(Originally publishing Private Suite Magazine, issue 14)
“I guess I was just looking for anything that could make my heart skip a beat again,” says the dejected, stargazing star of 198X, a video game about the transportive power of video games. Stockholm-based Hi-Bit Studios’ pixelated paean to the video arcade’s glory days might not cause serious gamers any arrhythmia, but it certainly will make vaporwave fans swoon.
Let’s dispense with the story. The whole thing knows it’s so archetypal that it doesn’t even feign ingenuity. Players control Kid, a teenager from Suburbia, a town just outside City. In the year 198X, Kid spends his nights “up in my room […] counting tail lights on the highway,” dreaming about life in a metropolis oversaturated in fluorescent purples and pinks. Kid is Angsty. Kid is Disillusioned. His motivation for being so is tenuous at best—something about “this thing with Dad”—but, truly, it’s not important (at least not in this installment; the studio promises a sequel that will likely flesh it out).
More important is the finesse of the game’s nostalgia delivery mechanisms. Eventually, Kid does find an outlet for his malaise: a video arcade tucked in the basement of a long-abandoned warehouse—a sanctum full of “the coolest uncool people I had ever seen,” as Kid puts it. Night after rainy night, players join Kid in that smokey place, observe him approach arcade machines with desperate purpose and budding hope. 198X effectively vacillates between narrative perspectives when he does, asking players to take up Kid’s position and play what he’s playing: a beat-’em-up and a shoot-’em-up, an Outrun-style racer, a Shinobi-esque platformer, and a 3D dungeon crawler. Each one is impeccably rendered, distilling the mechanics that make its respective genre so engrossing. And each features a perfectly suited soundtrack.
So you’re playing a video game about a kid playing video games. Or rather, you’re playing a video game as a kid playing video games. The game’s ongoing double-shift in perspective—from third-person cutscenes to first-person gameplay and back again, from distant observer to embodied co-controller—is the game’s motor. That motor never really propels players anywhere, however. 198X never finishes anything. Don’t expect the story, such as it is, to resolve, and don’t expect to “beat” any of those arcade machines. 198X’s obstacles aren’t there to be beaten, to serve your naive desire for closure. Closure would mean Kid had Gotten Over It—and that he’d need to go home. Instead, you’re meant to luxuriate in these microworlds, to let them carry you away, again and again. The success of the game is in the perpetual playing.
That’s really what makes 198X an excellent vaporgame—to say nothing of its pitch-perfect color pallet and period-appropriate graphics. This game about Kid in Suburbia outside City flaunts its self-awareness, wears it proudly. But it’s never parodic. It’s never sarcastic. What makes the game so compelling is its downright earnestness. Like any vaporwave cassette, it unspools without pretense or pretension. 198X has Something To Say. And it’s ruthless about saying it.
In fact, it says the most when it’s not saying anything at all—when Kid’s wistful voiceovers have quieted and the pace of play has slowed. Gameplay dissolves into cutscene without warning or heed, and the screen darkens just a beat longer than customary. Pitch black, silent and blank, the screen of my Nintendo Switch becomes a mirror, and I catch my reflection on its glossy surface—somewhat bemused, wholly captivated, fresh from my immersion in Kid’s immersion in the machine. Fantastic dances of light extinguished, confronted once again with my own utter ordinariness, that’s when I really understand this Kid.
# September 26, 2020