A Sputtering Trip Down Memory Lane

Originally Posted June 22nd, 2019

Gamers will remember when they picked up their first game as a kid: the feel of the buttons, the flashing lights on the screen, the waves of emotions through each pixel. These memories weren’t as mainstream and accessible as they are in present day, so players would gather in droves to spend their quarters to experience these adventures in arcades around the world. With a silver coin and a steady hand, many devoted hours upon hours of their free time aiming to beat the highest score or defeat their friends and rivals; but for some, it provided an psychological outsource from the real world, where one can escape the harsh realities of growing up and become who they want to be, one quarter at a time.

198X follows one such Kid, a nobody teen who shies away from succumbing to the social norm. Troubled in school and friendships, the Kid drowns himself in his cassette player, riding the apathetic waves of his small town hoping the monotonous ripples would turn to a ground-rocking tidal wave. On one night of strolling through the normality, the Kid sees a neon mirage in the quiet of suburbia, and when he enters, he sees what he calls, “The coolest uncool people,” and a plethora of games that drive his imagination and will to seek a way out of his lifestyle and become something more.

Dubbed a coming-of-age story through multiple games and genres, 198X tells the narrative of The Kid through five retro trips down memory lane. Games like Starforce and The Black Onyx get a makeover to overlay the timeline of the Kid’s life, and each game is brought to life with such care. 198X cold opens with the ode to Final Fight and Streets of Rage with its iteration titled Beating Heart. The level plays so well, and I’ve never felt a chunkier, more satisfying hit come off of a baseball bat than when I used it here. The Runaway198X‘s homage to OutRun, has a beautiful section where the open road transforms into a fluorescent-soaked line of buildings, and The Kid overlaps his feelings of escapism and his want of individuality with a sprawling synth-wave chorus that absolutely takes a hold of you and doesn’t let go. Each game fits so in tune with the story at hand, with the old-school RPG dubbed Kill Screen putting such an exclamation point on the topic of separation of family and feelings of loneliness that I still get goosebumps thinking about the final leg of that level.

And while I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed the game, I cannot stress enough how disappointed I am for what I purchased. While Hi-Bit does proclaim that 198X will run about 2 hours, with multiple re-tries on a few mini-games, I finished the first part of this saga in about 65 minutes. Another problem is just that: this is part 1 of a game that was led to be a full title when it was originally announced via Kickstarter back in 2017. It’s so depressing seeing the love and care brought into 198X only to decide to cut the game in multiple parts knowing promises could not be kept. The majority of plot lines that are put into 198X, the Kid’s first look at love for example, get presented as a possible footnote for what you feel will be touched on later, only to be never talked about again. I feel like Hi-Bit had the opportunity to really build an amazing story like what was promised, but they ran out of time and money, and needed the financial bump to make it possible; so they released what they felt was enough to warrant a $9.99 price tag.

But it doesn’t. Aside from a delicious nugget of 1980s teen drama, 198X offers absolutely nothing else after the credits roll. No gallery (which I know wasn’t a stretch goal that got enough money), no extras, nothing. Once you devote the hour of time to finish the game, there are zero reasons to come back to it, unless you want to play the mini-games again, which do not change at all when you return to them. With all the time and resources allocated to bring on a project that does such a great job in associating a coming-of-age tale with the 16-bit nostalgia that has slowly taken the industry by storm: it’s baffling and very concerning to see that all that could be mustered up is a hour long prologue billed on par and in some cases higher than some full-fledged indie titles currently on the market. With the sequel to be released in 2020, wait for the inevitable “full game” sale and avoid this at retail price, before the rose-tinted glasses slowly get pulled away and you realize it’s too late to see what little there is to show.

Reviewed on PC/Steam.