Previously, I’ve spoken about the odd legacy of Double Dragon. Once a pillar of video games which proudly stood alongside the likes of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and Mega Man (quite literally, having earned itself a spot with one of the most infamous lines in the 1990 movie The Wizard), the star of the Lee brothers more or less faded into obscurity for several years following a successful animated television series and a less-successful live-action movie of their own.
Double Dragon Neon by WayForward Technologies seemed to mark a rejuvenation of the franchise with its first new release following a period of little more than re-releases of the original game across a few platforms over the better part of a few decades. While generally well-received, the 80’s-infused self-parody/reboot was soon followed by a remake of the first sequel, now titled Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons from South Korean Ragnarok Online developer Gravity that was not met as favorably, being not only tied for the worst-rated Xbox 360 game on Metacritic, but one of their five worst-rated games in their entire history.
With that said, where do you go from there?
Some would say back to Neon, but for new franchise owners Arc System Works and members of the original development team (including the character designer, composer, programmer, and director Yoshihisa Kishimoto), their answer was “right back to the beginning.” Well, there and a few steps out with Double Dragon IV.
The name alone has been enough to sow some confusion among longtime fans. 1994 saw the release of Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls, a one-on-one fighting game (which was the style at the time) based on the animated series, which logically meant that the previously-released Super Double Dragon (or Return of Double Dragon in Japan) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System would otherwise be Double Dragon IV, right?
As it turns out, not so much. Double Dragon V was not made by original intellectual property holder and developer Technōs Japan, but by Leland Interactive Media, a subsidiary of Tradewest, who was the western publisher for the NES version of the original Double Dragon and Super Double Dragon. Long story short, Double Dragon V would seem to be about as canonical to the Arc System Works nee Technōs Japan version of the series as the CDi The Legend of Zelda games are to Nintendo.
Still doesn’t explain why Super Double Dragon wouldn’t be Double Dragon IV, though, but the lack of impact that installment had overall (along with its rushed development) might have something to do with that.
So that brings us to the game itself, which is basically pulling a Mega Man 9 and positioning itself as a retro title that just so happened to be developed for a modern platform. As such, it is by and large designed to look, sound, and feel like a fourth NES entry into the series. That said, it does its job — perhaps a little too well.
For a brand-new title, it’s a game that’s marked by the ravages of age. It is indeed retro, for all the good and bad that entails, and as some have said, it’s retro to a fault. The pixel art of the characters looks like it was lifted straight from those same titles, while the backgrounds look quite nice while staying within the boundaries of what the NES could do (or at least coming close, as even Mega Man 9 has been said to have cheated a little in that regard).
Then there are the “glitches” which occur. While Mega Man 9 (which I don’t mean to keep bringing up, but it generally makes the best baseline comparison) was designed to include flicker and slowdown, Double Dragon IV features some not entirely dissimilar oddities such as portions of the screen flickering at times when you move. I’m not sure whether that’s an actual flaw or if it’s meant to emulate the issues of the past, but it felt different to the issues I’ve known to come from playing games on the NES, and felt more jarring than authentic to me.
Controls are kind of a mixed bag, as they’re generally responsive, yet still kind of sluggish — at least for the situations you’re put in. Enemies move quickly and will gang up on you, more than they did in the NES version. When you get into a nice flow, it feels satisfying, but later in the game, things just begin to feel cheap as you’re not able to quickly turn to face the enemies who are constantly surrounding you. You have a cool recovery move when you’re knocked down that sends the enemies it connects with flying, but its crowd control performance is limited as you can’t turn around to use it the other way. Throw in some hit boxes which seem to favor the enemy, and you’re in for a battle that feels like it might be tougher than it should be.
Even so, they’re largely workable. There is only one difficulty level, and I’ve played it both single-player and multiplayer (local only, which took a while to make happen, hence part of the reason for the lateness of this review), even getting up to the last boss fight and clearing out most of their mooks. In truth, I actually found the single-player to be easier, as I had a full five credits (continues) to myself, whereas two players have to share only seven credits for the same number of enemies (maybe more at times). I’m not quite convinced the math works.
The controls are customizable to some degree, but the developers do need to be applauded for one change made from the NES games made possible with the advancement of technology: a dedicated jump button, which sits nicely above your punch and kick. This helps the platforming parts that no one likes (I’ve never met them, if they exist) yet they continue to insist on including a lot. It’s not like controlling Mario or Sonic or Mega Man by any means, and you’re probably still going to lose lives like candy in these segments (one time, I hit an invisible wall in midair and fell to my death), but at the same time, they’re not nearly as bad as they could have been when you had to press punch and kick simultaneously to do it.
For those who are actually interested in the surprisingly fascinating lore surrounding the series, the story doesn’t run particularly deep, but does introduce some new concepts which help further build the post-apocalyptic world the Lee brothers inhabit. Between stages, you get cutscenes told with still pixel art and text to move things along. So far as I’ve noticed, the translation seems to lack any egregious moments such as “Bimmy and Jimmy,” as well as any grin-worthy silly ones such as “G•R•A•S•P”. It’s solid, but unspectacular — I doubt you’ll be quoting much from this to your friends.
The music in the game is an interesting facet. You’ve got two choices: Retro and really retro, with the former sounding like a pretty good chiptune mix and the latter almost seemingly reminding you that this is what it would probably really sound like on the original hardware. Either way, the tunes range from catchy to classic (which also happen to be catchy) — or at least, I think they do. I haven’t dedicated so much of the original soundtracks of the NES games to memory that I’d know if they were reusing much more than the iconic themes, truthfully.
Just the same, I find it’s hard not to get a little pumped when you hear the iconic theme kick up for the final battle.
A further throwback comes to the compromise included for the NES version of the original game. In place of two-player co-op, the main story was single-player, but you could still have a second player join in the fun with some one-on-one fighting. This returns, complete with a remake of the original arena, and you can gain more fighters to use in this mode by progressing through the Story Mode. It’s simple and a nice bonus.
Of course, if you’re able to beat the Story Mode, you can unlock the Tower Mode, which is basically a no-continues gauntlet of foes which allows you to unlock characters which can be used in either of the other modes. I imagine that adds a bit more replayability.
Double Dragon IV, for better or for worse, is what it is. It’s as oldschool as oldschool comes, though the question does remain how big a place there is in the market for something which unabashedly revels in its history to such a degree that its corners are left as sharp as ever — or sharper. My wife, who is perhaps a bigger Double Dragon fan than I am and particularly likes Double Dragon II on the NES, came away nonplussed after playing it with me for a bit.
As for me, it’s a tough recommendation, but I can’t not recommend it, either. I couldn’t get past the final boss (and yes, I even used the stage select cheat — maybe someday) and haven’t experienced the Tower Mode, but I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t have fun playing it. I can still see myself picking it up on occasion and giving it a poke as I try my luck, hoping that this time will be the time. Then again, that sounds like a lot of the tougher games of my youth, so maybe chalk up another point for their recreation of the retro feel?
The price isn’t bad for what you’re getting overall, though even fans of the originals seem to find this one a little bit rough. Just the same, I still personally prefer Double Dragon Neon (even if multiplayer is the only way to go), and so I’m not really sure this will go any further towards solving the franchise’s current identity crisis. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm?
Double Dragon IV was released for the PlayStation 4 and Steam on Monday, January 30th, 2017 at a price of $9.49 and $8.99, respectively.
A review code was provided by Arc System Works.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.