I do love it when a game turns up that just blows me away. 198X is such a game. I knew of its existence and it looked lovely in the trailers, but I was pretty much going in blind. I am glad I did.
The 1980s are an odd era, in many ways they are the start of the journey into the modern world. Much of what we have today was born in the 80s. It was also the decade I spend my early childhood, so of course it holds nice memories. There is a reason TV shows, movies and other media go back to it.
198X is unashamedly a love letter to the 80s. The look, the feel, the sound. Everything it does pushes those nostalgia buttons and biy, does it know how to push those buttons.
What you have in 198X is a coming of age story told through the lens of the main protagonist as they narrate their life to you. The pixel art is glorious here and brings the words to life. The voice acting and score mixed with the pixel art is a nigh on perfect blend, that engages you from the very first moment to the last.
The concept is interesting too, breaking up the narrative with 5 different arcade games in 5 different genres. Each designed to move the story forward but add interactivity in a relevant way.
You have a Beat ‘Em Up, Shoot ‘Em Up, Racer, Ninja Game and an RPG. Each one clearly inspired by certain titles from the past and each showing the love the game designers had for them.
If you take the racing game for example. You feel the love for games like Out Run and Chase HQ. Or with the Beat ‘Em Up, there is clear influence from Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, etc. But they aren’t presented in a way that says “Remember those games… here they are again”
Instead they are designed in such a way that you just feel comfortable the moment you play them. You find them familiar, but never feeling like you are just playing those games again.
Now each of the games are very shorts, lasting a few minutes before ending and the story moving on. This is a clever move from the dev team too. To make a fully fledged game in each genre would take a lot more effort and would need a lot more development time.
What you have here instead is a short homage to those genres, with the mechanics and controls boiled down to their basics. Spend much longer with any of them and you’ll see where they lack. Yet the short burst on each is just enough that you never once feel that any of them are too basic.
Each game is pretty easy, making them almost impossible to fail (with the personal exception of the Shoot ‘Em Up), which works in a 5 minute window to progress a story, but would fall down in a fuller game.
Clever design again is the controls for each game, using one or two buttons make things simple to understand. A more complicated control scheme for each would need to introduce the players to games individually and possibly take them out of the moment. But simplicity here works so well in context.
The soundtrack is pure brilliance too. When I watched other 80s homages, such as Stranger Things, it was the music that stayed with me. The same is true of 198X, the soundtrack is exceptional and it has stuck in my head since. Again, very good design here, especially in a game that is short and has to cram a lot in.
Yes 198X is a short game, so be warned. It will last you the length of a standard movie. Don’t let that put you off though, as not every game we play needs to be a 40-300 hour epic. There is room for these short experiences, especially if they tell a good story.
That is what 198X does, it tells a good story and one that doesn’t ever out stay its welcome. Some may argue there should be more, but personally I felt the end came at the right time. I honestly think it is a brave decision by the team to just stick by their guns and keep it short.
198X is a fine game and one that you should pick up and enjoy. It has left a lasting impression on me and it will do to you too.