99Vidas is a surprisingly deep beat’em up which delivers the hoodlum-punching frolics and coin-devouring difficulty of old-school arcade games – but without the acrid stench of cigarette smoke, or a stranger hovering over your shoulder, offering unsolicited gameplay tips.
As a child of the 8 and 16-bit era, the side-scrolling beat’em up was, for some time, my go-to genre. Sure, Street Fighter 2 and its ilk may have had you annihilating a single opponent but side-scrollers let you pummel your way through hordes of enemies. There was something glorious about making every punch count as you felled a game’s ludicrously monikered and absurdly clad cast.
There were in fact some titles let that let you get away with mere button mashing, but the genre’s better entries, such as Streets of Rage 2, required that you employ some degree of strategy. So when you ultimately did liberate Gritty Crimesville, USA , it felt like a genuine accomplishment.
But here we are, in the space year 2017. Scrolling beat’em ups, once the darling of many a mainstream publisher, have lost favour with the industry. Instead, it has fallen to indie publishers such as QUByte Interactive to take up the torch. Their latest release, 99Vidas, is one such scrolling brawler, albeit given a more era-appropriate lick of paint.
Set in the developer’s home country of Brazil, 99Vidas’ plot is… well, a complete load of tosh, to be honest. The translation’s a little shaky, but it’s something about a mystical artefact being stolen and a group of warriors having to venture forth to recover it. Furthermore, the short spurts of in-game dialogue don’t really clarify matters. It ends up feeling like you’ve walked into a film halfway through.
The truth is, 99Vidas’s plot is almost incidental, just serving as an excuse to get out there and duff up some villainous ne’er-do-wells. Six city-themed levels stand between you and your arch-nemesis, who we’ll call ‘Dave Q. Business’. Enemies pour out onto the streets, between three and five at a time, and do their best to introduce your head to their fists.
You, on the other hand, need to avoid their tasks and dispatch the toughs. There are four starting characters from choose from, each with their own strength and speed attribute, allowing you to choose whether you want a bruiser or a fast-battler. All pretty standard beat’em up fare so far.
At least, that’s what the game wants you to think, because 99Vidas lulls you into a false sense of security. You’ll spend the first few minutes admiring the low-resolution yet smoothly animated cartoon graphics. Maybe you’ll start tapping your foot to the game’s rocking synth music, itself apparently influenced by Streets of Rage 2’s soundtrack. And then, the realisation will sink in: you’re actually losing. Because, for all its cutesy retro trappings, 99Vidas is astonishingly challenging.
It’s not as offensively hard as Dark Souls, the game series that actively wants to kill you, your dog and all members of your extended family. But 99Vidas’ standard difficulty level will prove a challenge to even seasoned beat’em up fans. The enemies work in concert and are canny enough not to just walk into your punches. They’ll circle around behind you and lay into you while you’re attempting to dispose of the thug in front of your face.
And whereas old-school arcade beat’em ups let you continue playing as long as you had coin in your pocket, 99Vidas offers no such concession. Lose all your lives and you start the game again from the beginning of that level. True, there is an easy difficulty, itself no cakewalk, but it’s far more rewarding if you can stick with the default difficulty level.
Tough as it may be, you’ll end up getting further and further each time. You’ll learn to fight smart by noticing how some enemies – particularly the absurd boss characters – telegraph their attacks. You’ll begin to master the game’s deceptively simple controls, discovering which combo attacks work best on which enemy. When you do encounter the dreaded ‘Game Over’, you’ll get right back into the game, energised and rewarded by the progress you’ve made.
99Vidas‘ core mechanics are solid and failure is rarely a source of frustration, but it’s not without its flaws. The game includes an RPG mechanic where you can upgrade your combos, which seems like a baffling decision. Not only is it out of place for the genre it attempts to ape, but the purchasable combos are either woefully ineffectual or overpowered. There appears to be no middle ground, and as such, it makes the upgrade system feel rather tacked on.
Equally uneven is the game’s tone. At times, 99Vidas has its tongue wedged so heavily in its cheek that it risks the tip poking out of its nostrils. Yet there are moments where the game seems like it wants to be taken seriously, referencing some insanely convoluted lore. Then there are other times when the game tries so desperately to be wacky that it breaks the fourth wall. The game’s first boss turns into a chunky 8-bit character, which is mildly amusing, but your character then decides to bring it up, just in case you didn’t notice how clever or funny it obviously was.
In its favour, 99Vidas wisely does make the most of its multiplayer potential, allowing you to take on Dave Q. Business’s forces with up to three other characters, either offline or online. In theory, at least. I tried to find a co-operative game online, only to discover I was apparently the only person in the whole world looking for one. I had more success – and fun – playing against a person in the same room, which proved to be a blast. It doesn’t make the game a great deal easier though, since the game compensates by throwing a few more foes at you. I’d heartily recommend hooking your PC up to a TV and attaching a couple of controllers if you’re going for a co-op brawl.
99Vidas‘ humour can be very hit and miss, and the game’s challenging difficulty level may put some people off. But persist and you’ll find it a rewarding and hugely enjoyable brawling experience that will have you coming back for more, no matter how many virtual teeth you lose.