Way back in 1987, the arcade version of Double Dragon was the first beat ‘em up to feature co-op. All these years later, it’s still a big deal when the series gets a new entry, despite the uneven quality of games like Double Dragon IV and Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons. Thankfully, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons from Secret Base and Modus Games stands among the best games in the series. Borrowing elements from the four main games in the series and injecting its own fresh style, Gaiden ends up being a very fun and unique beat ‘em up.
The story here is a retelling of the first game’s – with a bit of Double Dragon II thrown in for good measure. In a post-apocalyptic future, New York is threatened by four violent gangs. The new mayor recruits Billy and Jimmy Lee to stand against the thugs. Joining them are Marian, who is a gun-wielding cop in this version, and Uncle Matin, a military veteran and friend of the Lee family. The cinematics that bring the story to life between certain stages are a bit on the plain and serious side, but they fit the series’ tone and easily outclass the aggressively boring story sequences from Double Dragon IV.
When starting a new game, one or two local players will select their difficulty settings and then choose the two members of each player’s tag team. The game is not drop-in, drop out, but you get four save files, so you can keep separate solo and co-op saves. To start with, only the four heroes are available, but nine bosses and minibosses can be unlocked over time. Like Double Dragon IV, everyone gets unique special moves. Even Billy and Jimmy play differently from each other as a result; Billy specializes in kicks and Jimmy does the punches. Matin is a slower, grab-focused character who can also use his shield against some attacks. Marian mostly fights by firing a pistol or rockets. Naturally, this ranged-focus makes her a great character for beginners.
Combat is one area in which Gaiden differs from its predecessors. There’s only one primary attack button instead of two like in most Double Dragons. This has the effect of streamlining combat while also reducing the focus on regular combos. Instead, the focus is on finishing off enemies with special moves or weapons to earn greater rewards.
Each enemy defeated with a “Special KO” will drop extra gold, and Special KO-ing three or more foes at once counts as “Crowd Control,” resulting in a health-restoring food drop. Thus, players are encouraged to whittle enemies down a little bit, group them together, and then let the special moves fly. The special meter takes time to charge, though, so you can’t rely entirely on specials, either. The only downside to Special KOs at present is the visual that pops up whenever a player accomplishes a Crowd Control (see screenshot above). The visual is cool, but it slows the action down for both players and becomes slightly repetitive over time. Someone already released a steam mod to speed the animation up, but an official update would be nice.
The special meter is also used to tag out characters. Gaiden is a tag team game that doesn’t give the option of playing only one character, so in co-op games, both players select two of their own fighters. A character who is tagged out will slowly recover a portion of his or her health, just like in the Marvel VS. Capcom series. However, because tagging out requires a full special meter from the active character, you can’t actually tag in and out on a whim. This restriction cuts into the fun of the tag team system, so I’d love to see the meter restriction removed in the future.
As for weapons, Gaiden offers a fair selection of armaments such as baseball bats, bottles, swords, and knives. These can be wielded melee-style or thrown. Weapons wear out after a while, but they’re fun to use for their stopping power and the fact that weapon KOs count as Special KOs. Other combat options include the ability to run, a double jump to help with the occasional platforming, and a grab button. There’s no blocking (outside of Matin’s shield run and some buyable perks that automatically negate damage), but who needs blocking in a Double Dragon game?