198X / DEVELOPER: HIBITSTUDIOS / PUBLISHER: 8-4 / PLATFORM: PC, PS4, SWITCH (REVIEWED), XBOX ONE / RELEASE DATE: 23RD JANUARY
198X tells the coming of age story of an unnamed kid trying to find a purpose in life. Cinematic pixel-art cutscenes follow the kid as they sit in their suburban bedroom, dreaming of excitement and adventure in the city beyond. Wandering the streets one night, the kid spots a neon sign outside an abandoned factory. Stepping nervously inside, the kids finds exactly what they were looking for – a room filled with freaks, geeks, misfits and outcasts, all transfixed by flashing screens. An arcade. Walking up to a cabinet, the kid starts to play...
It's a story that will certainly resonate with people of a certain age - those underground 80s arcades were truly magical places, after all (our local was in the basement of a video rental shop which was next door to a motorbike showroom, so you can imagine the characters you'd find in there!). This first part of the story (a second instalment will follow at some point later this year) sees the kid fall in love with video games, and we get to experience it through the kid's eyes by playing the same games that they did.
Gameplay is based around five arcade-style levels, all in totally different genres. There's Final Fight-esque belt scrolling beat em up “Beating Heart,” horizontal shoot em up “Out of the Void,” Outrun clone “The Runaway,” ninja-themed auto-runner “Shadowplay,” and 3D maze-based RPG “Kill Screen.” They all look and sound fantastically authentic, although they maybe aren't quite deep enough to warrant repeat plays. They're all good fun, but each game is fairly short (around 5 to 10 minutes), and there isn't a huge amount of challenge. “Shadowplay” is the longest of the games and also the most taxing, requiring split-second reactions to avoid oncoming hazards, slash away at enemies and collect power-ups, while “Kill Screen” includes a couple of combat mechanics that make it feel a bit more involved (or evolved) than the others. “The Runaway” wins the prize for most inventive, with its final stage being cleverly linked to 198X's overall narrative in a way that we didn't expect but very much appreciated.
198X succeeds as an interactive piece of storytelling, tying retro-inspired levels to an extremely evocative tale that will strike a chord with the older gaming crowd. Despite the simplicity of the actual games on offer, we're still keen to see where the kid's adventures take them (and us) when part two arrives.