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.