Yuzo Koshiro, Anton Dromberg & Daniel Rosenqvist, U.F.L. – 198x Soundtrack

3 out of 5

Label: iam8bit

Produced by: Various

198x looks like an interesting game.  In a sea of pixel art titles, tying the style to a narrative about growing up seems like the video game take on Stranger Things that we needed, with the smart decision to just go full bore nostalgia and shuffle the player through immediately recognizable pastiches of classic games – Streets of Rage, Shinobi, Outrun, etc.

That’s the game.

And then there’s the music.  As pixel art grew, so did synthwave: a modern take on bleep-bloop, sprinkled with a darker edge.  For better or worse, just as there are now tons of games employing the whole 8-bit / 16-bit shtick, making it harder to find the real standouts, the same is true of synthwave.  That difficulty is doubled due to the fact that the whole scene has a nostalgia undercurrent, so those who can juggle sounds like something old with sounding like something new are few and far between.

198x’s score is split between three composers – Anton Dromberg & Daniel Roseqvist, U.F.L., and Yuzo Koshiro.  Yuzo is a nab, as, not only has he been game-scoring in the business for quite a while, but he also worked on the music for several games which inspired 198x, and, admittedly, he’s the reason I bought the score.  It’s possibly just my bias, then, but his music does end up being what stands out, though Dromberg & Roseqvist do close out the set really well, by starting to stray from more “typical” game music.

Before that, though, the first half of the soundtrack is pretty damn generic.  It’s good, it sounds right, but it sounds too self-aware of what it’s imitating – Genesis-era music – and doesn’t include any real defining exuberance or sounds that makes the 90s efforts of guys like Koshiro still quite amazing.  This could tie in to the story of the game, that things start out as expected and then “mature,” accounting for the final stage, an RPG, having some really gorgeous, ominous washes of sound, but nonetheless, the stuff we start out with really blends together.  Koshiro’s offerings are worth it, though: immediately, when his bit kicks in, a more unique theme emerges, along with a sense of buoyancy that’s missing behind the nostalgia wink of the preceding tracks.  Again, this could very well be my bias, but his tracks stood out before I’d identified who wrote what on the album, so… maybe not?

Iam8bit’s presentation of the score on vinyl is, alas, typical of their half-in, half-out efforts.  The score doesn’t sound bad, but it’s not especially crisp or sharp either, and the packaging feels predictable: two solid LP colors of the game’s most primary colors (pink and black) and a cover that matches the game cover.

If 198x’s score matches the game, it may mean it’s more generic than I’d hoped, but given that the last half of the soundtrack starts to become pretty solid and notable, maybe it’s worth playing through 198x to get to its ending.