198X taps into our love for the games of the ’80s, giving you a handful of short gaming vignettes wrapped around a simple story about the pain of growing up. The games themselves look more like ’90s SNES games than ’80s arcade titles (albeit very handsome SNES games), but 198X’s neon aesthetic (and, of course, its name) is clearly trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia for this period. Unfortunately, despite a few nice homages, it’s not a particularly transportive experience.
198X features five faux-’80s arcade games to play through, and they’re short enough that the whole thing, story sequences included, wraps in less than two hours. They’re not quite minigames–they’re framed as tiny slices of full games that exist within the narrative’s world, the first few levels of five larger experiences. These games, which are chained together sequentially by beautiful pixel-art cutscenes set to a synth soundtrack, make up the entirety of 198X’s gameplay. The plot centers on the “Kid” (he’s never named beyond this), who lives in a suburb outside of a major city. He watches the highway at night and thinks about getting out of town. He seems generally unhappy with his life, until he discovers an arcade hidden away in an old abandoned factory and discovers a sense of purpose and place amidst the machines and patrons there.
198X suffers from some of the same problems that Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One suffered from. If that book’s insistence that being a geek is inherently good irritated you, then 198X’s vague reverence for arcades and youth will likely have a similar effect. There’s something very immature about the game’s portrayal of the Kid and the way he talks about his idealistic childhood, while giving limited insight into why things are so hard on him now. “You get to high school and everyone’s brainwashed,” he says at one point, which is about as deep as the game gets in its exploration of the difficulty of one’s teenage years. You’re not given enough insight into the Kid to really get a sense of why this arcade is so important to him, beyond a few vague references to his father not being around anymore.
Of the five games you play through in 198X, only two really touch on the boy’s struggles in a meaningful way. Playing through the five games in order, then, doesn’t tell us a lot about more about the Kid’s private life, and there’s little real sense of why they are important to him beyond a general sentiment that games are powerful and important by default. Much of this narrative assumes your own investment in the power of an arcade, and the game doesn’t put much effort into selling you on why this particular arcade, and these particular games, mean so much to the Kid.
Your first foray into the arcade comes through Beating Heart, a Final Fight-style brawler with a simple two-button control scheme. It’s the most basic game included–you can punch, do a jump kick, or perform a spinning kick, and if you die while facing off against the handful of enemy types, you can immediately respawn without penalty. It’s a simple introduction, with a lovely period-appropriate midi soundtrack that does a great job of evoking the arcade classics it is paying homage to (in fact, this is true of every game in 198X). But it doesn’t offer anything interesting or unique in its mechanics, nor does it contribute much to the narrative of the Kid.
Next is Out of the Void, a shooter clearly inspired by R-Type, which only runs for two levels. You fly from left to right, collecting ship upgrades and firing regular and charged shots to take down your enemies. It’s solid fun, if nothing spectacular, and things get quite hairy in the second level. It’s one of the more enjoyable games in 198X simply because it actually feels pretty close to a decent arcade space shooter. Alas, it’s over very quickly, and while it’s relatively enjoyable, it’s certainly not as inventive or intense as the best games in the genre–the final boss, for instance, is a pushover. A more challenging experience, or some unique mechanics, would have better represented the games from this period that we have actual nostalgia for.
After this comes The Runaway, an OutRun-style driving game that lacks the arcade classic’s sense of speed and whimsy. The lack of gear changes and sharp corners makes this one a bit of a snooze, although it’s also the game in the collection that achieves the most resonance with the narrative–at a certain point, elements of the world you’ve seen in the cutscenes blend into the game. It’s a neat trick, but it’s in service of a plot that isn’t particularly gripping..
Shadowplay, a “ninja” game, is the standout of 198X. It’s the longest game in the collection (although you’ll still likely finish it in about 20 minutes). You play as a fast-running ninja across a series of automatically-scrolling screens. You can move left and right, jump, slide, and slash your sword at enemies ahead of you. It’s got the feel of an involved auto-runner, and timing your jumps and slashes to avoid enemy attacks and traps is engaging, with ever-changing level designs and interesting challenges that hit the right balance of difficulty where the game is challenging without being frustrating.
The platforms, spikes and pits you encounter make you read your environment and think about how you time your movements as you run through each level slashing at your enemies. You can collect power-ups to give your sword a greater reach, and there are more levels here (and more gameplay variety) than in the other games. There’s even a great boss fight at the end where you have to dodge between multiple platforms as a demon shoots tendrils at you, and reaching the end feels satisfying in a way the other games don’t. As much as 198X feels like a gimmick, Shadowplay stands out as an experience that feels like it could work as a full title. It feels disconnected from the overarching narrative, but it’s the most enjoyable part of the 198X.
The final game, Kill Screen, is a simple first-person RPG. It’s aiming to be weird and creepy rather than particularly challenging, and on that level, it works fairly well. It’s meant to represent the mental state of the protagonist, who has, up until that point, spent every cutscene moping. It works as a mood piece, and there’s some cool weird imagery in there, but the gameplay, which involves hunting for dragons in a maze full of random encounters, is very simple. There’s a neat Paper Mario-inspired mechanic where you can time button presses on attacks to do more damage, and the weird enemy designs are inventive, but it’s fairly one-note in both its gameplay model and its commentary on the Kid’s state of mind.
198X ends with a “To Be Continued.” This feels appropriate because the game, which is not being explicitly billed as episodic on its Steam page, feels not just short, but incomplete. As neat as the concept is, 198X doesn’t do enough to sell you on the connection between the metanarrative of the Kid and the arcade games he is playing–or spend enough time investing you in why any of this matters. There’s promise in some of these short genre riffs, but the game doesn’t give you many reasons to care about the Kid and his desire to get out of the suburbs.
198X is a great idea with middling execution. While its games offer some brief enjoyment, there’s not enough here for the game to feel like a proper ode to ’80s arcades, nor does the Kid’s plight, and his longing to escape his current life, totally connect. There’s definitely a spark of something here–and Shadowplay, in particular, is a lot of fun–but 198X feels more like a proof of concept than a final product.