I’ll admit to being a bit sniffy at first about 198X, which first came out on PC last year and has just recently made its way to Nintendo’s Switch. It’s another 80s-inspired coming-of-age tale that leans heavily on what’s now a very well-worn brand of nostalgia – a mish-mash of Spielbergian sweetness, on-the-nose references and a synthwave soundtrack. So yeah, I was cynical, but good lord would you just look at this thing.
198X just drips with style, a style that’s carried through from the cutscenes that tell the story of ‘The Kid’ through to the five pitch perfect pastiches of arcade classics that make up the bulk of play. I’m not entirely convinced by the story (maybe that’s in part down to this being the first part of a planned series, so in the hour or so it takes to see 198X through it’s only really just found its feet, or maybe it’s a narrator who manages to sound both bored and melodramatic at once), but it’s certainly well told – these are cinematics with a proper cinematic flair. There’s plenty of Spielberg, of course, but also a dash of Ozu in glimpses of the everyday that feel like a welcome lift of the Japanese master’s pillow shots.
Oh, and the games! They’re the most assured part of the whole package, where the style you’ll find elsewhere is matched by some deep understanding of the greats of yesteryear. Beating Heart takes on Streets of Rage and does a fine job of it, Out of the Void is an R-Type alike that is over all-too-soon, The Runaway is a moody spin on OutRun while Shadowplay is a Shinobi-esque action title. It’s all capped off by Kill Screen, an RPG where the themes of the story are most closely connected to the play.
Developer Hi-Bit Studios has done fine work here (with the help of some key collaborators, including none other than Yuzo Koshiro). On my own Switch 198X finds itself nestled between near meticulous versions of key inspirations such as Ninja Warriors, OutRun, Gradius and R-Type, and there’s no greater compliment than to say that the tributes on offer here sit happily alongside the originals. At least I now know to put my cynicism aside whenever the second installment of 198X shows up.