an oddly noir tone, void of any conflict or dramatic intrigue. In fact, the story is where 198X falls shortest in its overall package. Cutscenes feature an internal monologue about life happening around Kid, but aside from heading to the arcade, they don’t display any significant character growth by the game’s conclusion. 198X sets Kid up as a loner teen embracing a new counter-culture and finding some sort of meaning in themself, but instead it’s ultimately about someone who realises they like video games. A ‘part 2’ to this story is apparently in the works, and will hopefully build upon what’s been established.
All that said, The Runaway is the game’s high point of thematic unity between 198X’s narrative and gameplay. Here it draws parallels between Kid’s desire for finding an escape from life in suburbia, and the racer’s goal of speeding towards the city. The moment is so well executed I wish that motif was driven further throughout the experience, arriving at a more satisfying destination.
Ultimately, I did enjoy my time with 198X. Much like my own youthful trips to the arcade, it dazzled me briefly but cuts itself short before delivering a substantial experience. What it does succeed at, though, is decorating itself in a pastiche of ‘80s arcade hits, with a brilliant aesthetic and authentic retro remakes. The $15 price isn’t outrageous, but the short runtime might be enough to convince you to wait for a sale before pumping those hard-earned coins.
+ Looks great.
+ Sounds great.
+ Plays great.
- Too short.
- Thin story that lacks authentic development.
- Whiney Kid.