Platforms: PSN | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Publisher: Majesco Entertainment
Double Dragon practically invented the 2D beat 'em up genre when it released in 1987. Billy and Jimmy's brutal adventure to save Marian from the Black Warriors gang still stands tall as an essential experience for gaming connoisseurs, but after an excellent sequel, the franchise failed to make it into the 21st century.
Cue WayForward, a developer famed for their love of authenticity and side-scrolling skills, who stepped in to deliver a proper reboot of the classic game. By delivering the quintessential feel of the original wrapped in an irreverent pastiche of all things 80s and boasting the best soundtrack of 2012, Double Dragon Neon reminds us just how much fun we used to have back in the day.
But it also reminds us of just how far we've come.
The basic premise remains unchanged. Setting out on a quest to rescue your girlfriend from some hired thugs, you'll scroll from right to left and beat up a huge number of goons. Big goons. Small goons. Sexy dominatrix goons. Robotic goons. You'll punch them all. You'll also get your arse kicked fairly comprehensively; don't worry, though slightly easier than the original, Double Dragon Neon is still retro-tough and requires plenty of trial and error on your part (though unlimited continues and a level select option take the sting out of dying late into a level).
However, Double Dragon Neon is infinitely more than a rehash. It's a full-blown love affair with the Eighties, an unabashed homage to the unbridled excess of the decade. Level designs drip with garish neon, enemies sport ridiculous layered slouch socks, shell suits and afro combs, and a gloriously cheesy soundtrack featuring electric synth and wailing hair metal underpins it all. If you lived through the 80s or even grew up in it, the sheer colourful hilarity of the whole thing will be absolutely infectious.
Before we continue, I need to give a proper shout-out to the soundtrack, which is possibly the best of the year. Better yet, you can get it for free from the official site. Hell, it's definitely worth paying good money for even if you don't buy the game (preview City Streets 2 if you don't believe me...).
There's more. After a couple of fairly standard city street levels that evoke the 1987 original, you'll suddenly be whisked into outer space and introduced to the diabolical villain Skullmaggeddon, whose ornate armour, hilarious one-liners and jarringly nerdy voice acts as a pastiche of Skeletor, Shredder and Cobra Commander all rolled into one. As you progress, the completely new levels become infinitely more imaginative and vibrant, providing a pleasingly varied backdrop to the fairly repetitive combat. In fact, it frequently feels like playing through a Saturday morning cartoon.
This blend of old and new factors into the combat, which initially comes off as a little sluggish. Character movement speed is authentically slow, with only a small range of punches, kicks and throws at your disposal. Oddly, no elbow drops. For some reason. Attacks pack real weight, especially when you've gotten your hands on a melee weapon, but it lacks the fluidity and grace we're used to from more modern games, especially as far as chaining combos are concerned.
Take a little time, though, and you'll appreciate some subtle tweaks to the original formula. You can now roll to evade enemy blows (granting you a temporary damage boost), throw airborne characters and sprint for powerful dash attacks. There's nuance and depth beneath the classic heavy feel, providing a fresher experience while retaining the essence of the 1987 original.
Double Dragon Neon's major concession to modernity is a persistent upgrade system. Enemies frequently drop Mix Tapes that grant new super-moves or buffs, with persistent currency allowing you to power them up through fifty levels via some helpful shopkeepers. Brilliantly, money, moves and buffs don't expire when you die, giving players an addictive reason to keep on punchin'. However, the whole 'mix tape' aspect comes across as half-baked, since the interface doesn't even resemble a tape deck and each 'song' is only a 15-second clip.
It's worth noting that Double Dragon Neon is an absolute blast when played with a mate. Not only does the campaign absolutely shine when you've got a bro holding your back (indeed, Bro-Op is the name of the game), but the right stick is exclusively used to trigger a variety of high fives. We like this intensely. Though online co-op has yet to be patched in at the time of writing, traditional brawlers are plain better when played on a single screen.
If you're a fan of classic beat 'em ups and Saturday morning cartoons, have fond memories of Double Dragon or are simply a sucker for nostalgia then you can stop reading this review right now. Just go and buy it. You'll have a whale of a time. WayForward have succeeded in their mission to reboot the classic game with improved controls and more cheese than most can safely handle.
Sadly, for many of us, this won't be enough.
See, as much as Double Dragon Neon would like you to believe it, we're not in 1987 any more. The brawling genre is all grown up, and compared to any number of XBLA and PSN games, this reboot feels incredibly staid and unambitious. Its repetitive campaign, trial-and-error difficulty and heavy combat are shown up by the likes of Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim, which also managed to retain the retro vibe while boasting massive variety, value, replayability and four-player fun.
Over the last 25 years, the 2D original has completely evolved into titles like Mark Of The Ninja, Shank, The Dishwasher and Dust: An Elysian Tail (even 3D brawlers like Devil May Cry, God Of War and Bayonetta); games that provide tight and responsive combat while also offering strong storylines, scope for exploration and new gameplay elements. Not to mention a campaign that lasts longer than an hour from start to finish.
- Best soundtrack of
19872012 - get it here
- Massive nostalgia hit
- Enjoyable arcade action, especially with a friend
- Humiliated by 25 years of progress
- Relatively sluggish combat
- Middling value
The Short Version: Double Dragon Neon is an excellent reboot of the seminal 1987 beat 'em up. Along with enjoyable arcade thrills, you'll also get a massive nostalgic rush for classic arcade games, Saturday morning cartoons and the 1980s in all its excessive, garish glory.
In 2012, however, it's also a stark reminder of how far games have evolved over the last quarter of a century.