Released: 12 September 2012
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Also Available For: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Double Dragon (Technōs Japan, 1987) was a pioneer of the sidescrolling beat-‘em-up genre; an incredibly popular arcade title upon release, the game was equally popular when it was ported to home consoles, with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) version being particularly noted for both its difficulty and addictiveness. While a number of sequels followed throughout the nineties, the series pretty much died out for some time and was mainly represented by ports and remakes. Developers WayForward Technologies revived the franchise in 2012 for this part-sequel, part-remake, part-parody that replaced traditional 2D sprites with a 2.5D, cel-shaded style and a heavy eighties-inspired soundtrack and aesthetic. I first played the game on the PlayStation 3 and remember enjoying it well enough, despite a troublesome difficulty curve, so I was excited to try the Xbox 360 version out on the Xbox One when I recently got the chance.
Under the direction of the cosmic sorcerer lich Skullmageddon, the Shadow Warriors gang kidnap Marian once again and, true to form, the martial arts brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee must journey across, and beyond, the world in order to rescue her!
Double Dragon Neon is a 2.5D sidescrolling beat-‘em-up with light platforming elements in which players assume control of either Billy or Jimmy; while both characters look and control exactly the same (except for a palette swap), players cannot select which of the Lees to control (player one is Billy and player two is Jimmy and that’s all there is to it). Still, whereas the Lee brothers were a bit clunky and awkward to control in the original videogame, they have a lot more versatility this time around; players can tap X for a quick combo, Y for a stronger attack (and mix and match for more diverse combos), jump with A, and press B to grab enemies when they’re stunned or to pick up and throw weapons and objects.
Unfortunately, control is still quite sluggish in a lot of ways; walking speed is painfully slow and players have to hold RT to sprint ahead but there’s quite a delay between pressing RT and your avatar actually breaking into a run. Luckily, you can duck with LT and, with a well-timed press of this trigger, you’ll successfully pull off a “Gleam” dodge and briefly increase your attack power. You’ll notice under your health bar another bar, represented by lightning, that slowly refills over time; pressing RB will allow you to pull off a “Sosetsitsu” special moves at the cost of draining this bar. These are equipped by finding and purchasing cassette tapes and equipping them in the sub menu and there are many different special moves available, from a fireball to a whirlwind kick and a screen-clearing dragon attack, all of which can be upgraded and cost more of your Sosetsitsu energy to perform.
Double Dragon Neon sees you exploring stage stages (referred to as “Missions”) and battling a variety of enemies, from thugs to sorcerers and robots. When you start the game, you get two lives but can acquire more if you destroy objects (barrels, vases, crates and the like) found in the stages. If you lose all your lives, you can continue but, while you have infinite continues, you’ll have to restart the mission right from the beginning. Thankfully you can, occasionally, find cans and bottles of fizzy drink (“Crystal Dragon Kick”) to partially or fully replenish your health. As you defeat enemies and smash objects, you can also pick up cash, which can be spent in a handful of shops to purchase health, extra lives, and cassette upgrades.
While the majority of the gameplay involves running right and beating up endless waves and different palette swaps of enemies, you’ll also have to deal with a number of stage hazards; the classic Double Dragon pit and conveyor belts make a return, which allow you to toss or lure enemies to their death, but you’ll also have to contend with falling platforms, arrows and missiles raining from the sky, and even avoid being sucked out of an airlock! Unfortunately, the clunky nature of the game’s controls, movement speed, and the very noticeably button lag can make this annoyingly difficult, especially in the graveyard stage which is littered with rolling spiked logs! You also need to be wary when breaking open containers as some, especially those in Skullmageddon’s palace, contain grenades that will explode in your face if you’re not careful! Double Dragon Neon also includes the standard “moving elevator” stage but greatly expands upon the difficulty of this trope by placing you precariously on a platform as it flies down an icy slope and bombarding you with a near-endless slew of enemies!
