STONKS-9800: Stock Market Simulator – PC Early Access Review

STONKS-9800 very much reflects the stock markets it expertly replicates. When the line goes up, wiggling its way into the millions, the highs you feel are unparalleled, a synchronistic dopamine hit, a perfect coalescing of engrossing gameplay mechanics, electrifying, energetically melodic tunes, and a nostalgia-driven 80s anime vibe. However, when that line crashes, and trust me, it will crash, the frustration and dwindled potential feel simultaneously soul-crushing and disappointing, not because the experience is bad, but because it could be so much more. 

“The gorgeous world created in STONKS-9800 is almost cosy at times.”

Currently, STONKS-9800 is in Early Access and allows players to access just the Free Mode. This is essentially an indefinite life sim in which players desperately attempt to make as much money as possible while dealing with the tedium of life, managing stress levels, their relationship with their co-worker, the real estate markets, and the intangible nightmare of the stock exchange. 

Of course, all of this is cohesively tied together by the game’s mesmerising art direction, an 80s, CRT-inspired love letter to anime with vivid colours that punctuate your screen as the stock charts zig and zag like a psychedelic cross stitch. It grounds the game in a hyper-reality, removing some of the inherent stress that comes with the fundamentally frustrating nature of gambling. The gorgeous world created in STONKS-9800 is almost cosy at times, peppering its bleak moments of financial woes with enticing mini-games, memorable lines brimming with wit, and a cheeky sense of humour.

STONKS-9800 advisor screen

But perhaps the best aspect of STONKS-9800 is its emergent gameplay, the ability to piece together narratives through player choice, offering intriguing scenarios and randomly generated conclusions that lead the player down wildly divergent paths. The sheer number of systems, from the ever-fluctuating stock market that can ruin your empire in moments to the RPG-esque skills that essentially determine how good of a person you are, is staggering. The engrossing nature of STONKS-9800 stems from this ability to keep you hooked on the unknowable possibilities that lie before you. 

“Perhaps I’ll become the next Robin Hood. Just as I start to feel as if I can turn my life around, I am finally freed from jail.”

The best way to illustrate this is through my real experience with STONKS-9800. I began my foray into the stock market a tad naive, spending money on overly priced stocks, investing in mismanaged businesses, and failing to take note of the myriad of issues circumnavigating their way through the industries I poured my money into like an unceasing storm. Eventually, a shady businessman pitches me an idea. He offers me 30% of his company in exchange for a handful of yen. I was promised millions in exchange. How could I refuse? All I had to do was not mention the slightly dubious criminal activity in the background.

Soon, the money started rolling in. I was finally rich. Without a second thought, I began investing everything into whatever company offered the cheapest stocks. I was living the dream, buying expensive houses, fancy cars, and blowing millions on Pachinko and the races. A short while later, I receive a call from the police informing me they are investigating the company. Terrified of my fortune disappearing, I bribe them, desperate for it to be swept under the rug. They reject the bribe. I start to sweat, the stress and anxiety tempestuously bubbling within me. What can I do? Should I quit while I’m ahead? I can’t stop, not while I have all this money, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. I’m taken to court, sentenced to two years in jail, and forced to sit and watch as my money and most of my stocks are taken away from me. 

STONKS-9800 stocks purchasing screen

I wait two in-game years, unable to interact with anything. At first, I am frustrated, angry that the game lacks the ability to speed up time. All I want is to hurry through and return to spending my money on pointless stocks. But after a few months, I begin to reflect. I look through my pitiful profile, glaring at my low ethics skills as if it’ll make the pain of being a terrible person any easier. I sit and think for a while about how to improve myself, how to become a better person. Donating money is an option. Perhaps I’ll become the next Robin Hood. Just as I start to feel as if I can turn my life around, I am finally freed from jail. 

Immediately, I begin investing and donating money whenever I can. Soon, I’ve accumulated another fortune, legitimately this time. I avoid the offers of insider trading, continue the donations, slowly but surely improving my ethics score. I finally begin to feel good about myself. Before I know it, I’m rolling in money. More than I have the good sense to know what to do with. Thoughts begin to creep into my head. Sure, I could keep donating it. But what about that new fancy car? What about buying up mansions and renting them out for exorbitant prices? Surely, it couldn’t hurt. Maybe I will take Yoshida up on learning the next best stock to invest in. What’s the worst that could happen?

