Retro brawler Double Dragon Gaiden doesn’t get everything right, but it’s still an enjoyable arcade throwback. Here’s our review:
Before Street Fighter II came along in 1991 and made one-on-one combat games the in-thing, the belt-scrolling brawler ruled arcades and consoles. And what games like Double Dragon and Final Fight lacked in terms of tactics and finesse, they made up for with pulverising action. Expressly designed to thrill the senses and guzzle coins, brawlers were, to borrow an Eddie Izzard line, “All martial, no art”.
In the wake of the genre’s 21st century revival, thanks to the well-reviewed likes of Streets of Rage 4, River City Girls and Final Vendetta, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is Secret Base’s modern take on a vintage arcade staple. Mixing time-honoured fisticuffs with a tag-team mechanic, upgrades and a smattering of roguelite elements, it’s a noble attempt to recreate the thrills of money-guzzling coin-ops while avoiding their repetition and cheap deaths. For the most part, it’s a (bone) cracking success.
Set in a post-apocalyptic New York riven by gangs, Double Dragon Gaiden sees a quartet of heroes – Billy, Jimmy, Maria, and hulking new character Uncle Matin – meet the assorted thugs and hoodlums head-on. Their ultimate goal is to beat each of the city’s four bosses, before taking on the biggest villain of all, New York’s crooked (and surprisingly buff) mayor.
Although it carries the Double Dragon name, Gaiden’s chibi art style and smaller characters bring it closer to the earlier Kunio-kun series, also developed by Double Dragon studio, Technos. It sounds like a trivial thing to point out, but it’s a design choice that gives the game a markedly different feel – there are more characters on screen at any given time than in developer Technos’ earlier arcade games, while the squat character designs an antic, cartoonlike feel.
With more enemies assailing you at once, you’ll need to make careful use of Gaiden’s special moves and tag team mechanics. Each character has a strong attack capable of downing multiple enemies at once, while a separate button lets you switch to a second playable character. Both abilities are tethered to the same cooldown bar, which means you’ll have to consider exactly when to switch characters or use, say, Maria’s missile launcher.
It adds an enjoyable modicum of tension and strategy to the brawler mix, especially when the action heats up and your characters start taking damage; do you unleash a special attack to try to turn the fight in your favour, or use up some of your precious gauge to switch to a second character that has more health?
Testing out different combinations of characters also adds depth. Maria’s ranged attacks and explosives make her useful against hordes of weaker enemies, but she lacks the devastating power of Uncle Matin, whose riot shield charge attack can sap a hoodlum’s life bar with one blow. Then again, neither Maria nor Uncle Matin can pick up weapons dropped by enemies, so it’s advisable to always have Billy or Jimmy as a second character if you choose one of the other two.
Billy and Jimmy are the more rounded fighters, though the range of their attacks is noticeably short, requiring you to get in close before unleashing punches and kicks. Billy also takes a glaringly long time to swing a pipe or club – so long that an enemy is likely to have either retaliated or simply walked away by the time the swing’s happened.
Once you’re used to the characters’ foibles, though, there’s a pleasing flow to the action, especially when you learn to take out three or four enemies with a single combo, which rewards you with showers of cash (which can be spent on upgrades) and health-regenerating hotdogs or Thanksgiving turkeys.
Double Dragon Gaiden’s more cartoonlike apocalypse has allowed Secret Base to really stretch out with its environment designs and enemies, with each of the game’s five areas taking on its own theme. My favourite is a scrapyard gang whose obsession with Ancient Egypt has led them to wrap their heads in bandages and fashion a gigantic pyramid out of junk.
Unfortunately, not all of the game’s enemies are quite so smile-inducing. The bipedal, human-shaped goons you’d expect from a brawler are eventually joined by smaller, peskier threats that cause niggling damage and can be frustrating to hit. There are drones that hover a few inches above your head, like irksome wasps, yapping dogs, and scorpions that jab at your heels. With the best will in the world, I doubt many people buy Double Dragon games so they can kick a rat to death.
There are other irritations to be found in the level design. Levels can be tackled in any order, but they’re designed to grow in length and difficulty as you progress. Tackle the casino level first, and you’ll probably complete it in a couple of minutes; select it last, and you’ll find it’s many times longer, with more areas to fight through and stronger enemies to bludgeon.
It’s a good idea on paper, but some levels do begin to outstay their welcome, and a handful of area designs feel needlessly punitive. The otherwise charming Egypt-themed junkyard mentioned above, for example, adds a section in the middle where the way ahead is largely enshrouded in darkness, and where irksome scorpions can leap out of the shadows and get in a hit before you’ve even had a chance to spot them.
Nor does Double Dragon Gaiden fix some of the problems that have clung to the series since the late 1980s: a forced perspective that makes jumping over deadly pits something of a gamble; armed enemies that have the annoying ability to shoot at you when they aren’t even on the screen.
It says a great deal about the feel of Double Dragon Gaiden’s controls – and the satisfying crunch to tagging heroes in and out before unleashing a spine-shattering combo – that the positives still outweigh the negatives. With some superb character animation, catchy music, and far more variety than you’d typically expect from a brawler, Double Dragon Gaiden offers an adrenaline-pumping – if flawed – mix of classic arcade thrills and modern design ideas. It’s just a shame about those pesky rats.
As captivating as the sprite work and animation is, Double Dragon Gaiden’s real highlight is its detailed sound design. Brawls unfold in a cacophony of grunts, groans, shrieks, and tiny tinkles of glass that are as catchy and driving as the techno-inspired score. It’s such sweet, sweet music.
Despite some irksome flaws – go away, rats, scorpions and drones – Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons still packs a punch.