Released to tie in with 25th anniversary of the original release, Double Dragon Neon is the latest in the much-loved scrolling beat ‘em up series. Developed by Wayforward Technologies this iteration has little involvement from original devs Technôs Japan or their successor Million Co and is played in no small part for laughs. But does it still pack a punch?
Kicking off on a grimy street corner dripping in neon, pouting dame Marian is punched in the stomach and dragged off by goons from the Shadow Warriors gang. Once again it is up to martial arts maestros Billy and Jimmy Lee to save the day. ‘Aw, not again’, groan the Sôsetsuken siblings as they launch into yet another aria of ass-kicking, this time to take down undead mega-boss Skullmageddon (a lich lord in a Raiden hat). And that’s about all we need to know plot-wise; it’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not particularly PC but it is thoroughly oldschool and as good as an excuse to hand a beatdown to endless swathes of street trash as any.
The gameplay is as resolutely retro as the storyline (if you can call it that), albeit with a smattering of modern tropes we’ve come to expect. Waves of denim-clad gang members can be kicked, punched or thrown from one edge of the screen to the other with reckless abandon. The controls are kept simple (well mapped and pleasingly responsive) but with a few new moves added in for good measure – bashing the heads of two chumps together mid-scuffle is particularly satisfying.
Attacks can also be dodged with well-timed use of the trigger buttons and if enough of these evasions are rallied together, ‘gleam’ mode is initiated. This sees the character bathed in a red glow for a short period of time, their attacks packing extra damage. All manner of weapons can be pinched from enemies or found in the environment, most of which feel tangible and weighty with satisfying ‘clunk’ sounds accompanying impact – there’s little point in caving a punk’s face in with a baseball bat if it doesn’t feel legit.
On top of the usual array of power-ups lurking in bins and phone-boxes (par for the course with this sort of thing, although why anybody would drink a bottle of pop they’ve found in the rubbish is beyond me), further abilities can be unlocked by collecting ‘songs’ on tape-decks. These either take the form of not-so-wittily titled attack boosts (such as ‘Bro Dozer’ where the player can dash about the screen with a flying elbow) and stat boosts, which inflate health and skills and are generally accompanied by special effects of varying flashiness. One of each type of song can be equipped at any time, as well as being levelled up a further ten times for increased intensity. There is some meta-game fun to be had in collecting the full set-list of songs and favourite abilities can be levelled up an insane forty more times by visiting a ‘Tapemaster’ and spending Mythril (collected from defeating bosses).
Unsurprisingly co-op is where the game comes into its own, not only upping the fun but the techniques involved. With local and online multiplayer available the lack of game modes is made up for in the array of co-op only bonuses. Players can hi-five to activate extra powers such as divvying out health or instantly ‘gleaming on’. There is also an ability to revive and share lives if one player is running low, although despite these bells and whistles the real appeal is getting to rain blows upon the baddies with your pal. Sorry, your ‘bro’.
Obviously Double Dragon Neon wears its influences on its sleeves, right down to the Streets of Rage style whip-happy ladies of the night and deceptively dangerous conveyor belts. However the relentlessly ‘80s attitude quickly wears as thin as a Motley Crue member’s hairline – barely a second goes by when the player is not forceful reminded that it’s the decade that taste forgot and that it’s, like, totally awesome, or hilarious, or something. I like double-denim and hair metal as much as the next guy but there are only so many mullets and ‘bro’ based gags a man can laugh at.
Furthermore, DDN is brutally ugly which is a real shame especially considering the enticing promo art and frankly gorgeous loading screens – no amount of highlighter-shade colours can hide the fact that the game’s graphics are way more N64 than next-gen. The devs may argue that this is kind of the point, but there is a difference between looking retro and looking just plain rubbish; sadly this game falls into the latter category.
Thankfully the soundtrack is immeasurably awesome, so much so that it almost makes up for the lacklustre art. Almost. Auteur Jake Kaufman is the man behind the music, providing a pumped up aural backdrop of grade A squealing guitars and phat beats that elevates the gameplay beyond the sterile throwback it would otherwise certainly be. The cherry on the cake is that Kaufman has just released all 45 tracks for free, downloadable from his website.
Double Dragon Neon lives unerringly in the past and, unlike the games it pays homage to, offers little in the way of new thrills. Unless you find hi-fives and ghetto blasters hilarious, you will almost certainly get irate before long, especially due to the miserable graphics. That being said, punching out a veritable army of jerks in this fashion is always going to be fun enough and there are far worse ways to while away an afternoon. If you're going to play it though, do yourself a favour: grab a buddy and turn the volume up to 11.