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Double Dragon (Atari 2600) artwork

Double Dragon (Atari 2600) review

"You’ve got to give Activision credit for ignoring both the hardware’s obvious limitations and a dose of common sense to throw caution to the wind and attempt it anyway. Pity that you can’t give them credit for the game itself.


Tragically, no one was a bad enough dude to rescue them or their game.

The Atari 2600 and the concept of having strict standards of quality were never on particularly friendly terms with each other over the course of its long existence, and they certainly weren’t about to bury the hatchet when this thing saw the light of day. Inexplicably released as late as 1989, the seminal arcade beat ‘em up DOUBLE DRAGON probably had no business being “ported” anywhere near a console that was already rotting in its grave at least five years prior, but you’ve got to give Activision credit for ignoring both the hardware’s obvious limitations and a dose of common sense to throw caution to the wind and attempt it anyway. Pity that you can’t give them credit for the game itself.

Oh, this cart seemed promising enough at first, lulling me in with its recognizable rendition of the arcade’s famous opening theme and proudly displaying the background of the first screen. At first glance the graphics are quite well done, all things considered – the backdrops are actually identifiable. Imagine, a 2600 game boasting garage doors, cityscapes, and steel ladders that actually look like doors, cityscapes, and ladders! That’s about when the game starts, the two approaching toughs looking vaguely humanoid if oddly colored in various shades of purple; fair enough, I can accept that. Unfortunately, this first screen is also where I came to understand that actually playing the game was a mistake. Having advanced towards one of the plum pugilists, my poor character was mercilessly thrashed by a barrage of punches and kicks before lying in a dazed heap on the floor.

What in the name of River City High was that?

Collecting myself, I wasted my second life futilely watching the 4-bit incarnation of Billy Lee receive an elbow, a punch, two kicks, three more punches, and finally a flying kick before giving up the ghost. A challenge is always welcome, but the computer AI in this game is absolutely and irrevocably insane; it’s generally not considered a proud accomplishment to make it past the first few thugs in this genre, but here even the lowliest of your foes can brutally destroy one of your three lives before you can react. And then, adding insult to injury, they repeat the process even as you’re getting up from the first beating! Incidentally, a snippet from the familiar tune of the coinop's first level constantly loops amidst the slaughter, which might have become incredibly annoying if the average game lasted longer than three minutes.

Yet surprisingly enough the controls are both intuitive and responsive despite the 2600's lone button; depending on the direction you press, your character can utilize punches, kicks, or flying feet of his own with relative ease, which is something of a tease since they’re all rather superfluous. You’ll have better luck defeating an enemy simply by standing still and punching ad infinitum whenever he draws too close. At least Activision thought to include simultaneous two player action, though with mixed results; since the engine can only handle two enemies on the screen at once, the game merely splits the playing area in two with one thug each. Play alone and only one member of these deadly duos will engage you at a time, the other politely waiting his turn until you’ve killed his buddy; thank heaven for small favors. Even better, thanks to a rare slip in the otherwise horrifying AI, the enemies fail to attack a player until he makes his first move, meaning that even without a friend you can alternate between both characters and thus hopefully last twice as long. You know, six minutes.

Armed with newfound determination (and a second joystick), I cheaped my way through the first area, and even overcame the second fairly intact, thus treading into the uncharted territory of the third screen! The lurking place of what were most likely female enemies with large hair, these new challengers were fairly easy to beat in the sense that I didn’t waste another life, and – wonder of wonders! – the level ended with the appearance of a scratchy thumbs up! Flushed with victory, I advanced into the fabled Mission Two . . . only to be pounded into oblivion by another pack of pixelated thugs. Perhaps you go on to fight other types of enemies in later and longer levels, perhaps the music changes at some point, and perhaps the Double Dragons eventually save their lavender lady from the clutches of the wicked Grimace, but I couldn’t say. I’ve accepted the sad fact that I can’t possibly finish this game. NO ONE CAN.

But the saddest thing about this mess is that it could probably have turned out fairly well if you could actually get anywhere, something that should have become hopelessly apparent after even five minutes of actual play testing. To its credit, Double Dragon is still a lot better than luminaries like Knight on the Town – although pulling rank over anything in which the main character’s genitals are gnawed off by a hungry alligator probably isn’t the best choice of potential achievements. As such, ultimately this game is best left as a curious conversation piece . . .

. . . but not much of one.

sho's avatar
Staff review by Sho (July 21, 2004)

Sho enjoys classic video games, black comedy, and poking people until they explode -- figuratively or otherwise. He also writes a bit.

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