ICYMI is GAMINGbible’s simple way of highlighting a game that’s not quite brand new, maybe as much as a few months old, but that we’ve been playing and loving, and we really want to tell you about it.
What do you play games for? The high scores and the achievements? The relaxation they provide, whatever the themes playing out on screen? Or perhaps for escape from the world you spend your everyday in? It’s for this third reason that our protagonist in 198X, simply called Kid, comes to video games – specifically, the games of an arcade on the wrong side of suburbia, a shining beacon of otherworldly adventure in the shadow of the nearby city.
The story of 198X – a game that came out in the summer of 2019 but has only just arrived on Switch, which is how I played through it – is relatively simple. Kid is (it seems) the only child of a failed marriage, who lives with his mother in the ‘burbs. The two do not consistently see eye to eye on a lot of things.
Kid can see the blinking lights of the city from his window; the taillights on the freeway, the high-rises standing like obelisks of opportunity that his circumstances are denying him. He feels alienated at school, part of no particular crowd.
And then he discovers the arcade. It’s intoxicating, wholly alien. He’s smitten, and immediately begins thumbing quarters into the flickering cabinets. And that’s how 198X really plays: you, as Kid, take on five very different, very faithfully recreated mini-games that echo genre trends of the late 1980s.
There’s the side-scrolling brawler in a Final Fight style, called Beating Heart. Out of the Void is a surprisingly challenging R-Type ’em up, with an end boss of suitably epic proportions. The Runaway is a neon-tinged Outrun, and one of two games here where Kid’s own circumstances imposes on the gameplay, with narrative added to the final stretch.
Shadowplay takes cues from Strider and Shinobi, with a little Ghibli in the mix – in one section, you’re chased by a massive, Spirited Away-style No-Face-alike. It’s the other game here that’ll test your reactions – and possibly your patience, as there are a few fast-paced, insta-fail sequences.
Finally, Kill Screen is a first-person-perspective maze-set role-player, in the classic Eye of the Beholder style, which is wholly infected by Kid’s relationship with his mother, with messages appearing on screen like “Go to your room” and “You are grounded”.
All of these games are brilliant tasters of prevalent styles of the era. A couple of them, notably Beating Heart and Shadowplay, benefit aesthetically from modern tech, with pixel art that simply wasn’t possible on period hardware, while still being hugely evocative of the games of 198X‘s setting.
The synthwave soundtrack is terrifically on-point, too, and will appeal effortlessly to anyone smitten with the sounds of Stranger Things. There are rock flourishes, too, in The Runaway; and Shadowplay benefits from original music courtesy of Yuzo Koshiro, the composer behind such SEGA greats as the Streets of Rage series and The Revenge of Shinobi.
Tobias Bjarneby, writer and director of 198X at Swedish studio Hi-Bit, said of that collaboration: “I believe that Yuzo Koshiro really shaped the sound of this era, so it’s been a huge honour to have him on board.” And he’s not wrong.
He adds that “198X is a video game about falling in love with video games,” and again, it’s hard to argue otherwise. If you played these kinds of games back when, like I did, then this is one hell of a nostalgia rush. And if not, 198X‘s bite-sized samples of gaming from yesteryear makes for a terrific history lesson.
198X is over in about an hour, 90 minutes at a push (if Shadowplay really grinds you down), with between-game sequences restricted to cutscenes – cutscenes with the most gorgeous pixel art, but cutscenes nonetheless. But it ends with a “to be continued” message, Kid’s journey far from over.
This first instalment was made possible, at least partially, by a crowdfunding campaign, so it could be that Hi-Bit go down the same route for its sequel – at least, if they need a top-up. And if they do, based on what I’ve seen here, I’ll be putting some of my own money down, with pleasure.
198X is out now for PC, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. We played the game on Switch using code provided by Hi-Bit Studios.