I penned an article a while back which decried the video game industry’s lack of period pieces that tap the nostalgic wonder of decades past. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are two titles that went no holds barred into the ’80s and ’90s culture to staggering success. Certainly, the open world gangster gameplay contributed largely to those games’ successes, but the window-dressing–the sights and sounds of their respective decades–were significant contributions to the fun existing within their universes.
WayForward’s Double Dragon Neon joins their ranks as an excellent, nostalgia-filled title. The Majesco published game celebrates not just Double Dragon during the franchise’s 25th anniversary, but the beat ‘em genre and the absolute ridiculousness of the ’80s as a whole. It’s a marvelous feat despite a few missteps.
Double Dragon Neon reboots the original classic as it reaches the quarter century mark. Instead of strictly adhering to the original game’s plot of Billy and Jimmy Lee retrieving a kidnapped Marion from the hands of street vermin in a post-apocalyptic metropolis, Double Dragon veers into the area of Day-Glo, synthesizer abuse, and big hair–and revels in its cheese. Marion’s once again gut-punched, but this is a decidedly different title altogether than the original and the game benefits from the change.
Sure, gameplay consists of walking from left to right and plowing through thugs, but it’s done in a remarkably fresh manner. The Dragons have a basic set of moves–punch, kick, throw, jump kick, leg sweep, flying knee, duck/evade–but you can customize Billy and Jimmy with active and passive abilities by collecting cassette tapes from downed enemies. The active abilities (Sosetsitsu) let you pop off Street Fighter-like fireballs, summon dragons that damage all on-screen enemies, and other totally tubular attacks in exchange for a portion of your magic meter. The passive abilities (Stances) boost your offense or defense in various ways. My favorite, easily, lets you recover a bit of life every time you land a blow (it comes in especially handy in single-player mode). It would’ve been a nice touch if Stance actually changed your fighting stance when equipped, but that’s a minor complaint.
Grabbing additional cassettes of the same type increases the Sosetsitsu and Stance’s potencies. Alternately, you can upgrade those abilities in the various shops strewn about the game if you have the proper currencies to make the purchase.
The attacks, hit hard, and if you time them correctly, you can string together impressive combos with both limps and weapons. Fighting game fans will appreciate the light juggling and the ability to use wall bounces to continue attacks. That said, the move that you want to masterfully insert into your arsenal is duck/evade. Tapping the appropriate button on your PS3/Xbox 360 controller will let you duck or, if you press forward/backward, evade. Duck lets you, well, duck attacks, but also puts on in a crouched position from which you can deliver a swift leg sweep or flying knee. Evade rolls you out of danger (much like a fighting game) except that it uses no meter and actually boost your abilities. This “Gleam” mode doubles your damage your damage output for a few seconds, so you should spam your most brutal attack whenever the red aura surrounds you.
Combat is quite satisfying, but it’s not without flaws. Grapple attacks are no more and the running animation has a hitch that makes initiating a sprint awkward. That said, the other animations are quite fluid and maintain their frame rate when enemies swarm in for attack.
And on that topic, Double Dragon Neon, naturally, is best played in bro-op mode as the baddies mob a lone Lee brother to the point where only expert fighting will prevent you from seeing a game over. Note: There’s no online co-op. WayForward states that’s coming soon via a patch.
Billy, Jimmy, Marion, and the rogue’s gallery are given a gorgeous ’80s era makeover that will cause any aging Gen Xer smile from ear to ear. There are mullets, sneakers, big fros, and miniskirts, all of which pop thanks to the game’s glorious color scheme. The game suffers a bit from an over-reliance on palette-swapped characters, which is, unfortunately, a genre staple.
WayForward serves up varied environments in which you unleash cans of whoop ass, but don’t expect the original’s full run of urban wastelands. Double Dragon Neon’s first two areas will look familiar to Double Dragon fans, but the game takes you in some…unexpected directions. WayForward packs Double Dragon Neon with two scoops of ’80s nostalgia that recalls the era’s pop culture. If you’re well-schooled in the decade of decadence, you’ll get the jokes and allusions.
And none’s greater than the soundtracks which gives Double Dragon Neon half its charm. It’s a beautiful combination of arranged Double Dragon classics and original pop pieces that somehow mesh into a wondrous sonic boom. Guitars wail with the ferocity of an angry ’80s metal god, and an uptempo synth-heavy dance track , ”Mango Tango,” captures the ’80s so magnificently that it will, as described by our own Sean-Paul Adams, cause you to grow a side ponytail and don legwarmers. Channeling Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” the song tells the story–yes it has lyrics!–of dance floor dreams. That’s not the only song. Highlighting a Sosetsitsu or Stance causes an associated audio clip to play and, depending on the ability, it will be an inspired song that taps N.W.A , The Beastie Boys, country music, and other unexpected sources. Sound designer Jake Kaufman shines here, and if you want to sample the soundtrack, you can download it free of charge.
The Lee’s voices, however, are comical takes on the “California surfer dude” archetype that many will hate as many will love. Regardless of your stance, the voices fit the game’s wacky retro flavor. Besides, how can you hate a game where one brother calls another “Buttlord?” I submit that you cannnot.
Double Dragon Neon plays up the Billy-Jimmy love-rival relationship by letting your help/hurt your partner. It’s represented, on a most basic level, by the option to turn on/off friendly fire. In the larger game context, Billy and Jimmy help/harm each other with a high-five, and a few variations on that celebratory move. I won’t say what happens, but there are lots of comedic moments that adds to the game’s overall vibe.
WayFoward has become the go-to team for retro-style gaming action, and between Contra 4, Aliens Infestation, and now Double Dragon Neon it’s easy to understand why. There’s a loving touch on display here, not just for the property, but for the era in which it was birthed. As such, there’s a good chance that gamers who didn’t grow up in the ’80s with Double Dragon may overlook this title, or miss its significance. Double Dragon Neon is an incredibly fun retro romp that should find a place with genre fans and, hopefully, those willing to expand their horizons.