WayForward / Majesco Games
Xbox 360 and PS3
Action/Beat ‘em Up
September 12th, 2012
Review by Ari Rockefeller
Double Dragon is a strange case as far as old video game franchises go. Everyone remembers the first two games—at least, their home counterparts on the NES—but other than a few subpar sequels, an animated series, a game based on the animated series, a comic run where they were the sons of Stan Lee (as in the man who is synonymous with Marvel comics; I am not fucking kidding), and a live-action film that is better off not spoken of, this beloved series has languished in obscurity. Hell, when was the last time getting 50,000 in any video game much less the original Double Dragon on the NES had any meaning? (You’re welcome.) Aside from a few remakes of the original game, one of which never made it north of the border, there hasn’t been a fresh, original title in the game in a long time. It doesn’t help that its original company, Technos-Japan went out of business in the early-2000s.
Enter Double Dragon NEON. NEON is a mix of both old and new—while its roots are firmly planted in the original game, it comes with more elaborate gameplay, a more fleshed out story, and new stages and baddies to fight, while maintaining numerous references and shout-outs to the original games.
SPOILER ALERT: Story details below!
The first stage opens with the ever-so-iconic scene of several members of the Shadow Warriors gang rolling up on Marion and abducting her, courtesy of a punch to the stomach and carrying her off like a sack of flour. From there, Billy and Jimmy Lee have to fight through ten stages of mayhem to retrieve Marion from a brand new villain, the diabolical (and awesome as fuck-all) skeleton lich Skullmageddon. Throughout the game you do battle with numerous Shadow Warrior goons, the most common of which being the Williamses, which make up the bulk of the opposition. The stages include the generic “Main Street”, the wilderness, a genetic research lab, and, perhaps the most absurd of all, a thirteen-story rocket that blasts off into outer space—right in the middle of the city!—and is referred to as the “Space Dojo.” You fight Skullmageddon a total of three times—once in the Space Dojo, once with a brainwashed and magically empowered Marion, and the third time as the final boss Giga Skullmageddon. Oh, and just in case you forgot about the arcade version of Double Dragon, if you’re playing co-op at the end, you do get to fight the other player for Marion’s hand.
Billy and Jimmy control a lot more smoothly in this game that in other games in the series. Dodging and running are consigned to a single button press, though running does take a moment to start up, as the brothers don’t stop or start on a dime. Curiously, the original Double Dragon was intended to be a sequel to the game Renegade, a game that employed a fighting system wherein the button you pressed determined which direction you attacked (in front of you or behind you). This has cropped up in other games in the series, e.g. Double Dragon II, but is thankfully not here. Other than that, the old-school beat-‘em-up staples are here, such as getting power-ups and health pickups from trash cans, getting weapons from foes and beating them down with them, and the like. There’s local co-op, but strangely, no online co-op…though the developers have promised that it is coming.
The game is a joy to look at, as most of the stages are bright and colorful, and impeccably detailed. If there was any kind of seriousness to the series—best exemplified in II, wherein Marion is dead and it’s implied to have followed a nuclear war—it is long gone and won’t be missed. To paraphrase Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation, if you found the Eighties offensive, you’ll find this game offensively Eighties. The game is packed to the breaking point with references to the decade, both from pop culture and general behavior and trends. Not only were the Williamses apparently trained through watching and rewatching Gymkata over and over again until the tape broke down, but they sport the latest in accessorizing in the 1980s, complete with bandannas tied around their calves. And nothing completes the Lindas’ leather dominatrix ensembles like pastel leg warmers. (I’m not saying a word about Billy and Jimmy, because their mullets are so majestic and beautiful they wouldn’t be out of place competing in the WWF as a tag team). Hell, even the way Billy and Jimmy fight and get stronger is a product of the times, with their powers and abilities relying on the collection and setting of mixtapes. That’s right. Mixtapes. Those glorious little blank cassettes that you’d use to record songs you heard off the radio for your own personal soundtrack, the practice of which the RIAA thought would be the downfall of record sales—wait…do gamers of this generation even know what a cassette or a mixtape even is (before they clicked on those links, I mean)? But I digress. The tapes are either dropped by enemies or purchased from an old shopkeeper, and there are two sets of tapes, ten for special attacks, ten for stances, which manage your stats. They can be upgraded, too; a single tape can be upgraded up to level 50. Each copy of a tape you pick up increases its power, but they have to be upgraded in increments of ten to expand their capacity to the aforementioned 50. How, you ask? You use chunks of platinum ore, picked up from defeated bosses, to a dwarven warrior calling himself the Tapesmith, who uses the platinum to reforge your tapes.
The Eighties were weird.
The difficulty of the game is one of the main sticking points, as it straddles the line between “challenging” and “a goddamn nightmare.” Like the original Double Dragon and other games in its heyday, it’s meant to be difficult, but still fun to play; you get a certain satisfaction out of beating it. NEON is like that as well, at least on “Normal” difficulty. There are three difficulty levels altogether, with “Dragon” and “Double Dragon” having to be unlocked by beating the previous difficulty level. The baddies can get unreal priority over your attacks regardless of difficulty setting, but they grow exponentially stronger as the difficulty setting goes up. What compounds the problem is the minor mechanic of stunning. Sure, if you attack a baddie enough times it’ll stun him, allowing you to throw him into other baddies, but on higher difficulties, normal attacking into stunning seems more about random chance than anything else. It’s even worse if said baddie is armed, because nothing interrupts their attack animation except stunning. Weapons like knives, whips, and bats are even more of a pain because they can be stupidly overpowered on higher difficulties, and it seems almost impossible to stop. Thankfully, you can dodge-cancel some attacks just before impact, which slightly lightens the burden. Dodging makes your character glow for a few moments (getting “The Gleam” as the game calls it), allowing you to attack for double damage. So, with the right mixtapes and special moves, the stupidly powerful attacks go both ways.
The game is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes. If you can find the soundtrack or get someone with the soundtrack to hook you up with it, do so ASAP. The majority of the tracks are either a) remixes/reimaginings of themes from the three arcade/NES games, or original songs that sound like they were drawn straight out of an awesomely bad film, TV show and or record straight out of the Eighties. There are plenty of jabs at the fourth wall, some of them coming from Billy and Jimmy, but Skullmageddon takes it up a notch. Not only does he snark at you for pausing the game during the boss battles, but he will occasionally offer you “advice” on how to beat him, citing, “I’ll save you a trip to the internet.” Plus he sounds like Skeletor from the old He-Man cartoons—or at the very least the version of Skeletor used on various Robot Chicken skits. Oh, and the reason he kidnapped Marion and made the Lees’ lives a living hell? All he wanted was one date with Marion.
Double Dragon is an indelible part of gaming history, the arcades, and the silver age of console gaming. To have it on the shelf for so long doing nothing is a shame. Double Dragon NEON, while not having a full-fledged original story, is a great reminder of the kind of fun and potential this franchise is capable of. Will this open the door for the continuation of the Double Dragon story? Will we ever get to follow the adventures of Billy and Jimmy Lee again? Or will this even get a sequel? It’s hard to say. But for now, I’m going to bask in the immortal feeling of getting fifty thousand in Double Dragon.