Graphics and Sound:
“Neon” is a pretty apt descriptor for this game as Double Dragon Neon is a neon-drenched, cel-shaded spectacle to be sure! The game features large, brightly colourful graphics and models that are full of character and an absolutely bonkers aesthetic that is heavily inspired by some of the most popular eighties movies and cartoons. Die hard fans of the original Double Dragon may, actually, be a little put off by this as, while the game features an extremely faithful recreation of that game’s first stage, it quickly ends up blasting off into outer space and dropping you into hidden genetics laboratories.
To be fair, though, my experience with the original game/s is quite limited and vague so maybe this was a thing in the first game but Double Dragon Neon sees you battling on the streets, into a futuristic dojo that doubles as a space ship (complete with Death Star-like throne room), butting heads with a particularly annoying helicopter and tank in the countryside of what appears to be feudal Japan, traversing a haunted graveyard, and working your way through Skullmageddon’s elaborate fortress before battling him in another dimension entirely! A lot of the environments are quite dark and dreary at times, which allows the character models and more garish aspects of the game to pop more, while others are brighter and more visually pleasing, but all of them are fairly elaborate and have a lot of depth to them. If you explore within the limited confines of the screen, you may also find a few hidden areas, shops, or Tapesmiths to improve your odds against the game’s increasingly tough difficulty spike.
While the graphics are attractive and help to make up for the occasionally clunky gameplay and lag, Double Dragon Neon’s soundtrack is one of the most appealing aspects of the game. Embracing its eighties aesthetic, the game features pop and rock music heavily inspired by bands of the time as well as rockin’ remixes of classic Double Dragon tunes to give it a real energetic beat and a catchy ambiance that you can’t help but hum along to as you wade through countless Williamses. Double Dragon Neon also features some limited voice acting, mainly clips and quips from the Lees (who speak in a “surfer dude” style that was popular in cartoons at the time) or their enemies, but it is Skullmageddon who really takes the cake! An elaborate pastiche of the likes of Skeletor, Mumm-Ra, and Shao Kahn, Skullmageddon is an over-the-top, flamboyant, Saturday morning cartoon of a villain who takes the game into absolutely ludicrous territory but he’s cheesy in the greatest way possible and I absolutely loved it!
Enemies and Bosses:
Double Dragon Neon has a decent amount of enemy variety going on; while, for the most part, you can expect to battle palette swaps and reskins of most of the enemies you’ll encounter in the first Mission, enemy models are large and colourful and have some personality to them thanks to their tendency to shout insults your way. Generally, you’ll come up against denim-clad street thugs but you’ll also encounter some more prominent, named enemies, such as the cartwheeling Williams, whip-wielding Linda, and a couple of robotic foes called “Hoverbizzles”. Of course, one of the more physically imposing enemies is the muscle-bound Abobo; these massive freaks of nature often come crashing through walls and can deal heavy damage with a few meaty swings or grapple moves and can take quite a bit of punishment before they’ll be stunned enough to knock over.
Just when you’ll feel like you’ve gotten the hang of these guys, you’ll encounter palette swapped variants, multiple Abobos at once, and then reskinned versions, Bimmy and Jammy, who are failed attempts at cloning the iconic Lee twins. You’ll find that enemies such as these act as mini bosses, of sorts, since the game is actually quite light on actual boss encounters. Other troublesome foes include the likes of Shun, the incredibly annoying Geishas, and Bao Boshi, who all have a frustrating tendency to teleport around the screen (usually either right in your path or irritatingly out of reach) and toss projectiles at you while other enemies attack you from behind or clobber you with weapons. One of the more annoying things about the game’s enemies is how they often continue to launch their attack animations even after they’ve been hit, meaning you can easily get hurt even though the enemy should be stunned but, thankfully, stage hazards will damage them just as much as they do you so it’s recommended that you use everything at your disposal to take them out.
