There's no denying that for many people, video games offer a means to escape the hum-drum of their daily lives and enter a world that promises plenty of excitement, as well as a stern challenge. For the young protagonist of 198X – known only as 'The Kid' – there's something more than that; video games are how he deals with domestic problems as well as the pains of growing up in featureless, uninspiring suburbia. Living alone with his mother in a tiny house and distanced from his schoolmates, he spends the majority of his time staring out of his bedroom window at the exciting cityscape lying tantalisingly on the horizon – and when he's not doing that, he's at the local basement arcade pumping coins into the latest and greatest games of this fictional yet familiar period in time.
That's the premise of 198X, a game that's as much about celebrating the arcade era as it is about documenting the growing pains of disenfranchised teens. It covers stuff like identity, broken households and unrequited love, but a lot of that dialogue happens in the background as you blast your way through five totally different video games set in five distinct classic genres.
First up is Beating Heart, a game clearly inspired by Sega's Streets of Rage series (the character sprite even has the same pose as Axel in the third Streets of Rage outing). This side-scrolling fighter actually serves as the game's prologue and gives the player a basic move set – you can punch, flying kick, grapple and throw enemies, and there's a special roundhouse kick (executed by pressing attack and jump at the same time) which is useful for crowd control. You can also pick up weapons and consume food to replenish your health. Like the majority of the games in 198X, Beating Heart doesn't outstay its welcome and before long, you're onto the next title, Out Of The Void.
Influenced by games like Irem's R-Type and Konami's Axelay (especially the latter's stage two setting), this horizontal shooter boasts some gorgeous visuals and demanding gameplay, as well as one of the most memorable end-of-level bosses we've ever witnessed in this kind of game. You collect power-ups and even have a charge shot (just like R-Type) which can be utilised to take out waves of enemies or deal extreme damage to tougher foes.
Out Of The Void lasts for two fantastic stages, and you're then dropped into The Runaway, a clone of Sega's Out Run which sadly serves as little more than a means of expanding the narrative. It's a lovely-looking but an ultimately undemanding drive along a smoothly-scrolling highway as the protagonist talks about his hopes, dreams and current situation, amongst other things.
Next up is the forced-scrolling Shinobi-like title Shadowplay, which is easily the hardest game included in this package. Not only does it throw a lot of hazards at you and your limited stock of health, but it also requires you to memorize stage layouts to avoid spikes, and try to outrun a Japanese demon that resembles the character 'No Face' from Hayao Miyazaki's seminal anime movie Spirited Away. During your mad dash, you're expected to collect magical blue orbs to fill up a gauge which, when at total capacity, grants access to stronger blade attacks.
The fifth and final game takes the form of a dungeon-crawling Japanese RPG called Kill Screen – a slightly odd inclusion because these titles are supposed to be situated in an amusement arcade. While this inconsistency might be jarring, the game itself is well-presented and forms a crucial part of 198X's narrative, giving you more insight into The Kid's domestic situation. Each monster you meet is weak to one of your three available attack types, and you have the ability to heal yourself when you take too much damage. Death sends you back to the beginning of the stage, but you retain your experience level, which means eventually you'll conquer the dungeon – even if you're failing repeatedly.
What we've just described might sound like a disconnected selection of faux-retro experiences, but 198X ties these titles together with some impressively-drawn cutscenes showing the player character at school, in their room or exploring their old treehouse, packed with memories of a now-distant childhood. The rather melodramatic voice-over expands on the mood of the protagonist, lamenting the crushing regimen of college and the way other kids have been 'brainwashed' by the education system.
While some of these might seem a little over-indulgent, by the time you reach the conclusion of 198X it's clear there are deeper issues being dealt with here, and while there's still a degree of ambiguity present, the game's narrative is pretty effective at capturing the reasons why people want to escape their worldly worries via the medium of interactive entertainment – as well as why they might crave the feeling of unity and belonging that was engendered by amusement arcades of the '80s and '90s.
Visually, 198X is a real treat. The graphics maintain a detailed, striking look all the way through, boasting a degree of uniformity that is especially impressive when you consider that you've got real-world cutscenes rubbing shoulders with shmup sections and an entire game set in feudal Japan. Many games which try the same 'melting pot' approach end up feeling disjointed and awkward, but 198X avoids that pitfall superbly, creating an aesthetic which bonds together despite the disparate nature of each individual mini-game.
The music, too, is fantastic. Boasting the talents of Anton Dromberg, Daniel Rosenqvist, U.F.L. and – most notably – Streets of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro himself, the soundtrack to 198X is perfectly suited to the on-screen action. Each game has its own unique musical identity, while the cutscenes which link each title are accompanied by some lush, synth-drenched ambient tracks that do a great job of setting the mood.
While it could definitely be argued that some of 198X's games are lacking in substance and depth when compared to the titles that inspired them, the package gels together nicely as a whole (although we'd dare say we'd love to see developer Hi-Bit Studios tackle a full 2D shooter in the same vein as Out Of The Void – it's perhaps the highlight of the entire game). The other big problem is longevity; we breezed through 198X in around an hour, and while it's possible to play each individual mini-game on its own once the end credits have rolled, there's little reason to return outside of boosting your high score.
However, there's something to be said for quality over quantity; while the game is indeed short, we enjoyed every single second and have played through it again a second time, as well as dropping into each arcade title a few times over as well (they're unlocked for individual play after you finish the game). While we certainly would have liked to have seen more substance here, we're thoroughly glad we experienced 198X, and it has stayed in our minds over the past few days – which is as sure an indication that a game has made an impact as you can get. That places 198X in the same company as titles like Sayonara Wild Hearts and Untitled Goose Game; short and sweet adventures which leave their mark, despite being over all too quickly.
A passionate love letter to a bygone age, 198X celebrates 2D, arcade-based gaming brilliantly and wraps it up in some of the best hand-drawn art we've seen in years. The soundtrack is also exceptional, and, in terms of pure presentation, it's really hard to fault what's on offer here. 198X's biggest weakness is its brevity; you can finish it in around an hour, but the experience will remain with you for long after the credits have rolled. While we're sure many people will consider the game's shortness a cardinal sin, we'd still recommend you give it a try if you're a fan of '80s and '90s gaming, appreciate lush 2D artwork and desire an experience which firmly lodges itself in your consciousness – even if it doesn't last all that long.