Review: Double Dragon Neon for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network

In the hallowed halls of video gaming’s history, Double Dragon has stood as something of an enigma. When it was released to arcades in 1987, it was a huge hit, and was followed by releases on the Nintendo Entertainment System, SEGA Master System, Game Boy, and more, with sequels following. Its name was huge, often said in the same breath as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out!!, and Metroid.

In fact, unlike Metroid, it stood alongside those others as one of the variety of trading cards and stickers available in TOPPs’ “Nintendo Game Pak” trading cards. It even gained further notoriety with this moment from the 1989 movie The Wizard (where the footage of Jimmy playing the game completely contradicts his impressive score, but I digress).

Double Dragon was a video game legend, but then it all seemed to… stop. After Super Double Dragon on the Super NES, the series seemed to sputter. First came an admittedly well-received crossover with Battletoads, but then there was an odd cartoon series which bore little resemblance to the games, and a movie with an amazing 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, both of which spawned ill-received video game adaptations of their own.

After that, it seemed as though the series had all but died– at best, there was the occasional remake or re-release of the original game for platforms such as the Game Boy Advance, Xbox Live Arcade, and iPhone, but little else. To all concerned, the legend of Double Dragon appeared to be over.

That all changed earlier this year, however, as it was revealed that WayForward Technologies would be developing Double Dragon Neon for Majesco Entertainment to release on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network. The developer has fostered a reputation for not only creating wonderful games in a retro style (Shantae), but also resurrecting classic series as well (Contra 4, A Boy and His Blob) to critical acclaim with releases which either completely rebirthed the property or made it feel like it hadn’t missed a step.

But the question remained, “could they do the same for Double Dragon?” Time will tell on that one, but so far, so good.

Double Dragon Neon, contrary to what some may think (and rightfully so, looking at the past decade of releases), is not a remake of the original game. Instead, this is an all new adventure for the brothers Lee, and one which is filled with a lot of love and reverence for not only the earlier games, but the era from which they came. What’s more is that it does not run the risk of taking itself too seriously in the slightest, arguably offering as much a parody of the best and worst the previous games had to offer, as well as a quality successor.

For Double Dragon Neon, WayForward has abandoned the hand-drawn 2D style of graphics it has become well-known for, and instead gone for a neon light-filled 3D look. Amazingly, this works surprisingly well as a retro-throwback. The graphics are not realistic, but somehow manage to capture the retro-style just the same. And while some have complained that the game feels a bit slow, it is nonetheless incredibly fluid, and the way the movies seem to flow out of Billy and Jimmy just seem to feel right.

The game also possesses a sense of humor and style heavily based in 80’s nostalgia. In addition to the neon aesthetic, the Lee brothers have something of a surfer dude vocabulary full of “awesomes,” “gnarlies,” and other such things. When one of the duo falls in “Bro-Op” mode, the other player can revive him, which is illustrated by an oldschool cassette (linked for the younger among you) having its tape wound back into place with a pencil. And when they beat a level? They perform an air guitar ballad, of course.

There are several places where they pay homage to the original games (and others, too). The opening sequence is a complete remake of the original game, with a group of thugs punching protagonist Billy Lee’s girlfriend Marion in the stomach and hauling her away. As the stage begins, Billy even laments this sense of deja vu by noting “not again!” This continues as foes new and old appear, including the legendary Abobo, who can still be disposed of in one encounter just as he was in the old days. Double Dragon veterans will no doubt smile while newcomers are sure to feel pleased with how clever they are, and the fact that the trick actually works.

Plus, those who remember a certain translation snafu popularized by a certain video game nerd who is known for being rather angry may very well be amused by what this game does with it.

The soundtrack is superb as well… at least, if you like 80’s music. In addition to remixes of some of the original game’s tunes, composer/sound designer Jake Kaufman has produced a lot of other great sound-alike tracks based on other songs and artists of the day. Better still, you can sample and even download the whole album here. It works really well with the action, and there are even different tunes based on the styles and moves you can use (more on that in a bit).