As mentioned, Double Dragon Neon is surprisingly light on bosses but you won’t really notice as Missions tend to end with either you facing a slew or gauntlet of enemies or battling guys like Abobo. When you hit Mission 5 and 6, however, you’ll have to contend with the “Killacopter”, an indestructible helicopter that constantly hovers just out of reach, fires missiles at you, spawns wave-upon-wave of enemies, and tries to skewer you with its blades. The Killacopter hounds you throughout Mission 5 and lends air support to the Giant Tank boss of Mission 6, which is easily one of the game’s more frustrating boss encounters. You are constantly bombarded with bombs, missiles, and explosions and have to painstakingly make your way up the tank, destroying its cannons, to toss explosive barrels into its one weak spot. Considering how tough Mission 6 is, this can be a really maddening experience and had me raging on more than one occasion.
Another boss you’ll battle is the Mecha Biker, who is a clear rip-off of Mega Man; the Biker blasts across the screen on his futuristic, Akira (Otomo, 1988) inspired bike trying to run you down or burn you with its flames, before resorting to his blaster and slide attack after you destroy his ride. He’s probably the easiest of the game’s bosses once you get him off his bike as it’s pretty simple to avoid his shots by either dodging them with your roll or standing right next to him at the edge of the screen, which lets you pummel away without fear of injury, but I especially enjoyed how his death animation was a clear homage to Mega Man’s explosive death. You’ll also fight a giant, genetically engineered, mutated plant, Marian II (a clear homage to Little Shop of Horrors’ (Oz, 1986) Audrey II); Marian II attacks either by spitting acid, bones, and other projectiles in a spray from its mouth or, primarily, by trying to stomp and bash you with its pod-like appendages. It’s best to concentrate on attacking one of these at a time as, after they’ve been damaged enough, they’ll burst open to reveal a ravenous shark head and a fire-breathing Tyrannosaurs rex! With these come new, more damaging and frustrating attack patterns as you’ll have to try and move your clunky ass out of the way of screen-covering flames or dash attacks. Though the fight is helped somewhat by Marian II’s rare tendency to drop health and other recovery items, you absolutely cannot rely on this so it’s best to concentrate on one pod at a time (I recommend the right pod, which is the shark head) unless you’re trying to earn the “Jawsome!!!” Achievement.
Naturally, your ultimate challenge comes in the form of Skullmageddon; you’ll battle this bony bastard three times, with each fight being similar but getting progressively harder each time. The first time you face him, he’s not too difficult as long as you have mastered the Gleam dodge and you avoid his teleport surprise attack as this deals massive damage. The second fight is largely the same but made more troublesome by the fact that he’s supported by an evil, brainwashed version of Marian who fires projectiles at you and causes stage hazards to keep you from attacking Skullmageddon. Skullmageddon’s attacks are much faster and more frequent this time around and he and Marian will power up an ultimate attack if you don’t deliver a good kick to Marian to disrupt her.
After freeing Marian from her brainwashing, she transports you through a portal for the final battle against Skullmageddon’s strongest form yet (and the most frustrating boss by far): Giga Skullmageddon! For this battle, you’re transformed into a “Rob-Bro” but, while this allows you to one-shot the handful of enemies in the area (including Abobo), it’s just a skin that really doesn’t help you in the fight against Giga Skullmageddon. This time around, Skullmageddon is relentless and can significantly drain your health, or kill you out-right, if he lands a blow from his massive sword when he’s teleporting around the screen unless you have the right cassettes equipped. Skullmageddon still stops to gloat at times and launches a slew of projectiles that you can dodge to get some good hits in but, after he’s absorbed enough damage, he’ll start raining fire down into the arena (which, occasionally, includes much-needed power-ups and extra lives), dashing around at lightning speed, protecting himself from damage, and dramatically increasing in speed and ferocity. You’ll need to swap between different Sosetsitsu tapes throughout the battle to help tip the odds in your favour but, even with that, this is, without a doubt, one of the toughest boss battles I’ve ever experienced and, to make things worse, if you lose you have to replay through all of Mission 10 right from the start to even attempt it again!
