PLATFORM: Xbox Live Arcade (reviewed), PSNdd1
PRICE: 800 MSP, $9.99 PSN (Free for Playstation Plus users)
PUBLISHER: Majesco Games

Double Dragon; be it on its classic arcade form or the massive number of ports the game and its sequels got, that name alone is a staple of the gaming world back in the 80’s and 90’s; tasked with bringing it back to life as Live Arcade/PSN game, Wayforward (a development studio who carries their love of the classics and traditional 2D as their presentation card; from their original titles like the Mighty.. series or their takes on Contra or Bloodrayne, took on the challenge , choosing to develop neither a remake or a reboot, but something far riskier…an Homage, not only to Double Dragon and its legacy, but to the decade that saw the series and the genre it belongs to birth and thrive, resulting in a nostalgia trip unlike any other.

The Pitch

As usual, the story involves a gang of thugs, brawlers and miscreants punching one Marian, girlfriend to martial artist Billy Lee, on the stomach and absconding with the unconscious lady with probably nefarious purpose; Billy (and his twin brother Jimmy, if you’re playing with a buddy) once again punch and kick their way through hordes of gang members, and reach the bad guy’s headquarters in order to rescue Marian…and then said headquarters blast into space, and the mastermind behind the kidnapping is revealed to be an alien/transdimensional being/lovechild of TMNT’s Shredder and MOTU’s Skeletor that goes by the awesomely awful name of, get this, SKULLMAGEDDON; to say that things get crazier from then on would be an  understatement.

                 A high five while being bombarded on a bridge…and this isnt the craziest thing in the game, fellas.

The Play

Rule one of a remake/reboot is “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”; rule two should be “but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve it”. Luckily, the team at Wayforward seem to abide by these rules, since they kept the gameplay and controls pretty much untouched from the basic Beat ‘em up set up;  you move around, and use a combination of jump, light, heavy and special attacks, each mapped to a corresponding button, to beat the living crap out of anything in your way; however, as much time proved and classic the gameplay can be in a new version of an old game, there has to be something new to entice players into going through similar motions again. Enter the Gleam and Mixtape systems.

                  Yes, thats a conveyor belt, and yes, you get to throw an Abobo down that pit.

Gleam is basically an enhanced dodge move that, if you time it right, will result in your character glowing for a couple seconds, enhancing his damage, thus making the risk of leaving yourself open to be attacked instead of avoiding enemies worth your while; the Mixtape system, however, is nothing short of genius; by equipping two sets of cassette tapes, you gain a bonus to your abilities and a special attack; mix tapes are gained from defeating enemies or found in chests or breakable items or purchased in stores located on some areas; from focusing your power into stack or defense, enhancing your gleam time, to summoning a screen clearing dragon, conjure lightning or perform a more powerful version of the series classic spinning kick move; tapes get more powerful as you collect more of the same, and a Tapesmight store located in some levels can use the mythril ore dropped by bosses to boost each tape’s power level;  with a dozen mixtapes in each category, you can combine and equip mixtapes as the situation or your playing style dictates…and you’ll need to do so; each of the three difficulty modes of the games gets unlocked by beating the game in the previous one, and escalating level of enemies in each one means that revisiting levels to power up your mixtapes by collecting more copies and boosting them through mythril  becomes a necessity; this adds replay value to the game, but some players will find this grinding tiresome, especially when being subjected to a limited number of lives, which, in a rather odd and baffling design choice, don’t carry on between stages.

Of course, the main event in any Beat ‘em up is playing with a buddy, and Double Dragon Neon doesn’t disappoint in that regard; from using an awesome high five move to share health and energy bars and extend Gleam time, to playing with optional friendly fire on, thus making coordination and teamwork a must to avoid ruining a winning streak and/or a friendship, Double Dragon Neon fully embraces the two player nature of the genre; sadly, online co-op is not available (but has been promised to be patched in on the near future), but old school players will probably enjoy reliving having a buddy right next to you like back in the arcade days.

