25 years ago the original Double Dragon was released in arcades and became a commercial success. The game was eventually released on home consoles, went on to spawn multiple sequels, and influenced many a side-scrolling beat ’em up to come. Double Dragon: Neon, developed by WayForward Technologies, attempts to recapture some of the magic that so many of us fell in love with long ago.
I distinctly remember going to the arcades with my older brother as a child. He was old enough to drive at the time and I was probably nine or ten years old myself. Double Dragon was in its heyday back then and was a favourite of ours, mainly due to the awesome two-player co-op action that it offered.
I also spent a great deal of time playing the subsequent release on the NES, though our beloved two-player co-op mode had been stripped and replaced with a turn-based mode instead. Fortunately, Double Dragon: Neon keeps this intact and tries its best to add a few new wrinkles to keep the action fresh while still maintaining that nostalgic feeling fans were hoping for.
The story in Double Dragon: Neon is about what you would expect from a game of this genre. A girl is kidnapped and you have to go through several stages and a few plot twists to rescue her from the evil bad guy. The girl in this case is Marian, the girlfriend of twin brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee. And yes, you read that right; two brothers, one girlfriend. But hey, it was the 80s right? The main antagonist is a guy who calls himself Skullmageddon and he strangely resembles a combination of Skeletor from He-Man and Yoshimitsu of Tekken fame.
The rest of the cast is littered with stereotypical 80s looking thugs. These range from a new rendition of the old fan-favourite ‘Abobo,’ a huge, hulking baldy with a bad attitude, to some scantily clad women, all named Linda, complete with leather attire and the occasional whip. Later in the game you will encounter more unique foes such as teleporting geishas and undead warriors. There seems to be some palette swapping amongst a few of baddies but the costumes and colours vary enough that it doesn’t take too much away from the presentation.
Some of the enemies in Double Dragon: Neon wield weapons that can be used after knocking them down. This includes baseball bats, knives, swords, trash cans, and the aforementioned whips. For the most part though, you’ll be using your fists and feet to keep the bad guys at bay. The controller layout assigns button commands to punch, kick, jump, and grab. You can also duck/dodge incoming attacks, run, and use magic-like attacks called ‘Sōsetsuken.’ These mystical powers come in the form of fireballs and lightning bolts among other things and can be acquired by either defeating enemies or by purchasing them at one of the shops scattered across the game’s ten stages.
Familiar moves from the series like spin kicks, flying knees, and shoulder throws are all present here, though I was disappointed to see that the signature hair pull/knee to the face combo from the original was nowhere to be found. Effective dodging and quick combos are the keys to success within the game and the Sōsetsuken attacks are great for bailing you out when you’re surrounded by enemies or facing a tough boss.
Where the fun of Double Dragon: Neon really lies is in the two-player ‘bro-op’ mode. I mean, it’s called Double Dragon for a reason. Single Dragon just doesn’t have the same ring to it and playing through the game in singleplayer mode simply doesn’t do the game justice. Brothers Billy and Jimmy can team up to make the search for Marian a little easier and the two are able to execute a high-five manoeuvre that allows them to equalize their health meters, power up their attacks, or even be a jerk and steal health.
There are some light (and by light I mean very light) RPG elements to the gameplay of Double Dragon: Neon, too. Loot such as money, health, batteries to refill the magic gauge, or songs on cassette tapes that grant you more abilities can be found by defeating enemies or destroying various environmental objects. Upgrades are divided into two different categories: Stance and Sōsetsuken.
Stance items enhance basic attributes like your power and defence while Sōsetsuken allows you to choose and upgrade special attacks. This gives some level of customization to fit your playstyle and helps to give the game a little more depth as well. You have the option to go back and play earlier stages via the world map in order to grind and collect more upgrades if necessary.
The stages in Double Dragon: Neon pay homage to the original game in many ways. Dangerous city streets, a rural countryside, and Japanese dojos are likely to bring back memories to fans of the series. Some platforming elements are present in some of the stages as well. Things get a little wacky with levels that include an intergalactic spaceship, a mystical laboratory, and an undead forest, but I suppose a few new looks were necessary to mix things up a bit. The visuals are crisp and clean on both the backgrounds and the character models and do a good job of maintaining the retro vibe.
All of the audio tracks in the game were inspired by the original Double Dragon as well as 80’s pop music and arcade game soundtracks. It was a pleasant surprise to hear the familiar tunes as I played through the game and they were reminiscent of the 8-bit sounds from that era. (The entire soundtrack can actually be downloaded for free on the game’s official website.)
Like many downloadable games, Double Dragon: Neon is a relatively short title and caters to a somewhat specific audience. It does a great job of capturing the spirit of the series and is a nice little ode to the 80s. I’m not sure how much fanfare the game will generate beyond its niche appeal, but I hope it garners enough attention to encourage developers to remake some more of the arcade classics we grew up with.
(Note: Please note online multiplayer is currently unavailable, but this will be addressed with a patch coming soon.)