Double Dragon is one of the most famous fighting games of all time, but it's very of its time, too. For a side-scrolling brawler in the '80s, it set the bar high with a complex move-set, loads of enemies on-screen at once and a great soundtrack; its status was amplified by some excellent NES ports and the almost compulsory terrible Hollywood movie adaption, but ironically Double Dragon was quickly and comprehensively overtaken by a new generation of similar titles, such as Capcom's seminal Final Fight and Sega's Streets of Rage series. Developer Technos tried to reclaim lost ground with the likes of Super Double Dragon, but the franchise faded from view after a questionable attempt to infiltrate the one-on-one fighter genre on the Neo Geo.
Given the popularity of retro gaming these days it should come as no surprise to see the Double Dragon name revived for a new generation of players, and Nintendo fans will be pleased to see that in terms of aesthetics, Double Dragon 4 pays respect to the NES entries via which millions will have experienced the series first. The drawback here is that developer and rights-holder Arc System Works - aided by some of the original Technos team - has taken this trip down memory lane a little too literally; this faux-retro sequel feels woefully anemic, even when compared to genre classics from several decades ago.
One or two players can step into the shoes of Billy and Jimmy Lee and take to the streets to eradicate the Renegades, a new criminal organisation which has aligned itself with the Black Warriors (Double Dragon's bad guys) with the aim of killing off our righteous siblings once and for all. This globe-trotting quest boils down to clearing screens of enemies as well as indulging in some rather outdated 2D platforming, both of which will be familiar to those of you who cut your teeth on the 8-bit home conversations back in the day.
Thanks to the larger array of buttons afforded by the Switch, Double Dragon 4's control system has been expanded a little to make it more intuitive. While you can still press punch and kick simultaneously to jump, it's possible to do this simply by pressing the X button (you can re-map all of these keys in the options menu, if you so wish). Special moves are available, and these too can be accessed with a single button press; one is a head-butt, while another is an elbow attack which allows you to take out anyone behind you. The final special is a powerful standing roundhouse kick. In addition to these moves, you can perform special attacks by tapping punch or kick either when lying prone on the ground or just before you touch down from a jump. There are other specials as well which require a deft combination of buttons to execute, and often end up being used by mistake rather than design. Finally, you can grapple with enemies to deal damage up-close or throw them.
Despite Arc System Works' attempt to beef up the controls in order to achieve some degree of parity with the best the genre has to offer, the gameplay still feels depressingly rough and imprecise. Enemies flood the screen and unleash attacks which you simply cannot block; almost all of these result in you eating tarmac, which locks you into an unwelcome cycle that is tricky to break out of, even when using the aforementioned kick and punch specials from a prone position. With two players things are a little more manageable as you have additional help and an extra person to distract some of the on-screen opponents, and with time it's possible to formulate tactics and string together a sequence of moves to deal with stubborn foes and control larger crowds. Weapons also help matters, and it's possible to pick up massive metal crates to hurl at enemies.
Even so, Double Dragon 4 feels like a game that could have used some additional development time and polish. There are too many moments when your graceful, flowing tactics are curtailed by the sheer volume of attacks coming your way, and the irritation is exacerbated by problems such as ill-advised platforming sections (one features rotating scenery and vanishing iron girders that will especially test your patience), sections of the screen where it's impossible to deal with incoming blows as your character is hidden from view and generally shoddy performance - the scrolling effect is noticeably jerky, which is borderline unforgivable when you consider this is trying to emulate a system that's over 30 years old.
A two-player duel mode adds a little colour to proceedings and you can unlock a special "Tower" battle mode as well. In the main story section of the game it's possible to unlock new characters to use in the duel segment, which at least gives you some incentive to return after you've seen the ending. The lack of alternative pathways through the main narrative is a limiting factor however, and we're not sure many will relish the idea of playing through the game a second or third time just to gain access to a few new sprites.
There's certainly nothing wrong with celebrating the past and polishing up classic game concepts for modern consumption, but Double Dragon 4 is a prime example of how not to do a revival - which is ironic when you consider that the WayForward-made Double Dragon Neon did a much better job back in 2012. The use of NES-style graphics isn't a negative in itself, but too little has been done to refine and improve gameplay which, even back in the late '80s, was showing its age against a new breed of slicker and more enjoyable examples of the genre. The co-op focus of the Switch and its Joy-Con controllers does at least mean it's easy to rope in another player for a trip down memory lane, but this is nonetheless a crushing disappointment given the incredible potential of the franchise, and should only be purchased by diehard Billy and Jimmy fans.