It’s easy to look back at the past and realise just how much better life is currently thanks to advances in technology that have created staggering new worlds in which to play games. There’s a genuine sigh of relief at the thought of never having to tangle with a mess of controller cables when setting up a console, tuning in the right frequency to get sub-par definition visuals on an old TV or worrying if your batteries will last long enough for you to clock the latest platformer on your Gameboy.
And yet, we’ve lost something along the way. In an effort to be more connected, we’ve drifted further apart from not only each other, but our basic humanity. You don’t need to dig deep to find evidence of this. Video game lobbies are regularly filled with all manner of toxic behaviour, anonymity has resulted in some of the vilest people around acting as gatekeepers to games that they feel they have sole ownership over and more ruthless personalities have felt emboldened to spew hate when spurred on by their fans.
It wasn’t always like this. Nostalgia can cloud your vision of the past with rose-tinted goggles, but there was a time when the latest and best games weren’t found inside a home console but rather at an arcade that was dedicated to them. You might remember some of the glory days of the arcade, hubs of activity which may have you choked you with the smell of cigarettes and coke, but still allowed you to connect with friends.
Arcades were the hangouts for the rebels, the people who didn’t quite fit in at school and struggled to find an identity in a world that was growing increasingly complex as the years ticked by. The slap of a token (or a 20c piece) on a counter to signal that you were next, the random joy of a stranger joining you for a round of Street Fighter or a display of skill that would result in a horde of fans gathering around you to marvel at your high score skill…There’s a generation out there who’ll never know the magic of this.
198X is a love letter to that golden age. It’s a game that oozes passion through not only its retro love, but also through its story, music and themes. On the surface, it looks like an easy throwback to yesteryear as this first chapter introduces The Kid as he embarks on a coming of age story told through a series of homages to classic games. Beating Heart is stylised riff on Streets of Rage, Out of the Void is a glorious reference to Gradius games of years gone by, The Runaway feels like an Outrun sequel the world desperately needs and Shadowplay is a Shinobi homage with heart and rhythm.
Killscreen completes the package, a lengthy and sprawling RPG with a dungeon to crawl through and dragons to vanquish. On their own, each game is a delightful and quick jaunt into the past, complete with gameplay that feels so authentic that you feel that you aren’t doing them a service if you don’t connect an arcade fight stick to your PC.
Each game also has a slight touch of the contemporary woven into its retro DNA, but the vast bulk of these experiences will awaken the muscle memory of anyone who spent hours and hours in front of a CRT screen, pumping coins into a slot and mastering the action broadcast back at them.
Shadowplay is easily the highlight here, a stunning platformer that requires speed, precision and agility to pass while you time your ninja’s skills to the incredible soundtrack that provides audible hints of when you should attack and dodge. Heck, each game is well worth a full release on their own as they’re addictive throwbacks to the past, but 198X uses these glory day titles to paint a picture.
They’re expressions of the Kid (wonderfully voiced with a subtle and soft air by Maya Tuttle) and his current mental state, an escape from a mundane life where each game is a chapter in a larger story and provide a respite from the turmoil of reality. There’s real magic to be found in every single pixel that is drawn with the hand of artists who truly love the medium, from the long drive on a Californian highway down to the sojourn through the dark void of space to face terrors unseen.
Yuzo Koshiro’s score is especially on point here, riffing the classic bit-tunes of the past and adding new twists to an audio era that shaped an industry long before CD-ROM drives became mainstream components in video game hardware. 198X plays out like the kind of story that Hollywood used to make, an odyssey into unknown worlds and self-discovery across a cinematic landscape.
All this, and 198X is just getting started with its epic tale. It may be short and sweet with a design that doesn’t exactly allow you to only focus on just a single game after the end credits have rolled, but if this is just a taste of things to come then I’m more than ready to insert a few extra coins to see how this story plays out.
Last Updated: June 25, 2019