There was a period from the late-'80s to the early-'90s when side-scrolling beat 'em up games were all the (streets of?) rage – from Double Dragon to Final Fight to Streets of Rage, we just couldn't get enough of punching hooligans in the face down long straight paths. Perhaps the most fun aspect of these titles was the multiplayer cooperative gameplay, so we weren't just kicking mobsters in the stomach... we were kicking mobsters in the stomach together. These arcade classics were ported to home consoles with varying degrees of success, often heavily modified to fit into measly game cartridges.
The original 1987 Double Dragon is one of the early casualties of arcade-to-home conversion, losing its integral two-player mode entirely in its transition to NES. When the 1988 sequel Double Dragon II: The Revenge was ported to NES, home-bound fans rejoiced; the multiplayer mode would arrive fully intact for buddy-night shenanigans. Little did we know, multiplayer doesn't mean squat if the game is still terrible.
It begins promisingly enough, with a title screen featuring large Japanese characters and an up-tempo soundtrack to get you in the mood, along with some fairly novel cutscenes by NES standards. The developers immediately double up on the misogynist story tropes, however, as the Damsel in Distress from the last game has now been shot to death, and our heroes Billy and Jimmy (or Bimmy and Jimmy?) must avenge their mutual love interest's murder by smacking dudes in the neck along a series of corridors.
The exciting title screen music gives way to a generic NES action game soundtrack with sound effects so loud you can't hear the music anyway, and the visuals sport the boring 8-bit colour spectrum of many grimdark third-party games of the era. Billy and Jimmy are palette swaps of one another, as are most of the enemies in the game; you never get more than two enemies onscreen at a time, and they're usually clones of each other coming in pairs. Perhaps this is to reinforce the "Double" theme of the game's title, but more likely it's the result of system limitations. As so many of the characters look alike, it can often be easy to confuse which sprite you're controlling, especially in multiplayer.
There are three modes in Double Dragon II: single-player, two-player with friendly fire off, and two-player with friendly fire on. In addition you've got three difficulties to choose from – beware if you actually want to complete the game, because Double Dragon II's final level can only be reached on the "Supreme Master" difficulty setting. Otherwise, you finish the eighth level and are unceremoniously dropped right back out to the main menu without so much as a credits sequence.
Although two-player mode makes Double Dragon more fun, the controls are downright horrifying: rather than using one button to jump and the other to attack, "A" attacks to your right and "B" attacks to the left; to jump you must press both buttons at the same time. The ability to attack in a different direction than you're facing is great in theory – it was ahead of its time in a way – but with a control set-up as limited as what the NES could offer it becomes a hassle. You almost never need to attack backward, and to attack forward you constantly need to pay attention to which direction you're facing so you can change which attack button you use accordingly.
The game features a surprisingly deep move set of various punches and kicks, although for some reason there's no front kick whatsoever; you can only kick behind you. There are no enemy health bars to let you know how much damage you're doing, and bad guys don't even flash when you hit them, so you must blindly punch in hopes that your moves are connecting. Hit detection is all over the place, with many of your battles against enemies taking place on the edge of the screen where you can't even see your opponent.
Double Dragon II is clearly meant to be a beat 'em up, with the jump ability relegated to a combination of button presses. The first few levels work fine, although they're so easy you'll fly through them in only a couple minutes each. You simply walk your way through a series of warehouses beating people up – that's what we all came for, right? After the first three or four levels, though, the developers try to keep things interesting by adding platformer elements; keep in mind Double Dragon II was released at the height of Super Mario Bros. craze on the NES. But like many action games that haphazardly implement out-of-place platforming sequences, Double Dragon II becomes frustratingly difficult with cheap deaths galore. The vast majority of your deaths will come not from losing all your health, but from falling off platforms with the nearly-broken jump mechanic. There was one disappearing-platform segment that took this reviewer 45 minutes to clear... and that was with the benefit of Wii U suspend points.
The complex move set is completely unwarranted, as all you really need to do is spam your attacks until your opponent falls over. Boss battles would be the combat system's time to shine, but Double Dragon II presents players with a lacklustre set of four or five boss characters that are recycled over and over; each time you defeat a boss, they respawn so you must inexplicably fight them a second time. It's not like Castlevania where they respawn in an even more powerful form than they were before – you simply fight the exact same boss twice in a row, with nearly every boss in the game. It all comes back to the "Double" theme.
Many NES classics suffer the test of time, but even when viewing this one through a contextual lens of its place in gaming history, Double Dragon II is still no fun to play. It's wonderful to see cooperative multiplayer return for the sequel, but unless your eyes are clouded by copious cataracts of childhood nostalgia, there are virtually no redeeming qualities to playing Double Dragon on NES in 2014. If you want some Bimmy and Jimmy action, you're better off tracking down the far superior arcade version.