Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons spices up the arcade brawler formula with roguelite elements and new characters. Developer Raymond Teo tells us how it came about.
Last year, the seminal arcade brawler Double Dragon celebrated its 35th anniversary. Although Technos Japan’s 1987 coin-op was far from the first scrolling beat-’em-up, it introduced a number of ground-breaking (and skull-shattering) mechanics. Basically, Double Dragon was the first game that let you pick up an oil drum and throw it directly at a bad guy’s face, and the genre was never quite the same again.
Although a bit rough around the edges, Double Dragon was enormously influential, and a generation of similar brawlers, from Golden Axe to Streets of Rage to Final Vendetta, existed in its shadow.
Successive developers have tried to update the Double Dragon formula for modern systems, but Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons might just be the most convincing attempt so far. Set in a post-apocalyptic New York city, the game once again pits players against great armies of criminal gangs, with each of the city’s four districts governed by a formidable boss. But while Double Dragon Gaiden offers similar belt-scrolling mayhem to that found in earlier entries, it mixes things up with new playable characters, special moves, tag team mechanics, and a few roguelite elements.
Double Dragon Gaiden is the work of Singapore studio Secret Base Games, founded by Raymond ‘Rayteoactive’ Teo in 2010. Teo’s clearly a fan of the series – he’s able to talk about specific characters and lore in surprising detail – which perhaps explains why publisher Arc System Works gave his comparatively tiny indie studio a chance to make a new entry in the long-running series.
According to Teo, the road to Double Dragon Gaiden began almost a decade ago, back when Teo was making little flash games based on classic arcade genres. “In around 2014,” Teo tells us over email, “I released a parody-themed beat-’em-up titled Devil’s Dare on Steam. Nobody really made beat-’em-ups at the time… [and] it didn’t do well financially, but it was pretty well received by gamers and reviewers alike. I’m guessing that caught the eye of Arc System Works, who I think were exploring the idea of publishing indie titles at the time.”
By this point, Arc System Works had bought up Technos Japan, and armed with the Double Dragon series rights, developed Double Dragon IV. Released in 2017, the sequel was essentially a souped-up reworking of Double Dragon II on the NES – right down to the limited colour palette and 8-bit soundtrack. It was entertaining enough, but perhaps a bit too slavish to its inspiration to truly stand out.
Seeing that game, Tao pitched a Double Dragon concept of his own – one that introduced a tag-team concept, in which the player can immediately switch between characters during combat. “The tag mechanic was already in that pitch at the very beginning, and I’d like to think that they [Arc] liked it almost immediately,” Teo recalls. “That said, it still wasn’t easy for them to entrust such a legendary IP to a small indie developer. I was persistent, and we continued to discuss on and off, sharing ideas and plans for almost a year before I finally convinced them to give me the chance to make this new game.”
Series stalwarts Billy and Jimmy Lee have a lead role Double Dragon Gaiden, but they’re joined by a number of other playable characters – a design decision informed by that tag-team mechanic. It’s here that Teo’s seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of earlier Double Dragon games and lore becomes apparent. “There were ideas to bring back Ranzou and Chin Seimei [from Double Dragon III], but because this was a bit of an alternate timeline prequel, it wouldn’t make sense for them to be with the Lee brothers,” he tells us. “After some research, I learned that Marian, in multiple storylines, was a policewoman and if I recall correctly, it was even mentioned that she trained with the Lee Brothers, making her the perfect candidate.”
Billy, Jimmy and the gun-wielding Marian are also joined by a new character: the imposing, riot shield-wielding Uncle Matin. “Ultimately, I chose an older man because the Lee Brothers and Marian were all young characters. I imagine many of the fans might be a dad playing their favourite game with their kid, and so the elder character made sense.”
All told, there’ll be 13 playable characters in Double Dragon Gaiden, with the other nine unlocked as you progress (“I got the idea to make the bosses playable pretty early on,” says Teo). Each of those characters will have three unique special moves, which are more powerful attacks that, like tagging a partner in or out, will cause your SP metre to drop; said metre can then be topped back up by defeating enemies.
You can also use special moves and partner-tagging in tandem to create more devastating attacks, Teo says. “When a character enters the scene, the other character will finish their attack before leaving [the screen]. In that sense, although there is no team up move, the capability to team up is based on your creativity and execution to connect your character’s moves.”
Rather than the linear kind of experience you’d expect from a 1980s coin-op or console title, Double Dragon Gaiden lets you choose which of the post-apocalyptic city’s four crime factions you’d like to tackle first. The missions you embark on will then change dynamically as you progress – and it’s here that the game’s roguelite elements come in.
Although stages aren’t entirely random – “Part of playing a beat-’em-up is knowing where your enemies will come from,” Teo points out – certain elements, such as bosses, bonus objectives and upgrades will change each time. “Every time you defeat [a stage], the others level up and become bigger and stronger, so you would take multiple tries before you see them all.”
Double Dragon Gaiden’s added depth is joined by greater mayhem, with numerous enemies attacking at once and bouts frequently ending with the screen cluttered with bodies. Couple this with more familiar elements – you can still pick up weapons, just like the earlier titles – and you have a potentially satisfying mix of retro and modern.
“The goal was to really look at [Double Dragon] and see what original games had, and how we can reinterpret that and make it even better with today’s technology,” says Teo. “On top of that, we wanted to introduce new mechanics to help give the game playability and make sure that it isn’t just a beat-’em-up that you play once and move on. Neither of these were easy and required a lot of time… I’m really thankful to [Arc System Works] for being willing to give this chance to a small developer. It doesn’t happen very often in any industry, and I still pinch myself to this day.”
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is out on PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4 and PS5 on 27 July.