Republished on Wednesday 28th March 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of April's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
The scrolling beat-'em-up is one of those beloved genres that indie devs are always trying to bring back to the fold, but they never quite succeed. Maybe it’s the inherent level of old school challenge or the left-to-right simplicity that fails to catch on. Perhaps the strongest example of this attempted resurgence in recent years is the criminally underrated Double Dragon: Neon, a garish and funny throwback with modern sensibilities. It’s a shame, then, that the PlayStation 4 has up until now only really had the abysmal Double Dragon IV to wave that particular genre flag. 99Vidas – named after a podcast collective that formed studio Qubyte Interactive via Kickstarter – makes an admirable attempt at rekindling the memory of those games on PlayStation.
Storywise, this is archetypal stuff: a bunch of friends sworn to protect the titular artefact must steal it back from a villainous kingpin. The good guys have super powers and martial arts skills, while the baddie has a legion of street thugs armed with switchblades and baseball bats.
Gameplay is standard run-and-punch stuff. Enemies of varying tiers and abilities must be dispatched to move through the stages, which end in a relatively challenging boss battle. Each one of the starting heroes – representing different elemental forces – has a visually distinct set of abilities that can be upgraded in between levels. Unfortunately, these moves are mostly cosmetic and there really isn’t much difference between the main characters other than their look. Alongside basic attacks, there’s a special power that kills everything on screen and takes a good chunk out of a boss health bar, but this drains a special meter that can also be used to trigger a useful escape move.
Weapons and health pickups (who doesn't love floor chicken?) are scattered throughout the levels and overall the game isn’t too taxing (especially on “izzy” mode). Most of the fun comes from the retro appeal and the sheer enthusiasm the devs have for embracing the roots of the genre.
The biggest stylistic influence here is SEGA’s Streets of Rage, from the aesthetic of the levels to the funky soundtrack, which at times sounds beat for beat like Yuzo Koshiro’s compositions from the Mega Drive classic. That’s not to say 99Vidas is entirely beholden to its genre peers: there's a unique charm to the characters and levels that feel distinctly native to the developer's Brazilian home. Bits of dialogue and the setting of the stages themselves express a cultural signature not often seen in games – mainstream or otherwise.
The combat animations of the heroes look and feel great to use and the enemies are playfully drawn. Highlights include the footballers that fall to your fists like taking a dive on the pitch and the punks that comb their hair before getting up and coming for you. Then there’s the boss battles: tongue-in-cheek dust-ups with crazy old ladies, killer robots, and a videogame store owner that turns into an 8-bit sprite.
On top of the initial stages, there’s a bonus stage set inside a children's notebook, which recalls another Mega Drive favourite, Comix Zone and showcases some great artistic design.
The unlockable combo upgrades add another welcome bit of visual flair to the proceedings. It's satisfying to graduate from bare fists to lightning arcs and blizzard uppercuts.
If there's a gripe, it’s that some of the levels feel far too long. There’s a universal pace shared between key titles in the genre that makes the stages here feel a bit stretched. The longer the levels drag on, the more your lives can tick down, and while these can be replenished between levels, points are better spent upgrading your abilities. It seems reductive to suggest a game like this be shorter, but shaving a few minutes from these levels would help the overall pace considerably.
99Vidas is an affectionate homage to scrolling beat em ups of the 80s and 90s. It’s also a fun game to spend an afternoon with, regardless of age and skill. There’s not a lot of content and you can run through the story mode in a few hours, but local and online co-op, unlockable characters, and the promise of more levels should give it some lasting appeal.