Retro Rated: Double Dragon

Factfile
Developed by:Technos Japan
Released:1987
Format played:Arcade

Ruminations

Whilst games can remain in your consciousness for any number of reasons, there are some games that resonate on a fundamental level by their very title alone.

Double Dragon.

It’s a cool name, right? And it immediately sends me back to my 10 or 11 year old self, firmly ensconsed in the grotty seaside arcade of my youth. These glory days of gaming threw up a slew of digitised fist fights – Dragon Ninja, Final Fight, Golden Axe – and would go on to influence many a side scrolling brawler. Although Double Dragon itself was a none too subtle riff on Technos’ earlier beat em up, Renegade, which introduced many of the genre staples that would be refined here.

Double Dragon.

To be honest, the name starts to lose some of its lustre when I realise that it shares its name with a Chinese takeaway in Hastings. But the sheen would be definitively buffed off as soon as I started playing the thing. Strap yourselves in, this won’t be pretty.

Gameplay

As we get underway, a group of scurvy looking low lives come a knocking and make off with your girl, precipitating a journey through enemy territory to take down the gang and rescue the damsel in distress. Playing solo as Billy, or two player with his brother Jimmy, you must fight your way left to right through four stages of goons, ending with a climactic battle with the gang’s head honcho.

Luckily for our Maid Marian, Billy (and Jimmy) are tough as nails, stocked with a fridge full of hurt and a sure fire delivery service. You can move across the screen in any direction, with the occasional ladder or wall to climb giving you either a quick breather or the chance to get the drop on your rivals.

Your attacking moves are spread across three buttons, mapped for punch, kick and jump. These moves can be used in combination and are context sensitive too. A karate kick to a shuffling foe soon turns into repeated knee strikes to the face as he makes the mistake of wandering too close, whilst a looping right hand trades places with a swift headbutt. In two player mode, you can even team up, one of you grabbing an enemy and holding him in place whilst the other gives him what for.

But watch out! Because the gang members can do the same to you, which is where the first of many frustrations start to surface. To start with you feel like a badass, dishing out fists of justice and feet of steel to all and sundry. But as enemies start coming at you from both sides, one of them grabs you from behind whilst the other wails on you. Turnabout is fair play I suppose but as you start to rise groggily to your feet, another attack comes in before you have a chance to respond. Learning your lesson, you start to back away to regain your bearings but the supersized gargantuan who is stalking you appears to have the wingspan of a pterodactyl as he swats you from halfway across the screen. Soon you become a quivering mess as you lurch from one attack to the next before collapsing to the ground, your last breath escaping your broken body in a pathetic exhale of self recrimination.

This is the absolute worst of coin guzzling manipulators. It’s near impossible to get through the 4 levels without taking a shoeing, your lives trickling away like rain down a spider infested water spout. The arcade cabinet may as well have come with a nozzle attachment to plug into your trouser pocket so that it can suck those 10 pences from you directly. You will die repeatedly, chuck another 10p in the slot, then die some more.

And these goons are absolute fist sponges too. It takes a ridiculous amount of hits to disperse the most rudimentary of grunts and that’s before their juiced up buddies join the fray with their happy clap of doom. It is utterly relentless too, with nary a change of play style throughout, a soulless slog from start to finish. If you do somehow manage to get to the end, you’re greeted by a gun toting madman who can take you out with a single shot. Best line up those 10ps again. Although hilariously after I gave him a shin kicking and he shuffled off, stage left, his two goons who I hadn’t yet duffed up just wandered off and left me alone.

Some semblance of balance is restored by the very nature of it. This is a proper violent game. Not in the blood drenched, visceral, Mortal Kombat way, but rather in its utter thuggishness. From headbutts to repeated knees to the face, Billy is an equal opportunity arse kicker, as happy throwing fists with glammed up street walkers as he is shaven headed hoodlums. He’s partial to some furniture too, baseball bats, barrels and knives all fair game on these streets.

I wanted to enjoy it, I really did. This is a seminal game from my childhood and one of the most cherished of early gaming franchises. But it’s just really annoying. And that made me sad.

Conversion Capers

As was the way in late-80s gaming, Double Dragon was converted to most of the home systems. The arcade original wasn’t a complex game mechanically but it did chuck quite a few sprites around. Graphically it featured fairly small sprites, certainly in comparison to something like Final Fight, whilst level design was as straightforward as it gets. The music is pretty funky though, a catchy little ditty that accompanies the grunts and groans of broken bones.

In view of this, the home conversions all manage to translate the core experience relatively faithfully but quality is variable. On the 8-bit systems, The NES version is perhaps the standout. Graphically it isn’t much to look at and the music is annoying as hell. Characters move a little too quickly too, somewhat lessening the weight of attacks. But for all that, it plays well, the lack of system grunt actually serving to the game’s favour as it limits the number of sprites allowed on screen, making the game a little easier to play.

The Master System version is an absolute travesty. In a superficial sense the graphics are superior to the NES version with richer colours and larger sprites. But look a little closer and they are a garish, blocky, migraine inducing mess. But frankly that’s the high point. Oh sure, things look okay when you first start moving and chucking around some moves. But all of a sudden, Billy turns into Casper the ghost, collision detection apparently taking a nap out back as sprites seem to walk straight through each other. Awful.

Not that the Spectrum version can boast anything better. Never a system blessed with graphical prowess, it is the colour blended mess you would expect. If you are determined to feed your Spectrum flavoured side scrolling brawler fix, Target: Renegade is a far more attractive option.

Finally a quick word on the Megadrive conversion. As you would expect, with its 16-bit power it looks the part and indeed is a far more accurate conversion than its 8-bit counterparts. but I couldn’t get over Billy’s weird kicking technique, his foot coming up so high that I wasn’t sure if he was attempting a roundhouse kick or auditioning his Paso Doble for Strictly.

Bottom Line

One of the standout franchises of gaming history that likely holds a fond place in many a gamer’s heart, sadly time has not been kind to this one dimensional brawler. Limited, repetitive and at times just downright unfair, it is a challenge to complete but often for all the wrong reasons.

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