I feel as if I have the opposite of a Midas touch, as in every story based game I’ve played recently has ended up disappointing me. I was really looking forward to 198x, with its fantastic trailer and beautiful 80’s styling. I hoped it might make for a compelling, emotional drama that many people, myself included, would have gotten a lot of value from. But you know what they say about assuming. I feel as if these sorts of games are becoming generic in a way, as was the case more than a half decade ago when cover based shooting was the Triple A standard with games like COD, the indie space was filled with children running around scary big worlds, and receiving critical and commercial praise from IGN. These games are nostalgia bait and this game is the pinnacle of it.
Story: Running in the 80’s
The game is set in the 1980’s where the protagonist, The Kid, is feeling bored, lonely, and depressed. He stumbles upon an arcade and quickly becomes obsessed with them.
So the story starts off great. Its nothing revolutionary but its a strong setting of “small town boy in a big arcade.”The music alone pulled my heartstrings and it did build up nicely to the second game. Everybody has felt lonely at one point in time and has used video games as a way of comfort, including me. This allows us to relate to The Kid. However, soon after I started to notice a potentially worrying message form. The Kid states that the games help him to become someone else for a short while, and that the worst part is going back to the real world. I’ve heard that last excuse before, in the form of drug addicts, alcoholics, and the like. The games soon become an escape from the real world, and this attitude is never talked about beyond a few brief sentences. The ending does nothing to confront this either, and walks a dangerous line that glorifies escapism.
Ironically enough, this loneliness the Kid feels can be mitigated quite easily: He’s in an arcade. Arcades have always been social affairs, kids yelling, screaming, and joking around while also playing video games together. Yet the Kid just wanders in, plays a game and goes home after a level it seems like. The only way you wouldn’t know what an arcade is like is if you’ve never stepped foot in one beyond watching Wreck It Ralph, which I suspected more and more as I played it.
That’s also the closest to story we get really. The cutscenes alone feel like they could be compiled into ten minutes total, and the dialogue is full of philosophical ramblings from the Kid, that seemed to have been ripped straight from Reddit’s r/showerthoughts. The main driving motivation is the kid being sad about his dad being gone, but that information is never given to us, he could be dead, missing, or was taken away by the Men in Black, we don’t know. The mom is given even less of a spotlight, beyond the Kid hating her for some reason. We never see either parents though, or any character except for one goth chick, and no one except the kid has dialogue.
It also ends with a generic ending which, in true generic fashion, the Kid literally says “The game isn’t over yet.” To say I rolled my eyes hard enough to evoke a seizure is an understatement.
None of the games have any connection to the story, except for the ending portion of the car one, and the RPG, so theres this rough stop and start flow of storytelling, where patches of the game go with no story development whatsoever
The main problem with it all though is that it could have all worked perfectly if A. the arcade’s social environment came into play and added actual characters, and B. if the game weren’t so short. And I mean reallyyyy short, to the point that I could drink a full bottle of water and beat the game before having to go to the bathroom. I don’t get where people are saying that the game is paced slowly, it’s cutscenes waste too much time getting to the point sure, but the game goes through so many story beats so quickly that it was kind of blinding.
198X tries to pander to those who grew up in the 80’s and pump philosophical garbage into a series of generic arcade games. It’s boring story, and shortness deprives it of any depth. Now apparently it’s supposed to be episodic, but the short story told here could have filled six or seven hour long episodes on their own. If they keep this frustrating pace up, then I don’t know how in the hell they plan on advancing the story further, with its minimal dialogue and lack of storytelling.
Gameplay: Painful and dated
So the gameplay aspect had the potential to be amazing, and tie into the story themes. Sadly the games lacked the depth, or storytelling to make them worthwhile. Theres five games and I feel the best way to go through them is one at a time.
1. The beat em up: It’s pretty good, out of all of them I’d say it might be my favorite gameplay wise, though its half the length of the others, the combat works, is punchy and fun, though it’s far too simplistic, I also liked how at the end the game kinda dissolved in on itself to show the Kid sitting on a ledge, and starts the story.
2. The Shoot em up: By far the hardest of the bunch, and also the most frustrating. The starship and enemy designs are pretty generic, but the sound and music are the best in the game. It gets annoying towards the end when you fly through the enemy mothership and the walls damage you, and you only get three hits before dying. It also tends to throw a lot of enemies at you In hordes, and the damaged animation on your ship obscures prjectiles due to it leaving behind these huge fire effects, causing you to simply not see the bullets hit you.
3. The Racing game: probably my second favorite out of the bunch. It’s a generic desert themed racing sim, but the cars actually handle pretty well, and that ending shot where your driving through the city is genuinely beautiful and awe inspiring. At that point I feel the devs nailed the feeling of beauty and wonder that these games could create. The biggest and only problem I have is that when you accidentally hit a car, the cars behind you can ram you and cause a chain of cars constantly knocking you down over and over again.
4. The Ninja game: I hate this one, easily my least favorite of the bunch. It plays like a crappy 2D Temple Run game.
The design of the game is generic, lots of bamboo, wood, and yokai demon masks with little animation. That goes double for the main character, who doesn’t even have a sword swing animation, theres just a white graphic that appears to represent an attack. The level design relies on you being lucky in order for you to dodge instant death traps, or pick the single route not lined by spears that gives an instant KO. Its also the longest game I found, as one playthrough takes about 15 mins, though that might just be me.
5. The RPG: Who the hell makes an RPG arcade system? Seriously, whose gonna pump a quarter in, and then spend twenty minutes grinding slimes? Despite the weird choice of game, this one is probably my favorite. Not because of the awful gameplay, where you have three different attack options: a slash, beam, and hack function. Each enemy has a weakness to one , you spam It and only it and congrats kiddo you win.
I like it because there are some actual story points to it, which relates to the kids mom being angry and upset with the way her life is going, and the rpg breaks the fourth wall and tries to talk to you, telling you to go to bed, that she hates you, and she’s sorry, Which culminates in a final boss battle where she strips your abilities away one by one, while you physically cant do any damage to her. That part was great, but the actual gameplay borders on unbelievably worse than generic, as it is so bare bones and simplistic I’m shocked they even decided to include it.
If I had to describe a substitute for the story and gameplay of 198X it would be this: Go down to a mall and pick up two things: a cheap plug and play capcom game, and Catcher in the Rye. Go home and play each game on the plug and play, and in between each read one chapter of Catcher. I guarantee that you’ll get far more value, and have more fun as well.
Graphics/ sound: *insert Tron joke here
The best thing about this game is by far the visuals and the music. Now i’m not a passionate music fan, nor do I know much about it beyond the bare minimum. However, this soundtrack managed to hit me right in the feels the way the story and dialogue couldn’t. Its very soothing and mellow, and it gives the dialogue extra weight that it desperately needed. The designs of the character aren’t super detailed, but they do look clean and well made. The in game graphics and design vary, some look very pretty and stunning, like the car game and the shoot em up, while others are either bland looking, or extremely simplistic, like the ninja game and the RPG game respectively. The game isn’t afraid to use bold, vibrant colors, and the main color pallet of the game uses a lot of great looking blues. I feel the game is definitely pretty in its own way, its just a shame about the rest of the game
I would never say that this game is lazy, or rushed, or unpolished. I would say that this pretty piece of art comes across as dull, and unsatisfying. A damn shame too, I feel that if the game was longer than a coffee break, it might amount to something fantastic and moving. However the short pace, repetitive gameplay, and miniscule story beats hurts the game.