Yep, still running with these curry ratings. I’ve ranked this one Bombay potato because while the main component (tasty spuds) of the game is fantastic, there isn’t much narrative (sauce) holding it together. It’s a side dish because, as it turns out, this isn’t the full game (more on that later).
198X (Hi-Bit Studios) follows the story of Kid, a lost soul trying to escape adolescence by retreating to the world of arcade games. Every time Kid masters a game, Kid grows stronger.
You might have noticed by the awkwardness of that sentence that I’m avoiding giving Kid a gender – that’s because it’s not explicit in the game or any promotional material I’ve read. Presumably it’s intentional – so let’s honour that.
The game is essentially a sequence of five classic arcade games: Beating Heart, a smooth beat ’em up à la Streets of Rage; Out of the Void, a calamitous space shoot-em-up; The Runaway racing game; Shadowplay, an autoscroller featuring a slashy ninja cat (my favourite); and finally Kill Screen, a dungeon-crawler RPG.
I like that there are no tutorials or hints – we’re plunged right into the first one and expected to make our way, much like we did in the days of yore. Each one is a refreshing change of genre, and I really admire the ambitious development behind that idea. It’s bold, and it’s what put the game on my radar in the first place.
However, putting that many genres into one game poses an obvious problem; not everyone is going to enjoy all of them and I wonder if that might alienate some players since you can’t progress without completing them all. For example, I’m not so familiar with dungeon crawler games. I ended up getting help with that part, which was a shame, particularly as it ended up being the final part (again, more on that later).
A weak story
These mini-game challenges are all loosely held together by cutscenes that advance the narrative. Except they don’t, really, and that’s my issue with this game. The arcade sequences are fun, but the parts in between just don’t cut it. The story isn’t developed enough to hold it together – I’m fed a tiny morsel of teenage grump, and then it’s on to the next arcade segment. As a result I don’t find myself caring about Kid or wanting to know what will happen to them.
What little is there is never fully fleshed out – Kid’s a teenager navigating the difficulties of adolescence, and what’s new? We’re not told specifically what Kid is struggling with – it’s just a pre-packed, clichéd setup that feels a bit lazy. Sure, I found escapism in games too, but are we meant to think a few stints in the arcade has solved Kid’s problems?
As a result, it just feels like I’m playing a compilation of remastered old games that don’t have any context apart from my own, subjective nostalgia. It’s a shame, because it starts out really strong.
Enthralling music and beautiful, animated pixel art
I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all bad, because it isn’t, and it will naturally depend on your expectations (mine were high).
The music, scored by Yuzo Koshiro (Streets of Rage and soon to be Streets of Rage 4), is one of the best things about it. It’s like I’ve gone back in time and someone has polished those old sounds to make them ultra-pristine. Each piece complements the different genres perfectly.
The other thing that struck me is the use of pixel art in the cut scenes. I’ve played a lot of games with great pixel art recently, but it’s mostly static. In 198X there’s so much detail in the movement, and it really ramps up the atmosphere. The use of light and colour is mesmerising and if you’re a fan of cyberpunk, you’ll love this style.
The abrupt ‘ending’ (spoiler-free)
Abrupt, and in my case, completely unexpected.
I didn’t realise this was an episodic game. When I first added it to my Steam wishlist there was no mention of it. At the time of writing, there still isn’t on the Playstation version. A quick scan through some of the other reviews suggests I’m not the only one, either.
At two hours’ gameplay it’s pretty short regardless, but had I been aware of a sequel I might’ve been a little less shocked when, after a bit of narrative plonked after Kill Screen, it sharply braked to a stop. There’s no indication of when the next part will be released, how many parts there will be, or what the cost is. And on that note, £13.99 (15.30 euros) seems steep, and there’s very little replayability past what you could get from an emulator or classics compilation.
Granted, it’s probably worse for those who have been following the game for a while. I already knew a lot about the style, concept and gameplay so none of that was a surprise, but I didn’t know about the decision to make it episodic. If however you came to it fresh, you’d likely be wowed by the setup and probably aware that it’s not the full game.
I can only assume all the time and energy put into the arcade games (which I appreciate would’ve been a lot) meant there was less time to fully develop the plot. The arcade games are so refined and fun to play, the pixel art and music are some of the best I’ve experienced, but the supporting narrative just falls flat.
The first instalment of 198X is available on Steam, GOG, Playstation 4, and coming soon to Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.