- Hi-Bit Studios, 2019 -
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In this story-driven title set in 1980s Suburbia, play as Kid, a tormented teenager who has lost his way, but finds confidence and meaning as he discovers the Arcade in the City. With each arcade game you master, can you help Kid to find his way in life once again?
For every generation approaching its coming of age, there will be a longing for those early years, when life felt simpler, softer and safer; a time when memories are rear-viewed—selectively-retrofitted with rosy and (sometimes) tear-streaked sentiment.
Nostalgia has that effect on us. It is an addiction that we can't seem to kick. To feed it, we are constantly drip-fed remixes, rehashes, reboots and, at extremes, revisionism.
Lately, the decade of the 1980s (and increasingly, the 1990s, as well) has shifted and clicked into a collective, time-locked, era-centric focus — both heralded and celebrated in popular culture. For every period piece sitcom or new, must-see series, there seems to be an equally-desirable, reissued cartoon or revisited toyline shining from the past.
And of course, I would be remiss to not mention the entertainment that hits nearest and dearest to so many of you reading this piece. The video game scene—with exceptional fervor from independent studios and talented, individual programmers, writers, artists and musicians—has blossomed with a brilliant bouquet of throwback-inspired titles.
Mom warned you about places like this. Could it be the "CAUTION: KEEP OUT" sign or the barbed-wire fencing? Hmmm...
198X is one such stand-out that attempts to cure that longing to revisit yesterday. It is a masterfully-crafted time capsule unearthed of all things 1980s. But, with the glitter, the game also brings a degree of grit for its main character.
You play as "Kid"—a teenager, awkwardly-navigating those wonder years of high school, when and where everyone is defined "in the most convenient way", whether fairly-justified or not. Or, in other terms, as narrated (and voiced by Maya Tuttle), "people started seeing you the way they wanted to see you".
Like so many teenaged depictions of the era, on the surface, Kid fits the bill of authenticity. We find our hero, laced up in chunky, white hightops and a well-worn, red jacket with comfortable blue jeans. His bedroom is littered with signature touches of the couture of the day: a turntable, VCR (video cassette player), mech robot and rock 'n' roll posters (Are those pixilated semblances of Guns 'n Roses and Prince?), a boombox, musical keyboard and skateboard.
His family lives in a docile depiction of Suburbia, where every house feels devoid of individuality and each domicile falls in line with the equally-nondescript, homogenous uniformity and near identical neighboring houses on either side. This is a place where children jump rope on the sidewalks and ride their bikes, presumably from the safe distance and watchful eyes of pets and parents alike. Everyone seems blithely-neglectful, untroubled by the dangers of the evening news and the faraway City.
But, beneath this appearance of "normal", something deeper, something of a more sinister nature is bubbling inside Kid.
Kid is drawn to the excitement and escape of the City and the Arcade found there.
When he can no longer take the pressure and internalized pain that he is constantly reminded of at home, he slips his comfortable, sponged headphones over his ears, cranks up his portable Walkman cassette player and takes to the streets, venturing toward that glowing beacon seen from his windowsill.
Kid's analgesic is the City—the fluorescence of illuminated windows in skyscrapers and of streetlamps and signage, the taillights of cars zooming away (from his present situation and mindstate, his present pain). He is attracted to its promising glow of escape from the unmentioned (and alluded to) horror that has shattered his sense of self, of family and of the illusion of innocence that his home in Suburbia once had.
As Kid, lost in music and contemplation, tries to navigate the shattered pieces of trying to cope and find meaning and direction in his life, he comes upon a forbidden factory that his mom once warned him not to trespass upon. But, like a stray animal lost, the warm, neon "OPEN" sign of the bleak, forboding building draws him in out of the cold rainfall.
Once inside, Kid's eyes are opened anew. He feels revived as he discovers the Arcade!
In this place—in what feels like an underground secret society—he finds wonderment and solace. The Arcade is a cool scene where individuality, fun and escape rule and he finds himself comfortably melding within its outcasts from Suburbia and society's neat order:
"In front of these machines stood some of the coolest uncool people I had ever seen. They were the freaks, the geeks, the misfits, the outcasts – the real rebels, part of something the outside world could not understand, or even knew existed. These guys were all playing, trance-like, totally-absorbed, as if they experienced something from another dimension. Maybe I could be one of them."
