Double Dragon, one of the grand arcade classics of the 1980s, has gotten a direct sequel to its last installment in celebration of its 30 year anniversary. If that sentence has you remotely excited or nostalgic at all, feel free to close this review and pick up the game immediately. The return of the brawling brothers Billy and Jimmy, remixes of the series’ classic tracks, and all of the classic arcade action are all present and will lead to a good time. But in keeping with the spirit of its roots, Double Dragon IV wavers back and forth between satisfying its fanbase’s nostalgia itch and forgetting a few crucial things that gaming as a whole has learned in the past three decades. Stuff that even the previous installments had down to a science.
The set-up is familiar but reliable. Billy and Jimmy have opened dojos around the world to train new students in the way of martial arts after their triumph over the street gangs of Double Dragon III. However, after a crew with a grudge try to kill the two brothers via a car crash and an ambush in the desert, it is revealed the whole thing was a ploy by a new criminal organization rising in Japan lead by the Okada Sisters, who are trying to eliminate Billy and Jimmy. So in addition to hiring out every single psycho assassin around, the deadly ladies capture the brothers’ love interest, Marian, in order to draw the brothers to their deathtrap laden fortress.
The plot is predictable but it plays out like a direct sequel would. Double Dragon was heavily influenced by the cheesy American kung-fu action films that were all the rage at the time and that is still the case here. It could have gone so wrong if Arc System Works tried to update the game to a modern setting, but instead they continued on with business as usual. Two completely awesome dudes are laying the smack down on a combination of biker toughs, street punks that look like they’ve watched The Road Warrior too much, seven foot tall Russian brutes and brightly colored ninjas all to rescue their girlfriend from the heads of an evil corporation. If it ain’t broke, don’t overthink it.
The level design keeps to this simplicity. You’ll still be moving left to right beating down various thugs with punches, kicks, and whatever weapons you happen to find on the floor. Billy and Jimmy have special moves as well that help give things a modern edge such as a suspiciously familiar looking helicopter kick and a flying knee. There are also some pixel-perfect platforming sections that can result in instant death if you’re not careful, which help cut up the action.
Also, in a wink and a nod to the game’s coin-op roots you have a fixed number of continues before you get a game over. The continues representing those few precious quarters you had to spend on extra lives to brave on to the end. It helps give the game a level of challenge instead of having the default be having as many tries as you like until you win. Make no mistake, Double Dragon IV will test old arcade veterans.
But level design makes some of this difficulty artificial. While the game does progress and escalate in challenge, the game has a bad habit of slapdash presentation. Whenever a new enemy type showed up in the original Double Dragon there was a level of build-up to it, dramatically exiting from a door in the background or walking in after several minor enemies were defeated. It sold how threatening the enemies were while also making the player feel awesome for eventually putting them down. There’s little fanfare to be had here, as enemies just pile in on the screen in quick bursts rather than a steady stream.
This absolutely destroys pacing since it leads to certain levels being barely five minutes long with a bunch of baddies spammed at the end. Things do even out in the game’s final levels or so, but it makes the build-up to that frightfully uneven. The only respite from this lopsided approach to challenge is the entire adventure can be finished in about three hours if you have the skills. It is still satisfying to beat down various iconic enemies like the brickhouse that is the Obobo, but having three of them just show up out of the blue relies too much on nostalgia and not enough on thoughtful restraint.
Thankfully, the game is full of extras to justify its seven dollar price tag. There’s a local co-op mode, available in both friendly and competitive flavors. Only real complaint to be found is that player two can not drop in at any time, either both players are ready at the start or it’s a solo experience until either all lives are spent or until the credits roll. There is also a heavily extensive Tower mode that is unlocked once you beat the main game, which takes the major complaint I had about the game’s tendency to just gurgle out enemies and turns it into a strength. Each floor of the tower is a single room full of enemies that you have to defeat, with one hundred floors of difficulty to deal with. Your reward for hitting certain milestones in this tower or beating certain parts of the main game unlocks the ability to play as other characters, ranging from the average enemies you take down by the dozen to some minibosses. All of this helps give the game some much needed replay value and even helps it double as a retro party game if you and some buddies have a nostalgia itch.
Furthermore, Arc System Works must be commended for the game’s visual design. Everything looks and sounds crisp, and the sprite animation is lovingly retro.
Complaints and level design grumbles aside, Double Dragon IV is a proud throwback to gaming’s yesteryear and if you’re a fan of the series you can do a lot worse than picking this up. Just watch out for the disappearing bits near the end, the timing on those things are murder.