This absolutely shouldn’t be as good as it is.
This should have been a catastrophe. Based on a fondly-remembered but thankfully abandoned NES franchise from the 80‚Äôs, Double Dragon Neon finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In maintaining its classic gameplay, it would have undoubtedly been a disappointment to newcomers, yet if it received any sort of next-gen update, it would have undoubtedly upset the purists. It‚Äôs impossible to imagine Double Dragon‚Äôs pixelated kung-fu translating well into a modern era; its campy charms would have been replaced with gory finishing moves and a manuscript that saw the word ‚Äėfuck‚Äô comprising 72% of its dialogue.
But the thing is, Double Dragon Neon actually works. And it works because it prioritises neither the traditional nor the contemporary, instead inviting us to laugh in the face of both. Developed by Wayforward, a studio whose output consists of either brilliance (Mighty Switch Force) or dross (Bloodrayne Betrayal) depending which way the wind blows, Double Dragon Neon is based on the equally uneven Double Dragon franchise, a NES favourite back in the eighties. It maintains the scrolling beat-‚Äėem-up formula that we barely see these days since discovering long ago that the genre was never particularly good in the first place. But Double Dragon Neon is good. However archaic the scrolling brawlers of yesteryear are, games such as Streets of Rage and Final Fight defined a generation, and thankfully, it all feels identical here.
It‚Äôs undoubtedly aimed at the nostalgia freaks then, going so far as to closely resemble as many eighties cartoons as possible. Alongside an exceptional soundtrack that parodies Devo, Depeche Mode and Marvin Gaye, there’s a warm familiarity that absolutely everyone of a certain age will appreciate, or at least recognise.
Except for series purists, that is. Double Dragon Neon starts off identically to the NES original ‚Äď in which a group of thugs punch our protagonist‚Äôs girlfriend in the stomach and then kidnap her ‚Äď but spirals into nothing short of absolute, shameless lunacy. The first two levels start of innocuously enough, but climax with a dojo launching itself into space to setup a confrontation with antagonist Skullmageddon (an hilarious pastiche of He-Man‚Äôs Skeletor) and from here, Wayforward revels in its own knowing stupidity. A showdown with a sentient flytrap straight from Little Shop of Horrors; a battle with skeletal dominatrix in a haunted forest; a robot punch-up on the moon; it‚Äôs not exactly dedicated fan service, but then this would have been a lesser game had it stuck so rigorously to its less-ambitious template.
Arguably, it‚Äôs all an elaborate mask to hide the fact that the game is ‚Äď for all intents and purposes ‚Äď based on a flawed, outdated genre. Yet this can hardly be considered a failing when that very genre is so perfectly captured. Punches, kicks and movement all maintain the rigid feel of their influences, meaning that the niche audience is respectfully catered for; in fact, much like gamers need to adapt when playing older titles, Wayforward likely did the same when programming this one. Tricks we used as children, such as exploiting the dumb enemy intelligence to lure them into a trap, or discovering combos that can send them into a ceaseless, irrecoverable loop, can all be emulated here.
Similarly there exists the age-old virtue of overly-simplistic controls belying a bastard-hard video game. Your own jumps, punches and kicks are no more or less than your enemy‚Äôs capabilities, yet their endless swarms exist only to whittle down your health bar and stop you from ever reaching the level‚Äôs end. Bosses care less for individual skill and more for strict pattern recognition, requiring at least a couple of failures before finally being nailed to perfection. Dodges, meanwhile, require perfect timing, and allowing yourself to be cornered by more than one enemy will see your character absolutely pummelled. There‚Äôs none of the concessions afforded by modern gaming here; including, unfortunately, online multiplayer. Though the adventure is best experienced with a buddy at your side and a less-than-sober mind, the absence of internet play is nonetheless disappointing.
Regardless, there‚Äôs a minor sense of depth thrown in ‚Äď albeit nothing that couldn‚Äôt be done on older consoles ‚Äď in the form of collectible cassette tapes. Two can be equipped at any time, and each can be upgraded by collecting more of the same tape. They offer typical defensive and offensive boosts, but others offer magical powers, such as lightning strikes or fireballs. Best of all, is that each cassette comes with its own theme tune. It‚Äôs a superficial addition, but it showcases Wayforward‚Äôs resident musician Jake Kaufman as one of the best songsmiths in the video gaming landscape. Alongside the twenty-second loops of each cassette power-up (the best one being the thrash-punk stylings of ‚ÄúKicking You in the Face‚ÄĚ), the main soundtrack can only be described as perfect. Whether the inherent cheesiness of its retro synth-pop and fist-pumping power ballads is to anyone‚Äôs taste, it‚Äôs captured with such accuracy that it can only be deemed a success. See for yourself ‚Äď you can listen to it right now, for free.
The question here, then, is what this deranged cocktail of ideas actually achieves, yet the answer lies neither in its faithful rendition of old-school gaming nor its endlessly entertaining presentation. Rather, it‚Äôs a reminder that though our nostalgic memories are of woeful Saturday morning cartoons, clunky video games and tacky musical trends, there‚Äôs joy to be had in throwing our snobbery to the wind and just enjoying them. It‚Äôs as much a tribute to the era as it is one huge mockery, yet it‚Äôs all captured with such fondness that it can never be labelled as cynical. In a time where Hollywood and big game studios seem intent on ruining our favourite franchises, it‚Äôs a timely sentiment.
You could argue that Double Dragon Neon won‚Äôt please the dedicated Double Dragon enthusiasts (should they even exist). You could also argue, and rightfully so, that it feels far too decrepit to possibly attract the modern gamer. You could accuse it of being archaic, anachronistic, simplistic and stupid, and of course, you‚Äôd be right. But however low the bar has been set, Wayforward have obviously had as much fun getting there as the player will on this shamelessly tacky adventure.
It‚Äôs a game about surf ninjas fighting a tyrannical skeleton on the moon. For God‚Äôs sake, people. Just enjoy the damn thing.