198X

A game by Hi-Bit Studios for PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One, originally released in 2019.
198X is a casual narrative-focused adventure told through the lens of late 80’s arcade games. The game’s protagonist – known simply as “Kid” – is slowly coming to terms with his changing life, from the changes in his family dynamic, to the changing social norms of becoming a teenager, so his journey of self-discovery. Kid lives in the suburbs and discovers a seedy arcade in a bad part of town, which offers him an escape into new worlds. The game shifts between introspective cutscenes and video game action across five different games, with the narrative eventually merging into the on-screen action.


The games themselves are actually less important than the story being told, and each of them consists of only a sampling of what a full game would offer. That said, for all its focus on narrative, the games that Kid plays don’t have much of a direct impact on the overarching story. He describes the games as an escape, rather than drawing any specific life lessons from the challenges he overcomes… and most of the games are fairly simple and consequence-free by design.


There is some spillover between the video games and the real world, such as Kid having a poster of a robot in his room (along with posters of Guns N’ Roses and E.T. to add to the 80’s vibe) that appears to be the robot boss from the arcade shmup. A video store also has a poster that seems to refer to this game, along with one showing a red sports car from the driving game. And Kid wears a red shirt, not unlike the red hoodie worn by the protagonist in the beat ‘em up.


There are even scenes within the video games that directly reference Kid’s world, such as multiple references to a city on the horizon, and even popup text in one of the games that seems to refer to conversations between Kid and his mother… but none of these crossover elements are ever explored in the narrative, which lessens their impact on the overall storytelling.


The 198X store page states that this is Part 1 of a greater story, and the game ends with a “to be continued” message, but the boy has a shallow development arc over the course of the experience, despite the game’s description stating that Kid grows stronger with “every game uncovered, every move mastered, every demon defeated”.


198X is divided into five different video games, each from a different genre. The first four definitely derive their origins from the 1980’s arcade scene, but the last is a CRPG that would have been played on a home computer rather than in an arcade setting. The player doesn’t control which games are played, but rather the cutscenes fade from narrative to video games and back again.


The player can revisit any of the video games from the main menu, but their design does not lend them to replayability, and the high scores are impossibly out of reach. Each game does have its own attract mode and title screen to give it an authentic arcade feel.



Beating Heart
The first arcade game is Beating Heart, which is a beat ‘em up inspired by the likes of Final Fight. Here, you take on the role of a hoodie-wearing street fighter who bashes heads in the city’s subway and slums. The player character’s shirt is red, the same color as that of the protagonist, although this arcade game is played before the protagonist is introduced.


The fighter can perform a 4-hit combo which consists of a pair of jabs, followed by a hook, and then a roundhouse kick. By pressing JUMP and PUNCH together, he performs a spin kick, and this is done without sacrificing any health, unlike other brawelrs of this type. He can also perform a jump kick, and getting close to enemies allows him to roll onto the ground and toss them to the left or right. And he can pick up a bat to strike foes for heavy damage, but the wind-up animation is long, making the attack slow.


Animations are very smooth compared to other genre representatives from the late 80’s, but the transitions between animations are a bit clunky, which causes the action to stutter. The entire game is only a few scenes long, about the equivalent of a single level in another brawler. Getting killed results in the action stopping, followed by the sound of a quarter being dropped into the machine, and then the game resumes, so there is no danger of being killed and starting the level over.


Enemies are genre-typical 80's street punks in gaudy outfits with bright-colored hair, and there’s a bit of variety between them, but there is no boss fight. Instead, the player reaches a parking lot and the camera pans upward, showing a dark figure sitting on a wall above the action. This figure has red eyes and wears a blue hoodie. The camera continues panning up to show the cityscape beyond before returning to Kid’s story in suburbia.


Here, Kid walks from the suburbs, past businesses, and to the crappy part of town… apparently taking one full day to walk this distance given the transition from morning to evening to night. Along the way, the narrator talks about going to the video store to rent movies with his dad, and how the row of shops and office buildings are the same as when he was younger.


Upon finding the all-important arcade, he marvels for a moment – apparently unaware that arcades were a thing – while recalling his only other contact with video games, which came in the form of a black and white console that his father brought home. He remarks that the place was not for kids, and describes the arcade goers as “freaks, geeks, misfits, outcasts, the real rebels”, and in a later cutscene he describes the kids in school being viewed as “brain, clown, popular, troublemaker”… which is reminiscent of The Breakfast Club’s line of “You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.”



