From the moment protagonist Billy Lee’s sweetheart is sucker-punched in the opening sequence, Double Dragon establishes itself as an action-packed, thrilling battle through hordes of enemy combatants in an attempt to reclaim the captured damsel. As soon as gameplay begins, however, this façade is quickly stripped away to reveal an NES port that is a repetitive, limited brawler.
Originally released in arcades in 1987, Double Dragon is often heralded as the first successful entry into the beat-em-up genre – spawning sequels and imitators alike, Technos’ smash hit seemed like an easy fit onto home consoles, with eager audiences keen to continue their co-operative brawling in the comfort of their own living rooms. Sadly, this was not meant to be.
Technical limitations leave the NES version of Double Dragon sorely lacking in almost all respects. The pared down graphical and audio offerings are a reasonable concession given the original hardware, but the omission of Double Dragon’s co-operative 2 player mode serves to remove one of the game’s most redeeming qualities. Double Dragon on NES replaces the simultaneous multiplayer mode of its arcade counterpart with alternating single-player, both players playing as Billy, effectively reducing what was once the game’s greatest asset to a glorified replacement of handing over a controller. As some twisted semblance of restitution, the NES port features a tacked-on vs. mode not included in the original arcade release, but this is tedious and will fail to entertain for longer than a couple of matches. This can be played utilising the 3DS’ Download Play option even when only one player has purchased the game, but finding a willing participant may prove challenging when the mode is so limited and dull.
This grave omission aside, Double Dragon is simply not very entertaining. Side-scrolling beat-em-ups had often struggled with how best to refrain from becoming repetitive, and Double Dragon is perhaps one of the worst offenders. Due once again to technical limitations (an overarching theme, you’ll notice), only two enemies can be displayed on screen at any one time, and each must be the same type of enemy. As such, gameplay is comprised entirely of defeating one (or, perhaps two, if Double Dragon is feeling particularly exciting) generic enemy before being ushered forward to do the same again. Rinse, repeat.
Weapons can intermittently be found but these always full under the classification of either striking or throwing weapons, each feeling indistinct and failing to change the gameplay in any meaningful manner. Some light platforming is required, but this is clumsy and the controls are sluggish – Billy Lee is most assuredly not a rival to Mario.
Environments show a nice use of colour and are interesting to look at, although due to the slow-paced nature of the game quickly become tired and overly-familiar. Enemy sprites are basic and lack expression, with the pulsing colourful blobs serving only as mobile punching-bags rather than interesting characters. The music, however, is fantastic – some of the NES’ best tunes, sitting comfortably in the Mega Man school of upbeat, catchy chiptunes; the soundtrack is one of the few aspects of Double Dragon that does not begin to grate with time.
Credit must be given where it is due; Double Dragon defined the beat-em-up genre and inspired many games of a similar format, but the simple fact remains that from a contemporary perspective the game simply is not very fun to play. The formula was refined and improved exponentially in the years that followed — including Technos’ own games such as the fantastic River City Ransom — leaving the original Double Dragon feeling more akin to a prototype than a full game, especially when hamstrung by the NES’ limitations. The game is difficult if only due to a lack of lives available to the player, but as such is frustrating rather than challenging. It's also fairly short, even by the standards of the genre, taking less than an hour to complete in a single run; an hour of tedious, repetitive, button-mashing.
Those with serious nostalgia for this will find some modicum of enjoyment from Double Dragon, but all other players should take heed before purchasing and await the inevitable release of superior beat-em-ups on Virtual Console. Kick this one to the curb.