Classic games compiled together in one package are far from a rare occurrence when it comes to the already fruitful library found on the Nintendo Switch. What the system cannot boast about up until now though, is a single title that mixes several classic genres bound to a self-contained single-player experience.
198X does just that as you play the role of The Kid, a teenager raised in the suburbs obsessed with a backstreet arcade hiding away within the crust of the big city. It’s a tale that combines multiple gaming genres based on coin-op classics to what seems at first to be a celebration of the ’80s to early ’90s arcade scene. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that these short slices of interactive entertainment exist more to distract The Kid’s mind away from the anxieties of leading towards adulthood and possible household disruption.
Such distractions arrive in the form of five completely different styles of gameplay with the only link between them being the hunger for coin in exchange for credits. The first game on the list is Beating Heart, a side-scrolling beat ’em up that heavily tips its hat towards Capcom’s Final Fight and SEGA’s own Streets of Rage.
While brief, the levels themselves contain attention to detail that fans of the genre will surely appreciate, with breakable telephone boxes stashed with snacks and randomly scattered oil drums containing baseball bats. Enemies drop to the floor when a life is lost and the classic, one button to attack, one to jump, and both pressed simultaneously for a crowd-clearing spinning hook kick control system is accurately set in place. Furthermore, the animations of the main character stem closer to the fluid frame count of Street Fighter III. Maybe not necessarily mimicking the time period the story is set in but nonetheless, absolutely wonderful to look at.
Beating Heart, along with most of the games on the list could quite easily have been released as standalone titles. Out of the Void, the arcade shoot ’em up in the pack teases classic gameplay and aesthetics that had me pining for more, and the Outrun-styled The Runaway works nicely as a nod to Yu Suzuki’s arcade accomplishment with a similar distinctive art style to match. While most games in 198X are a short affair, it seems ninja hack ‘n’ slash auto-runner Shadowplay appears to be the one that the developer is most proud of. It’s the longest-lasting game in the pack with gorgeous visuals and gameplay traits of Strider and Shinobi. It also has an end-of-level boss that reflects a certain spirit that Studio Ghibli fans will be sure to recognise.
As for the final game on the list – relevantly titled Kill Screen – is the one that ties the plot together toward its conclusion and plays as the curveball against the line-up on offer. It’s essentially a turn-based strategy RPG that completely ignores the general pool of coin-op games that dominated the western arcades back in the day. It also happens to be the weakest of the bunch, bringing the pace down to basic trial-and-error to give the stranger to the genre an easy but laborious chance to trowel through.
Each game that’s showcased in 198X are little more than bitesize samples representing their genre by lasting no more than two to three stages each with very little persuasion for replayability. In fact, the story is so short it takes just over an hour to complete in total, like a pilot episode begging to be commissioned into a series. Yet, rather than providing a wider scope in fleshing out the background of the main character, it decides to go down an almost arthouse route with all the brooding ambiguous clichés to go with it.
In an effort to try and resonate with the player on a personal level, the lead of the story in 198X is never referred to as male nor female with an androgynous presence that looks to be a combination of Kaneda and Kei from ’80s smash hit anime Akira. A somewhat fitting choice when sewn within the neon backdrops of a beautifully crafted pixel art urban landscape. While The Kid’s coming-of-age story only ever really flirts with what may be the root cause of his or her depression, the combination of uncertainties within the transitional period from child to adult may very well tread familiar ground with players of a similar age group.
With that said, besides having empathy for The Kid’s mother, I did find it difficult to relate to the lead much more than I thought I would. After all, part of my own nostalgic gaming memories were the result of me trying to force ignorance towards the real world that suffocated me as an adolescent. Gaming for me as a teenager steered my mind away from the breadline realities of surviving on a poverty-stricken council estate of the early ’90s. While my single-parent mother would get into unmanageable debt to provide me with my fondest gaming memories at Christmas, she would also be forced to take those memories away to a local pawn shop just to keep food on the table.
The point is, The Kid ultimately comes across as far too privileged for me to care or relate to. What at first appeared to set the scene for something that should really resonate with me on a much deeper level ended up instead, feeling like little more than a demo reel of games to play whilst listening to a grumpy first world hormonal teenager whine about how easy it was being a child.
The talk of privilege and class wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that the issues The Kid dawdles around don’t have any real resolve or conclusion. It’s as if the writers are trying to set up a bigger story as well as tip-toeing around unfortunate events and situations in an effort for the player to fill in the gap with their own relative experience. It could have certainly work either one way or the other. But unfortunately not both.
However, it does open up the thought path to where the story may lead to next. Personally, I would love to see The Kid competing against top dogs in arcades across the city, turning his or her newfound passion into something to be proud of. For now, though, these desires are merely wishful thinking for something that clearly has the potential to manifest into something much more interesting and thought-provoking than the dreary narrative that binds some genuinely clever ideas together.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Hi-Bit Studios