Double Dragon: Neon [Review]
Quality beat’em ups are really, really hard to find these days. Most of the ones that come out are all just ports of old arcade games. Many of them have broken bosses and lopsided combat that’s still built to devour quarters; and instead of fixing these faults the games are left as they are with infinite continues. If you hit the punch buttons enough times without falling asleep or shutting the game off, you will win. It’s impossible not to. I was afraid Double Dragon Neon was going to fall into this trap, and was practically wringing my hands right up until its release date. Now that I’ve experienced the pure joy of punching faces combined with actual challenge, I feel that the beat’em up is finally back. It’s been too long.
Before you get too excited about busting noggins, I want you to accept that yours will be busted in return. Come to terms with this fact. Once you can embrace the fact that this game can and will beat you down in return, then you will be ready to play it. This is DOUBLE DRAGON we’re playing right here. The enemies like to surround you, power through your attacks and hit you back, and throw you off cliffs and into hazards. You have three lives to start off any given level, and if you lose them all, it’s back to the beginning of that level. If these are things you can’t handle, then don’t even buy it. If you aren’t willing to man up for this game, it’s not going to hold your hand and help you get to the ending. You earn your progress in this game.
That being said, it’s still not that hard of a game to get through thanks to the cool tricks the developers threw in to help you. First, there is a money system in the game that lets you hit up shops for lives and health. There are also cassettes at those shops, and this is where things get interesting. Enemies and shops offer you cassettes as drops or purchases, and you can equip them to get new powers and buffs. For most of the start of the game I used one that let me heal five health for every hit I landed, and it helped a lot to get me through the rocky start I had relearning how to avoid damage in a beat’em up.
There are ten buff cassettes and ten magic ones, which doesn’t sound like much when you start up. I got several duplicates in the first level, and was just starting to feel disappointment when I found out that collecting more than one of a single cassette increased its power. After that, every level was an opportunity to get more permanent power-ups, since every one you pick up just makes you stronger. You can only carry ten of each cassette at first, but with other items you can drive that number up to fifty. You also save all your cassettes to one account, so even if you just screw around the first few levels you’ll be getting more and more powerful. It’s a fantastic system that encourages replay, and I was more than happy to oblige it.
I kind of thought picking which cassette buff I wanted was going to alter the level music, something I would never want to do. Much like Simon Viklund‘s music in Final Fight: Double Impact and Bionic Commando: ReArmed, Jake Kaufman has managed to take many original Double Dragon tracks and make them his own. I find a lot of the remixed tracks have a SNES vibe to them, with sounds straight out of Turtles in Time and Super Double Dragon taking me back to the heyday of the beat’em up. The new tracks are catchy, upbeat, and just have you tapping your controller whenever you’re not attacking the enemies.
Those aren’t even the best songs, either. There are a lot of tracks that were made up for the game that are just meant to evoke an 80’s feel, and the game does an amazing job of them. It’s filled with nods to Madonna and Devo; somehow mixing ‘Whip it’ with one of the original Double Dragon‘s level themes. After playing it for a few minutes I went out and bought the soundtrack off Jake Kaufman’s bandcamp site, and have been playing it in my car every time I drive. In-game these songs provide a ridiculous soundtrack that mixes nostalgia with a pumping beat that gets you right into the action. Outside of the game, they’re just really good songs that are aping the style of the 80’s. They are absolutely incredible, deserving to be mangled at your local karaoke night just like any other classic 80’s song.
None of that would matter if the game was boring, but it is anything but. In most beat’em up ports you have a punch, maybe a kick, and probably some special move. Even in its inception, Double Dragon deviated from that by giving you lots of moves you could earn by getting points (Double Dragon for the NES had an experience system before Final Fantasy even existed. Is your mind blown?). Double Dragon Neon gives you all of them from the start, letting you pick up on them and learn them as you go.
You’ve got a pretty decent basic set of moves, too. Beyond punches and kicks, you have a handy throw that you can use on mid-air enemies. You will also throw anyone you’ve grabbed into the opposite direction from where you caught them, so you’ll always toss your newly-beaten enemy toward the new crew that’s sneaking up on you. You can also do a handy sweeping kick that hits things on both sides of you and buy yourself a precious second to jump out of a tight situation. Sadly, the classic hair-pull-kick didn’t make it into the game, something that actually bothered me a whole lot. It’s not really Double Dragon until you’ve grabbed someone by the hair, kneed them in the face just enough times not to knock them over, and then threw them off a cliff.
On another note, big points here for not forcing me into a tutorial to learn those moves. They’re in a menu if you want to learn them; but if you want to pick up stuff on your own, that’s your decision. I can’t even describe how happy I was that no one felt I needed to be told how to punch or jump.
Anyway, if you’re cackling and thinking about how you’re going to break this game in half with the flying knee like you did in Double Dragon II: The Revenge, you’re going to have to settle for a calmer move set. You do have a decent variety of cool moves you can do in this game, but most of them are tied to a magic meter. You can do the tornado kick, but you’re not going to be doing it over and over again while waiting for the enemies to walk into it like morons. Barring what buffs you have in place, you can only do your special attacks a handful of times before having to wait for them to recharge.
It makes sense given that these are a lot of the best moves in the game, but since they were unreliable when I needed them most, I learned how to make the most of my basic moves instead. Especially important is the dodge, which has the nice bonus of doubling your damage if you time it well. Given that Double Dragon Neon‘s idea of dodging well is just not getting hit, it means you can get a quick bonus to your damage many times once you learn an enemy’s moves. Most of the game’s enemies are actually pretty slow for a beat’em up, so you can learn the timing on dodging their attacks without much trouble. This means that enemies in any given area might whittle you down at first, but you’ll be dodging them like a pro and tearing through them a few minutes later.
All of this means that you have lots of options in combat. If you’re the kind of person who eschews magic in favor of just staying on the move and using basic attacks, you can do that. If you’re sneaky and like to counter the enemy, you can easily use that system. If you like using high-damage magic every few minutes, the self-charging magical attacks will let you do that too. The game just gives players a bunch of options to make the game their own and play it how they like; something that you don’t see often in linear action games. I love that I can change my tactics on the fly, and adore the fact that I’m not just hitting square for a few hours until the game’s done. That variety goes a long way to keeping the game fresh and fun.
I do have one complaint about the game. I am aware that it’s all being played up to be tongue-in-cheek (the last boss goes into a sing-a-long about how you beat the tar out of him during the ending credits), but I got a little tired of seeing all of the women looking like they were from the sex trade. There was only one woman in the game wearing more than a few swatches of cloth, and it kind of made me uncomfortable after a while. There was just something about being a tough guy beating up on half-nude women that put me off. I know the women were strong, capable fighters, but they were being portrayed in a very sexual, vulnerable way. It was an oddly uncomfortable act in a game that seemed to want to be lighthearted and fun. It might not bother many people, but it was still a stumbling point for the game to me.
That’s the closest thing I can think of to a complaint about the game. If you’ve ever played a beat’em up and loved it, then this game is for you. With its 80’s theme, fantastic soundtrack, and commitment to quality combat, it’s a great time that you and your co-op friends shouldn’t miss. It’s easily the best game of its kind to come out in years, and it just feels like a breath of fresh air for a genre that’s been glutted with arcade ports. If you want to lay digital beat downs, this is your game.