Why on earth would anyone want to play a Double Dragon game in 2012? The series is a relic that lies within an archaic genre — the beat-em up, as we used to say — that seems to have been swallowed whole by today’s action games. One would think that the 80s appeal of the game is irrelevant by today’s standards.
WayForward games has me thinking otherwise, though. At least for me, it’s important — especially today.
Regardless of the genre’s rust, Double Dragon: Neon shines brightly. I recently wrote a piece about the importance of developers designing their game not only to uphold their vision, but to give people what they expect (and then some). Double Dragon: Neon is one such game. With a few modern tweaks to the formula, it successfully speaks to people who grew up with the franchise during a time when gaming was much simpler.
I would expect that most people who are looking to purchase Double Dragon: Neon have, at one point or another, played a Double Dragon game as a kid. Those people will be please to know that Neon stays true to what the franchise was. It knows what it is and embraces it.
Double Dragon: Neon is nostalgia; everything about the game — from the controls, to the art style, to the character models, to the soundtrack — is reminiscent of the original series. Neon takes the fact that most of the games were created in the 80s and early 90s and cheerfully rubs it in your face.
The game aesthetically reeks of the 80s outside of the character design and color palate. In co-op, Billy and Jimmy Lee can share and steal health from one another through high and low-fives, respectively. Like any light-hearted hero from the 80s, the Lee brothers seem to spew out puns with every other sentence. This goes from shouting out “stab-ular” when you attack an enemy with a knife to unleash the crackin’” when hitting someone with a whip (Get it? Like unleash the dragon!).
Oh, and you also heal your injuries by drinking soda. So there; 80s.
One of the most important parts of a Double Dragon game is a catchy soundtrack, and Neon well-equipped. The soundtrack consists of arranged versions of classic Double Dragon jams along with some new keepers. So, if you grew up playing the series, you’ll be toe-tapping the whole time.
In terms of plot, there’s nothing new to report. It’s still 80s and Double Dragon-y: the bad guys take Marion away, and the Lee brothers set out to save her. The most important thing to note, however, is the antagonist. The game has a ridiculous-looking villain named Skullmageddon, who — on top of being the main source of comic relief in the game — is gleefully aware of his role as a videogame super villain. Think of him as The Monarch from The Venture Brothers, and he’s completely charming.
Outside of really embracing its 80s heritage through aesthetics, Neon brings some updated tweaks to classic Double Dragon gameplay. These new additions help transcend Neon above being any other “mindless” beat-em up.
Neon directly brings something new to the gameplay by introducing a dodge button. By dodging or ducking beneath attacks at the right time, Billy and Jimmy glow red with strength for a few seconds. While in this state, their attacks become significantly more powerful. The normal difficulty level was just player-friendly enough for today’s standards, but this becomes more important on harder difficulties as it really requires you to be aware of what’s happening around you at all times. This mechanic does a wonderful job of rewarding the player for learning enemy patterns and timing attacks correctly.
The Lee brothers can now collect songs which help customize and level-up your character on their quest to save Marian. Throughout the game, enemies drop two types of songs. One type allows you to equip a super move. The second type gives you different “stances,” which helps bolster character stats (HP, MP, Attack, and Defense) and abilities in different ways. One type of stance, for example, makes you more than twice as strong if you’re able to dole out 50 consecutive hits on enemies without taking any damage. These super moves and stances can be leveled up by collecting more through enemy-drops or the in-game store.
Though it’s still just a beat ‘em up on the surface, these simple RPG elements are enough to successfully cater to our modern palates.
Double Dragon: Neon also brings replayability in the style of Resident Evil 4. There are in-game shops; and money carries through between each run, across any difficulty. This makes the play-throughs on those harder difficulty levels more bearable by buying lives and leveling up your character even more. Upon solving my first run on normal, I immediately went back for another run on the next difficulty level.
Yes, it’s just a stupid Double Dragon game. But don’t you think the developers at WayForward games knew that? Neon is completely aware of that fact and wears it proudly on its sleeve for anyone who grew up playing the games 20 years ago.
Double Dragon: Neon successfully adds modern gameplay elements to a reimagining of an old videogame series. It serves as a swan song for not only the franchise, but the whole genre. And it’s worthy of being a momument to times when we were younger and games were simple. Double Dragon: Neon is for those who can appreciate that and are aching for nostalgia.
In 2012, I think we all need to look back like that sometimes.
This review is based on a code for the XBLA version of Double Dragon: Neon sent to SideQuesting from the publisher. It is available on both PSN and XBLA for $9.99 and 800 Microsoft Points, respectively.