It isn’t unusual for a video game to delve into 30 or 40-hour playtime territory, even hundreds of hours is not uncommon. But a game doesn’t always have to be vast and sprawling in order to make an impression. Enter 198X from Hi-Bit Studios which began as a Kickstarter campaign and released on Steam (and GOG.com) back in June 2019 but later released on PlayStation 4 and more recently became available on Nintendo Switch. The game had evaded me until now and because this is a short game that you can blow through in an hour or so, I thought we would take a look at it together in a quick review style, so let’s do it!
198X tells the story of a teenager growing up in Suburbia during nineteen eighty something, who is coming into adulthood and the death of innocence which that transition can often bring with it but also eludes to some heavier plot elements lurking beneath the surface. It’s on a lonely walk through Suburbia deep in thought and reflection that our protagonist discovers the local arcade for the first time (member arcades everyone? Yeah I member) and all the wondrous sights and sounds such venues brought with them. Key parts of the story are told via the games the teenager discovers inside the arcade as the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur, with scripted animation sequences to add exposition.
Described by Hi-Bit Studios as “a love letter to the golden age of arcade games” 198X is presented in beautiful 2D pixel art bursting with rich color and smooth animation; there’s some wonderful talent on display in the graphics department. It’s easy to see the inspiration behind each segment of gameplay. From the opening Beat’Em Up sequence with a distinct Streets of Rage flavor to it, the game will go on to lead us through an R-Type style Shoot’Em Up, a racer in the same vein as Outrun, a Shinobi like ninja game before eventually culminating with a classic RPG portion. Relying on only two or less action buttons in addition to directional control, each of these elements is short lived but succeeds in being just deep enough to keep the gameplay enjoyable and engaging while still being brief enough so as to not overstay their welcome.
The visual presentation really is beautiful but 198X doesn’t falter either when it comes to the soundtrack. The tone of each piece of music marries up perfectly with what is being displayed visually and sets the tone accordingly. The Beat’Em up section for example features a suitably rocking track with a 1980s vibe where the RPG part of the game has a more fitting ethereal sound to it. In any event, the music in 198X shines and will be pleasing to old school gamers who played original titles belonging to the genres featured in this game, as well as to younger gamers who may never have seen the early games that inspired 198X. The soundtrack is expected to be made available shortly, which will be an instant purchase for myself at least.
If I had to level one criticism at 198X it would be that on occasion I would like to have seen a bit more of some of the genres. As I said earlier, their brevity does deny them the chance to become stale but I didn’t quite feel ready to let go of the opening Beat’Em Up level, nor the Shooter… In fact, I was having a lot of fun with each level. This shouldn’t be taken as much of a jab though; the game is brief in its entirety and keeping each level short also keeps it sweet and maintains the overall pace. Maybe I’m just an old timer who enjoys seeing these old game styles being shown some modern attention!
198X does a fantastic job of breathing some life into genres of old, paying homage in a respectable, loving way while achieving an identity all of its own. For me there was no weak link in the gameplay and the storytelling moments kept me engaged and looking forward to the next bit of exposition. Hi-Bit Studios’ 198X is a short experience but one I’m glad I’ve had. Here’s hoping for future instalments to build upon this solid foundation.