By Neil Merrett
Double Dragon 4 on PS4, released 2017, Developed by Ark System Works
Humanity is fond of the phrase ‘never look back’. A warning against returning to beloved things or iconic moments from the past to try and recreate the emotional or physical associations with a specific time, place or experience.
Often though, the issue of whether it is prudent or negative to look back and re-experience the past is a much more nuanced and personal consideration.
Thanks to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated hardware, gamers are actively being given the chance to embrace their pasts with a huge variety or reissues and re-imaginings of video games from yesteryear.
In some cases, these games will use modern approaches to story, character and games design, to add new challenges, scope or even psychological dimensions to older genres or titles.
This industry penchant to look backwards shouldn’t be so surprising though. Videogames are effectively time capsules of the era in which they originate, either in terms of their design, look and sound, overall gameplay or even their politics in some cases.
The Double Dragon series for instance, a scrolling multi-level co-operative beat-em-up where two brothers must single-handedly free a dame from a city overrun by a violent and somewhat camp gang of miscreants adorned in leather is peak 1980’s machismo.
A huge hit in arcades upon its release due to its two-player gameplay, Double Dragon allowed friends to cave in the heads of bad guys and bad girls with fists, baseball bats, barrels or a cheeky kick to the genitals – it was an equal opportunity take on violence. If both players somehow made it to the end, they would then fight it out to see who literally gets the kidnapped girl.
For its time, Double Dragon was insanely fun and the perfect realisation of the Stallone and Schwarzenegger action movies that dominated cinema through the decade in game form. It was the classic story of two brothers bringing peace and justice to small-town America – with their fists and sometimes little whips. Truely, an american dream.
The success of the game in the arcades meant console and home computer ports were inevitable, albeit it often with one player only allowed to play the main due to technical limitations of popular consoles such as the NES. This was still a huge success and led to a second game that was released for the same console in 1989 called Double Dragon 2: The Revenge.
This time two players could play together in a game specially devised for Nintendo’s console to approximate the arcade sequel of the same name. There were special moves, ropey platform gaming sections based on timing long ponderous jump kicks, and lots and lots of kicking bosses off ledges.
In fact, a whole series of games, spin-offs and even a mainstream cinema movie with the bloke from Terminator 2 were all released before the Double Dragon franchise started to wane in the early 1990’s.
But the NES Double Dragon 2 is a perfect example of a time capsule game that, thanks to Nintendo’s dominance of home consoles at the time, was arguably more renowned than the arcade version to many suburbanites of the time.
It is a unique artefact of late 80’s game design, sound and aesthetic, as well as technical limitations of the time – an arguably iconic title.
Yet like series such as Pac-Man, Double Dragon games – despite some impressive and less impressive attempts to modernise and update the gameplay – are a throwback to an old school and retro sensibility of game design.
It is here then that we find Double Dragon 4, released in early 2017 and serving as a direct sequel to the NES version of Double Dragon 2 – not the arcade title.
The title is a perfect recreation of the pixel style and combat of the home console game, even down to recreating many of the visual and gameplay bugs of the original. For experienced players, it is all here.
The hovering spin kick that send enemies cascading in all directions, the hyper knee attack that sees the player, when trying to stand back up, springing into the air and sending any bad guys it connects with flying out of the screen at literal breakneck speed. This is looking back.
But short of providing an option to play the with retro 8-bit-style music that evokes the NES or a slightly more sophisticated and orchestral score, this is a sequel built on exactly the same principles of its predecessor, without bringing in any real tricks or advancements from the decades of game development since.
Here the satisfaction of sending an enemy boss to their death to the ground below is balanced with the frustration of falling to your death should you drop a small distance below that is no longer visible on screen.
Likewise, you can manage to take out a group of enemies that surround the player through the use of special moves, but this is undercut when you are trapped in an unavoidable animation cycle that allows enemies to beat you down before even getting up.
As the Double Dragon series has almost always done, there is a satisfaction to beating a boss with a series of perfectly timed attacked just as the character gets off the ground, leaving him helpless. But it’s less fun when the same tactics are used in retaliation as they are if trying to play the game as a battle of martial arts skills and not game design bugs.
Likewise, there are moments when enemies cannot move to the very lowest part of the screen, although the player cannot also hit them. As such, you are left unable to influence the game world without moving back into danger,
Design choices necessitated by hardware limitations and strange programming quirks of the past can become harder to love when other developers can take retro-style formats and attach whole new levels of dramatic or gameplay depth to them by learning from newer games.
Mastery of the game ultimately relies less so on the game’s overpowered hyper moves, including an attack that can satisfyingly let the player volley bad guys in the air with separate attacks, but understanding the game’s programming limitations.
When climbing up a ladder, the player often has no choice to be hit if bad guys are waiting at the top for them. However, if they immediately climb back down briefly, the enemy will attempt a jump attack and often fall to their death of a cliff or scree edge.
There is something disarmingly retro about rediscovering these quirks and bugs to succeed. In fact, speed-runners often rely on them to ply their trade. But more discerning modern gamers will likely find this design a cheap, rather than skill-based incentive to get better at a game and feel part of its world.
Reviewing Double Dragon 4 last year for IGN, Vince Ingenito was critical of the game, arguing it was a “little too true” to Double Dragon 2 on the NES.
Ingenito wrote: “Ironically, despite being a retro-inspired sequel to the fondly remembered arcade and NES games, Double Dragon 4 patently ignores the lessons of history.”
“It slavishly works to emulate, both in look and controls, a game that was quickly iterated on and left behind by a slew of other arcade beat ‘em ups. Even compared to the classics that immediately supplanted its predecessor, Double Dragon 4 feels shallow and dated.”
Double Dragon 4 does emulate perfectly something that was, depending on your view, a fondly remembered or detested game from the past. It is a time capsule, but what is the point of a time capsule if it is not something that can be learned or improved upon?
To look or not to look back? That is a question. But the answer it seems is never simple.