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Double Dragon Gaiden Is The Legacy Series’ Standout Entry Since Double Dragon Neon
Platform(s): PC (version reviewed), Xbox Series, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch
Genre: 2D beat-em-up roguelike using the Double Dragon name
If there’s a video game series that is usually mishandled, you can put Double Dragon atop that list. For how revolutionary the original arcade beat-em-up was back in the 80s, its sequels and iterations have gone through a few ups and many, many mediocre attempts along with some very low lows. The most recent entry is Double Dragon 4 in 2017 which was middling at best and a hodge-podge of clashing retro ideas and aesthetics forming a hot mess at worst.
Leave it to 6 years of introspection and hard work from a small team who love beat-em-ups and the franchise’s legacy to create the best Double Dragon entry since WayForward’s starry entry. I’m referring to 2023’s Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragon, an action title that puts a nice twist on things while retaining its appeal and retro roots.
Double Dragon Gaiden is still a 2D beat-em-up with tight controls, lovely pixel artwork and animation, and co-op mechanics. What it adds to the standard beat-em-up formula are extra playstyles, a new gameplay structure, and unlockables. Tons and tons of unlockables.
The game’s main plot is about two up-and-coming martial artists Billy and Jimmy Lee, along with short-skirt cop Marian and the Lee brothers’ father figure Uncle Matin, attempting to get rid of the four gangs ruling their hometown: The Killers, The Royals, The Triangle, and The Okadas. When you start your session, you pick up to two characters you can tag between, then pick any of the four gangs to start with. Once you cleared the first gang, you can keep picking the rest until they’re dealt with.
Here’s the kicker: each subsequent pick adds more stages and tougher enemies as you progress. This means that your Mission 1 stage with one boss will be a simple 1-stage “back alley brawl”, but the Mission 3 and Mission 4 variant will be a literal climb to the top capped off with an epic version of the gang’s boss. For example, The Killers’ hideout in Mission 1 will be a far cry from its Mission 4 variant, which features additional longer stages with different hazards (and platforming bits) as well as a souped-up stage boss who now rides a helicopter and summons additional troops.
It’s a great concept and well-executed idea if you picked the “correct” final gang member to have an epic and challenging battle with. However, there was one boss left out of that department: The Royals. The Royals’ Mission 4 final boss was a pushover compared to the other three with bigger and better forms and tougher challenges like Machine Gun Willy and Lady Okada. Other than that though, the escalated stages are tough but fair.
This is definitely due to the spot-on controls and the initial roster’s variety. Billy uses fast kicks while Jimmy uses slightly-slower-but-hard-hitting punches and fist attacks. Uncle Matin is the slow but hard-hitting powerhouse whose riot shield special attacks have lovely knockback and crowd control advantages. Marian’s the outlier as she fights with long-ranged guns and rocket launchers; while her zoning and keepaway game is peerless, she will get KO’ed really fast if put in a tight crowd situation.
The best part about this game’s roguelike structure is you can adjust the difficulty any way you want. If you rather have a higher score and tougher challenge, just crank all the settings up to the highest. If you want to actually beat the game, you can tone down enemy aggressiveness and stats, as well as toggle infinite continues so you can try and try again. If you feel that your current run isn’t so hot, you can just cash out and delete your save so you can amass tokens from that playthrough to use for the game’s unlockables. It’s essentially a really accessible beat-em-up with a plethora of options at your disposal.
Yes, you can unlock more characters when you keep at it, and they have a ton of different playstyles from the fast-hitting Chin to the most-requested big boy Abobo, a slow but hard-hitting powerhouse that rivals Uncle Matin. True, some of the more expensive characters you can unlock (the bosses, basically) are pretty broken if you know how to spam some of their better attacks, but this is a PvE title. You want to keep playing more rounds and sessions to amass as many tokens as possible, using these newly-purchased characters to break the game after you’re done with the mandatory challenges.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons’ roguelike structure might take a while to get used to, and the game can get absurdly tough in Mission 3 and onward. And it’ll take you a while to get used to each character’s recovery animations as it’s purposely made like this to make you think twice before you button mash. Still, you won’t find a worthy remake and beat-em-up revitalization project like this “side story” filled with so many deep cuts that will make beat-em-up fans of the Technos era smile. This is very apparent with the game’s musical score; it’s immaculate and will make beat-em-up fans jump for joy just like Lee on expresso shots.
Some advice to Arc System Works: keep giving Secret Base more beat-em-up work (or anything within that vein of the genre); they stand alongside WayForward (River City Girls series) in making Double Dragon great again! At the very least, it’s an excellent apology for the lacklustre Double Dragon IV.
Review copy provided by Modus Games.
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