The Double Dragon series has had its ups and (mostly) downs. While the first two titles in the series gave beat-‘em-ups a great name, later titles in the series (excluding Battletoads/Double Dragon) reeked of poor decisions (I’m looking directly at you Double Dragon 3) and rehashed versions of the original. Combined with the incredibly awful 1994 film, The Double Dragon series has quietly been swept under many gamer’s rugs; occasionally re-appearing in conversations that begin with the words: “I remember Double Dragon.” While this sentence probably helped drive the 1980s influence of Majesco and WayForward’s Double Dragon Neon, it isn’t completely stuck in the past, nor is the gameplay in this game bringing the genre forward. What we ultimately have is a nostalgia-enhanced remake of a classic game that brings us back to the days of old.
Take it back to square one
Let’s examine the basics of what we have here: Two brothers (Billy and Jimmy Lee) have to rescue damsel-in-distress Marian from the Shadow Warriors gang. It’s a very simple concept that has worked out really well for the series and is a fine place for a reboot of this calibre to begin. While I would’ve really appreciated a bit more story, the places you go and the things that happen tell this tale well enough that you won’t be confused at all. There was just major opportunity to advance the story beyond a simple RESCUE THE GIRL concept.
While things happen towards the end of the game, specifically to Marian, that makes some attempt at bringing more to this story than ever before, I feel like there was a huge opportunity to make significant steps towards superior storytelling that is wasted on forward momentum more than character development. At one point the Brothers Lee get kidnapped and what follows is less about making plot matter and more about getting to the next level. Despite this, the characters are likeable, intentionally cheesy and filled with great one-liners. The villain, Skullmageddon, actually has the most character development of all (apparently, all he wanted was a date with Marian.) He also happens to hurl the best insults, screaming “Silence, Peanut!” during the final fight. Plus, the end credits are incredibly entertaining thanks to a Queen-inspired musical track that really makes him the most likeable character in the game. Poor Marian.
Speaking of audio, Jake “Virt” Kaufman continues bringing us stellar work game after game. Double Dragon Neon has an amazing soundtrack, but there are a few complaints. The game has obvious tracks from the first and second Double Dragon games, re-scored using 80s air-guitar inspired rock anthems. However, some of the tracks are original songs with vocals. This isn’t a problem at all, in fact, Level 2’s “Mango Tango – Neon Jungle” has been on loop in my car for days now.
When collecting powerups (another 80s reference: cassette tapes,) short 80s songs of all sorts of genres can be heard. These original songs are short but unique in their arrangement. No two songs sound similar and almost all genres are covered. The problem is they are short, and are a bit pointless. What I would’ve preferred to hear are more Double Dragon remixes or new songs created to allow new Double Dragon tunes to become as iconic as the originals. I know it’s possible, as Virt is immensely talented and if you are a fan of chiptunes you absolutely must check out his work. What I would’ve loved to see is Majesco releasing a Double Dragon Neon album with tracks inspired by the series, and giving the mix tape tracks a chance at becoming full songs. By doing this, we would get Virt’s full vision and the franchise gets a rebirth that focuses more on the series than the nostalgia. Regardless, this request is nit-picky at best.
Glorified pixels from 1987
Double Dragon turns eye candy up to 11. The entire game has a gorgeous gloss of color and style. This is one of the prettiest beat-em-ups you’ll ever see. While the creators stay true to the 2D styles of previous titles in the series—and let’s face it, that’s the only way it should be when it comes to Double Dragon—Wayforward cranks the bright colors up to the maximum. The entire game pops and feels alive. The streets are dirty yet still retain the bubble gum pinks and cotton candy blues that the style commands. Later levels remain bright and colorful and are full of imagination. Even the characters you fight go beyond palette swaps, with redesigned hair and clothes. All the enemies are fun to ogle, especially the ladies. This game is filled with all sorts of voluptuous girls, muscle-bound men and even the occasional creative monster. Plant monster with dragon and shark hands, anyone?
Just like the original series, Double Dragon Neon involves fighting on multiple planes, allowing Billy and Jimmy Lee to move around the entire room. Some parts involve basic platforming skills and other secrets require a close eye to detail when travelling. The punching feels, at times, slow but getting further in the game will allow gamers to combo punches and kicks together. Dodges and rolling really help revitalize the movement throughout the game. At times, you’ll wonder why these moves haven’t always been in the games. The defense is improved, and if you are getting pummeled, you have to teach yourself to dodge to become a better player. This is something that the series truly needed to innovate beyond previous titles, which forced the idea that the best defense was an offense. Neon pulls it off well, despite the characters feeling a bit floaty during movement.
Other than improved defense, a huge part of this game is the powerups. Collecting cassette tapes will allow players to level up their various powers. Some of which change your life bar at certain times, others give you health with each punch. Some of these tapes felt absolutely useless, but I did switch around throughout the game, and found that the higher the level (which can be increased by purchasing upgrades at the Tape Shop,) the more damage inflicted. There are a few projectile-type attacks, but the time it takes to upgrade any of these to master level requires multiple playthroughs. It would’ve been justified had there been more story, but beating this game once allows gamers to see most of what the title has to offer. There are secret rooms and Easter eggs, characters and concept art plus more to unlock. Shrinking down the amount of choices for cassettes would’ve allowed the developers to give gamers less grinding and more of a goal-oriented upgrade system that the original titles used with leveling up/gaining new attacks.
Is it worth fighting into the turf of the Black Warriors gang once again?
My first playthrough took about five hours to complete (and that was me taking my time.) As far as length goes, that’s immense for a beat-em-up, with most of the iconic arcade titles lasting about an hour or so. There’s unlimited continues, and the ability to stretch out your life bar with health powerups is frequent and at times a bit of overkill. Sometimes you’ll come across multiple soda bottles (health refills) and batteries (magic refills) and realize that you don’t need to grab all because just one is sufficient. The game feels optimized for two players at all times because of this and the resources don’t adjust depending on the amount of players.
While the basic concept of Double Dragon is alive and well, the nostalgia is more geared to 80s and early 90s pop-culture references than to the series. Skullmageddon is a dead ringer for Skeletor. In fact the whole cast of voice actors are clearly emulating a Saturday morning cartoon (Sorry, no Double Dragon cartoon references.) The outfits are as loud as the character’s hair. The cassettes, the music and cars in the background all juiced up by 80s nostalgia. Even the achievements reference the good old arcade days (The Wizard’s “50,000 on Double Dragon reference got a good laugh from this reviewer.”) I wanted more references to the series than anything but the relationship Neon builds with the player is fun and very likeable. I can’t believe they didn’t make more references to inserting quarters (or whatever form of copper/metal you put into the arcades) as this is an obvious but much needed joke that would’ve received big laughs from all who played the game.
Double Dragon has always been a title that doesn’t take itself too seriously and Double Dragon Neon brings a big game and big laughs to the masses. The franchise that people thought long dead and gone has been revitalized with a new energy and while this first game is a welcome addition for beat-‘em-up fans, it isn’t perfect. The title is well worth the 800 points though. While there’s plenty to do throughout the game, multiple playthroughs are only necessary for achievement purposes. Just remember that Dragons fight with honor and you’ll do fine.
Double Dragon Neon Gameplay Video
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