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As mentioned above, you can refill your health with Crystal Dragon Kick and also acquire extra lives, either by searching around, defeating enemies, or buying them from shops but you can also collect batteries to refill your Sosetsitsu faster. Many enemies will also carry weapons that you can pick up and use; these range from baseball bats to whips, knives, and hairpins but you can also grab boomerangs and fans for useful ranged attacks and explosive jars and grenades (but be careful with these last two as they can hurt you as well!) You can also tackle the game with another player and, by pressing in the right analogue stick, perform a high five for a temporary power boost.
As you explore, you’ll find cassette tapes that allow you to equip different special moves and “Stances”; each of these can be upgraded by a Tapesmith for some Mythril, which can only be acquired by beating bosses. Each special move deals more damage and takes away more Sosetsitsu energy as you upgrade it; I found I mostly relying on the Spin Kick or the Fire Ball but an upgraded version of the Dragon Swarm can be useful when fighting Giga Skulmageddon. The Stance tapes affect your stats and come with a few useful benefits, such as increasing your health, attack, or defence or allowing you to absorb some health or become more powerful with every blow you land. It helps to mix and match them depending on the situation but, for the most part, you can stick to a set layout…at least until the final boss, which will require you to have better health and defence.
Double Dragon Neon has thirty Achievements for you to earn. These are quite random and diverse and range from mundane stuff like grabbing two enemies at once or grabbing enemies in mid-air ten times to using every weapon, throwing hairpins at every enemy, and finishing every Mission with the Ro-Bro skin (which requires a code to unlock). Easily the most difficult Achievements involve beating the game on its higher difficulty settings or in two-player co-op with friendly fire enabled but there’s also one that requires you to hit a punching bag eighty-seven times to access a secret area filled with swarms of the game’s hardest enemies! As you clear each mission, the game map opens up so you can revisit previous stages, which is fine, but you’ll have to start a whole new game if you want to try a different difficulty setting. When fighting through some stages, you will come across keys that can be used in shrines to get extra cash, tapes, and power-ups but you may have to endure some particularly frustrating areas to reach these shrines. Similarly, gigantic Tapeworms will sometimes burst through walls and beating on them allows you to grab some extra goodies, a hidden area can be found right before fighting Giga Skullmageddon that can give you a slight (slight!) edge in the fight, and defeating him unlocks a concept art gallery, if you like that sort of thing.
Double Dragon Neon is a pretty decent upgrade of a classic beat-‘em-up title; with an amazing soundtrack, some impressive graphics, and decent gameplay mechanics, the game is a lot of fun as a throwback to the eighties and traditional sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups. Unfortunately, it also suffers from some annoying enemies, hazards, and has a very prominent difficulty spike that is only exacerbated by the noticeable input lag and sluggish controls. As great as the game looks and sounds, this can be a real turn off as it leads to some cheap deaths and hits and needless frustration rather an a fully polished experience; yet, as challenging as the game can be, it’s also a lot of fun and very satisfying to playthrough so I’d say it’s well worth your time and probably even better with a friend in tow.
Have you ever played Double Dragon Neon? If so, what did you think to it and how do you think it compares to other Double Dragon games and beat-‘em-ups? Were you a fan of the game’s neon-drenched, eighties-inspired aesthetic and soundtrack? How did you find the game’s difficulty and input lag? Did you enjoy the game’s many references to other Double Dragon games, franchises, and pop culture? Did you ever beat the game in two-player mode? Would you like to see another Double Dragon game released in either this style or a more traditional aesthetic? What’s your favourite beat-‘em-up franchise? Whatever your thoughts on Double Dragon Neon, or Double Dragon and beat-‘em-ups in general, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.