Double Dragon Neon
Double Dragon is a name synonymous with crowded arcades, feverish high-score runs and many moments of cabinet-destroying frustration. It’s been kicking our arses since 1987 and after numerous sequels, a brief snooze and a snazzy HD remake in 2007, it’s back once again to unleash its fury upon the human race.
Despite being nought but a wiggly sperm when the original game was released I’ve managed to play it on a number of home consoles (thanks to a couple of retro-obsessed mates) and in its original cabinet form (thanks to a retro shop in town), as well as having bought it on XBLA. After sampling the classic in its various forms I’ve come to a few conclusions; it’s funny, stylish and relentlessly fucking hard. Double Dragon Neon seems to be an attempt to bring the style and graphics kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but how much has the game really changed?
Back in my day…
If you’ve ever played Double Dragon before you’ll know the story. Hard-nut brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee fight across town to rescue their joint love interest Marion, the typical busty blonde. The big question is… what will the boys do to said blonde when they get her, considering they both fancy her and have both fought just as hard? Not really. The big question is whether there’s been any evolution of the story over the last 35 years. Well, yes and no.
While the basic premise remains the same, the settings and characters have taken a turn for the wacky. Some bellend called Skullmageddon is the one that’s stolen Marian this time. Making like Skeletor’s camper, more fashion conscious cousin, he also has designs on blowing up the world. Or something. I can’t say I expected much in the way of plot from a Double Dragon game, but in this day and age having no idea why anything is happening and ‘I have to save Marion’ being the one explanation isn’t really good enough. Especially when some of the locations are off the scale.
Starting in the traditional streets and alleys, Neon soon catapults you to Skullmageddon’s orbiting space ship, which you then crash-land in some countryside somewhere. Next thing you know you’re getting ruined by showers of arrows (?!) and have to fight a helicopter that can fly UPSIDE-DOWN.
Run, punch, run, punch, run…
Double Dragon Neon seems to be stuck in a rut. Developers WayForward obviously had to evolve the controls and gameplay some to make their mark and distance the game from the HD remake, but deviating too far from the established template would have angered long-term fans. So instead of making a decision, they seem to have opted for an awkward mix of both.
Attacking is now split between fast punches and slow kicks, with grabbing and running also getting their own buttons. Special moves are executed with a bumper tap and most are dependent on certain positioning to work. Batter an enemy enough and they’ll sort of double over, giving you the chance to either throw them or deliver a crushing uppercut to knock them down.
A new duck feature allows you to, with good timing, artfully dodge attacks and execute rolling and sweeping moves that can turn the tide if used correctly. Grabbing and using weapons is satisfying and gives you a much-needed advantage if you can hang on to them. It’s fluid and animated beautifully, but is not without its problems.
You see, WayForward seem to have kept all the niggling issues that plagued the classic game. Not being able to move and attack is one of them, a staple back then but a frustrating obstacle now. Not being able to hit an enemy if you’re too close also makes an unwelcome return. All too often I’d be hammering the attack buttons only to hit fuck-all because the target is a millimetre too far away or just that little bit too close, and the distances are almost impossible to judge exactly.
The overwhelming handicaps don’t stop there either. It’s not enough to be outnumbered all the time; the game is intent on slighting you at every turn. One hit will cause you to drop whatever weapon you’re holding, but enemies can withstand entire combos and even attack during said combos before they part with their tools.
That resilience carries over to general fighting as well, with you becoming a useless sack of meat when combo’d by the enemy, while they can often effortlessly bust through yours to get the upper hand. While ducking is cool and can be effective, timing your ducks is nigh on impossible considering there’s no indication and enemies often attack with alarming speed. I found it to be more a matter of luck than skill.
In-game shops are apparently there to assist you, but even they seem to be laughing in your face. For a start they’re often hidden, which is great considering all the cash you find during play is useless if you can’t find the bloody shop. They allow you to buy health refills as well as extra lives, an item you’re going to need a lot of. Interestingly enough though, back-tracking to a level with a shop and stocking up on lives doesn’t work. The shop will take your money and give you lives, but as soon as you back out of the stage, the lives are removed. Your money remains in the sweaty hands of the shopkeep though! I’m guessing this is either a bug or a feature designed to prevent stocking-up and punish those who try, as if this game needed any more ways of making you angry.
The other kind of shop, usually easier to find, allows you to upgrade cassette tapes dropped by enemies, and this is where Neon tries its own little snip of originality. Tapes come in two kinds, Stance and Sosetsuken, and you can equip one of each at any one time to create your own Mixtape. Stance tapes affect your base stats and come in a variety of helpful genres, boosting anything from your defence to your magic abilities, to giving you little bonuses and special skills. Sosetsuken is just a fancy way of saying ‘Special Move’, and each tape will equip a different move to the bumper.
Apparently, using the right Mixtape for your play-style is key to the experience, but I found that as soon as you switch out the Training Wheels Stance (that boosts your health and defence) you die in about 4 hits, and most of the Sosetsuken moves are useless until you level them up. This is achieved by collecting multiple copies of the same tape, and the amount you can carry at once is upgraded at Tapesmith shops using mythril. Yeah, that stuff Frodo’s armour is made out of and that features in every Tolkeinesque fantasy game/book/film since the dawn of creation.