Out of the Void
Out of the Void is a horizontal shmup that pits the player against waves of enemies over a scrolling starfield filled with debris, before giving way to an asteroid field and then some kind of huge mechanical construction. This game is somewhat more fleshed out than the brawler, as it includes two full levels, with a boss encounter at the end of each. By destroying yellow enemies, powerups are dropped, granting the ship larger and more powerful bullets, followed by a double shot, and then a double shot and angled shots. There’s also a speed increase and point drops, although the player’s score is meaningless.


Here again, the consequences are low compared to other game in the genre. You are able to sustain multiple hits before being killed, and if your ship is destroyed, you retain all of your powerups when you respawn. Getting killed returns you to the start of the level, but getting killed at the boss lets you begin again at that encounter. Enemy designs are detailed and colorful, particularly the bosses, with the second/final boss appearing as a screen-filling robot with some pretty spectacular attack animations, including a couple of insta-kill attacks.



The Runaway
At school, Kid admires a punk chick and sees her drive away in a sports car, which gives way to an OutRun-style driving game called The Runaway. The player begins the game in the center of the highway before accelerating to speeds of up to 255 kph. That said, the actual movement is quite slow compared to Sega’s classic sprite scalers, and it’s generally easy to dodge around cars and take turns at speed, given the lack of tight corners or the ability to shift between lo-hi gears.


The main game consists of a single desert environment with some background elements changing over the course of four track segments, ranging from scrub brush to trees to stone pillars. Failing to reach a checkpoint before the timer runs out requires the player to begin the entire game again from the beginning. Completing these four sequences gives way to a nighttime sequence where the player drives toward the city as the narrator’s voiceover begins, discussing the joys of being able to visit new worlds within video games and the disappointment of having to eventually return to the real world. During this sequence, there is no need to worry about turns or traffic; you can just hold the gas and listen to the narration.



Shadowplay
Shadowplay is meant to be the resident ninja-themed game, but it doesn’t play like the ninja games from the 80’s arcade era; rather, it’s an auto-runner with 80’s arcade-style graphics. Per auto-runner standards, the game scrolls along at a steady clip, and you must avoid obstacles by jumping over them, hopping between platforms, or sliding along the ground.


Since you’re playing as a ninja, you can also attack enemies with sword swipes, with most enemies dropping in a single hit as you dash past them, but some tougher characters move alongside you and require multiple strikes while you avoid their attacks. You can sustain five enemy hits before being killed, but there are lots of insta-kill traps that require quick reflexes or memorization, and getting killed sends you back to the start of the level. You can also collect orbs to fill a meter, eventually extending the range and power of your attack, but the meter drains if you take damage.


The game takes place across several themed environments, including amber fields, caves, and a bamboo forest. A boss appears in the final area, but you don’t actually attack him. Instead, you must avoid its attack patterns for a couple of minutes before the boss simply flies away.



Kill Screen
Finally, there is Kill Screen, a Wizardry-style first-person computer RPG with synthesized voices for the popup text. You have three kinds of attacks that offer varying degrees of effectiveness based on the type of monster you are facing, and by timing your button presses properly, you can inflict bonus damage. In addition, there is a menu option that allows you to fully heal, but it can only be used once per encounter and cannot be used outside of battle.


The goal of this game is to slay three dragons, but it’s actually impossible to even reach the first dragon with your starting stats. As such, you must fight corridors of monsters to earn experience, which carries over even when you are killed and sent back to the start of the dungeon. You eventually level up enough that you can make it from the start of the dungeon to the end in one go.


198X features gorgeous sprite art and animations throughout the individual video games, as well as in the between-game cutscenes. Sound effects are appropriately arcadey, but they’re quite muted compared to the background music, and there’s no way to adjust the audio settings. As such, these effects aren’t very punchy, particularly in the beat ‘em up and the driving game. Kid’s voiceover actress does a great job of delivering melancholy monologues despite the game’s lack of narrative impact.



2D CRED
198X was developed by Hi-Bit Studios, a studio based in Stockholm, Sweden. This was the studio’s first release, and it was funded in part by a successful Kickstarter campaign.


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