And gradually, Kid does become "one of them."
Kid slowly gains confidence, as he is seduced by the hum, the buzz, the escape of the Arcade:
"Another life was just one credit away. Down here, I found new worlds and new meaning. I could be whoever I wanted to be."
And coincidentally—"down here" in the Arcade—is where the game, 198X, starts to play like an actual video game instead of just feeling like an immersive, yet hands-off, guided tour. This is where the genius of 198X manifests itself best.
It deftly weaves the storytelling and plotline through the arcade games that Kid and yourself—as in YOU, the gamer—actually play. It is truly a meta situation where you—the player—vicariously guides the gameplay of Kid—the player onscreen sharing his experiences through first-person—as he engages and plays the arcade titles before him.
The Arcade of 198X
is like a wonderland that calls out to Kid and the gamer in all of us.
And those arcade titles and the actual order you play them in are not without intention, purpose or design.
The developers of 198X deserve much praise with their foresight and execution of the games. The artistry behind each one is authentically- and convincingly-represented as each feels like a legitimate entry, capturing the tropes of each genre represented, from polished look and feel to era-appropriate soundtrack.
When Kid steps up and adds credits, that familiar, magical sound to a retrogamer's ears rings through loud and clear: the tumbling of a coin or token sliding down and clicking through the slots of a money-devouring, arcade cabinet. Here now are those fictional, arcade hits that you play through the hands and mind of Kid:
BEATING HEART—in slanted, graffiti-styled font in the style of Final Fight, Street Fighter or The Warriors or some other 1980s-inspired, gritty street or action flick—displays across the screen of the first game you approach.
Kid feels alive again, as he seems to be pulled into the action. Controlling an avatar that looks remarkably like Kid himself (Hmmm...), he becomes a one-person wrecking crew in a beat 'em-up/street brawler that would be found on the same fight card as Double Dragon, Renegade, Final Fight, Streets Of Rage and the like.
In Beating Heart
, Kid clears a warpath through an urban streetscape in front of liquor stores, video rental shops and a hospital, as he pummels unprovoked attackers with names, like Candy, Noize, Riot, Sleaze and Bubba.
Full of vigor and revived from the Arcade, Kid leaves his troubles behind back down on Earth. In his next game, he steps Out Of The Void and into outer space.
Piloting his ship through a field of space junk and enemy ship formations, Kid faces down fleets of behemoth, battle cruisers and giant, space mechs. From the onset up until the brief escape sequence, Out Of The Void flies high among its Gradius and R-Type contemporaries.
Kid finds a way Out Of The Void
of his everyday circumstances, while mastering games, like this space shooter in the Arcade.
When not at the Arcade or at home, the high school scene fills most of Kid's time, like most average teenagers. However, it is made much more tolerable, as he develops a fascination with the girl "punk rocker from Southern district".
He daydreams, as she speeds off to the freedom of self-expression and the City in her custom '80s, muscle car, leaving a cloud of smoke and a fitting segue into the arcade game, The Runaway.
The Runaway is the equivalent to a quarter-muncher that matches Sega's OutRun (or Out Run), mile per highway-racing mile for adrenaline rush. This high-speed driver rocks over uptempo drums and roaring, metal guitars and runs over rumbling engine and the screeching of burning rubber.
When the cool, punk girl from Kid's high school peels off in her sporty, muscle car, Kid daydreams and runs away
from his harsh reality and escapes to the City in what may prove to be the hardest arcade title to conquer in 198X
Shadowplay showcases the internal storm of emotions that our hero is tormented by in the shadowy recesses of his psyche. This automatic side-scroller plays out as an exhaustive sprint from danger, fueled on by anxiety and pure fear.