You get it from bosses, and it’s so rare that by the end of the game you’ll be lucky if you’ve upgraded one or two tapes. The fact they’re randomised drops means you’re unlikely to get a whole lot of one kind anyway, basically meaning you have to replay old levels over and over to level up your tapes. It’s tedious and a bit pathetic. Far from the super-mega-revolution the game professes Mixtapes to be, they are instead an RPG-lite addition that requires too much maintenance to use properly.
I’m guessing Double Dragon aficionados will be screaming: ‘Well that’s how it’s supposed to be!’ in response to my criticisms of the controls and mechanics, but the fact is this is supposed to be Double Dragon for the 21st century. It’s supposed to bring the series bang up to date and pitch it to a new generation of gamers. In reality it tries to innovate but has one foot stuck annoyingly in the past, preventing it from ever truly taking the step it needs to.
It’s managed to retain the simple, satisfying fisticuffs and the wacky, unique style, but for whatever reason has failed to iron out the issues that were likely down to technology and design restrictions of the era. All they needed to do was to take on board a few modern concepts: moving and attacking simultaneously, icon-assisted dodging, and balanced difficulty, and Neon would’ve been a stellar experience.
Attempting to keep the over-the-top stylings of the original game while evolving the graphics and technology was never going to be an easy task, but it seems WayForward have just about managed it. The impossibly muscular baddies and wacky costumes feel totally at home beside the relentless arcade violence. The 2.5D locations are lushly rendered in glorious technicolour and move dynamically in a way that’s both modern and retro. There’s a lick of the ridiculous that permeates all the design, which fits well with the source material. It does, however, occasionally rely too much on a knowledge (and a love) of all things 80′s, which may puzzle some younger players.
Although the style is excellent, the variety isn’t so good. While the locations are varied, each one is really just another scrolling backdrop to the repetitive carnage. Most of the detail is lost on you as you feverishly attempt to stay alive through the grinding onslaught, and all too often I reached the end of a level unable to recall anything unique about it beyond ‘there were some bricks and neon signs’ or whatever.
Rockin’ like it’s the 80′s
The soundtrack isn’t so much posted in the 80′s as living in a 6-bedroomed house with a 40-hour a week job there. Without a shred of irony, every level is accompanied by a repeating tune from one of the purveying genres of the era: electro, synth-pop, heavy metal and hard rock. It’s all original music, which removes any possible nostalgia novelty and instead relies on the fact that you love 80′s music. I personally hate it so had to turn off the music for most of the game and put on my own tunes instead.
I understand that every game has its style and it’s music to fit that style, but the 2-3 minute songs on constant loop only take a few repeats to grate. It’s like the composer purposefully wrote the songs to be annoying when played over and over… and then made it so they played over and over.
The tapes you use to make your Mixtapes hold short, 10-second bursts of music that seem necessary and pointless at the same time. To have them not play anything would defeat the object of them being tapes but I can’t imagine why you’d sit there and listen to the chorus of a particularly banal pop-punk song for any more than… ten seconds. Well, I can’t fault them there, but I think you get my point.
The general gameplay sounds are where it’s at, and they don’t come better than this. Classic thumps and whacks abound as you hammer through each level, and every punch feels satisfying. Enemy battle-cries are repeated ad-infinitum and can become annoying, but this is another trope of the classic genre that WayForward decided to keep in. Whether it bothers you or not is up to you.
Keeping it old-skool, WayForward have opted to include traditional sofa co-op in the initial release, with online functionality being added in a patch at an unspecified time. Hopefully we won’t be waiting as long as we did for the Scott Pilgrim patch, and with any luck we won’t have to pay for it either. In the mean time, if you have a friend who also likes torturing his or herself with relentless arcade misery you can get them round and party like it’s ’87.
Playing in this way makes the game exponentially better. The rock hard bosses of before become a little less solid, and getting your arse kicked is generally more fun with a mate. Using the Right Stick you can both initiate useful manoeuvres to help each other out, although not all of them make sense. A mid-air high-five divides your collective pool of health out in equal measure, so if one of you is beat the other can be nice and sacrifice some of his health.
The second move makes no sense and appears to do nothing; another high-five activates Gleam, apparently some sort of power-up mode that makes little difference in practice. If one of you is feeling mean you can use ‘Too Slow’ to deny your partner the pleasure of a move. This seems generally pointless as you’ll both be in the same room and will likely be co-ordinating these moves vocally, but it’s nice to see they’ve planned for playing online with a stranger.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from a slick remake of an arcade classic, but it certainly wasn’t this. Packed so full with 80′s references you half expect Bananarama to fly out of a burst seam, younger players will likely be baffled and put-off by Neon’s stylings, music and tone. The difficulty is, I suppose, a matter of perspective, but there’s no excuse for psychic enemies, impossibly powerful bosses and a heavy reliance on co-op, especially when online support is dubiously omitted at launch. While the simplistic controls of the original have been needfully updated, WayForward have managed to overcomplicate rather than innovate, making me somehow yearn for the basics of old.
Masochists will probably enjoy this alone, mercilessly grinding through each vibrant level getting just a little further each time. Maybe that’s the point; I don’t remember the original being exactly easy. If you have a mate handy most of the time Neon could be good for a long night in, with a crate of beer and serious dedication, but the fact is many of us can’t be arsed with it these days. We want to enjoy our experiences with our friends without getting frustrated or downcast, and Double Dragon Neon is just too damn tricky.
With no online support as of yet, it’s pricey for the occasional bash with your mates. If you’re a die-hard with cash to burn, you may find enjoyment here. Everyone else, do your gall bladders a favour and leave it.