The ‘80s were hugely influential years in video game history, and we see that reflected in the abundance of modern games that appeal to our nostalgia for the era. With new twists on old formulas, many current titles are inspired by the ’80s, but they don’t necessarily feel like they belong there. That’s where 198X is different. This gauntlet of arcade experiences doesn’t try to put a clever spin on the games of that decade as much as it tries to replicate them. With five levels that imitate five retro classics, 198X admirably succeeds in capturing the authenticity it strives for. However, in that hyper-focused effort, its depth of gameplay and narrative suffer.
If you have fond memories of the heyday of arcades, 198X brings them to the surface through a series of familiar genres. Every stage is modeled after a different old-school game (Final Fight, R-Type, Outrun, Strider, and Phantasy Star), and when taken together, they convey an aesthetic moment in time incredibly well. Detailed sprites, colorful backgrounds, and an impeccable soundtrack nail the vibe and make you feel like you are playing fragments of games that could have existed in the 1980s. Plus, they capture similar moments and thrills, like a giant laser-spewing robot appearing in front of your tiny spaceship, or the sense of speed as your sword-slashing ninja barrels forward.
I enjoyed how each of these games felt immediately familiar and comfortable. They aren’t exactly carbon copies of the source material, but any muscle memory you have definitely transfers. If you don’t have experience with the originals, the controls are accessible and intuitive enough to help you feel at home. However, 198X can’t escape the shallowness of these brief jaunts. The games are built directly on 30-year-old templates, and their mechanics are too simple to give you a sense of mastery or escalation. That problem is magnified by how quickly you are shuffled from one level to the next; the whole game only takes an hour or two to finish, so no stage type gets enough time to shine.
The story tying the various levels together is also disappointing. It’s presented as a coming-of-age tale that chronicles how a teenager called Kid discovers video games in a dingy arcade, and the freedom that comes from these digital worlds. However, the theme is mainly explored through cutscenes full of obvious teenage observations about isolation and belonging. Nothing actually happens, since the game doesn’t have plot points or character development. No narrative threads bind the different game genres either, so the levels you’re playing feel disconnected. Only in the Outrun-style game, which is bookended by musings about freedom, is there a smooth transition between the story and action.
198X is part one of a two-part tale (with the second part scheduled for release next year), which explains the incompleteness to a point, but the story doesn’t establish the foundation necessary to build true excitement for what comes next. However, I am eager to see what new old games the next chapter holds; the team at Hi-Bit Studios clearly understands the landscape surrounding iconic ‘80s games and the many facets of their appeal. 198X reminds players that even simple arcade experiences (or their recreations) can provide an interesting escape.