The Presentation

After the game blasts off into space, you’ll fight in rooms with faulty airlocks, take a stroll through outer space and defeat a robot biker that is one polygon from getting a cease and desist from another game company, fight ninjas and geishas through a stereotypical Asian countryside, raid an evil laboratory, pummel the undead from an unholy ground and then launch a final assault on SKULLMAGEDDON’s golden palace;  the fact that the whole trip is taken in stride by the Lee brothers (who resemble a martial artist versions of  Bill & Ted, put through an Anime filter), who throw jokes and one liners around, all while SKULLMAGEDDON  makes horrible puns and throws everything in his disposal at them; bottom line is that the game fully acknowledges how basic and outdated the “girlfriend/president/etc. has been kidnapped  by gangs/ninjas/robots/all of the above” premise is, and instead of trying to update it or replace it,  it just puts it into overdrive while making clear it is on the joke, earning the game’s dialogue and characters a level of personality and charm that’s hard to dislike.

                      Doing the robot, Neon Signs, a muscle car and a Power Glove? I wasn’t kidding about the 80’s love.

Using a 3D, polygonal engine while remaining a classic brawler when it comes to motion, Double Dragon Neon  is bright and colored as its namesake; oozing with 80’s glow, the character models and background make in personality and animation what they lack in quality, resulting in a perfectly fine graphical presentation; nothing outstanding or gorgeous (unlike the previous developer’s 2D, sprite based games) but it works, pure and simple; the character designs by artist Genzoman (whose gaming inspired work is essentially a mixture of anime and Greg Horn digital painting) might turn some gamers off, but its inspired and while not translating as well to 3D, it gives every character, from the denim clad Lee Brothers, to muscular moustache wearer and internet sensation Abobo, along with S&M eye candy Lindas and the utterly over the top SKULLMAGEDDON, a sense of personality and off beat charm; all the regular enemies have variant skins to make smacking them around less monotonous, and the bosses and mid bosses of the game truly reach huge levels of oddness sometimes;  add to this solid level design that successfully pays tribute to the series legacy (the airlock stages will bring a smile to many a NES player), and you have a solid graphical presentation.

     Yes, they put those spring spikes from DD2 in the game; no, they didn’t put that bastard haunted house level in, thank god.

Double Dragon Neon‘s sound design, however, is a complete success on all levels; from the numerous jokes and one liners both the protagonists and their enemies throw around, to the various sounds made by weapons and special powers, every action and character is distinctive and special;  however, this pales when compared to the soundtrack; every stage has its own song that, in most cases, grabs stage music from series’ story and updates it for the modern age; from stage 2’s dancing beats to stage 4’s rock ballad (special note to the end credits song, which is right there with God Hand when it comes to truly insanely hilarious end credits in videogames), the whole soundtrack is a perfect mixture of old school videogame music and modern genres, even more impressive is that each mixtape in the game actually has a 10-20 second loop to give it personality; from Depeche Mode to Rick Astley and everything in between, each mixtape is a mini song on its own, encompassing several genres and making clear tributes to real artists, which is absolutely amazing; this makes it easily worth tracking down and owning (something made easier by it being available for free/optional donation by the composer here).

The Replay

Aside from taken on the game on higher difficulty levels or grinding to max out your mixtapes, there isn’t much replay here; while beat em up veterans will probably revisit the game just for fun and playing with friends, casual gamers or those looking for a different experience on a second run will leave disappointed in this area.

The Verdict

If you’ve only played modern takes on the beat em up genre or have never experienced it at all, Double Dragon Neon wont blow your mind or make a great first impression, but it will end up as a solid time waster or a single playtime or hunt for throphies/achievements; however, for old school fans of the genre and the emblematic series, this unashamed love letter to old school gaming  will be a slightly tarnished gem that will get both a lot of replay and enjoyment; it’s not perfect or revolutionary, but it knows what it is and how to do it, and most importantly, it’s fun while doing in both story and execution, something that some games tend to lack this day; if you’re up for a retro trip of nostalgia, humor and unabashed fun,  Double Dragon Neon is right up your alley.

4 out of 5