I was born in 198X. For a young geeky child growing up when and where I did, life was all about video games. We played them everywhere. At home we had consoles, but pizzerias, malls, laundromats, and other hallmarks of American life were equipped with their own machines. Electronic amusement was all around us in those days. And the best places for it were the video arcades. In my neck of the woods, we had Fairyland, but as a teenager, I was a regular at Broadway City (both long since shuttered). Arcades were buildings dedicated to video games featuring the best tech in the world. Cabinets, pinball machines, and ticket dispensers filled the air with beeps and boops and pure magic. They were places you never wanted to leave. And if you related to any of that, then you just might enjoy 198X.
Welcome to Suburbia
198X is a visual novel that’s told from the point of view of Kid, one of those disaffected Gen-X youths that we heard so much about in the ’80s and ’90s. Kid dreams of life in the City, and as the game goes on you get the feeling that life might not be so great at home for our protagonist. Kid begins spending more and more time at the video arcade. At first, it offers a change of pace from the clean, peaceful, boring life in Suburbia, what with the back alley location, freak-and-geek clientele, and underage smoking. However, Kid finds a sense of purpose in the games. Getting better and better at playing helps to fill an increasingly growing void.
The story segments in 198X are interspersed between retro-styled arcade games. “Beating Heart” is a beat-’em-up reminiscent of Double Dragon where you drop kick hordes of hooligans across a derelict urban street. “Out of the Void” is an R-Type-style shmup, complete with aliens, power-ups, and explosions. There’s also a cruising racer and a ninja platformer that may remind you of Cruis’n USA and Strider respectively. Rounding out the lot is “Kill Screen,” a dungeon crawler RPG that will have you running a maze to defeat enemies and get stronger so that you can defeat the bosses. Each of these titles is a pitch-perfect recreation of a different style of game that was popular back in the day.
The good, the bad, and the outdated fashion
Each title is placed perfectly in order to serve Kid’s story. For example, the racing game level happens at a point where Kid explains a longing to drive to the City and escape. Even without the narrative as a backdrop, each of these games is lovingly crafted, and it’s clear the team knows how to play on those memories. I found myself wishing I’d gotten a fight stick just to experience the games how they were meant to be played.
I also enjoyed the music selection and the general design aesthetics. The soundtrack is mostly synth-based, almost to the point of being vaporwave. The color palettes in 198X are aggressively neon atop shades of black, presenting a stylized 1980s look. Together with the arcade games, you’ve got a package that truly feels the way being an unsupervised teen at an arcade did. While I’m not normally fond of weaponized ’80s nostalgia, 198X employs it to tell a compelling coming-of-age story.
By the time I got to the end, I’d found myself wanting so much more. The story leaves off on one hell of a cliffhanger, and I’d only gotten a taste of the games Kid likes to play. In fact, the retro-inspired games are so good that I want to play all of them from beginning to end, not just the first stage of each. Sadly, five arcade games and five story chapters is all we get, and it takes about an hour and a half to clear them all. Surprisingly, there’s no way to record a high score, even once you finish the main story and can select any of the arcade titles.
Short as it was, I enjoyed 198X immensely. It does exactly what it sets out to do — provide a nostalgic ’80s story with retro-inspired minigames — with an incredible level of polish. With the retro style, the remembered nostalgia, and the actual memories, it was a bittersweet experience from beginning to end. I’ll be keeping an eye out for part two, as I want to experience the rest of Kid’s story. After all, it reminded me so much of my own story, and those of so many other geeks of a certain age.
A review code was provided by the publisher.