198X (Steam) Review
Salvation Found in Neon Lights, Glass Screens, and Impossible Worlds
Games matter, so much so that they can be the thing that keeps us grounded in reality, even though there are many that argue that games disconnect players from reality. Recently, I stumbled on a post pointing out that 198X existed, where the poster was curious if anyone in the group had played it. I quickly found myself watching the trailer and mere moments later I was buying the game on Steam. I had expectations but I was not aware how deep 198X could be with a fairly simple premise and how much it resonated with my own past.
Anyone who has listened to our Personal Histories and Why We Love Games episode of the Forever Classic Podcast will likely know exactly why I think 198X is so interesting. In short, I grew up in a tumultuous household. We moved around a lot. Family members seemed to always be angry at each other for one reason or another. In the middle was me, a snot-nosed brat that enjoyed being in his own world. Games became my passion since the first day I picked up an NES controller and played until my eyes burned. Gaming as a child was wondrous and it helped me connect with other kids my age and even some adults.
In my teen years, my family mellowed out and I came to understand why it was always so chaotic. It was in those trials that most of us really grew closer than we probably would have otherwise. Keeping me fascinated with stories, art, and music though was games which eventually led me to the pursuit of a career involving them.
Developed by Swedish developers Hi-Bit Studios, who had help from around the world remotely, 198X captures the feeling of being disconnected and finding something that sparks something in one’s soul, an energy that helps us become better versions of ourselves if we take the time to understand it and hold it tightly.
The protagonist shares their sadness through monologue, always looking outward towards the lights of the city. Even at the outset though, the kid has flashes of determination which often drives the action. Throughout this narrative, there are several instances where the player tackles recreations of classic arcade games. These various games are oozing with nostalgia and a deep understanding of why those games were so special.
The first game we get to play is a mock-up of Final Fight with flavors of Streets of Rage and other popular beat-em-ups. Our hero is headed home on the train, where he has to take down thugs that patrol the streets. Gameplay moments are less literal and more symbolic of the feelings of the character. The kid doesn’t trust the people around them and there is an element of danger there.
In between these moments, the player is treated to a deliberately paced cutscene that’s paired with a fitting 80s synth soundtrack. These moments are inspiring and perfectly capture the mood of each scene. Getting up the nerve to walk home from the train is something that can take a lot of energy for some people and the music used to emphasize buckling down and doing something got me immediately invested in the story.
After this section sets the stage, the kid’s sadness is eventually chipped away by their discovery of a seedy arcade. Between brick walls and dim lights, the outcasts of the suburbs gather around machines that douses their faces in light and tickles their ears with sounds. Here the kid finds something to be excited about, gravitating to a space shooter that’s similar to Gradius.
From here on out, the kid looks forward to the end of each day so that they can return to the arcade and set out on new adventures. The next game is a spin on Cruis'n USA, which is a lot more challenging than I remember. By the end though, the timer gets way higher than usual and the road widens, the sun goes down and the romantic city sparkles in the distance. From here the kid narrates over a rather peaceful drive, fantasizing about moving into the city and finding complete control of their life and actions. Each game makes them stronger, more confident and able to face what it means to be an adult.
At this moment, I knew that I was finishing the game.
Although, I was confused about how to stop. There didn’t seem to be much of a save system at work, even though I kept getting achievements after each milestone. Because there wasn’t a way to skip cutscenes that I could find, I was afraid to stop for fear of having to start over. I also thought that the Gradius style shooter would break me as I’m not as skilled at those sort of games. Many lives were lost, but I eventually pushed through.
Each of the games is a pretty awesome spin on classic game design. The last game, in particular, was expertly framed and brought up feelings that I have never experienced before in that style of game. It also felt like the designers planned for initial frustration in that one, which annoyed me at first, but upon reflection I find it to be sheer brilliance.
Praise aside, these games are not perfect. In fact, my first go at the first beat-em-up stage at the very outset resulted in a bug that wouldn’t let me progress. I’m not quite sure what I did, as I was recording the whole time and didn’t see any out of the ordinary visual errors, so I did end up going through the beginning a second time and thankfully was able to complete the level. If I hadn’t been able to on that second attempt though, I may have missed out on a unique and personal experience.
Players should be aware that this narrative is not long and I was able to complete it under three hours. That said, I definitely recommend 198X to anyone with a fondness for arcade culture, especially those who grew up during that era of American history. There’s an authenticity to this story and it’s one that I’m glad I played.
I do sincerely hope that there is more to the story though, either as a free update or some sort of sequel.
In summary, 198X is a grounded tale of growing up lost and finding salvation in an unlikely place. Arcade games are the anchor for this character and for many players out there this story rings true.
For more information about 198X, check out their official website. The game was published following a successful campaign on Kickstarter. 198X is available on Steam, GoG, and PS4 with Xbox One and Switch versions coming soon. A digital copy of the game was purchased by the author.