Double Dragon Neon, a downloadable game available on the Playstation Network and X-Box Live, is the latest title from the legendary beat-em-up series that started its life back in the arcades quarter of a century ago. I’ve been a big fan of the franchise since playing a port of the original on my humble Amstrad many moons ago. Yes in retrospect the CPC adaptation wasn’t great, due to woefully slow animations and a lack of sound, but my friends and I loved its co-op play and the fact that it was one of the few games we could beat in an age were most games were notoriously difficult (my how times have changed.) My fondness for the series grew only further after playing the excellent sequels on the Gameboy and Super Nintendo. Needless to say when I spotted Neon on the PSN I could not resist giving it a go.
Neon kicks off much like the first Double Dragon game. The voluptuous Marian is minding her own business when a group of thugs approaches her. Without warning one of the hoodlums punches her in the gut knocking her out. The thugs then vacate the scene, with the assaulter carrying the comatose babe over his shoulder. Seconds later, from a nearby garage, Marian’s main squeeze Billy Lee emerges and exclaims “Marian? Oh no not again!” Looks like the blonde haired martial artist, aided by his twin brother Jimmy, must once again embark on a rescue attempt that will pit them against an army of street punks and their leader Skullmageddon – a samurai lich whose voice sounds suspiciously like Skeletor from the old He-man cartoons.
When battling through the opening levels of Neon you could be excused for presuming that the game is simply a remake of Double Dragon One. The first couple of stages recreate the environments players fought through in the opening two chapters of the first Double Dragon game, enhancing the experience with modern day graphics. It’s all there from funky remixes of the Double Dragon tunes fans love to recognizable enemies such as the man mountain Abobo or the scantily clad dominatrix Linda who wields a kinky whip. Once Billy and Jimmy crash into the level three enemy dojo, that launches into space, Neon however decides to stop following in the footsteps of its predecessor and go its own way giving us some unique levels to experience.
Gameplay wise this is your usual brawler fare. For the most part players guide the Lee brothers from left to right pounding any ruffians who get in their way. Scrapping involves dishing out quick, yet weedy, punches or slower, but more painful kicks. Connecting with successive blows will stun opponents allowing the player to throw the prone adversary or unleash a combo for the short period of time that the thug is seeing stars. Unlike other fighting games you cannot block to parry incoming attacks so defensive maneuvers are limited to ducking out of the way of danger. Evading a smack to the chops by crouching at the last second bestows the player with a brief damage bonus that can be used to punish inaccurate foes with a devastating counter.
Although strictly speaking a fighting game, much like many modern day titles, Double Dragon Neon cannot resist dipping its toe into the role playing genre with the introduction of statistics that can be leveled up. The upgrade mechanic is handled via the collection of equipable cassette tapes that vanquished enemies sometimes yield or alternatively can be purchased from stores. Different tapes offer differing benefits such as draining health from struck enemies, increasing the regeneration rate of the energy meter that is used to cast special attacks (like the fireball) or improved duration on the weapons you pick up – allowing you to crack skulls with a baseball bat for a few extra swings before the sporting instrument of destruction shatters. Who knew that primitive storage media could be so useful? When I used cassettes back in the day I thought they were a pain as the tape had a habit of getting tangled up forcing me to rewind it with a well-placed biro.
I find that when it comes to my enjoyment of side-scrolling brawlers they can be either a hit or a miss. I love some entries in the genre whilst detesting others for being shallow button bashers. Thankfully Double Dragon Neon lands on the former. It’s a lot of fun thanks in no small part to the varied levels. Each new challenge introduces some new enemy or obstacle that keeps things fresh. The soundtrack is also excellent with a good selection of songs that parody eighties music. Best of all is the game’s whacky humor that will have you in stitches. The Lee brothers have some Bill & Ted style one liners that will make you chuckle, although it is Skullmageddon who steals the show by cursing you for smashing his television monitors, deriding you for pausing the game or lamenting the fact that his otherwise unstoppable giant tank was built with a blinking weak spot.
The game is a real crowd pleaser for anyone familiar with the Double Dragon series. There’s a lot of small nods to past games such as a Billy sprite from the NES Double Dragon being used to mark your location on the world map or how one of the enemies you face is named Bimmy (poking fun at a typographical error of Billy’s name that was not spotted by quality control in the English language edition of the Nintendo Double Dragon game.)
My only complaints with Neon are minor and easy to overlook given the lowish price you can get it for. One gripe would have to be the length of the game. Although you get a good number of levels they can be bested within a couple of hours. That said, I have clocked considerably more game time than that by conquering the three difficulty levels on offer and just replaying the game for fun to increase my collection of power up tapes. My biggest beef with the game would have to be the omission of online multiplayer. Two-player co-op is available, but is limited to two chums playing in the same room on the same console. WayForward who developed the game allegedly promised to patch in online features at a later date, but given that the game was released some time ago I am skeptical that said patch will ever see fruition.
I can’t stay mad at WayForward for that transgression though given what a fine job they have done with rebooting Double Dragon for a new generation. If they were selected to create a sequel I would be a very happy man indeed. I mean you get to save a damsel in distress and kick Skeletor’s boney arse in the process. What more could you ask for?