After a four year absence, the classic beat ‘em up series Double Dragon returns with a brand-new entry on PlayStation 4 and Steam: Double Dragon IV. Featuring 8-bit style graphics and 2-player local co-op, this entry aims for the nostalgic crowd. But will gamers who missed out on the NES games get their money’s worth from this budget sequel?
Double Dragon 101
Following its arcade inception in 1987, the Double Dragon series popularized both cooperative gameplay and the beat ‘em up genre for several years. Two players took on the roles of Billy and Jimmy Lee, masters of the martial art Sosetsuken, as they dared to defy the Shadow Warriors in a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting. Billy’s girlfriend Marian alternately got kidnapped, killed, or fought over amid the gang battles.
When original creator Technos Japan sadly shut its doors in 1996, Double Dragon dwindled to sporadic releases from various developers. 2012’s Double Dragon Neon sported phenomenal co-op and production values; 2013’s amateurish Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons didn’t measure up. Arc System Works, which also owns Technos’ River City Ransom/Kunio-kun series, snapped up the Double Dragon license last year.
In choosing to revive the series, Arc brought back three original series staff to the four-man team. They chose to work with sprites from the NES version of Double Dragon II (as opposed to the arcade game or excellent PC Engine version), positioning IV as a direct sequel – an NES game that never was. This ups the nostalgic factor while also keeping costs down – Double Dragon IV sells for $6.99 and was presumably developed on a thin budget.
Double Dragon IV offers three modes: Story, 2P Duel (a versus mode based on the one from the first NES game), and Tower. Story is a 12-stage campaign that supports one or two local players. Friendly fire can be toggled on or off before starting. And for the first time in the series (excluding one-on-one fighters), you can choose who plays as Billy Lee (the Lee brother who dresses in blue) and who plays as Jimmy. Later on, the selection of characters gets even larger.
One big thing you don’t get to choose in this installment is the difficulty level. Double Dragon II, IV’s direct inspiration, offered three selectable difficulties. The lack of additional difficulties hurts replay value, although there are Trophies/Steam Achievements for playing as unlockable characters. High scores aren’t even saved, which also means no leaderboards.
Difficulty becomes an issue, even though Double Dragon IV starts out embarrassingly easy. The first few levels barely have any enemies, and Billy and Jimmy’s moves completely overpower them. Things take a turn around Mission 9 or so, at which point enemies start dealing tremendous damage and appearing in overwhelming numbers.
Beating the game all the way through with the allotted seven credits (shared between both players) is quite tough because of how cheap the last few stages get. A smoother and more balanced difficulty would’ve been better, if we only get one. Thankfully, you can start from the last stage you cleared by pressing the Options/Start button on the title screen – so actually completing story mode isn’t that much of an issue.
NES-style cinematics play out upon starting the game and between each level. If you were hoping for a good story, prepare to be disappointed. The basic premise is that Billy and Jimmy are driving through the desert when they get attacked by bad guys. Later on, they learn that Billy’s girlfriend Marian (who was killed but came back to life in the best ending of Double Dragon II) has been kidnapped by a pair of sisters who head a crime family in Japan.
The story is completely boring and uninspired, and unacceptable for a game made in 2017. It ends with a total whimper of a cinematic – better than the non-existent ending of Super Double Dragon, but insultingly lazy from a writing standpoint. We don’t even get a credits sequence with catchy music, one of my favorite parts of the best version of Double Dragon II.
After completing the game once, you’ll unlock Tower Mode, an endless survival mode in which one or two local players only get a single life and no healing. Each floor of the tower consists of a single room with three or more enemies to defeat. Knock them out and you move on to the next floor.
Tower Mode features a surprising level of fan-service for series faithful. The farther you go, the more characters from past games you’ll run into. Beating a floor with these new characters will unlock them for play in Story and 2P Duel Modes, which ends up adding a tremendous number of playable characters.
You won’t get to fight or play as Marian or Kunio (from River City Ransom), as some fans had hoped, but the last few unlockable characters are still a joy. All characters, friend or foe, have expanded move-sets that make them viable or even superior options compared to the Lee brothers. The last character unlocks on Floor 40. But the final Trophy/Achievement unlocks at Floor 100, so completionists should prepare for a challenge.
