The beat-’em-up genre is one of the simplest formulas in gaming. During the early 90’s, following the release of Final Fight in the arcades, the genre exploded and found itself host to all manner of licensed tie ins. If you had a super-hero, action movie, or mascot that you needed to cram into an interactive format, the conveyor-belt beat-’em-up was a pretty safe way to do it. Heck, I’ve got one on the Super Famicom that has you play as an instant yakisoba mascot. It’s a difficult type of game to screw up. At worst, you’ll typically wind up with something incredibly bland. Developers have managed to defy logic and screw it up entirely, but it’s still typically a safe bet.
It’s a hallmark genre of the 16-bit era of consoles, so it’s no surprise that it’s commonly regarded with reverence. As such, Mega Cat Studios selected it as their formula when they Kickstarted their homebrew indie game, Coffee Crisis, back in 2016. It was a modestly successful campaign that resulted in the release of a physical cartridge on the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive to the peeps across the pond). They’ve now stripped it from the cartridge and released it into the wild world of PC, allowing it to breath outside the confines of its plastic prison.
Despite being a callback to the 90’s, the plot of Coffee Crisis somehow doesn’t involve someone being kidnapped, nor does it involve any gangs. Instead, aliens have invaded and are… Actually, how did we get here? The aliens are trying to abduct or possess musicians, and two baristas step up to save the world after some aliens show up in their cafe for no discernible reason.
Y’know, I knew the story was one of the game’s weakest facets, but I never realized what a mess it was until I tried to summarize it.
What’s weird about it is that it doesn’t simply reference or parody beat-’em-ups of old. Instead, it tells the typical alien invasion story while drunkenly stumbling through a number of cliche half-jokes in an effort to push its way to a final conflict. You might say that the plot doesn’t really matter in the context of the genre, and I’d agree with you. Totally! And it’s not that obstructive here, either. It’s just a bit dumbfounding how inept the narrative is. I think I may need a moment here.
Okay, so, if you’ve played Final Fight, Streets of Rage, or any of the Ninja Turtles’ arcade games, you know exactly what to expect. You travel horizontally across a wide plane and punch whatever gets in your way. Despite being based off a Genesis homebrew title, it uses a four button setup that gives you a general attack, jump, grapple, and Final Fight-style special attack. It’s pretty basic, eschewing fancier stuff like chain attacks and combos, which isn’t necessarily criticism. It works, and has proven itself to work before.
Where Coffee Crisis attempts to differentiate itself is with its subject matter, which is a mixed bag. On one hand, I hate coffee. It tastes like liquid murder. It also ties in heavy metal, which I’m also not any sort of fan, and it leads to there being this generic, heavily distorted guitar growl playing over all the stages. Despite my lack of indoctrination, it’s at least an effective framework that ties everything together, visually. The characters dress as baristas and fight using coffee paraphernalia, the combo counter gradually throws the horns, and coffee beans are used as power-ups. So even if it doesn’t exactly fit my tastes, at least it has a personality to speak of.
Tying all that together is an awkward sense of humour. The jokes that present in the dialogue consistently fall flat and tend to lean on extremely tired cliches. Within the game itself, however, the humour fairs better as it pits you against country singers and old ladies. I’m not saying I condone abuse of the elderly, but I do have an appreciation for typically one-sided fights within the realm of fiction.
ONE MEAN BEAN
The gameplay itself is enjoyable, if unspectacular. You start at the left-end of the level and your job is to march your way to the right-end, beating up everything in your way. The combat is capable, but it lacks impact. Your character blurs as they throw their kicks and punches, but when they connect, there’s not enough confirmation from the game, which makes things feel float-y. The mostly becomes a problem when there’s lots of enemies on screen, as it can be difficult to tell whether your character is essentially stun-locked, or if they’re successfully dishing out the damage. It’s not too bad, it just takes some getting used to.
The levels themselves are a similar mix of pros and cons. On the plus side, there’s a decent variety present as it takes you through city streets and hellish landscape. The locales in the latter half of the game seems to be where the developers had the most fun with the concept. I’m particularly a fan of the bizarre coffee hallucination level, if only for its aesthetics. On the other hand, regardless of where you’re fighting, all the levels are largely just straight stretches of land from one end to the other, which can get pretty bland. Most beat-’em-ups that come to mind throw in some variety in their level design, even Genesis classics like Golden Axe, but Coffee Crisis is content just sticking to one format. It can’t even muster up the obligatory elevator level.
There is a built in “modifier” system, which applies random events to each of the level to try and provide a more randomly generated experience. Unfortunately, this isn’t a mode that I had much desire to experience. It’s on by default, and it chose to spawn two sub-bosses in the second level which absolutely wrecked me. It’s not a bad idea as an experiment, but I’ve never found myself thinking, “Gee, I’d enjoy this game a lot more if it screwed me over from time to time.” I believe this is more for the Twitch steaming crowd, as there’s the ability to allow the audience to control what happens. Again, a neat idea, but I currently don’t stream, so it remains off.
There’s a password system that let’s you skip any levels, multiple difficulty settings, including a “Death Metal” option that unlocks after completing the game once, which is significantly more difficult. Everything is over and done with in about an hour, which is a reasonable length for a game like this (and it’s priced accordingly). The developers are looking to extend the gameplay by adding new levels, so let’s hope that they diverge from the monotonous design they have going on right now.
In terms of identity, Coffee Crisis seems a bit confused. It chooses to hearken back to the beat-’em-ups of yesteryear, with its graphical stylings and simple control scheme that apes the limited buttons of the arcade, but it’s hard to ignore that it flubs the presentation so hard that it actually takes away from the overall package. It doesn’t quite nail it as its own game, nor is it very successful as a callback. I kind of wish I had played the Genesis version instead, since that would at least add a layer of authenticity to it.
I may sound pretty down on Coffee Crisis, but I actually enjoyed it for the most part. I enjoy beat-’em-ups, and while Coffee Crisis isn’t exactly a sterling example of the genre, it’s inoffensive and competent. It doesn’t ascend to the peak of the genre, but it’s also pretty far from the nadir, as well. There’s some personality on display here, though not all of it carries significant punch. It at least shows that Mega Cat Studios has the chops to make a successful retro title, even if this title isn’t the most lustrous of gems.
This review is based off a Steam digital copy of the game provided by the developer.