The dogged demon that never relents chases our fox-like ninja across an obstacle course of varying platforming stages (golden fields; rain-slicked, bamboo forests; Shinto-like shrines; waterfalls... filled with shuriken-chucking ninja, bamboo-sharpened spears and more). And when that shadowy, masked pursuer lashes out with its whip-like appendages—LOOK OUT!
revels in the popularity of the ninja
with flavors of Shinobi
, The Ninja Warriors
, Samurai Shodown
and Ninja Spirit
. The 2001 award-winning, Japanese anime, Spirited Away
from Studio Ghibli, creeps into this arcade hit with a fearsome kaonashi
, or No-Face
Kill Screen is the final cabinet at the Arcade that draws Kid in. It is a procedurally-randomized, computer game with a maze of monsters and three dragons to slay.
With each defeated foe, role-playing (RPG) stats are introduced. EXP (experience) levels increase, Kid gets stronger and the game begins to flash messages that seem to be pulled from the tortured memories and perhaps buried hideaways of Kid's mind, as enough innuendo is displayed to help fill in the disturbing nature and events that have led Kid to his present, troubled state of mind.
In Kill Switch
, as Kid slays the three Dragons, the game becomes broken and glitches out. In a truly telling revelation, it is interesting to note that the three Dragons that Kid conquers are: GRIEF, PAIN and FEAR - forming a kind of warped distortion of the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief.
Looking deeper, when one pulls back the layers and actually pays more attention to the arcade titles, there are enough context clues for the observant gamer to notice the deeper meaning and events of the backstory of the game within the arcade games found. Hi-Bit Studios shows expertise in balancing subtlety with discovery.
Some particularly-noteworthy (and alarmingly-disturbing) examples of this include:
- the hospital destination at the end of Beating Heart;
- billboards, prominently-displaying the word, POWER, and the timing of music and Kid's monologue during his highway race into the City in The Runaway;
- the overflow of disturbing clues—in the forms of the names of attacks and MOTHERBOARD's taunts and your responses—displayed during Kill Screen:
- "YOU ARE ERROR"
- "ALL YOUR FAULT"
- "...I AM AFRAID"
- "...SO LONELY"
- "XROSS-GASH" (cross gash)
- "LA[S]CERATE.NRM" (lacerate normal(!))
- "OCULAR_WILTRAY" (wilting or cowering from a stare(!))
- "SLIT_VECTOR" (slit(!))
Because of this heavy subject matter, it is all-the-more rewarding, helping Kid to grow in confidence and inner-fortitude, as you serve as a surrogate, powering him through the quintet of symbolically-charged video games:
"But, it wasn't just about escape.
It was about transformation.
For every visit I made. Every game I uncovered. Every move I mastered, I felt stronger. More confident.
Some guy said I was nothing, but a dreamer. Completely out-of-touch with reality.
But, I don't know. Down here, I was free.
I was in control. No one told me where to go or what to do.
The only bad part about it was having to come back up to the real world."
And—at the timing of the writing of this piece—there is hope of a sequel to be produced to neatly tie off the cliffhanger closing(?) and bring our hero some deserved peace and closure.
Our hero, the Kid, in 198X.
Overall, 198X is an excellent game of exposition, packaged in a short, storytelling session. Unfortunately for some, the arcade segments—while well-crafted and fun—may feel too short for the total experience (clocking in at only a few hours).
For fans of story-based gaming, lighter action and/or those of us who want to be transported back to the scene of '80s arcades and teenage life, it is strongly-recommended.
Our limited stay and interactions within the life and times of Kid and his world of 198X Suburbia, City and Arcade feel fleshed-out, even within the fleeting time we are part of it. Hi-Bit Studios and its diverse panel of talent excels with the presentation.
The art direction stirs up a convincing '80s renaissance with its time-appropriate set-pieces; spot-on fashion designs; mood-setting, color choices; and lonesome, techno-noirish vibe.
Aurally, its soundtrack and audio cues wouldn't sound so out-of-place, as background in any one of the coming-of-age, teenage tales so viscerally-constructed in the never-ending parade of John Hughes' movies of the day.
In fact, its poignant writing—while not as jovial or light as Hughes'—still strikes an honest chord with the angst, awkwardness and authenticity of the teen years.
In closing, just like Kid, who finds a slice of exhilaration and freedom whenever he returns to the comforts of the City and the Arcade, the nostalgic gamer will find a pleasant smile stretching across her/his/their lips in remembrance of and longing for those imaginary, yet ungraspable, days of 198X.
b. jones © Juneteenth / Father's Day 2022
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