Did you know that in Brazil, over 150,000 Mega Drives are still sold every year? The console was discontinued in most of the world in the late ‘90s (bar special re-releases with built-in games), but in Brazil, it’s still going strong and is currently produced under licence by Tec-Toy. The Brazilians clearly have a fondness for 16-bit games, so it’s no surprise to see a game inspired by the scrolling beat-em-ups of that era coming from that area of the world.
If you’ve ever played Streets of Rage or Golden Axe, then you’ll know what to expect from 99Vidas. You’ll be walking from left to right (and occasionally from right to left), punching and kicking your way through multiple levels of baddies. When it’s written down like that, the gameplay doesn’t seem particularly exciting, but I suppose the same probably applies to many video games. Either way, this game doesn’t stray from the tried-and-tested formula that we all know and love already.
You can instantly see the inspirations behind the game: there are a number of levels that look an awful lot like some of the established kings of the genre such as Double Dragon and especially Streets of Rage. Some of the levels, whilst nicely created from scratch, look like they may as well have been lifted from Sega’s massive franchise. The resolution may be a bit higher and the sprites may seem a bit bigger than you’d be able to get from a Mega Drive, but the look is unmistakably 16-bit with limited palettes, colour-swapped sprites and chunky pixel art throughout.
As well as looking 16-bit, 99Vidas also does a really good job of sounding that way. The instrumentation, whilst a bit more polished than you’d expect from the six-channel sound chip in the Mega Drive, is certainly very similar. It apes Yuzo Koshiro’s Streets of Rage soundtrack so closely in some cases that I had to get out my copy of it to check if they’d just lifted music straight from it. They hadn’t, but they get uncomfortably close for some of the music. It’s very much like those own-brand products in budget supermarkets that look a lot like the named brand, but are just different enough to stop them getting sued. It’s the Fiennes Ketchup or Mary Liquid of videogames, if you will.
You may well have noticed a recurring theme here: 99Vidas is quite derivative, seldom straying too far from its source material. Health pick-ups often take the form of apples and chickens, it has the same weapon selection available, and the level layouts seem vaguely familiar. There’s even a section towards the end where you have to fight bosses you fought earlier in the game, and the main character makes a self-parodying reference to it being “one of those games”.
This close emulation of its idols isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We are talking about games that many would say are the best in the genre, but it’s worth being aware that this game isn’t going to break any new ground. It takes an established formula and puts it in a different setting. Developer Qubyte aren't trying to reinvent the wheel here, just pimp it out a bit with some alloys and whitewall tyres.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t try to do anything different; It’s a unique setting in the streets of Brazil, even if they look vaguely like the streets of New York in places. There’s a decent selection of original characters, and you can unlock a number of additional ones by completing the game and you earn extra special moves as you progress. These are persistent, and there’s a new game+ feature to add more longevity as well. Just as well, because there’s only so much content in the game: six main campaign levels, two secret levels and the online mode.
I didn’t manage to try that online mode as sadly, there was never anybody online to play with or against at UK friendly times, but I did try local co-op and it was great fun. One touch in particular I really enjoyed was a very nice secret level which looks like it’s been hand drawn. This is unlocked from a drop in an earlier level and is something I haven’t seen in a beat-em-up before. It does have the downside, however, of breaking the illusion of a 16-bit game as it’s littered with 3D-rendered pens and pencils.
Like those old-school fighters that 99Vidas draws so many comparisons to, this is a game that is super-hard. I consider myself something of a veteran of the genre but it took me multiple attempts to beat the game even on the easiest difficulty setting. Crank it up to the harder settings and you’ll need to put some real effort in to get good enough to beat Boss, the imaginatively named final boss.
I’d have liked to see a bit more variation in enemies: the same characters crop up in each level with very little variation, bar some colour or a different football shirt. In the ‘90s, this was a necessary evil, but in modern times it isn’t necessary. Perhaps it was done to make reference to the palette-swapping of that era, but if so, it doesn’t quite pull it off and comes across as a little bit lazy.
In spite of the issues of repetition and shortness, I still really enjoyed 99Vidas. It’s a competent fighter that doesn’t hide the source of its inspirations, but it makes a brilliant attempt to emulate what made those old games so brilliant. It might not be quite as good as the games it is influenced by, but those games were made by a big budget team with tonnes of experience, while this is a small indie title so I feel the developers deserve recognition for what is clearly a labour of love.
99Vidas (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
If you like Streets of Rage, there’s a good chance you’ll like this. It doesn’t bring anything revolutionary to the table but Qubyte has done a fine job of capturing the essence of the classic beat-em-ups of the ‘90s, and although there’s a little bit of repetitiveness in it, this is a title that’s worth playing.