Double Dragon IV is a low budget game, so much so that it seems to have been made in haste at times. As a fan of the NES games (and every other version), I don’t mind the NES-era sprites at all. We get to fight two distinct versions of Linda, and some cool color variants like Green Abobo (always the best Abobo) and even silver Abobo.
The newer enemies are drawn in a pixel art style that doesn’t stand out terribly from the old sprites, but they lack some of the charm. The sumo wrestler is probably the closest to Abobo in terms of standing out visually, but nearly every other enemies is just a boring ninja or someone in a martial arts uniform. Old foes like Williams, Linda, and Abobo looked more distinct and conveyed some degree of personality. The new gang falls a bit short.
That same lack of inspiration is even more apparent in the level design. Several of Double Dragon IV’s levels are empty and bland. You’ll never see an enemy break through a wall as in the memorable Abobo entrance of the first game, nor a kitty idling in the background. Some flash or humor would’ve really punched things up here.
There are several instances in which the developers just plain dropped the ball, too. The first level has an uneventful raft ride during which players can’t move and no enemies appear. That would’ve been a perfect opportunity for enemies to jump on board, like you’d have seen in an old Konami beat ‘em up. Later, the Lees battle a single Abobo during an elevator ride to the top of a building. Again, the elevator could easily stop and let on more enemies as in Final Fight.
Somewhat controversially, Double Dragon IV features the return of the platforming sections of the second NES game. Billy and Jimmy must initially jump across platforms on a ship, and later over spinning gears and platforms that move up and down. Many gamers remember the platforming portions of Double Dragon II as low-points, but I actually enjoy them in this one. For starters, IV has a distinct jump button, unlike the NES and PC Engine games. Second, they add some variety to what would otherwise be endless brawling across mostly empty levels.
As for the soundtrack, it’s hit and miss. You have a choice of modern or NES-style soundtracks, which is awesome. The new remix of the main Double Dragon theme, as featured in the game’s trailers, works very well. A few more tunes from the original game return too, and they please because they’re so iconic.
The original compositions that fill out the rest of the soundtrack just aren’t anything special. Maybe we can’t blame composer Kazuo Yamane for not being able to reach the same heights he did 30 years ago. But Jake Kaufman’s Double Dragon Neon soundtrack was certainly more memorable.
Also on the sound front, the sound effects themselves become an issue at times. This one lacks sound effects for the blinking hand that tells you to move on, as well as helicopters and a few other things that should produce sounds. The NES games had those exact sounds, so their omission (both on PlayStation 4 and Steam) is especially puzzling.
It sounds like I’m being hard on Double Dragon IV, but I actually like it! Despite the clear lack of inspiration and budgetary issues, this is still an adequate beat ‘em up. Credit the core fighting mechanics, vast array of weapons, and robust arsenal of moves for part of that.
The Cyclone Spin Kick, Hyper Uppercut, and Hyper Knee are now joined by a great spinning headbutt and other new moves, all consistently easy to pull off. Fighting baddies just feels good in this game, even if the later levels force you to rely on the cheesier moves to survive. The innovations of Tower Mode and playing as enemies go a long way as well.
Still, most of us play Double Dragon games for the co-op, and this one doesn’t disappoint. As mentioned before, you get to pick who plays as which brother (and later as enemies) and whether you have friendly fire. Both players have to share credits, so a bad partner can burn through them pretty quickly. The ability to “borrow” the remaining player’s lives when you die is sadly missing.
Double Dragon IV doesn’t have any co-op specific mechanics, unlike the exceptional Double Dragon Neon. But playing through the story mode and later tower mode with a friend still provides a good time, just like teaming up in the arcade games long ago. The overall package might be a little rougher than Double Dragon II was when it arrived on NES in 1990, but this is a very cheap game from a very small team.
We can only hope that Arc System Works chooses to put more time and money into the next one. And to encourage that, fans need to buy Double Dragon IV. For the low price of seven bucks, you get a passable “lost NES sequel” in the series. If you buy into the aesthetics and gameplay (like me!) or even just the Trophies and Achievements, you’ll easily get your money’s worth from Billy and Jimmy Lee’s latest game.
Steam review copy provided by the publisher, and PlayStation 4 version purchased by the reviewer.