Retrowaves of nostalgia
God bless the Retrowave movement.
It’s become such an energizing, nostalgic force that pulls from the best parts of the ’80s while injecting just a little something new to ensure it stays fresh. From movies, music, fashion, and even cars (thanks Elon), Retrowave continues to delight everyone with its pleasing aesthetics, vibrant colors, and undeniably cool sound.
Born on the tail end of 1988, I was a tad too young to remember anything about the ’80s firsthand, let alone anything to do with gaming, but what’s so great about Retrowave is that it cherry-picks some of the best parts of it and enhances it. Those of us who missed it the first time around are literally getting that second chance to live through one of the most exciting decades in recent history, and it’s through rose-colored lenses. What’s not to love?
This sentiment is particularly true for 198X, a pixel art love letter to gaming and growing up in the ’80s. Developed and published by Hi-Bit Studios, 198X first appeared on PC in June of 2019; now, roughly six months later, fans are treated to the handheld version of this fantastic Retrowave masterpiece, allowing players to take this nostalgia train on the go.
The game follows Kid, a… kid… trapped in suburbia, longing to get out into the city and do something — anything — other than stagnate at home. To live, to explore, to spread their wings and soar — it’s this age that is definitely just waiting for adulthood to come so they can finally escape being shepherded around school and family obligations and just strike out on their own. A coming of age story in one of the greatest possible ages, 198X is instantly relatable and tugs at the heartstrings of anyone who’s ever felt ready to get out there and experience all that life had to offer.
The overarching storyline in 198X is woven through five different games, each coming from a genre that was dearly beloved during the decade (although some of them came into their prime during the ’90s, but I digress). Kid’s inner monologue and deep introspection spans a beat-em-up that resembles Streets of Rage, a shmup a la Gradius, a pretty much exact copy of Out Run, a Shinobi-inspired ninja runner, and, my personal favorite, an RPG that looks like Tron and Dungeon Master’s love child, each one offering a taste of what was the cutting edge of electronic entertainment at the time… or at least, what we remember in our hearts.
The controls for each game within 198X differ, but they’re overall extremely simple and intuitive. There is one exception to that rule, however — the shmup requires you to press a button for each bullet instead of being able to hold down to continuously shoot, but since it’s simulating an arcade game set in the ’80s, the controls seem to check out. That didn’t stop me from getting carpal tunnel in my thumb, however, so perhaps there’s some merit to updating a few things instead of replicating them when it comes to 80s revivals. Still, the shmup is again a pretty short playthrough once you learn enemy patterns, and shouldn’t take longer than 10 or 20 minutes at most.
The visuals are genuine eye candy — the art style definitely gets a perfect score in my book. I couldn’t stop taking screenshots at every new image that popped up on my screen. The beautifully crafted pixel art almost jumps off the page with its exuberant portrayals of cityscapes, arcades, games, and nightlife. Even mundane scenes like a suburban neighborhood or a kitchen table pop dramatically. The visual triumph alone makes 198X worth the purchase, and fans of anything Retrowave will be hard-pressed to disagree.
Where the visuals delight, the audio exceeds every single expectation. Upon starting 198X, it only took about three seconds for me to realize I absolutely needed to turn the volume up to max level. The way the soundtrack just melts with the art style is literal perfection, a god-tier OST made by an international team that includes the legendary Yuzo Koshiro, who composed the music for Streets of Rage and the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog. Just like the visuals, the soundtrack deserves a perfect score, the Retrowave aesthetics divinely encapsulated in a delightful little package.
Depending on players’ skill level, 198X can take around one to two hours to complete in its entirety. This is more or less intentional, as it’s only the first part of an arcade epic that will span more titles. As the developer so aptly puts it, “I would say that the game we are releasing now is the same size as any Final Fight or R-Type or Strider – the typical late ’80s arcade game. But with more storytelling and less frustration!” Of course, this may make some balk at the price, the overwhelmingly talented team that contributed to this insanely gorgeous title deserves to feed their families, and for the price of two cups of coffee, you’ll be getting a near-perfect love letter to some of the best retro games ever.
After completing each game in 198X, I couldn’t help but crave for more. I think 198X as a whole wrapped up nicely and told the story it wanted to tell, but I was left with my appetite unsated even after the credits rolled, unlocking the ability to choose any of the mini-titles as desired. Instead of replaying the shmup level, for example, I found myself wanting to break out something like Ikuraga to feel fully satisfied. 198X serves as a great recap of some of the most beloved genres of the ’80s, but it’s more of a refresher course on said games and less of a complete package.
198X makes some lofty promises, but it absolutely delivers on all of them and then some. I enjoyed the Switch port and the intimacy it offered, but having to pause during the shmup level so my thumb could stop hurting definitely diminished the experience ever so slightly. With that being said, 198X is still a phenomenal triumph just aching to get into the hands of players who grew up gaming in the ’80s or who just have a general affinity for the energetic, electrifying decade. It’s worth every single penny — hell, it’s worth a lot more than that — with Retrowave enthusiasts being more or less obligated to snag it for themselves. If you want to go a bit easier on the joints, consider getting the Steam version of 198X. Otherwise, I definitely enjoyed the Switch version and can safely say I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC, Switch (reviewed); Publisher: Hi-Bit Studios; Developer: Hi-Bit Studios; Players: 1; Released: January 23, 2020; MSRP: $9.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of 198X given to HeyPoorPlayer by the developer.