It has been no less than eight years since the Lee brothers' Saturday morning cartoon outing, Double Dragon Neon, was released. As 2020 comes to an end, does this over-the-top scrolling beat’em up still glow in face of stiff competition on the Switch from the likes of Streets of Rage 4?
Genre similarities aside, it is perhaps fairer to compare WayForward’s reimagining of the Double Dragon canon to the more recent and surprisingly solid Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues. Both titles share the same 2.5D cartoon-like aesthetics, rely heavily on nostalgia and offer tasteful fan service. Yet despite its age, it is refreshing to discover that Double Dragon Neon quickly climbs to the top of the genre pile without breaking as much as a sweat.
The game starts with the player in familiar turf, with Marian getting punched in the gut and kidnapped by baddies, followed by Billy and Jimmy embarking on their rescue attempt through the mean streets we have walked timeless times before. However, conquer the first few levels – that look like straight up reboots of the original game – and you will yourself shot into outer space to meet the true mastermind behind this evil plot: Discount Skeletor! Alright, that is not his real name, but once you look at him and listen to his villainous quips, it is hard to keep Mattel's lawyers away.
What we're trying to say is that the dystopian setting of the source material has been traded in for over-the-top, colourful shenanigans, caricatured characters and absurd plots which would be more befitting of a '90s cartoon – this game really does live up to the “Neon” moniker. By not taking itself too seriously, this one pulls off some genuine “feel-good vibes” that, in turn, make it a very welcome and fashionably late addition to the genre list on Switch.
Also missing are the casual, immediate controls common to most games of the genre. Every button on your controller is used to make the Lee brothers do something useful: two attack buttons, jump, throw, run, dodge and special move correspond to a button on your controller of choice, and it will certainly take you a bit longer to master all these moves, along with a few other combo moves that rely on motion inputs to pull off. Sometimes the action does get a bit stiff when you find yourself juggling both enemies and the controls at the same time, but eventually it all falls into place as you begin to discover what strategy is best to deal with each type of enemy.
On the topic of strategy, there is actually quite a bit of it at play in this game. Dropped by defeated enemies and bought for a price at the shops you'll come across on some levels are twenty mixtapes (ask your parents) to collect. These come in two flavours: Stances and Sosetsitsu. The first type allows you to modify the base stats of your Lee family member while the later equips the Dragons with their trademark special moves (that fortunately use up their own bar instead of sapping your energy).
You can only have one of each type equipped, so you will find yourself often pressing ‘-’ to change up your combination of mix tapes mid-level in order to better suit your current needs. It's a neat and refreshing system with hidden depths as you learn how to use defeated bosses drops to power these up at the local tape-smith.
It would be a disservice to our readers not to include an entire paragraph in this review discussing the game’s soundtrack. Veteran composer and video game remixer Jake ‘virt’ Kaufman provided the audio accompaniment that perfectly pulls this whole package together, featuring both old Double Dragon anthems repurposed with a glow rock flair along with a few themes with memorable lyrics you will quickly find yourself humming as you play. Each mix tape also has a distinct track to go with it, and we found ourselves spending far too much time on the tape selection menu just so we could hear them properly. This stellar soundtrack is still wonderful in 2021, offering a great contrast to Streets of Rage 4's equally good electronic anthems.
While the single player game is solid and of an acceptable length, finding a partner to play along with truly makes this one shine the brightest. Co-op not only allows you to better manage crowds of enemies, but also adds the ‘high five’ mechanic into to play. By wiggling the right analogue stick, you can ask a high-five from your sibling, allowing both players to share life meter or boost their attack strength. This is a refreshing couch co-op mechanic that, when coupled with the brother-reviving mechanic and life-sharing, means that even with the odd difficulty spike or frustrating level restart never really overshadows the fun. A few secrets (that we won’t spoil here) also ensure that you will still be coming back to this one long after you finish your initial run.
As you might expect from a game originally released in 2012, Double Dragon Neon poses no problems for the Switch from a performance perspective and runs smoothly in both docked and handheld mode. Yet, despite its age, it still looks impressive, mainly thanks to the liberal use of bright colours and the excellent character design.
Double Dragon Neon is an old game for sure, but fortunately, it's far from being an outdated one. Under the watchful consultation of series creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto, WayForward managed to successfully reboot the franchise back in 2012 for a whole new audience by adding a healthy dose of craziness to the more classic tropes of the genre, and that inventiveness still holds merit in 2021. What other game allows you to stop, pop’n’lock, break dance and beatbox mid-level? The Lee brothers have just become the perfect way to spend your time until Mr. Scott Pilgrim drops onto the eShop early next year.