We spent 90 minutes with Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, and found it to be a fast-paced, enjoyably brutal retro brawler. Our hands-on preview:
The original Double Dragon – startlingly, now over 35 years old – unleashed a particularly special brand of violence in 80s arcades. Where previous martial arts-based games let you punch or kick your enemies in relatively dainty fashion, Double Dragon let you throw barrels at people’s heads. It gave you the ability to disarm an assailant with a well-timed elbow, pick up their weapon, and then beat them to death with it. You could even murder someone with a boulder. It all served to underline the game’s grimy, faintly unseemly sense of urban malaise.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons emphasises the post-apocalyptic theme only hinted at in the first game, but eases off on the unseemliness. Where Technos’ arcade original – and its sequels – featured big, brash, often grotesque character sprites, developer Secret Base Games has gone for a cutesier approach more akin to the series’ NES ports.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the body count in Double Dragon Gaiden is infinitely higher than it was all those years ago. Opponents stomp onto the screen in much bigger gangs, and brawls often end with the landscape strewn with the greyed-out corpses of assorted hoodlums. Hit an enemy with a bottle, and the end will break off; keep using the bottle as a weapon, and it’ll eventually break in a tinkle of glass. Beneath all the chibi cuteness, Double Dragon’s raw violence is still present and correct.
To counter the greater number of enemies, Double Dragon Gaiden introduces a tag team mechanic, which allows you to switch between two characters at any time (well, almost – more on this shortly). This means you can take advantage of, say, returning hero Billy’s short but powerful kicks to fell a few enemies at close range, then switch to Maria, who specialises in ranged weapons, to murder a few distant goons with a few shots from her pistol.
There are four playable characters as the game starts – Billy, Jimmy, Maria, and newcomer Uncle Matin. All have their own unique special moves, which have a cooldown bar that is topped back up over time or replenishes more quickly if you keep beating up villains. Maria, for example, is capable of firing a missile launcher or laying deadly mines. Uncle Matin, who wields a riot shield, can perform a devastating dash attack.
All four characters also – predictably enough – have their own disadvantages. Neither Uncle Matin nor Maria are capable of picking up other weapons, which means only Billy and Jimmy are able to repeatedly bludgeon foes with abandoned bottles or baseball bats. The tank-like Uncle Matin, meanwhile, can take plenty of punishment, but his sluggish movement makes him vulnerable to attack. Similarly, Maria’s ranged weapons are terrific for keeping hordes of enemies at bay, but she’ll take a lot of damage if an enemy breaks through her defences.
All of this means that Double Dragon Gaiden constantly gives you reasons to keep switching between characters, and there’s a satisfying flow to taking out one group of enemies with a few shots of Maria’s pistol, then switching to Billy and finishing off a closer hoodlum with his bone-shattering uppercut. If you get the timing right, you can deal more damage by timing your tag-team button press so that your second character appears on the screen while the first is still pulling off their last move; it’s likely a tactic more skilful players than me will use repeatedly once the game launches.
You have to be careful how and when you deploy your special moves and tag team switches, too, since you can only switch characters when your special gauge is full. This adds a touch of strategy as well as the need for quick-thinking – it’s all-too easy, when the screen’s full of enemies and your energy’s running low, to realise that you can’t switch to your other, less battered player character because you just pulled off gauge-sapping uppercut.
Double Dragon Gaiden’s remixed combat is joined by a fresh, roguelike approach to its level design. Stages can be picked in any order, but each will grow in length and complexity as you progress. And rather than the linear corridors of earlier games, Gaiden’s stages contain side rooms full of crates and other breakable bits of scenery which can be smashed for loot (this in turn can later be spent on upgrades), as well as some familiar Double Dragon hazards – deadly pits, falling rocks, and so forth.
Put all this together, and you have a brawler with some thoroughly rewarding, satisfyingly crunch combat, as well as more variety than you’d typically expect from a traditional belt-scroller. A special mention should go to the sound design – a kind of sonic platter that, when the game’s operating at full bore, takes in snappy punches, thuds, grunts, gasps, and jangly tinkles of glass.
Having only spent around 90 minutes with Double Dragon Gaiden so far, we can’t say how the experience holds up from beginning to end as yet; we can’t help wondering whether, as levels procedurally build up in length as the campaign wears on, they might get a little too long and bruising for comfort. Until then, though, Secret Base’s brawler is shaping up to be a modern sequel that more than lives up to the Double Dragon name.
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.