198X wears its inspirations and influences on its sleeve and runs with it. Hi-Bit Studios’ latest entry has now made it over to the Nintendo Switch and it is a love letter to the heyday of arcade and retro gaming that switches from genre to genre while also managing to be a compelling and emotional coming of age tale about the anxieties of entering into adulthood and the impact that video games have as a form of cathartic escapism. Even though you can complete the game in an hour, it’s still a worthwhile experience for the $10 price tag.
In 198X, you follow the story of Kid, who serves as a type of placeholder protagonist so that the player can easily insert themselves into the narrative. Kid is simply trying to figure out what comes next while simultaneously navigating The fear of the unknown that awaits them beyond high school and into adulthood is the driving force that leads them into the neon-soaked arcade where all of the gameplay sections take place.
Kid’s fears and anxieties resonated with me extremely well and reminded me of my time growing up and finding solace in video games when I would feel lost myself. Kid’s story is also there to serve as a framing device for each gameplay segment that thematically fits into what Kid is feeling in that exact moment in the story. Between each segment, you’re given more insight into Kid’s worries about entering adulthood which is provided via voiceover narration and some absolutely beautiful pixel art.
As soon as I started 198X, I was immediately enamored by the aesthetic and the music. The beautiful pixel art harkens back to a simpler time in gaming, while also clearly being a modern release on this current generation of consoles given that art such as this wasn’t possible just yet. The visuals strike a happy medium between retro and modern design choices and do it amazingly. The music also adds to the 80’s vibes with melodic synth-heavy tracks that fit each game type and serve to further immerse you in the game’s world and narrative.
The gameplay in 198X is a greatest hits of some of the most influential video game titles of the ’80s. As Kid journeys through the arcade and explains their worries about the future, each game they approach serves to symbolically explain where they are emotionally at that given time. There are five different game types within 198X and they all take inspiration from classic arcade and retro titles. As you progress, you’ll find yourself playing through short sections inspired by games like Double Dragon, Defender, Strider, Outrun, and even first-person RPGs like Bard’s Tale. Each segment plays differently and has its own distinct art style, making each one its own unique experience and could very easily be their own standalone game. Each one also has a fair challenge to them, but your mileage may vary if one game type isn’t your strong suit.
For instance, I love beat-em-ups like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage so I blazed through that one. Whereas the Defender-inspired space ship shoot-em-up segment gave me some trouble. Even if there is some difficulty to be had, there isn’t any real consequence for failure aside from having to restart a small gameplay segment again. This isn’t too much of a headache since each one is fairly short and none of them ever overstay their welcome. 198X has such reverence for its influences and it’s apparent that the developers took great care into crafting each respective gameplay style so that they all feel distinct and as nostalgia-inducing as possible.
As beautiful as the art, story, and music are and how expertly crafted each of the varied gameplay segments are, I only would have liked to see some more depth and incentives for replay value post-game. Upon completing 198X, you get the ability to select the game types again and play them as you see fit, but without any kind of recorded scoring system or leaderboards, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to replay them aside from going back and experiencing a segment that you enjoyed a second time. All of that being said, 198X is a $10 title which I think makes the game’s length and amount of available content justified. There is also a tease for more content in the future involving Kid and I am more than happy to see how their story unfolds and how the varied gameplay styles continue to be seamlessly integrated into the narrative.
Hi-Bit Studios’ love letter to 80’s era gaming checked a lot of personal boxes for me. The ever-shifting gameplay styles kept the overall experience fresh and reaching each narrative point where essentially a new game would be introduced was a treat every time. Each segment has its own feel and style to it and could all very well be five full games if they had been expanded on, but each one serves a purpose to Kid’s overall story and never last longer than they need to which is to 198X’s benefit.
As much as I enjoy sprawling and lengthy gaming experiences, there is definitely a place for truncated and bite-sized experiences as well, especially ones that can resonate with players and make them feel the emotions. The game does leave you wanting more but ultimately promises more of Kid and their soul-searching adventure through video games in the future. If you’re looking for a quick jog down memory lane filled with nostalgia and a strong emotional core, then 198X will not disappoint.
198X is available now on Steam, GOG, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
The game does leave you wanting more but ultimately promises more of Kid and their soul-searching adventure through video games in the future. If you’re looking for a quick jog down memory lane filled with nostalgia and a strong emotional core, then 198X will not disappoint.