198X Review

As someone born in the mid-70’s, I spent a good chunk of my childhood and formative teenage years during the 80’s playing early video and home computer games. Especially Commodore 64 was precious to me and many of its games are still my all-time favorites. Extra mention must go to the computer’s advanced SID sound chip that allowed contemporary game composers to come up with brilliant soundtracks that are forever etched into my mind and also shaped my taste in music. Kickstart-backed arcade games medley 198X is squarely targeted at my generation. It’s a shadowy flight into the world of 80’s video gaming entertainment and into five different, defining genres of the era that doesn’t exist anymore. Painstakingly crafted superb pixel art is more 90’s, though, reminiscent of Commodore Amiga and Sega Megadrive/Genesis titles but the sentiments of each game snippet are true to their 80’s roots. Not to mention the amazing soundtrack which is oh, so 80’s, heavy on synth, bass and spacious, sampled guitars.

It’s good for you to know right away that it takes only two hours to complete 198X at the first go at it. If you’re willing to spend a tenner for that, you’re in for a real treat. Overarching narrative tells about Kid, a lonely and depressed teen living with a single mother. In Suburbia, a sleepy neighborhood outside the big city, every day is alike, boring and featureless. Kid is afraid to enter the adulthood. After all, something dies within a person when they cross that threshold. Often falling into dark thoughts all alone, Kid is also looking for a place and meaning in life overall. However, Kid gains comfort by finding a secret arcade hall where freaks, geeks, misfits and other outcasts, in a word, cool people, hang out. There, Kid gets immersed in video games, gaining self-confidence and growing impatient during long high school days to return to the arcade.  However, the more Kid plays, the more lines of reality begin to blur.

At first, you let bad dudes taste your knuckle sandwiches in Beating Heart, a brawler mixing old arcade favorite Renegade to Sega’s classic Streets of Rage. Controls are simple and continues aplenty when you deal the law of the street, smacking enemies in shady side alleys of a concrete jungle in a smooth-scrolling 2D beat ‘em up featuring some sweet animation. Next, Kid tests Out of the Void, a horizontally scrolling shoot ‘em up uncannily reminiscent of arcade hit R-Type with a touch of Life Force (Salamander in some parts of the world) thrown in for a good measure. A heated flight through mechanical corridors swarming with robotic enemies culminates in a show-off boss fight where pumped up lasers are called upon.

A rad babe dressed in black catches Kid’s attention. She must be the coolest girl in the world, free to do anything she wants when driving around in her black sports car. Closest to that Kid can get is when playing The Runaway, a replica of Sega’s illustrious arcade racer Outrun, minus the blonde in the passenger seat as the featured car isn’t a convertible. After three checkpoints in a surprisingly busy desert highway, the ride continues through a luxuriously lit night city, a leisurely cruise where Kid gets to reflect thoughts on freedom and video games.

After these three, relatively easy walks in the park, the challenge is suddenly amped up in Shadowplay. Sega’s famous side-scrolling ninja game Shinobi is presented as an infinity runner, spanning over several stages full of nasty obstacles to avoid and enemies to be chopped off, ending up in an escape from an intimidating spirit that looks something like straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie. Difficulty spike is considerable, as Shadowplay needs lightning-fast reflexes. To make matters worse, dying in any of its stages gets you to the very beginning of the current one. I can imagine players inexperienced with fast reactions some old-school games call for can be in some trouble. After all, not that many games nowadays require such a keen and quick controlling needed to pass Shadowplay in flying colors. I, too, got frustrated many times before I had memorized each obstacle the masked ninja runs into in a such way that I could conquer the challenge and continue Kid’s story.

However, Shadowplay ends up in an unescapable defeat, getting Kid all the more lost in the dark reality of everyday life. After suffering a long, dreary weekend that seems to last for forever, Kid travels through a rainy night to the arcade hall. There, a rudimentary action-RPG Kill Screen stands as a final challenge to overcome. I think there are not many readers out there who remember that before going for a top-down perspective, the first game in a fantastic and long-running Ultima fantasy-RPG series presented first-person dungeons. Well, Kill Screen is like them but with sci-fi overtones. You move by three-meter leaps through an angular, simple labyrinth with enemy encounters popping randomly up. The combat interface has three attacks plus a healing that, unlike offensive moves, can be used only once in each fight. Kill Screen has some neat game design going for it. Each of the three dragons you need to defeat will most probably trash you at the first go. However, as you get back up on your feet and retrace your steps back to the dragons, you’re bound to gain level-ups by defeating random enemies that converts into more hit points to endure the challenge. Also, an automap keeps tabs on a route through the maze. But does the distorted, digitized voice speak to a generic player - or straight to Kid?

Each game snippet is simple and straightforward to play, with only one or two control buttons and usually forgiving continues - apart from Shadowplay. In-between games, beautifully drawn narrative panels lay out Kid’s story. You may have noticed by now how I have deliberately avoided using personal pronoun when referring to Kid. That’s because the game’s official story synopsis does the same, too. While Kid could pass for a boy, the voice belongs to actress and musician Maya Tuttle. That makes me to think whether Kid is made intentionally asexual. In that way, players regardless of their gender can relate to Kid in their own way. Or perhaps Kid is simply a tomboy in a boys’ world of video games, or maybe there’s more to it, making the story’s coming-of-age drama about finding sexual identity that, contradicting the featured games and the presentation, is a very present-day issue. Or chances are I’m reading too much between the lines. In any case, the answer, whatever it might turn out to be, will be featured in the follow-up in the next year as 198X is only first part of the story.

198X is pure nostalgia trip to my generation and the game doesn’t make any excuses for it - nor does it need to. It’s exactly what the Swedish developers promised in their Kickstarter campaign; a two-hours thrill ride through the decade that left an indelible mark on those who experienced it. Upon overall completion, all games can be played independently. Highlights to me were Beating Heart and Out of the Void. Not only do they look authentic, they perfectly capture the essence of their genres. I would have liked to play more of them, but as it stands, 198X feels more like a demo disk mounted on a video game magazine cover with exciting game samples to try out. The overall narrative tone, in turn, could pass for an episode of Black Mirror, a TV series that isn’t afraid to dip into retro consciousness. For younger players, 198X may not open up in the same way as to us old farts. However, it’s like a museum of a bygone era when the budding digital entertainment was honest and ripe, rendered in a beautiful pixel art and channeled through a marvelous soundscape. Oh, and the ending pays a nice homage to Golden Axe – without the chasing part.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.