HIGH Supreme mood-setting, stellar music.
LOW No subtitles.
WTF It really ends like that?
For people of a certain age, 198X will be powerful stuff.
Set in (of course) the ‘80s, this kickstarted project from Hi-Bit Studios tells the tale of a disaffected teenager growing up in the suburbs looking for purpose and identity. They find it in an arcade full of standup cabinets and the camaraderie of the “coolest losers” pumping quarters into the machines.
It’s an art-house game, really. Beautifully moody pixel-art cutscenes run as 198X unspools the teen’s internal thoughts on life, school, family, and the lack of something to belong to. As each monologue ends, the scenes transition into one of five ‘80s-style arcade games. Players then complete a brief section, see another cutscene, and then begin the next arcade game.
198X’s homages include a 2D beat-‘em-up, a 2D horizontal shooter, a racing game, a side-scrolling ninja action title and a first-person dungeon crawler. They’re all only a few brief sections long, but Hi-Bit nails every one – although they look a little better than titles of that era do, it’s not hard to imagine any of them rightfully getting .25 a play back then.
With the retro gameplay firmly locked down, Hi-Bit was smart to hire Yuzo Koshiro (Ys, Streets of Rage, Sonic the Hedgehog) to help with the audio, and whatever it cost, it was money well-spent. The songs in 198X are absolutely fantastic, and this is the first time in years that I’ve wanted to immediately go online and buy a soundtrack.
The mood and tone of the period are spot-on, and seeing the teenager haunt the arcade and escape into its virtual worlds was easy to identify with — I did the very same when arcades were still a thing. However, the character’s gender is not specified and the voice actor sounds female to my ear, so I was wondering whether 198X would turn out to be about LGBTQ issues – such a turn would have been appropriate and welcome, but in its only disappointing move, the story ends before the story ends.
After five brief arcade sections and a similar number of cutscenes, a literal “TO BE CONTINUED” screen popped up. It took about 90 minutes to complete, and felt as though the narrative was just getting started — to roll credits without knowing the protagonist on a deeper level felt like an unsatisfying tease.
As a piece of work that encapsulates a specific time, place and mindset, 198X is totally on-target and resonated with me strongly. As a piece of work judged on its own merits, it feels more like a tone poem or a proof-of-concept than a fully-developed experience. The story’s an unfinished sketch, the gameplay is too brief, and I’m not sure the content would make any kind of impression on someone who didn’t grow up in the ‘80s. It’s a hell of a start, tbut this team has much further to go.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Hi-Bit Studios. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 90 minutes were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Violence, Blood and Use of Tobacco. This game is really tame in all aspects. The violence is super-basic arcade-style stuff and a few people smoke cigarettes. Honestly, there’s nothing to be worried about here except perhaps for the main character’s verbalized ennui.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game is not accessible. The gameplay is fine in all modes and none of it relies on audio cues but there are no subtitles for any of the voiceovers and a major part of the experience is hearing the main character’s thoughts! Without subtitles of any kind, Deaf players will have absolutely no idea what’s going on. This is a major, major accessibility failure.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. Each minigame controls slightly differently but they are all simple, with the D-pad or left stick controlling the character and usually only one or two buttons active at a time.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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