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Double Dragon (NES) artwork

Double Dragon (NES) review

"Double Dragon was an instant arcade classic that has been ported to a multitude of consoles over the years."

Going back to the beginning of a video game genre can be tricky. On the one hand, itís great to see where familiar game mechanics come from and to gain a better understanding of the old titles that influenced certain other games we enjoyed years down the line. On the other hand, it can be rough to go back to the point when things kicked off, knowing the whole time that plenty of games have since released and improved upon those original sources of inspiration. Thatís the pickle I find myself in when I play Double Dragon, the granddaddy of one of my favorite gaming genres: the beat Ďem up. While I can respect it for setting things in motion, I have a difficult time going all the way back to that original title and enjoying it as I would when it was the new hotness.

Double Dragon was an instant arcade classic that has been ported to a multitude of consoles over the years. For the NES version, some concessions had to be made to fit it into the 8-bit cartridge, which leaves the phrase ďDouble DragonĒ as a bit of a misnomer. Billy and Jimmy Lee are twin brothers who learned martial arts on the mean streets. One day, Billyís girlfriend Marian is kidnapped by the Black Warriors gang. Billy sets out to rescue her from the clutches of the Shadow Boss, who he eventually learns is his brother Jimmy. Dun, dun, dunnnnn!

This was an obvious way of addressing the pink elephant in the room: Double Dragon on the NES should actually be called ďSingle Dragon,Ē as itís a single-player brawler. This is quite the blow to a game that was well-known for its two-player cooperative play, and it detracts from the fun and replay value that the port of this arcade classic could otherwise have provided. Changes were made to the game as a means of compensating for this loss, but a single-player beat Ďem up is generally less fun than one that lets you bring a buddy along for the ride.

So, Billy has to go it alone against the likes of Williams, Linda, and of course the dreaded Abobo. Fortunately, heís given a steadily increasing arsenal of attacks with which to deal with them. Unlike the arcade original, this version of Double Dragon features a leveling up mechanic. Every time Billy gains 1000 technical points (which are earned by utilizing various attacks) he learns some new moves. The obvious advantage to this is that Billy becomes a more powerful character as the game progresses, and crucial moves like the ground attack are real life savers later on. The downside to this is losing all your lives (no continues here!) and starting over without the ability to even pull off a jump kick. It makes the first few stages of the game rather boring over time.

Changes to the graphics served as another concession when this port of Double Dragon was produced. Itís by no means a bad looking game, and the levels retain the basic look of the arcade original. Billy Lee, on the other hand, barely resembles his arcade counterpart. The bouffant hair is in full effect and he still sports his trademark blue vest, but thatís really where the similarities end. It seems like all of the artistic effort instead went into making the Black Warriors closely resemble the source material (with Abobo obviously being the most impressive thing in the game). It was a good effort for an NES game in 1987, but comparing it to even Double Dragon II that released a year later calls attention to substantial differences.

An additional two player mode was also added to this version of Double Dragon, and it uses an entirely different set of character sprites. This one-on-one fighting mode is more Double Dragon than Street Fighter. Players move between the background and foreground while attacking with punches, kicks, and jump kicks. The graphics are impressive in this mode, featuring huge sprites with a great deal more detail than the single player mode. I couldnít help but wonder what the main game might have looked like if this extra and somewhat shallow two-player addition hadnít been added.

It may be missing a Lee brother and might only partially resemble the original arcade game, but Double Dragon overall plays like Double DragonÖ for better or worse. If youíre familiar with the series, youíll be right at home pummeling Black Warrior members with roundhouse kicks, uppercuts, and hair grabs. The animations for Billy get the job done, and itís always satisfying to grab an enemyís bat to use against him.

There are aspects to this early beat Ďem up that have always bothered me, though, and they are much more noticeable now that newer games have iterated on this formula. Traded punches are something that seem systemic to the Double Dragon series, and itís particularly bad here. Itís common to take just as much damage as you dish out, and itís extremely difficult to combat this problem. Enemies are able to duck many of Billy Leeís fancier attacks, but he possesses no such defensive tactics. On top of that, the game loves to throw jumping elements into the mix, but Billyís jump kick is a poor solution to these platforming sections. All of these little issues can add up to some annoying deaths, and since Double Dragon doesnít have a continue system, you can expect to see the opening levels over and over until you get things down just right.

Iíd be a terrible person if I didnít praise the music of Double Dragon. Simply put, this game has some of the most memorable tunes of the late Ď80s arcade scene, and at least in this respect, the NES version comes through. The soundtrack isnít arcade quality, obviously, but those infinitely hummable songs are present and accounted for. I may have had to replay levels over and over, but that meant I got to jam out to those classic Double Dragon tunes. Thatís always a good thing.

If youíve ever enjoyed walking to the right and punching dudes, you need to play Double Dragon at least once. Other games have come along and done things better, including the NES sequels, but the original game is still good enough that it can be enjoyable for an afternoon. This is a deeply flawed port of an arcade classic, but itís also easy to come by and cheap enough that if youíre at all curious about it, you should still seek it out.


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Freelance review by Julian Titus (June 14, 2013)

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