With things like Netflix’s Stranger Things series, the popularity of synthwave music, neon colours, and the image of a vintage arcade full of interactive experiences, the 1980s is a decade often thought of fondly. Especially when viewed through the prism of a child or adolescent growing up during the dawn of the videogame era in a makeshift home video as directed by Steven Spielberg. 198X from indie team Hi-Bit Studios presents an interesting attempt at a coming of age story told through the prism of classic arcade and 16-bit era archetypes.
Stuff like Final Fight, R-Type, Outrun, and Strider interspersed with a story following a character simply called the Kid - musing on subjects like isolation, coming from a troubled home, and the solace found at a local video arcade.
Where it falters, like with so many nostalgic forms of media, is the tendency to rely on aesthetic. This applies to the types of games 198X recreates, often utilising stunning pixel-art and animation, but with surface level gameplay and a story that doesn’t quite land. Going to the video store, feeling like an outcast at school, the tree house as a refuge, leaving behind childish things, discovering somewhere that you fit in. Universal themes sure, but due to most of it presented via quiet narration there’s little in the way of plot or narrative flow to be found in 198X. Instead it comes off more like a homage to similar tales.
"198X from indie team Hi-Bit Studios presents an interesting attempt at a coming of age story told through the prism of classic arcade and 16-bit era archetypes."
That said, the aesthetics are quite impressive. As is the excellent voice acting, cinematography, and music. There’s care and attention put it into every sprite. And when this encompasses ninjas fighting in a feudal fantasy setting, street thugs in a dystopian vision of the ‘80s, a space age filled robots and laser-spewing ships, and a tender look at inner-city and suburban environments, it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with 1980X. From a nostalgic perspective at least.
Which has a flow on effect to the individual games with the game too. Starting with the rather simplistic brawler Beating Heart – a rudimentary take on the Double Dragon-style beat-em up genre that doesn’t offer anything new. Beat up street thugs, pick up a weapon, some food to restore health, press both buttons to perform a special attack. It’s over after a few minutes, and really that’s all the time you need. Things do pick-up from there though with the next game being an impressive slice of classic R-Type side-scrolling called Blazing Chrome that offers up a decent challenge in what is an excellent homage and facsimile.
"Often utilising stunning pixel-art and animation, but with surface level gameplay and a story that doesn’t quite land."
The entire game, which is said to represent the first part of a two-part story, clocks in at under two-hours so one could argue that there simply isn’t enough room for nuance. The Outrun homage, which ties itself to the actual real-world story better than the other examples is a simple pick-up-and-play affair that serves a narrative purpose rather than a gameplay one. Fine for a few minutes to soak in the retro-visuals and synth-heavy soundtrack, but very little to keep you coming back for more. Something that was a hallmark of the vintage arcade, and unfortunately an aspect of the era that 198X fails to capture.
Still, the simplicity of 198X is endearing, and how it presents a compilation of sorts of an era is something that leaves a positive if not lasting impression. The story, although simple in its presentation does leave room for growth. We’re keen to check out the second part of the tale, and if the team Hi-Bit Studios can connect both the narrative and the individual games in a more meaningful way - then it has every chance to live up to its premise.
What we liked
Great music, art, and sound in the arcade recreations
Captures the feel of a number of classic arcade-style games
What we didn't like
Not much in the way of connective story, so it feels disjointed
Most of the games are simple and don't offer more than a few minutes of fun