If you ever wonder why giant corporations like Nintendo are jealously protective of their IP nowadays, perhaps taking a look at the Double Dragon IP will provide a good example as to why. If you’ve never heard of this once-legendary franchise, that in itself is evidence of how far it’s fallen. Double Dragon was one of the pioneers of the beat-em-up genre, creating the formula that later titles like Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and Konami’s Ninja Turtles, X-Men, and Simpsons games (the fact that the last two still don’t have a rerelease is criminal) would build upon. But former IP owner Technos’ effectively licensed the franchise to anyone that wanted it. These licensees, like former western distributor Tradewest, were effectively given carte blanche to, say commission wretched TV shows and spin-off games of their very own, with little if any oversight from Technos.
When we last left the brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, the franchise was bought outright by Arc System Works. With a long history in brawlers and fighting games, one would hope this would finally give the Brothers Lee the oversight they needed to succeed. But their first game under new ownership was the exceptionally mediocre Double Dragon IV. Can Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, now licensed to publisher Modus Games and developer Secret Base, give the Lee Brothers the slam dunk they deserve? Or will Double Dragon Gaiden be condemned to the Shadow Mural like Double Dragon’s other numerous mistakes?
Story: Punch to the Gut
For as often as the Lee Brothers’ mythos has been rehashed, it ultimately remains fairly simple. Billy and Jimmy Lee live in post-apocalyptic New York City, with myriad gangs threatening the peace. Accompanied by the lovely Marian, and the strong, fatherly Uncle Matin, they fight to clean up the streets from evil, under the guidance of the new mayor. They must fight evil gang leaders, like The Jackal, Okada, and their old friend Machine Gun Willy.
I wasn’t expecting much from the game’s story. Double Dragon is such an old franchise that it gets a pass when it comes to putting the gameplay first. But I would still have liked to see a little more, particularly for the side characters. The game lets you unlock and play as the bosses, and the story doesn’t change one bit to accommodate them. You can play as Abobo, then fight Abobo as a boss, and nothing special happens in that case. I’m not asking for much, but I think a lot of unique banter would provide a good incentive for replayability, doubly so if it changes depending on your partner character.
Gameplay: Fight for NY
Double Dragon is a franchise that has re-invented itself numerous times, for good and for bad. It’s had both sensible evolutions and radical genre shifts, such as its numerous fighting games. Double Dragon Gaiden doesn’t have too many wild surprises, but the core gameplay is incredibly gratifying and solid. The game controls are airtight, and the moment-to-moment action is very satisfying. All of the characters have flashy super moves, and using them correctly is vital to success. There’s a natural incentive to achieve high combos and special move killstreaks, as doing so showers you with healing items.
As previously mentioned, the game lets you unlock and play as the bosses, giving 13 playable characters in total. All of the characters look and play differently, complete with new and flashy special moves. I have my misgivings about the actual art style, but the character designs are truly sublime. The balance is generally great, with no one character truly excelling above all others. Except for Abobo. Abobo is bae, and I’m only half joking. But one legitimately weird thing I noticed about the roster is that only the Lee Brothers can use dropped weapons, and I cannot begin to imagine why.
It’s A Rougelite Technically
Double Dragon Gaiden’s other attempts to shake things up do come off as somewhat half-baked. The game fancies itself as a roguelike, and it just really doesn’t do enough to justify it. The gang leaders can be tackled in any order, and each defeated leader makes the others stronger. But the only immediately noticeable difference is that each successive stage gets longer, not necessarily harder. Enemies do gain increased stats, but the formations don’t change one bit. There’s also something of a problem with variety, with only a few core enemy types. Semi-randomized enemy formations are a staple of roguelikes, and the fact that Double Dragon Gaiden doesn’t do this is baffling.
There’s also very little added incentive for replayability, which is a big problem. The game wants you to play dozens of times in order to get tokens and unlock all the game’s content. But the levels don’t change at all outside of what order you play in. The level layouts are all identical across each playthrough. Even if the levels have to be identical, Secret Base could still have added other surprise events. You could have stages with added environmental hazards, and surviving them gets you additional money. It would be a simple risk vs reward mechanic that would add at least some depth to the game.
You do get the opportunity to buy upgrades after each stage but they’re all bland stat boosts. Nothing in the shop will radically alter your playstyle.
Graphics and Sound: The Shadow Falls
The game’s visuals aren’t bad at all, but I don’t think the style really works. There’s a minor sense of stylistic clashing. It is a definite improvement over Double Dragon IV, which mixed higher-fidelity pixel art with sprites ripped straight from the NES games. But it still looks off to me. The game looks cartoonish, with deformed character sprites and a very bright color palette. Some sprites look okay, mainly larger ones like Abobo and Burnov. But for the Lee Brothers especially, the deformed sprites don’t look right on them. Doubly adding to this is the fact that the loading screens use their sprites from the NES games (and new ones for Marian and Matin in that style), which were about as proportional as one could get for games from that era. I think the game would have looked better with sprites more like that.
Though I don’t like the character sprites, I do think the environments are very well done. There’s a ton of detail, trash strewn around, and broken machinery everywhere. It really sells the feeling that this world is post-apocalyptic, better than any other Double Dragon game.
The music, at the very least, is top-notch. It has a ton of cheesy 90’s style synth tunes, very fitting for Double Dragon. The music consists largely of remixes of songs taken from across the series. I’d have appreciated a retro soundtrack option to compare between the original and new versions, but the music slaps regardless. There’s also a ton of fully-voiced quips that don’t sound half bad. The voice actors are all full of energy and enthusiasm. The story itself is not voice-acted, sadly, which does come off as a missed opportunity.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons was reviewed for Nintendo Switch, using a key provided by Modus Games.