I am, if nothing else, very sentimental about video games. A lot of my memories are interlocked with the games I was playing at the time and the simple mention of certain titles can trigger feelings from times gone by. I’ve always devoted a portion of myself to my favourite hobby, so I’m often introspective about it.
I was too young to enjoy the 1980s, the decade in which 198X takes place, but I don’t feel like a stranger to it. I’ve sucked in too much of its media to really consider myself ignorant of its neon-soaked sights and sounds. However, those days are gone and times have changed. Arcades have gone the way of the payphones: you have to really be looking to find one. Luckily, the arcade spirit never died in the indie sphere, so we’re still sometimes afforded the chance to go back and see what those times were all about.
198X is the story of… some teenager (was his name mentioned? I don’t think it was), who finds himself visiting a local arcade to escape the problems of his life. The story is presented using cutscenes bookended by representations of the arcade games he’s presumably playing, sometimes with the melancholic narration creeping in over top.
Much like a real teenager, the story is convincingly angsty and not entirely coherent. One moment we talk about some girl who the lead character fancies, and then she’s never mentioned again. Then we play OutRun.
It creates a weird mix. You get these disconnected snippets of story before getting plunked into the next game. It plays out in a linear fashion, so rather than checking out the newest games to land in the arcade mix, you’re just… suddenly playing R-Type.
This is where I get confused. I’m not sure what the game is trying to convey. The story is too incoherent to present likable characters and memorable locations. If the gameplay is trying to invoke nostalgia, I think that ship has sailed and other games do it far better. There are full games out there that take inspiration from the very same sources as 198X, but actually let you play more than one level.
Since the cutscenes are so simple, you would expect the games to take center stage in sort of a — if you’ll excuse the deep cut — Retro Game Challenge sort of way, where the major challenge is in toppling the games, while the story itself plays out as sort of a framework. But it’s not that. The story is obviously meant to be the primary focus here.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARCADE
It’s something like an essay or memoir about the late-‘80s arcade, except every so often it lets you play Outrun. The two portions of the game don’t gel well most of the time. The only time it really feels like the gameplay isn’t just sitting atop the story like whipped cream on pie is when the narration creeps into the aforementioned Outrun throwback. The final game tries to tie it all together but feels a bit more like it’s tripping through the fourth wall like a pixellated Shockmaster.
I feel like there should have been more to draw us into the arcade. Maybe, rather than just breaking up story by having you play R-Type, you get to choose what game you play, and then once you complete it, you’re rewarded with the next chapter. At least then the arcade would feel like an actual place rather than just the concept of escape.
But how are the games? Good, for the most part. I always feel a little joyful when a raster racer shows up, and the R-Type clone is unconventional but stylish.
I think the biggest issues I had was an auto-running game that felt like it took more inspiration from modern mobile games than classic arcade titles and a beat-’em-up that definitely is no Streets of Rage.
That’s kind of the problem. None of the games actually hold a candle to those that they took inspiration from. They’re short, easily completed tastes. What do they accomplish? I don’t know. They at least have a nicely uniform sense of style, for what that’s worth.
I JUST DON’T KNOW
198X seems a bit confused or maybe it’s me that’s confused. I don’t know whether it’s trying to poke me in the nostalgia part of my brain or if it’s just trying to tell a story. If it’s the former, then it fails to do so effectively. If it’s the latter, then I don’t feel the formula is applied in a way that highlights this.
It could be me, though. Maybe I just don’t relate to ’80s teens. Maybe I’m missing the point entirely, and the reason it doesn’t invoke any emotion from me is that my teenage years were appropriately traumatizing but in different ways. Video games have always been more of a hobby to me than an escape, and maybe that’s where the separation is.
What I ended up with is a taste of a few decent renditions of familiar games punctuated by a story about teen angst that doesn’t really seem to get anywhere before the closing credits (though a to be continued teases a possible 199X). It’s also completely over in about an hour or two with no real replay value. What was left for me at the end is a fairly forgettable experience and a vague urge to dig out Retro Game Challenge to revisit the early days of gaming in a way that actually conveys the sights and sounds.
This review was conducted on a Nintendo Switch using a digital copy of the game purchased off the Eshop. It was paid for by the author.