Review | 9/21/2012 at 2:28 PM

Double Dragon: Neon Co-Op Review

If only the real eighties had been this cool.

Like many children of the seventies and eighties, the original arcade Double Dragon was my first introduction to the beat-em-up genre. Its detailed graphics, brilliant soundtrack, interesting weapons, and cooperative multiplayer completely enthralled me. As players aged, some apparently outgrew the genre, taking little interest in modern day beat-em-ups. But not this dude - I still look forward to each and every brawler that comes along, even if they sometimes disappoint (Kung Fu Strike).

When Wayforward and Majesco announced Double Dragon: Neon, I was of course ecstatic. Neither a sequel nor a straight remake of the original game, Neon instead reimagines the Double Dragon franchise. Sure, so did the goofy old kids’ cartoon, the horrendous theatrical film, and the wacky Marvel comic, but those all lacked the charm and simplicity of the actual Double Dragon games.

Neon takes some pretty big liberties of its own by mixing in science fiction elements and characters, ample humor, and a neon-drenched eighties vibe that even the original 1987 game lacked. It’s dangerous, and I’ve seen more than a handful of gamers put off by the unique art style or the game’s failure to iterate on the stellar Double Dragon Advance. Yet this new Double Dragon manages to update the series’ brawling gameplay while instilling a healthy dose of nostalgia for the time period that birthed the franchise. It could have been stupid like those failed examples I mentioned earlier, but it works because it still reveres the games that came before.

The new story and setting start out much the same as the first game, with Marian taking a gut-punch and brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee emerging from a garage to rescue her. But in the middle of the second level, a rocket building suddenly shoots the Lees off into space, where they meet their new nemesis, Skullmageddon. Yeah, goofy name, but Mr. ‘Mageddon is supposed to be silly. He’s basically a parody of Skeletor, a true icon of eighties villainy if ever there was one. He also gets tons of hilarious lines, not to mention an epic song that rivals Portal’s ‘Still Alive’ in its silly brilliance.

The Lee brothers’ offworld journey ends with a delightful Mega Man parody before thrusting them back to Earth in a series of jungle levels based on the one from the NES version of Double Dragon II. If you thought the helicopter and tank in the 8-bit sequel were a tad silly, wait till you see what they can do now. Neon’s 10 levels pack a ton of brawling variety along with the occasional platforming challenges, always a hallmark of the NES games more so than the arcade titles. Some might decry the jumping bits but they certainly keep things fresher than many genre entries.

Neon’s combat retains some, but not all of the series’ signature moves. Light and heavy attacks can be mixed for satisfying combos. Sadly, the hair-pull kick and assorted grab moves have been replaced with a single grab and throw button. Throwing enemies is fun though, and performing a throw on two vulnerable enemies results in a stylish double head smash. Still, if Neon ever gets a sequel I hope it includes more than a shopkeeper’s passing reference to the grapple moves of old.

Right Trigger/R2 performs a dash, which slightly mitigates the series-appropriate slow-ish walking speed. The startup time on the dash reduces its usefulness, however. The Left Trigger/L2 performs either a crouch or roll, depending on whether you’re moving when you press it. Crouching functions as this game’s Arkham City-like evade maneuver. Do it just as an enemy attacks and you’ll ‘gleam,’ temporarily doubling your attack power and refilling your magic meter.

That meter fuels the use of Sosetsitsu magic, part of the game’s new tape system. These equippable tapes, dropped by enemies and sold in shops, grant either stat boosts or unique special moves. The famous Spin Kick is doubtless the most useful magic move, but ranged attacks like Lightning and Fireballs have their uses too. Not only are there 20 different tapes to collect (10 magic attacks and 10 stances), but each one can be leveled up by collecting more of that tape. Bosses drop Mythril which unlocks higher tape level caps at the Tapesmith. Oh, and all 20 tapes play short but awesome songs on the equipment screen.

So Neon adds crazy humor and an addictive unlocking system to the Double Dragon formula, but what of the co-op?  Why, it seriously brings the game to life. Billy and Jimmy get unique lines of dialogue in multiplayer, and I couldn’t help but laugh when one brother exclaimed, “Hurry up, butt weasel!” while waiting for his sibling to go through a door. Friendly fire can be toggled in the options screen - necessary for an Achievement or two. Speaking of which, both players earn Achievements during co-op games, and their progress gets saved independently. Check out this article for further Achievement anaylsis.

Either player can initiate one of three high five moves by pressing directions on the right analog stick. The other players just has to accept the invitation by tapping his or her stick, instantly giving both brothers a gleam, splitting life between them, or stealing the other’s life. It’s a great optional mechanic and I love seeing Billy and Jimmy fly across the screen for epic long distance high fives.

Players can also revive each other by rewinding the floating tape that appears over a fallen comrade before time runs out and he loses a life. Not only is it a clever twist on something we’ve seen before, reviving is  important for the lives it saves. Each player always starts a level with two lives, but another player can really help those lives go a long way. A dead player can steal lives from the living one, just like in games of yore.

If you run out of lives, you retain any upgrades you picked up but have to start the level over or return to the map screen. This lack of mid-mission checkpoints might be too old-school for some. Admittedly the single-player difficulty curves a bit too steeply, much as in other Wayforward games. But you can always compensate by going back to past levels and building up your tapes a bit, buying extra lives in shops, or simply by playing more skillfully.

The only less than brilliant aspect to Neon’s multiplayer is that the game launched without online co-op. The developers have promised to add online support in a patch very soon, which surely means it will come a lot sooner than a certain other beat-em-up’s online mode. I don’t lack for local partners, but it’s a shame that not everyone can fully enjoy the game in its current state. When the online patch finally comes around, we'll update this review and adjust the co-op score if appropriate.

Double Dragon: Neon took a lot of risks by squeezing so many new elements into a classic game. Thankfully just about every change paid off in a big way. The colorful and cartoonish art style, brilliant soundtrack (impressions here), abundance of weapons (which are actually effective here, unlike the original arcade game), and copious eighties references transform a wonderful old game into something even more wonderful. Play Neon with a friend and you’ll laugh out loud together more than once, all while enjoying the time-honored recreation of pounding your foes into submission. That joy has helped make this my all-time favorite brawler.

The Co-Optimus review of Double Dragon: Neon is based on the XBLA version of the game, which was provided by the publisher.