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Double Dragon Neon Review: A Fistful of Nostalgia
The modern movie-goer has been plagued with remakes for decades, but especially inundated in the last 10-15 years. Gamers, meanwhile, have only just begun experiencing this phenomenon; despite the insane amount of technical progress and evolution seen in games, we forget it’s still an extremely young industry. As evidenced by successes on Kickstarter and a growing indie game movement, nostalgia can be a hell of a drug as many games seek to capture the fond youth of the 20-something and 30-something gamers that grew up with arcade games and their early home console ports.
Beat ‘Em Ups were a dime a dozen back in the arcade days and many found a welcoming home as some of the most popular cooperative games to play on home consoles. Cooperative classics like Golden Axe and Gauntlet have received updated treatments of varying success or failure, and 2012 saw the release of Double Dragon Neon: a graphical and gameplay remake of the adventures of the bro-tastic karate duo Billy and Jimmy Lee on a mission to rescue their gut-punched girlfriend from the clutches of lonely Samurai-lich warrior thing Skullmageddon.
If you’re not already sold, know that Neon takes the basic fairly-serious source material, realizes it’s 80s camp, and and proceeds to pummel it until it’s a gleaming mass of punny one-liners, saccharine rock ballads, and hilarious new boss battles. The graphical update renders the former 8-bit world and characters in giant 3D models with lovely animations of punching, kicking, jump-kicking, and sliding.
More importantly are subtle and not-so-subtle gameplay enhancements that help add additional layers to the simple formula. The ability to run and dodge helps the bros cover more ground and makes the fighting feel more fluid and similar to a modern fighting game rather than a simple brawler. Dodging actually has its own built-in rewards system, called “Gleaming,” that gives you double the damage if you can dodge an attack with the right timing. The timing of each enemy is different (the simple guys give a funny, very audible “One, Two!” punch while later foes yell out a quicker “One, and a half!”) and it becomes very tricky to attempt to dodge a room full of foes, but very rewarding if you can master it.
Like every brawler, Double Dragon Neon becomes infinitely more enjoyable when you experience it cooperatively, and it’s easy to see that’s how the developers at WayForward felt as well. The ability to revive your brother instead of taking away a life can make two players breeze through the game where one would struggle, and the High Five mechanics are only present with two players, allowing them to share health or boost each others damage. Neon includes both local and online co-op, but without a browser system for finding open matches you’re relegated to playing with friends.
Power-ups come in the form of collectible mixtapes found on foes and upgraded at the tapesmith (naturally) acting as both passive skill modifiers and active special attacks. Passives are categorized by stat focuses – Defense, Magic, Balanced, etc, or include special passive abilities – my personal favorite being Absorb that allows you to gain life for every hit. Special Attacks can also be equipped and changed on the fly, ranging from the screen clearing (and magic draining) Dragon Swarm to the smaller Lightning or Fireball attacks.
It’s fun to incorporate different playstyles, and collecting additional mixtapes allows you to level them up into incrementally more powerful versions. Thankfully you can switch both loadouts on the fly; even after I settled on my favorites I often switched around my skills depending on the current situation, especially utilizing the passive Desperation that gives you a big damage boost if you’re below 50% health.
Collecting additional mixtapes from random drops gives an actual incentive to replay levels to gather more songs and grow stronger – which is great because while the game is a lot of fun, it’s also still pretty short. Each individual level takes roughly 10-15 minutes to complete, but since dying and running out of lives takes you back to the beginning of a level it results in a fairly balanced risk/reward system that acts as a nice compromise between the crushing Game Overs of old. One minor annoyance is that the only merchants are hidden throughout about half the levels, requiring you to go back and play that level just to buy new lives or upgrade your songs. You can exit back to the map afterward instead of finishing it, but why these vendors weren’t simply accessible from the overland map is odd.
Speaking of which, the overland map is all kinds of greatness, showcasing the bros in their original 8-bit incarnation as you guide them along the linear lines that represent their destructive journey. The locations are suitably varied as you visit the familiar city streets and back alleys before venturing into the much more exotic countryside, secret laboratory, and even outer space.
While the new art style and impressive animations make the bro’s rescue mission look and play better than ever (and it damn well should, it’s been 25 years), the real success comes from the hilarious writing and amazing soundtrack. Much of the comedy comes from little jokes and scenes, like the bros walking on an outside spacewalk and holding their breath throughout the level, or spouting appropriately dorky 80s one-liners that make them sound like Ninja Turtles such as “stabular” “fan-tastic” (when wielding a fan) or when captured and put in a secret science lab – “More like Science un-fair!” The level in question is called “Some kind of lab” after the bros wake up and ask, “is this some kind of lab?”
Jokes like these will go a long way toward whether or not you roll your eyes and shake your head, or laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. I was firmly in the latter, and really appreciated the fun tone the developers took with the entire game.
Skullmageddon is the Best
Special mention should be made to the absolutely hilarious villain that is Skullmageddon. When you first battle him on his dojo-turned-spaceship he plays out like a standard boss battle but taunts you endlessly with bone and skeleton related puns, not to mention just plain whining. His style is half Skeletor, half The Monarch and all awesome as he whines to his minions, berates the bros and constantly breaks the fourth wall, like complaining that his Expensive Experimental Giant Tank has a glowing weak spot. Super funny Easter Eggs can be found by pausing the game during Skullmageddon’s fight, and he even sings his own amazing Portal-esque end credits song. Skullmageddon, you may be one of my all time favorite villains.
The soundtrack sells the entire game like nothing else – it’s 80stastic in all the right ways. Not only is each level’s background song head-bobbingly addictive but each mixtape you collect is literally its own song that plays when you hover over it, causing me to spend way too much time in my inventory screen than I ever thought possible in a Beat ‘Em Up. Oh, and you can download the whole soundtrack for free. Do it now and thank me later.
Unfortunately the action wasn’t quite as tight as I’d hoped; the actual controls weren’t quite responsive enough to be immediately intuitive, causing me to learn the floaty rhythm of dodging, rolling, jumping, and spin-kicking. Too often the appropriate response to every battle was to simply mash your two attack buttons in the hopes of escaping a clustered jam, and many of the levels’ environmental traps, like an airlock that sucked everything into space (doing a large amount of damage) or knives that fly at your from one end of the screen ended up replicating the punishingly difficult original games in all the wrong ways.
In later levels the traps are combined to induce the greatest amount of rage and frustration, and I found the overall difficulty on Normal mode reached frustrating heights in the later levels that detracted from the sheer goofy fun I was enjoying. When enemies have more life and no new attacks it adds to the tedium instead of the challenge.
Unsurprisingly the keyboard controls are absolutely abysmal. I love my mouse and keyboard for most gaming but arcade-style games – fighters, brawlers, etc are nearly unplayable when trying to tap Z, X, and spacebar compared to a trusty controller. If you don’t have a USB-friendly controller, you’re going to have a bad time.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.