Side-scrolling beat-em-ups were one of the defining gaming experiences in the NES era, thanks largely to the Double Dragon franchise and its kin. Brawling your way down the street against groups of cookie-cutter bad guys was as 90s as it got, a perfect reflection of that unique point in cultural history.
But then we largely left the genre behind as we moved past bits and into polygonal territory, with only a few outlying titles successfully attempting to revive it. For me, that’s a big part of what makes Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons fulfilling—not only has the beat-em-up returned over the last couple years, but now one of its flagship titles has returned properly as well.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons presents itself as an alternate prequel of sorts to the original games. Nuclear war has largely collapsed society—I missed that detail back in the 90s—and four gangs vy for control of New York City. Martial artist brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee can stand idly by no longer and take to the streets with help from damsel-turned-cop Marian and their “Uncle” Matin.
As noted in our preview of Double Dragon Gaiden earlier this month, players are given free choice of the order in which they confront the various gangs. The power vacuum created by taking down one kingpin is immediately filled, making the simple act of level selection into a heavy tactical decision.
The escalation of encounters is pretty steep. On my first run, I took on the Killers (led by the dastardly “Machine Gun Willy,” a nefarious figure from the originals) and barely batted an eye. However, when I left them for last, the final battle was like something out of a Van Damme movie.
Granted, this means that as you’re three or four gangs deep into a run, Double Dragon Gaiden breaks out some of the cheaper tools in the beat-em-up toy box—vehicles, firearms, magic attacks from seemingly pedestrian villains, and all the technical issues that spring from them. One boss proved incredibly difficult to even tough without Marian’s pistol attacks, while I fell off the stage of a third-round climactic bout and got stuck off-screen. The former seems a persistent design bugbear of the genre, while the latter could be chalked up to a patchable bug, but either way, it reminded me of yesteryear’s frustrations.
“Multiplayer is going to bring the most longevity to Double Dragon Gaiden, especially with this modifier system.”
(Of course, as anyone who got to the end of the original can attest, the story may not be as simple as beating four gangs and calling it a day, but I’ll leave it at that.)
Each of the fighters has the usual repertoire of basic attacks, manueverability techniques like running and double-jumping, grappling, and four special attacks. The special attack gauge can be used either for one of those attacks, or to tag their partner in. Double Dragon Gaiden somewhat nudges players to the former, as “crowd control” combos (defeating multiple enemies with a single special) becomes key to survival.
Restorative food items drop every time a crowd control combo is pulled off, with more KOs converting into stronger items. I’ll always welcome the chance to heal midlevel, but this mechanic felt a little off-brand. Maybe the giant animation paused the flow of combat to smear a cartoon burger, hot dog, or Thanksgiving turkey across my screen every time I pulped a half-dozen hired goons. Regardless, the focus on snacking down feels more River City Ransom.
While Double Dragon Gaiden has drawn comparisons to roguelikes, I wouldn’t personally affix that label too prominently. The level selection gimmick is compelling for replay, but hardly “roguelike.” Where the moniker is more fitting, however, is the boons characters can accrue after each stage and the modifier system.
“There’s an admirable amount of unlockable content for the price of admission, even if the unlockables themselves veer toward the uninspired.”
Cash is earned by beating enemies, clearing challenges, and just gathered from smashing objects. After clearing a stage, each character gets to choose from a set of boons, like increased special charging, increased melee damage, improved special, and so on. These bonuses are randomized and cost money to apply—or, one can abstain and keep the cash for later. Reviving costs money, after all, so the choice between a perk now or a continue later is heavy.
How much revives cost, however, depends on the challenge picked at the start of each run. Double Dragon Gaiden wisely allows the player to cater many elements to their liking, above and beyond difficulty—factors like enemy aggression and player health. Crank up the aggression and revives become cheaper, while cranking up your own health makes them more expensive. Leftover cash converts into tokens, which can also be used for revives, or to unlock more characters and other assets from the in-game shop.
Multiplayer is going to bring the most longevity to Double Dragon Gaiden, especially with this modifier system. There are only so many variations to the gangs’ stages, after all, but tackling them with a friend locally and playing around with the variables takes the replay value to the finish line.
There’s an admirable amount of unlockable content for the price of admission, even if the unlockables themselves veer toward the uninspired. Small (patchable and infrequent) glitches aside, Double Dragon Gaiden brings back the best elements of its ancestors in a charmingly modern presentation. Between the stage design and the callbacks, there’s moments that almost feel like a reskin of the original games.
Granted, it doesn’t have the same bombastic charm as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge. The new character designs work well, but much like the new food-generation focus, they don’t quite feel like the originals. Stylistically, Double Dragon Gaiden struggles to ascend from being an homage and become a true successor.
(There are retro-style sprites of the four main characters that play on the “now loading” screen, and part of me would have preferred the whole game to have used that style instead.)
Quibbles aside, Secret Base has proven that this 35-year old dragon is still potent for multiplayer fun, and I’d be eager to see what else they could build upon this foundation.