“Unfortunately, Stonks 9800 is so fundamentally flawed in its current state that all of its ingenious and creative concepts become swiftly buried beneath a ruinous mountain of bugs.”

In many ways, I have a deeply profound reverence for STONKS-9800, a passionate sense of awe and wonder at its many intricacies and ability to formulate engrossing narratives through a handful of menus and a singular quirky character. There’s so much on offer here that it feels like an overwhelming task to break down in just a thousand words or less. STONKS-9800 invokes a genuine sense of endless possibilities in the player, providing a vibrant, fantastical sandbox and a series of comprehensible tools with which to engage with it. It pokes and prods with different options, but ultimately it is up to the player how they wish to direct their narrative. Ultimately, this is what makes STONKS-9800 so remarkably masterful.

Unfortunately, STONKS-9800 is so fundamentally flawed in its current state that all of its ingenious and creative concepts become swiftly buried beneath a ruinous mountain of bugs. For all of developer TERNOX’s indefatigable artistry and innovative creativity, STONKS-9800 feels frustratingly inconsistent to play. One moment you’re indulging yourself in another hour of enrichingly engrossing emergent gameplay, and the next, you’re sitting befuddled as yet another bug causes you to lose all of your money inexplicably. 

STONKS-9800 visual glitch in-game

One bug, in particular, coupled with a questionable design decision, rendered me broke, seeing hours of progress crushed into obscurity. For context, STONKS-9800 has a fluctuating income tax variable that charges you a percentage of your income every month. Typically, if the income tax says it’s 3%, you’ll be charged 3% of your overall income. However, I found myself earning 22 million Yen, only to be charged 45 million yen in income tax, despite the rate being set at 3% then. While that might sound like a lot of mathematical mumbo-jumbo, in essence, I was charged far more than I should have been, sending me deflated into the red, my entire fortune completely depleted. To make matters worse, the game forcibly sold my 20% stake in a company to recoup the cost without consulting me first, setting me back practically to the beginning. Because the stock prices fluctuate, regaining that 20% at that moment in time would cost me 10x as much as it had done originally. 

On a technical level, STONKS-9800 is broken too. Images and menus would frequently overlay on top of one another, making it impossible to discern what was happening on screen. This could only be solved by saving and quitting the game, but even that saw the save game pop-up immediately reappear after I closed it, preventing me from quitting the game entirely. At one point, I became inundated with pop-ups and messages like a comically bad virus in a movie, repeating the same information over and over again, not letting me progress or take any meaningful actions to solve them. I also experienced a bug that saw me lose a lot of points in Financial Expertise, as the pop saying I’d lost 2 points in said skill appeared repeatedly, each time reducing my points arbitrarily.

“I highly recommend STONKS-9800, especially if the aforementioned freedom, coupled with the inherently engrossing nature of stocks, intrigues you.”

Frustratingly, I fear many will boil down STONKS-9800 to these two critical paragraphs, evidently forgetting the lavish praise I gave it earlier, which still feels as if it does a disservice to the exceptional creativity and ingenuity on display here. While it is true that STONKS-9800’s Early Access state is less than subpar, I can categorically say that once polished, this will be an exceptionally unforgettable masterpiece. This is a game rooted in the irresistible freedom inherent in emergent gameplay, a spectacular example of freeform storytelling that feels as memorable and meaningful as the verbose 100-hour-long JRPGs that are so frequently and justifiably celebrated. 

However, I appreciate and understand that it is a lot to ask someone to take a gamble on a game that suffers so much from technical and occasionally mechanical issues. Risk is all too often the foundation of Early Access titles, an opportunity to throw your support to original and talented developers but at the cost of patience, a pleasure so few enjoy now.

STONKS-9800 Horse racing minigame

If this were a fully released game, I would have perhaps been a lot harsher, although, admittedly, still rather hopeful for its future. Fortunately, STONKS-9800 is not a full release and is, therefore, at the very least, in my eyes, afforded a grace period during which it can grow and improve. I highly recommend STONKS-9800, especially if the aforementioned freedom, coupled with the inherently engrossing nature of stocks, intrigues you. I feel confident in my assertion that not only will STONKS-9800 eventually become the genuine masterpiece it has the potential to be, but also one of the best indies ever made. 

You can pick up STONKS-9800: Stock Market Simulator on Steam when it launches on July 17, 2023, for $10.

*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC, code was provided by the Publisher.