The scene is set: grimy, littered streets patrolled by ruthless gangs, whose sole intent is to cause mayhem in the neighbourhood. This urban jungle setting for Return of Double Dragon (Super Double Dragon in the West) is as synonymous with 2D side scrolling beat-em-ups as it was with movies like The Warriors, a film which provided inspiration for the granddaddy of the genre, Renegade (Technos's 1986 brawler). Technos evolved Renegade into the Double Dragon series, and introduced co-op play into 1987 arcades in the form of the tough-as-old-boots brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee. To many retro gamers Double Dragon represents the epitome of the genre.
Despite the popularity inherent with the title, when Return of Double Dragon was unleashed onto the SNES market in 1992 both the gaming press, and consequently the majority of gamers, did not welcome it with open arms. This was another addition in a saturated market and one which was deemed as too similar and lacking in the necessary rejuvenations, or innovation, to warrant another cleansing of the streets.
Return of Double Dragon was released relatively early into the SNES's life, and whilst one-on-one beat-em-ups were well represented by Street Fighter II, side scrollers were still finding their fists and feet. The one-year old SNES already had Rushing Beat/Rival Turf (Jaleco) and Sonic Blast Man (Taito), yet there were two other main contenders, both eager to snatch Double Dragon’s title belt. These were the arcade conversions of Capcom's Final Fight and Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. The former dwarfed Return of Double Dragon's sprites with colossal characters like Haggar and Andore, whilst the latter infused much needed variety into a repetitive genre with intermissions of 'Sewer Surfing' and Mode 7 'Neon Night-Riders' special effects.
However, fans of the street-based genre did not need convincing to re-enter the world of the Lee brothers and face off against Duke and his dastardly gang of Shadow Warriors. Particularly as, unlike SNES Final Fight, Return of Double Dragon enables two players to team up in their mission. The game also has a 'mode B' option to allow for the onscreen brothers to turn the fight on each other, right in the middle of the battle. It incorporates a share credits facility, where second player Jimmy has a drop in/drop out option to join in the skirmish with Billy. The Japanese version has three difficulty options and a choice of 5 to 9 credits, allowing the player to set up their game to be as challenging, or as easy as they desire.
Despite the fact that even its largest characters looked decidedly weedy, it is possible to appreciate that the developers chose to concentrate upon expressive character animations. Swinging a Bo staff sees Billy’s hair swish with the momentum, both brothers pull a distinct open mouthed 'fight face' (which Bruce Lee would be proud of) and enemy sprites are so agitated after being on the end of a kicking, that they punch the floor in a hoodlum hissy fit. Like other 16-bit beat-em-ups, this cartoon violence puts it more in line with Itchy & Scratchy than Manhunt 2, and these details work hand-in-hand with a medley of control commands and combine as a fun highlight of the game.
Even though it is confined to the dilapidated street premise, the backgrounds do strive to add visual variety. The player traverses Las Vegas, an airport, Chinatown, a Golden Gate Bridge truck ride and even rumbles through a forest to the obligatory big boss’s hideout, and the overall design is a pleasing mixture of bright colours and gritty details. Mission five’s slums consist of cracked paving stones, bronzed brick stair platforms, rusty oil drums and wanted posters. These may not be original, but it is notable that they have been carefully drawn and shaded.
However, during a time when arcade developers were embedding variety into their brawlers, Return of Double Dragon seemed old school, even in 1992. Arcade designers recognised a need resulting from the genre's grass-roots repetitive nature, something Technos did not account for. The overall play time averages one hour and for button bashing players, slugging through to completion alone, its gameplay drags. Whilst it is understandable for a boss tyrant like Duke to deck their humongous lair in lavish intricately patterned rugs and luxury red velvet carpets, the final level in the Japanese version outstays its 23 minute long welcome. It is noticeable that for the Western release of Super Double Dragon any lingering around Duke's hideout, even with its extravagant green warrior statue decorations, has been cut short.
More damaging to the gameplay than the game's length is the general pace of the action. The actual playtime would be much more accessible if the Lee brothers did not shamble through the levels. For a game which displays a clear effort to implement a versatile move list it is incomprehensible as to why Technos did not include a double tap run manoeuvre. Even more than the lack of variety, the pace damages the gameplay, to the point that players may question the motivations of the Lee brothers. With no mention of Marian, the lack of a female rescuing incentive seems to have slowed the once-virile vigilantes down to a crawl. Return of Double Dragon's director Minuke Ebinuma has explained that there was pressure for the game to be rushed for release, so this may partially illustrate the reasons behind the lack of pace. The game itself runs smoothly without a hint of slowdown; the problem is it simply plays far too slowly.
This is especially disappointing considering the effort that has gone into the game's move list and weaponry set. The most enjoyment to be extracted from Return of Double Dragon is through mastery of the controls. Two expert players can work their way through by mixing up dive bomb flying kicks, blocks, hair drags and repeated face slaps. Even when enemy attack patterns are as unoriginal as a pair of goons constantly hovering on both sides of the player, the impetus is with you to dispose of them imaginatively. The developers clearly took inspiration from Street Fighter II: both brothers can execute a Chun Li-style wall jump, off the side of a glass elevator and holding down the shoulder buttons charges a red fury meter, which when filled transforms the brothers into a bulked up, angrier version of themselves with more powerful punches and kicks. Releasing this meter at a partially filled level unleashes a spinning hurricane kick, faster than Ryu can exclaim "Tatsumaki Senpuu Kyaku".
Combat manoeuvres are supported further by a large variety of weapons, which add to the tactical element of play. Knives and bombs inflict huge damage, yet an expert player can time knife dodges to the detriment of the thugs, or direct enemies into bomb explosions. The Chinatown dojo's punch bags and training balls are heaps of fun, as is the boomerang, but best of all is the range and power of the nunchakus. Enemies also bear weapons, with Baker's dual sword attacks requiring carefully planned confrontations.
Technos's combination of weapons with skull-cracking nunchakus and bone-cutting sword swipe sound effects are brutal. Return of Double Dragon performs adequately in the sound department, with thick, funky slap bass lines harking back to the forest tune in the original game. It has its own line in catchy arcade tracks, but special mention must go to the recreation of the original Double Dragon theme for mission 5's Slums (mission 3's Chinatown music for Western versions). Battling away to the classic tune is certain to put a smile on the face of retro brawling fans.
The fun to be found playing Return of Double Dragon is largely in the hands of the player. Those who are put off by weedy sprites, a complete disregard of SNES custom effects, a button-mashing approach to controls and a single player game that drags are best advised to avoid this. It does not have the variety, innovation or set pieces displayed by arcade games of the time, like Captain Commando's mecha transport. Side-scrolling brawler and Double Dragon fans will appreciate the way in which it draws upon its heritage and expands upon the classic locations, background details and genuinely expressive sprite animations. This is due to a consistent development team throughout the series, including the direct advisor, Yoshihisa Kishimoto.
Core fans will no doubt enjoy taking full advantage of the diverse controls, battling through to completion with a buddy, as the classic theme tune orchestrates the carnage. This is one series in which gamers will appreciate the developer's dragging up their past. The Sleeping Dragon rose cautiously for the 16-bit era and would not fully awaken again until Atlus would take charge of its reigns, for Double Dragon Advance, in 2004.