A classic beat ’em up returns with a Double Dragon title that both pays heavy homage to the 8bit games, and offers up some fresh fisticuffs.
It has been some time since we’ve seen Double Dragon in any form. The last entry in the proper series was Double Dragon IV, which landed in 2017, though that was squarely a retro title. Not that it was bad, but it was created to look like it leapt off of an NES. Fans looking for a real evolution for the series didn’t exactly find it. And for that matter, Double Dragon Neon didn’t really deliver it either.
That game was launched in 2012, and was a complete reboot of the fighting saga. Neon brought in terrific graphics, and an even crazier, sci-fi/fantasy story. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, but again it wasn’t completely what I would’ve wanted from a ‘new’ Double Dragon.
As someone who associates the name way more with the NES than the arcades, I would’ve loved to have seen something a little more between the two extremes. Something that at least attempted to recapture that 8bit magic, while updating the looks, sound, and mechanics for modern audiences.
In that way, I’m happy to say that’s more or less what you can expect from Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. That title’s a mouthful, but it’s also brandished by a game that tries to toe the line of ‘retro’ while bringing something new to the table.
It’s a helluva town
The year is… well it’s 199x. The gimmick of not having an actual date attached to a story is a fun little throwback, and leads into what’s a pretty wild alternate history for the USA. Double Dragon Gaiden doesn’t get too story-heavy, but it does inform players that it takes place in a city that’s reeling from the aftereffects of a war.
But with a nuclear holocaust in the rearview, the town tries to come back in some way. It’s not total anarchy, as there are some elements of government still in place, but the majority of it is controlled by vicious gangs.
In true 80s cartoon style, these gangs are all gimmick-heavy, with an Egyptian-themed one, an ex-military one, and others. If you guessed that the famed Lee brothers have had it with ’em all, and are looking to clean up the streets, you guessed right. Together with their uncle and Marian (who’s a cop in this version of the story), Billy and Jimmy take it to the crooks.
Players get to choose which missions to tackle and when (past the first one) and can team-up for some multiplayer, to take on the bad guys in co-op fashion (online co-op is on the way too). But even if you play alone, you’re not really a lone warrior, because DDG allows for tag-teams. Players actually choose two characters when they fire up a new run, and can hot-tag in and out to regain limited amounts of life.
Along with the core team, enemy characters are unlockable as well, and can team with the Lee’s. And yes, before you ask, Abobo is one of them.
Playing the apocalypse
Tagging in and out is super easy, and done with just the press of a button, though you do have to have a full “special meter”. Both characters will be on screen for a short time, as the tagged-in character lands a blow, allowing his or her partner to leap to safety. That’s not to say that evac is a sure bet, as enemies can still attack and often do. So just a tip, but try to tag out before your primary is close to death. If you don’t, they might not make it.
While we’re talking about attacks, the fighting is excellent. Each character has a base attack, knockback, special move, and can also build combos. On top of that, you’re free to pick up weapons from fallen enemies. Pipes, knives, sledgehammers, and even weapons like bo staffs and halberds are all fair game.
While the Lee’s enemies can gang up, I had little issue landing shots both in front and behind me. Plus you actually might actually want the game’s creeps to gang up in nice, tight crowds. If they do, you can blast the whole mess into unconsciousness with a special move, which’ll result in some grub. Often that’s the only way to regain health to full, since food is rare, so it’s a strategic element and does add a lot to fights.
Aside from the food and weapons, there’s also in-game money that you’ll need to collect. Get enough and you can buy another life, starting you over immediately from where you fell. There’s also a post-mission power-up system, where you can pick up enhancements and boosts. So basically, break everything and grab as much coin as you can.
Developer Secret Base has brought over the cartoony, ‘cute’ looks of the classic console games for Double Dragon Gaiden. So if you’re looking for a brawler that’s more gritty, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But on the flip side, if you’re cool with Saturday morning looks, you’re going to love what Double Dragon Gaiden brings to the table.
Though the sprites are stylized, they’re still pretty darn expressive. They’re well-animated too, and that includes the special attacks, which land with explosive visual flourishes. You’ll also get comic book style word-bursts to highlight takedowns, and showers of money busting loose from fallen foes.
Unfortunately those bad guys and gals aren’t the most interesting people in the gaming-verse. There are a great assortment of them, so you won’t be fighting the same ones across the game’s biomes, but none of them are really visual knockouts. Even the boss characters are a little on the dull side. If you’re like me, you won’t care all that much since the fighting is so solid, but still.
And while the vocal work isn’t over the top, meaning there isn’t a ton of it, what is here is well done. The characters all have their own personalities for sure, and my only complaint is that I wish there were more animated story/cutscenes and maybe some lines here and there during the action. In terms of the music though, I had zero issues there. If you dig the classic DD audio, you’ll probably like this.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons does an admirable job in bringing the classic DD series into the modern age. It’s not a ‘retro’ title, but modernizes the series’ most famous incarnation. Adding to the AV package are some terrific controls and some awesome tunes. Is it right there with the likes of Shredder’s Revenge and Streets of Rage 4? If it isn’t it’s just a knife’s edge shy.
A copy of this game was provided by Modus Games for this review
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S (reviewed), Xbox One, PS5, PS4, Switch, PC
Publisher: Modus Games
Developer: Secret Base
MSRP: $24.99 USD