2012 marks a significant milestone for many of gaming’s greatest franchises, and that happens to include Double Dragon. To help commemorate its 25th birthday, WayForward Technologies and Majesco put out Double Dragon Neon, a title that is as much a celebration of the 1980s as it is for gaming’s most popular beat ‘em up. Neon has pastels and ‘tude in spades, but whether the gameplay does the series any justice…well, that’s another thing entirely.
Double Dragon Neon makes a great first impression, with a slick title screen and menus, complete with a remixed version of the original Double Dragon theme and Billy sprite navigating the level selection map. The nostalgia comes hard and fast if you’ve played the older games in the series, but even if you haven’t it’s hard to miss many of the retro references throughout.
Once you make it into a level, you’ll immediately notice the series’ first use of 3D character models, and the result is positive. None of the characters lose their charm in their jump from 2D and they animate quite well. There are only a handful of enemies that are palette-swapped as per beat ‘em up tradition, but the swaps also include costume changes that help the game feel less repetitive. Level backgrounds and environments are also lush and vibrant, befitting of the game’s title.
Double Dragon Neon is the most complex game in the series. The deeper mechanics are appreciated and deserve to be explained — previous Double Dragon games used just a couple of buttons, but Neon introduces ducking, rolling, and assigns punching and kicking to separate buttons. Ducking an attack with good timing even doubles your attack power.
It’s also possible to augment your attributes and special moves by collecting mixtapes, two of which you can assign at any time. These are dropped randomly by enemies throughout the game; the more you collect, the more powerful these attributes and moves become. Leveling and selecting the right mixtapes to suit your play style is important to succeeding in later levels.
Despite the large amount of mixtapes available, however, only a few of them are practical to use. Once I’d settled on “Absorb to regain HP with every strike” and “Spin Kick” as my special move of choice, there was no reason for me to bother with anything else. This also meant grinding through levels repeatedly, hoping enemies would drop the mixtapes I needed to level the abilities I was using.
Also frustrating is the total lack of checkpoints in any level. You start every level with three lives, and losing them all — quite possible early on while you’re at your weakest — means being sent all the way back to the beginning. If a level boss is the one that does you in, that means slogging through a level again for 15 minutes, which is bananas. One could argue for the lack of checkpoints from an arcade purist’s standpoint, but arcade machines only did that to siphon more money from unsuspecting kids and their parents. When the game is released for download on home consoles in the year 2012, it becomes a downright unacceptable waste of a person’s time.
The combat itself grows a bit stale as well, devolving into mindless button mashing in overwhelming instances despite the deeper moveset. It’s also very difficult to time your dodge on tougher enemies and bosses, and sometimes a successful dodge doesn’t even increase your attack power as it’s supposed to. There’s an inexplicable amount of clumsily-handled platforming, and for all of the slick animations, fighting still feels sluggish and well below the pace of previous Double Dragon games. Rounding out the complaints is a confusing lack of online co-op at launch, although Majesco says that the functionality will be patched in post-launch.
Outside of these flaws, though, Double Dragon Neon can be a treat to experience. It’s a blast of 80s references, including a boss who is a thinly-veiled replica of Skeletor, while Billy and Jimmy are pretty much just Bill and Ted. The script and voice acting are intentionally bad but provide genuine laughs, and rounding out Neon’s stellar soundtrack is one of the funniest credits songs in all of gaming. It’s not enough to forgive the game’s missteps, but it helps to numb the bitterness a bit.
Like a 1988 Lamborghini Countach, Double Dragon Neon is flashy. Also like an ’88 Countach, it fights you at every turn and can be an exhausting pain in the ass to drive. In the end, Double Dragon Neon is a game trapped in time, bringing all of the best and worst of an era long past with it.