Few games are more of a prime example of the late arcade/height of the NES-era than Double Dragon. In a time where beat ‘em ups were establishing themselves as one of the kings of the coin-op machines, the original Double Dragon debuted in arcades in 1987 (a full year before being ported to the NES) and it immediately became a co-op sensation. Later chapters only cemented the adoration for brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, and it was a staple for many young fans of the genre—myself included. So, with the 30th anniversary of the original Double Dragon being celebrated this year, Arc System Works decided to finally continue the original story, picking up after Double Dragon II: The Revenge—Double Dragon III: The Rosetta Stone took place between the original two games—and deliver unto us a true 8-bit successor in Double Dragon IV.
The world has gone to hell after the events of the last game as nuclear war has decimated everything. Might makes right amongst the survivors of this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and so the benevolent Lee brothers have been traveling across the country trying to open up new dojos (it’s all about those franchising rights!) in an attempt to teach people to better defend themselves. Unfortunately, on a trip to the ruins of San Francisco, some familiar ne’er-do-wells ambush Billy and Jimmy. Oh, and Marion does her best Princess Peach impersonation and has been kidnapped—again.
So, much like many games of the late 1980s, the story serves as little more than window dressing as a concept and an excuse to get you and a friend to team up and take on hordes of thugs both familiar and new to long-time fans of the series. It’s definitely not the selling point here, and that’s fine considering how much this game is clearly trying to channel the originals.
The audio/visual aspects are also ripped right from the 80s. There are sprites that sometimes just use palette swaps to signify an increase in difficulty between enemies. The Lee brothers look like they’re whipping three-linked sausages around instead of throwing righteous fists. Simple, spring-like noises sound off with each jump across perilous pits, and the classic main theme song returns. In other words, Double Dragon IV’s artistic style at least is a direct throwback to the NES versions of the first two Double Dragon games for those of us around back then, and probably serves as a shock to the system for those who weren’t. I believe it to be entirely inoffensive, and even a tad refreshing in a way, even if all you’ve ever known is polygons, dynamic lighting effects, and orchestral scores.
This return to a bygone era can also be felt in the game design. Platforms aren’t placed in impossible positions, but are difficult enough where if you don’t time your jumps just perfectly, you’ll fall to your doom and lose a precious life—of which are in short supply. Disappearing platforms, rotating blocks, spike traps, and conveyor belts (oh, those damn conveyor belts!) litter the late stages of the game. There are also the enemies who love to crowd around your fallen body. Although this can lead to a particularly efficient uppercut or rising knee if you time it right on your pop-up, it can also lead to numbers that simply overwhelm you and see the enemy thugs beating you right back to the ground, or repeatedly whittling down your health bar with devastating combos. Familiar special moves from the original games like spin kicks, throws, and MMA knees to the face are also here to help if you can pull them off.
For some, this all may prove even more frustrating than for others. Playing the fittingly local only co-op with a younger friend of mine named Jeromy—the 2-player “A” version of the co-op campaign mode specifically that removes the friendly fire of the 2-player “B” campaign mode because Jeromy cannot be trusted—highlighted how big a difference a single gaming generation between two people can be. I’ve been with Double Dragon since the beginning; he came on board with Super Double Dragon, a game made specifically for the SNES and not arcades, which is not considered canon. His frustrations with Double Dragon IV were obvious from the second we started.
It was then that I realized that in many ways Double Dragon IV was like a time capsule in game design seeing the light of day for the first time in almost 30 years. For me, it was mostly fun to see old-school mechanics revisited, and I laughed at what Jeromy saw as design shortcomings—which I recognized as sometimes just conscious decisions made with high difficulty and the technological limitations of the time in mind. It was as if the original Double Dragon had again emerged to steal lives on my NES, or my quarters in the arcade. Only those who could master the limited controls of the 80s were worthy to progress pass the game’s first few levels, and this was on clear display here. I found it charming; he found it maddening.
Not everything about old-school game design should be found to be charming, though. A classic shortcoming of side-scrolling beat ‘em up combat remains perfectly intact here in the form of poor hit detection. Trying to line up on the same plane as an enemy and failing (and then them hitting you somehow from the same position), or your foes being a mere pixel or two out of range of one of your punches leading to you getting clobbered with a nunchuck, led to some teeth grinding on my part, too, for sure, and I would’ve loved even the slightest improvement here.
And where Double Dragon IV excels at showing us a glimpse at gaming’s past, it also clearly limits its audience. Like Jeromy, anyone under a certain age won’t have the quaint, nostalgic memories to take the edge off the game’s classic quarter-munching gameplay and inherent flaws. This isn’t necessarily a knock against the game, but it does make it very niche, confining its potential reach to an ever-shrinking demographic.
Arc System Works did at least try to rectify this it seems with a poorly advertised fact that by pressing the “Options” button on the main menu you can pull up a mission select option and instantly start with full credits and lives at the most recent chapter you finished. In this sense, some of the difficulty and tension is removed as the fear of having to start the entire game over is absent, but then you run into the unfortunate by-product of what turns out to be an extremely short game—one whose 12 missions total should take less than an hour to finish.
A dash of some much-needed replayability is introduced once you beat the game by allowing you to play as other characters besides the Lee brothers (such as Roper, Williams, and Linda), but this isn’t much if the original experience didn’t appeal to you. There’s also a two-player versus mode with over a dozen optional characters to play as, and a Tower mode where you must keep clearing floors of enemies to climb the tower, which you can challenge once beating the campaign. Both are even more tiresome than the campaign itself, however, unless you consider yourself a Double Dragon maniac.
Double Dragon IV is a throwback in both the best and worst ways. It limits its audience by appealing to an extreme niche section of hardcore fans, eschewing modern game design for aesthetics and mechanics that are relics from a seemingly ancient era and could alienate many gamers. If you can look past the retro sprites, and are old enough to remember when games like this dominated the arcade and NES landscape despite their intense difficulty, the nostalgia factor might be enough to carry you through this fitting follow-up to the original games in the series. If you can’t, then fighting for right with the might of the dragon likely isn’t for you and you should pass on Double Dragon IV.
Double Dragon IV is a sequel that came about three decades too late. While it’s a great follow-up to the games from the 8-bit era, it also unintentionally shines a light on the shortcomings of the time—which only the most diehard of fans will be able to overlook.
Arc System Works
Arc System Works
T - Teen
|Double Dragon IV is available on PS4, PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Arc System Works for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|