Friday, June 30, 2023

Double Dragon (NES) Review

Developer: Technos
Publisher: Tradewest, Arc System Works
Platforms: NES, NSO NES, Double Dragon & Kunio-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle (PS4, NS)
Version Played: NSO NES, Double Dragon & Kunio-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle (NS)

Calling the NES version of Double Dragon an arcade port would be a bit misleading. The Genesis version is an arcade port. This is more like a reimagining. Unlike most other home versions, Double Dragon on NES isn't trying to replicate the arcade game, it's only using it as a guideline. This version alters the story, it has a leveling system, completely new areas, and even a VS mode. It's more like the game that bridges the Kunio-Kun and Double Dragon series' than anything else.

Double Dragon takes place in a post apocalyptic world that looks like 80s action movies meet Fist of the North Star. Some of the backgrounds look like New York City, some like the Coliseum in Rome, and characters have big boots, shoulder pads, and bracers on their forearms. The arcade game has Billy's girlfriend, Marian, get kidnapped by a gang led by a machine gun-wielding thug named Willy, but the NES version makes Billy's brother, Jimmy, the leader instead. The NES version doesn't have co-op, so I guess they just wanted to include him somehow. That must have made Double Dragon II awkward for them.
The NES version of DD was ahead of its time. It has experience points and you learn new moves as you level up. That's the kind of stuff I expect to see in modern action games. This even predates the Japanese version of River City Ransom by a year. Different moves give you different amounts of XP, and every 1,000 points, you get a new move until level 7. You start off with simple punches and kicks, a headbutt, and a jump that isn't even an attack. As you level up, you learn uppercuts and roundhouses to finish your combos, jump kicks, throws, and of course, the most powerful move in the game, the elbow smash. Enemies also level up and become more aggressive, so simply leveling up as fast as possible isn't necessarily the best strategy.
The combat in this game is, honestly, kind of bad, especially when compared to games that came only a year later, like Final Fight and TMNT. The punch has terrible reach, the spin kick combo finisher always gets dodged, and I don't even know what the headbutt is for besides tripping you up when you accidentally double tap forward. Part of the strategy to the game is literally avoiding doing some of these moves. At least the game doesn't make you press a specific button to jump kick in a specific direction, like in the arcade game. There is a certain kind of fun to be had in learning how to deal with each enemy, though. Getting all the strategies down and beating the game with only 3 lives still feels great.
This game also has some pretty infamous side scrolling and platforming sections. The perspective switches from the usual belt scrolling style to a more traditional 2D side view, and you have to avoid hazards and jump on platforms. These sections have you avoiding falling stalactites in caves, jumping on moving platforms and over chasms, and climbing up and down ladders while fighting enemies. I guess they just felt this was the kind of stuff you should do in a game on a system with Castlevania, Mega Man, and Mario on it. I used to have a lot of trouble with these when I was a kid, but I don't find them nearly as hard now.
Another very un-beat ‘em up-like thing about this game is its lives system. Unlike in other versions, you have to restart from a checkpoint after dying. You also don’t get any continues. You just have to restart from the beginning if you die. You can’t even get more lives by getting high scores. It’s pretty brutal, but we have save states to help with this style of punishing structure now.
I used to play a lot of the VS mode back in the day, but it really isn't very good. You only have 1 stage, you can only do mirror matches, and the game kicks you back to the title screen after every match. The combat is much more limited than in the regular game, too. If you want to check out a much better game doing this Beat 'em up fighting game style, check out Street Smart. The only interesting thing about this mode is the unique sprites the characters get because they're drawn in a completely different style from the main game.
Double Dragon's soundtrack is one of my favorite NES soundtracks of all time. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with it stuck in my head without even having played the game recently. Yeah, it's the arcade game's soundtrack with NES instrumentation, but I like it better this way. This is what NES games sound like in my mind. I just love the 80s pop rock sound after going through the NES filter.

I love the art style that the Master System, Game Boy, and NES versions share. The characters kind of look like something in between Kunio-Kun and the Double Dragon arcade characters, which looked like a cross between Renegade and Fist of the North Star characters. I also love how the game uses the NES color palette and the awesome backgrounds. I especially love Mission 4, which must be inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, where the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris took place in Way of the Dragon.
The original version of the game has a lot of technical issues, though. Parts of characters' bodies flicker on and off, parts of the screen wobble in an almost psychedelic way, and there's tons of slowdown and input lag when there's more than one enemy on screen. That's probably why the game doesn't have co-op. It couldn't have handled it. The Double Dragon & Kunio-Kun Retro Brawler Bundle version has a "Quality Up" version that fixes these issues, but it also introduces a tiny bit of input lag, which is present at all times. I'm sure some people would take that trade-off, but I still prefer the original. That version doesn't have rewind, like the NSO version does, anyway.
Double Dragon is one of the NES games I played the most of as a kid, but it's not something I'd recommend to just anyone. I love it, but I know a lot of other people won't. It's a bit of an acquired taste. But if you're into beat 'em ups and want to learn about how they started, then yeah, check DD on NES out.