Double Dragon Neon
Back in the NES days, Double Dragon was possibly the most rented game in my household. When the Fighting Force games tried to revive the beat-em-up genre, I thought, “someone needs to make a new Double Dragon.” When Rockstar released the ode to beat-em-ups The Warriors, I thought, “someone needs to make a new Double Dragon.” WayForward’s Double Dragon Neon isn’t quite the game I’d been waiting for, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable in its own way.
Creating a modern installment of Double Dragon is a tricky prospect. The standard gameplay mechanics of traditional beat-em-ups haven’t aged well, and yet you don’t want to overhaul things so dramatically that it seems like a completely different game. Double Dragon may have been the title that popularized the genre — in the same way that Doom first popularized the first person shooter — but it was a series that already felt dated by its third installment, once Capcom and Konami threw their hats into the ring with games like Final Fight and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How do you take an old, classic series and make it fresh and relevant again?
WayForward’s attempted solution did not involve making the game a remake, reboot, nor sequel. Instead, Double Dragon Neon is the videogame equivalent of movies like Starsky & Hutch, Land Of The Lost, and The Brady Bunch Movie — it’s a game that parodies the series it was based on, and the decade it came from.
As a result, Billy and Jimmy now have the personalities of Bill and Ted, complete with air guitar at the end of each level. Co-op — the preferred way to play due to the ability to revive your downed partner — has been renamed “Bro-Op,” because it’s funny. Online Bro-Op isn’t yet available, but there are plans to patch it in later.
New abilities are unlocked by collecting cassette tapes dropped by enemies, though only two tapes can be equipped at any given time: one passive ability, and one active ability. The more duplicate tapes that are collected, the more those abilities level up. These tapes can also be purchased or upgraded in shops found in certain levels, a la Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game – incidentally, a feature they borrowed from River City Ransom, which was made by the same people who created Double Dragon. And so it all comes full circle.
Unfortunately, a side-effect of the leveling system is that the fighting starts out feeling tediously sluggish at the beginning. Things get better once you’ve played through a few levels, but it could be off-putting to people who are only trying out the demo. It’s typically wiser for developers to have the fighting already start off enjoyable and ramp up to being even better, rather than starting players off with what feels like essentially a handicap.
While Double Dragon Neon attempts to further modernize things by including an overhead map in the style of modern beat-em-ups like Scott Pilgrim and Castle Crashers, they’ve also stubbornly held onto a few aspects of “Nintendo hard” games that might’ve been better left behind. There are no checkpoints in the game, so once you lose all your lives, you have to start the level over. Mind you, this is a huge improvement over classic beat-em-ups, which required you to start over again from the very first level once you ran out of lives or continues, but we’ve long since moved beyond this.
Also, be careful if you decide to purchase lives in any of the shops – your lives will reset once you’ve beaten that level.
However, there are other classic gaming tropes whose inclusion are much more welcome. Gamers of the ’80s loved sharing with each other secret areas or glitches in games, and Double Dragon Neon has several waiting to be found. Maybe hitting that punching bag just the right number of times will unlock a glitched-out level, or crouching a certain number of times in the right spot will unlock a hidden helper.
And I can’t tell you how much I miss button codes. Only one has been revealed for Double Dragon Neon so far, but I really hope there are more. I’d love if those made a return.
The spoof-like nature of the game may come as a disappointment to longtime fans who were hoping for a game that would return the series to its gritty The Warriors-inspired roots, and make us forget all about the cheesy animated series and awful movie. But is it only down to nostalgia goggles that I view the series as being worthy of a revival at all? The truth is, Double Dragon Neon‘s opening — in which Billy’s girlfriend Marian getting slugged in the stomach and kidnapped, and Billy’s only reaction is “not this again…” – is a pretty spot-on mockery of a series that tried to top Marian being slugged in the stomach and rescued by having her shot in the stomach and “revenged.”
Even then, I spent most of the game unsure how I felt about an officially licensed Double Dragon spoof. They did win me over in the end, but not until after the moment the credits finished rolling. It was the one single moment that suddenly made the entire game worth it, a perfect ending that only would have worked for a game with this tone. Though it seems like such a long way to go for such a brief payoff.