Review: Double Dragon (Wii U eShop / NES)

Solo komodo

Double Dragon is notable for a whole host of reasons, among them that the NES version bears one of history's most misleading game titles by being a solo adventure with nary a dragon in sight. It also opens with an iconic, if anachronistic, bang — or, more specifically, a pow. A gangster brute socks a woman in the gut and carries her off to his secret hideout. The punch was heard 'round the gaming world, launching our hero into action, a genre into dizzying popularity and a decades-spanning franchise. Not to mention spawning a movie so horrible that it makes the erratic Super Mario Bros. film look like a stroke of genius in comparison.

While not the first beat-'em-up after everyone's quarters, Double Dragon sure did scoop up a lot of them in its day with its popular two-player co-op and repertoire of martial arts moves beyond simple punches and kicks. As can happen with incredible success, elements of Double Dragon's design became staples of the genre, which is why a new player may be excused for thinking that the game feels so familiar. Our hero Billy Lee rocks and socks his way to the right way through four missions, picking up the occasional knife or whip dropped by an enemy to push the odds in his favour.

The Double Dragon popularized in arcades isn't exactly the same as that found on the NES — a number of compromises and tweaks were made to squeeze the game onto a cart, and even some new additions for overall betterment. Stage layout has been tweaked in some areas, in some cases to put greater emphasis on jumping and climbing, which can present a dastardly exercise for the relatively lead-footed lead. In addition, a levelling system was introduced that unlocks new attacks and abilities as you go, increasing Billy Lee's repertoire and thus adding some much-appreciated variety that so many lesser games in the genre often forget to include.

On the downside, no more than two enemies will appear on the screen at once. The game keeps from feeling too empty by flowing in a steady stream of new foes right as a defeated one blinks off into the aether — and since getting hit often leaves you stunned and open for more wallop, taking on more than two foes at a time would be a far greater hassle. The relatively slow speed of movement makes each encounter one in need of attention — cruising by on autopilot won't get you very far.

Since it's a quarter-munching arcade game at heart, Double Dragon isn't the longest of games — its challenge can take some time to overcome for new players, but through dedication (or judicious use of Wii U Virtual Console save states) or latent experience the game can be clocked in under an hour. Because of this, the lack of simultaneous multiplayer in the main mode is painful — this is a game best played with a buddy to bop through (it's in the name!), and the alternating play presented here instead is a poor substitute. Mode B's versus battle against another player (or the computer, if you wish) is the only simultaneous smackdown available, although its simplicity leaves little opportunity for strategy. It serves as a minor distraction for a round or two but is hardly worth sticking around for.

For its era, Double Dragon looks quite nice. While sprites are nowhere near as detailed or chunky as the arcade original, the NES version's personality roars ever louder as Billy approaches throwing his final punch. Genre-standard city streets make way for construction sites, forests, caverns and ornate dojos, each more visually interesting than the last. The soundtrack too stands the test of time with a short but iconic track list.

Conclusion

Double Dragon is impressively durable 26 years later. While it very clearly shows growing pains for the genre with its slow speed, goofy platforming and loss of simultaneous co-operative play, being ahead of its time puts Double Dragon in a favorable place with modern audiences. Its retro charms combine with enough depth in gameplay to make this worth a revisit, even if only for its historic value as one of the genre's earliest successes.

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