Wandering as I always do through the Nintendo Switch’s eShop, I came across this game that seemed like it would be a gem: 198X. The name of which seemed to be a nice callback to the Rockman/MegaMan games where the game would always take place in the year 199X, 200X, 202X and so-on, depending on the game you were playing. According to the game’s website, 198X follows “The Kid,” a gender-neutral character with a gender-neutral voice artist as the narrator, who is so disillusioned with reality that it seeks escape from the real world by going into the “underground” arcade scene.
There are two different aspects of this game that I want to touch upon. First will be the overall story. Then, the games themselves. Each seemed to be divorced from one another, and I’ll explain why.
The game opens up with a narrative as we follow The Kid on the way home, riding the transit train. When the train arrives at The Kid’s station, we go into our first game: a Double Dragon-type beat-em-up.
The way this game is integrated into the story makes us feel like The Kid had the absolute worst night of its life. As soon as The Kid got off the train, standing between the station and home were a bunch of drugged-out thugs with mohawks, prostitutes and all of them needed to get the crap kicked out of them! It’s not a bad way to hook the player into the game, but when we realize that these are the games that The Kid plays in the underground arcade, suddenly the games don’t fit into the narrative, anymore.
We get this whole introduction about The Kid, how life is so lonely and depressing that life in Suburbia feels like a prison. However, the overall story feels a bit flat.
The story continues on, and we follow The Kid into the underground arcade. The game paints the arcade scene as dark, dank and disgusting, filled with criminals and cigarettes. The true 1980s arcade scene couldn’t be farther than this, as the authors of the game seem to have very little knowledge of the arcade scene in America (as the game was produced in foreign territory).
Arcades in America weren’t some underground fight club or some speakeasy where teens would go into a random cellar, smoke cigarettes and play Space Invaders, Spyhunter or Pac-Man. They were in our malls, in our skating rinks, bowling alleys, and other mainstream entertainment venues. The arcade culture lasted well into the mid-1990s, and in some areas of the United States, well into the early to mid-2000s. Arcades in small cities did suffer and close down between 1982 and 1995, with those that closed in the latter portion of those years suffering long, slow and painful deaths, as a result of the Great American Video Game Crash of the early 1980s. As many fogies my age remember, it was Nintendo that kept video games alive in the 1980s, and as a result, most of us remember home consoles looking a lot less like the games that are presented in 198X, and more like Super Mario Bros and Double Dragon, Bad Dudes, Robocop, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Contra and so-on.
High quality graphics in video games were reserved for arcade machines, though quality graphics didn’t start coming about until the very end of the decade and into the 1990s. The pinnacle of arcade graphics and design were pioneered by Suzuki Yu of Sega with his games Space Harrier, Afterburner, Hang On and Outrun. The latter of these games was cloned for 198X, in its bare bones simplest form, which also served as a narrative segway.
In Suzuki’s Outrun, you are given a choice between roads you can travel in order to reach the ultimate goal. In this version, it’s very linear, much like the general story.
My ultimate complaint about 198X is that it’s too simple. The games are bare-bones versions of real games. While they offer a window into the past, the enjoyment factor of these games is nearly non-existent. You play the games to get to the next part of the story, and that takes away from the overall enjoyment of the game, itself. The idea of 198X seemed, to me, to introduce a new generation to a world and time in which we were born into and grew up in.
This served much the same purpose as BACK TO THE FUTURE did, showing us kids in the 1980s and 1990s what life was like in the 1950s, since video games weren’t capable of showing us the 1950s lifestyle. Spielberg used the medium of motion picture to give us a window into the past, just as Hi-Bit used video games to show “kids these days” a window into our past.
They failed… but not completely.
The graphics medium they used is about a decade away from the era in which they wished to convey. The games really aren’t necessary to do this, as we have virtual consoles and the NES/SNES libraries on Switch Online (for better or worse). Introducing a new generation of players to these games doesn’t require a whole separate game – believe me, “kids these days” get it. I, myself, have the NES Classic, Famicom Classic and the Super Famicom Classic, plus Switch Online, so my elementary school-aged son gets to play the classics (and he loves them). Saying to my kid, “I used to play this game when I was your age” isn’t met with scorn or embarrassment, but with, “I love this game too, Daddy.” Sharing the actual classics bridges the links between us and our children, and we are blessed to live in an era where we can easily do that.
198X isn’t needed for its intent. It’s a game that works to a certain level but doesn’t quite stick the landing. It’s not even good to play “casually.” It’s short and simple but not exactly worth writing home about.
One other thing that will annoy any player – the controls! Each game has a different set of controls and a learning curve to them. The games don’t use the same button layouts, thus react differently. This creates an annoyance factor that simply makes playing the games, themselves, irritating. Trigger buttons move to different locations on the controller, which means nothing works the same way twice. It takes away from the overall enjoyment of the game and is a severe detriment to this title.
That being said, you can feel the passion the makers at Hi-Bit have for not only this genre but for what they put into this title. It’s a labor of love, even if they not only missed the details but put a little bit of modern day identity politics into the story and main character. Hi-Bit, as a development team, has a bright future ahead of them.
I give this title a 5/10 (not that my system of scoring is consistent, so take that for what it’s worth). The concept is okay, the message is clear, but the controls and the overarching story are very frustrating. But, it’s cheap and requires less than a gig of memory on your console, so pick this up at your leisure, if you wish.