On top of everything else, the star of the show has to be the new leader of the Shadow Warriors, Skullmageddon. This large skeletal warrior is out to antagonize the Lee brothers throughout the game, and you get to meet him pretty early on. His voice sounds just like Skeletor from the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, though his Asian warrior style feels like it carries a little bit of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ foe, the Shredder, with it.

Even after the first encounter, his commentary provides a sense of levity throughout; from shouting at the Lees over a public address system for smashing his plasma display monitors to ordering his helicopter pilot to fly upside down in an effort to foil his foes, it’s nearly impossible to hate the guy, despite all the trouble he puts you through. He may just be the best new villain of 2012– had this game been release a couple of years ago, he might have even had lock as best villain of the decade (and he still might).

Of course, all the graphics, jokes, characters, and music aren’t worth much if the game isn’t fun to play, right?

To that end, the experience I had was two-fold: I first tried it out in single-player, and to be frank, I did not make it very far. It was alright as beat-em-ups go, but quite hard and unforgiving, sending me right back to the beginning of the stage when I lost all my lives. I really wasn’t sure how well this was going to work out.

Then I got my wife, an avid Double Dragon fan herself, to join me in the “Bro-Op” two-player cooperative mode. And my word, how the game changed– it felt like an almost entirely different experience from what I had seen in single-player. Beat-em-ups have always benefited from having more than one person play at a time, but few I’ve ever played have felt like the two are so intertwined with one-another.

In addition to being able to take on opponents more easily, you’ll find your performance and survival can very well depend on the other person. Double Dragon Neon features an entire mechanic based around high-fiving each other in multiplayer; using the right analog stick, you can press in one of four directions and if the other player presses in any direction, the two will deliver a high-five from anywhere on the screen. In addition to potentially getting a player in trouble out of a sticky situation, you can also share your health or power-up to take enemies on more effectively. Or, if you’re feeling mischievous, a downward tap on the stick will allow you to deceive your bro and nab a portion of his health for yourself.

Plus, there is the aforementioned tape-winding mechanic if one of the two should fall. So long as the other bro gets there in time, he can wind his brother’s tape by tapping the appropriate button repeatedly and restore him with some life, keeping things going.

Simply put: This game doesn’t just benefit from having two people play, it was made for two-players.

In addition to the great multiplayer mechanic, Double Dragon Neon seems to borrow a bit from its NES contemporary, River City Ransom. Certain stages contain shops where you can purchase extra lives, health, or most importantly, new tapes.

In Double Dragon Neon, your skills are based on “mix tapes:” One side features a style of fighting with certain benefits, such as doing more damage when your health drops below 50 percent; the other side affords you a special move when your special meter is sufficiently full, such as a hurricane kick or calling upon a mighty flame dragon to attack all of the enemies on the screen. Each of these styles and attacks comes with its own 80s-styled theme as well, and you can choose which you want to use at any time by pausing the game.

You’ll also find tapes on the ground after beating some enemies, and picking up more of them can power up your abilities. Some shops will also feature a “tapesmith” who can forge better mix tapes for you from the rare Mythril you get from defeating bosses.

The game is relatively short, but can get pretty tough later on, and you might find yourself needing to revisit and replay some earlier stages to get more tapes, beat bosses for more Mythril, or to simply visit the shops within to power yourself up further. We had some trouble with one particularly large boss, and after a few failed attempts, going back and powering up our characters– as expected– took care of it… at least for a bit, anyway. Even if you should find the game to be too easy, there are subsequent difficulty levels to be unlocked as you beat the game.

It’s been 25 years since the release of the original Double Dragon, and Double Dragon Neon not only manages to do a fine job of celebrating this anniversary, but will hopefully also draw enough people so that the franchise sticks around for many more. While it may not be able to stand tall alongside the cream of the retail crop as it used to, it is a fine investment as a downloadable game for fans of Double Dragon, people looking for a good co-op experience (offline, though online is to be patched in later), or even just those with nostalgia for the 80’s.

Double Dragon Neon was released for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade on September 11th/12th for $9.99/800 Microsoft Points, respectively. A review copy of the Xbox Live Arcade version was provided for review courtesy of Majesco.

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David Oxford

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.