99Vidas makes pretty solid first impression but, like most beat ‘em up titles, it overstays its welcome despite a short runtime. Paying tribute to the hallmark games of the genre like Final Fight, Double Dragon, and Streets of Rage, 99Vidas tries its best to bring about the look and feel that made those games classics while introducing some new features such as online co-op, upgradable combos, and enemies that can block and evade attacks. As a fan of beat ‘em ups there is a lot of potential in those highlights, but when you get into 99Vidas everything starts to break down.
The premise is simple. Someone has stolen the 99 Vidas, a joke on the idea of infinite lives in a fighting game, and the good guys need to get them back. Much like the standard story, 99Vidas plays like your standard beat ‘em up game. You move your character form left to right and up and down a static screen while you wail on enemies until they blink out of existence. Light and heavy attacks are present along with their air and ranged variations, and there are some basic combos that can be performed. With combat being the game’s main gameplay mechanic, you’d think it would have a lot going on. Unfortunately, the idea to pay tribute to games of yesteryear may have hurt 99Vidas in that department. Despite having 11 playable characters in total there isn’t a ton of difference between them at all. Their combos are the same, they fight the same, and it’s hard to tell what a speedy character does differently than a balanced character. Sure, they have different special attacks or ultimate attacks but that’s about all I could see in terms of differences.
The lack of differentiation hurts 99Vidas in a major way. The main campaign takes about two hours to complete and without reason to check out the other characters and see how they played, I didn’t see much reason to jump back into the campaign. The online co-op is a neat idea for a beat ‘em up, one that’s become standard in the genre, but I had a hard time finding people to play with in co-op or against in versus mode. This is where another crack in the game’s façade shows up. 99Vidas was meant to be played as a multiplayer game. When I did find someone to play with, or when I coerced a friend to jump in locally, the game felt easier to handle, as I wasn’t being overrun with enemies. Boss fights also felt more manageable, specifically the final boss fight, which can be insanely difficult if you play it alone.
This brings me to another issue with the game’s combat. The developers tout that the enemies can evade, block, and coordinate attacks. I don’t know about coordination as the most coordination I saw was multiple enemies ganging up on me to make it impossible to attack without using a special move that requires health to use. I only found one or two enemy types that blocked, and when they were the last enemy on screen it lead to an awkward dance of attacking them until they stopped blocking and died. As far as evading goes, the only evasion technique I saw was when certain enemies would walk off screen to avoid being hit, leading to another awkward moment of waiting for them to come back and die. Overall the combat maneuvers of enemies didn’t wow me in any way and the back and forth with them was more frustrating than enjoyable.
I will give 99Vidas props for its 16-bit graphical style and fun soundtrack. For a game that is going back to the classics for inspiration, they did a good job of taking certain aspects of those games and paying homage to them properly. Enemy death animations, over the top ultimate attacks, and most of the boss models were fun to see. In fact, I found the boss fights to be some of the best parts of the game as it broke up the monotonous combat and introduced some light pattern recognition in order to come out on top. Sadly, the boss fights were few and far between and only a few of them stood out as truly great ones.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with the game is its need to point out references over and over again. I took issue with this in Punch Club as it liberally took from pop culture and tried to make it cool when really it just fell flat. Taking a cool thing from pop culture and pointing to it and saying “we like this too” is a tired way of crafting moments or jokes in games and its something I’d love to see less of. 99Vidas tries to be coy with jokes about lives in video games or pointing out obvious pallet swaps but instead of being funny it comes across as lazy, as it does nothing to fix the problem fans of the genre have, so why put it in the game and point it out? Perhaps the only working joke in the game is the truck that shows up early on and then again at the end of the game but even then, it’s a bit of a stretch as far as humor goes.
I wanted to like 99Vidas after it promised to faithfully live up to the classics and add new beat ‘em up elements, but it couldn’t hit its own hype at all. The beat ‘em up genre is one that is filled with monotony and it desperately needs a fresh new face to give it the revitalization that other genres, like fighting games, have seen in recent years. I wasn’t expecting 99Vidas to be that game but I was hoping it’d be a competent beat ‘em up. Instead, it leans too heavily on lazy writing and tired mechanics while only adding mechanics that serve to make the game more frustrating.