Double Dragon retrospective — Two heroes, many perspectives

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The original impression of the brothers Lee.

With the recent release of Double Dragon Neon, I thought it would be an opportune moment to look back at the genesis of the Double Dragon series and the evolution it’s gone through since then.

Double Dragon was released in arcades in 1987, one of the earliest examples of the beat-em-up genre that exploded in the early nineties. Though Tecnos’ Renegade is oftentimes considered the progenitor of the genre, Double Dragon was the first game to introduce two-player co-operative fighting into the mix. Lee brothers Jimmy and Billy teamed up to take on an unending army of street toughs on their way to rescue their mutual girlfriend, Marian. The story is almost nonexistent, but a five-second cutscene in the first mission of the game tells you everything you need to know. One of the series’ most memorable, if unintentionally funny, moments, Marian is punched in the stomach and carried off by a random group of thugs without a word.

The game broke into interesting new territory by allowing players to pick up defeated enemies’ weapons and use them against others. The comparatively bare bones port to the original NES forced the game to lose its most attractive feature, the second player. But future ports of sequels would reinstate the co-operative fun. The NES version does implement a hidden system of leveling your character, years ahead of its time. Billy will learn new moves as your progress, including the iconic spin kick.

Reimagined in a post-apocalyptic setting.

The original game is firmly rooted in ‘80s culture. Musclebound goons in pink tank tops and dominatrices with permed hair are among the first enemies you face, and the soundtrack has a chiptuned take on the metal and pop music of the day. The most recent game in the franchise, Double Dragon Neon (developed by WayForward), happily plays off the nostalgia of the bygone decade to great effect.

Though the original was rooted in a tough-as-nails street punk attitude, subsequent games would go to other weird and ridiculous places, recasting the brothers Lee as mystical ninjas, Road Warrior-esqe post apocalyptic survivors, and during a trip to Egypt, action paleontologists. In the cartoon adaptation, the brothers don Power Rangers masks and swords when they team up. And in the so-bad-it’s-good live action movie where the brothers face a scenery-chewing Robert Patrick, Billy and Jimmy do not even appear to be brothers.

The classic original still holds up after 25 years, a testament to the timeless quality of a good beat-em-up. But if at all possible, try to play the arcade version with a friend. Playing with a buddy by your side makes the more repetitive parts less of a drag.

If you’re looking for a more modern gaming experience, Double Dragon Neon pays glorious homage to the series long and weird history and manages to make a great brawler that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Online co-operative play is planned for a future update, but in the meantime, couch co-op is a fine way to remember the ‘80s.


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