Double Dragon: Neon can be clunky, but its presentation and simple throwback gameplay means it gets away with it.
I’m proud to say that I’m a child of the 80s. By that I mean I was born in 1987, don’t recall Margaret Thatcher being PM, and the only direct memory I have of that whole era is somehow taking a dump on the floor in my bathroom and mummy being very disappointed in me (I still feel I should’ve been commended for at least doing it in the right room). Nevertheless, I – like many borderline children of the 80s – have some legitimate claim to calling it my era. I owned a NES, and I watched recordings of Child’s Play and Van Damme films on VHS – usually sandwiched between chunks of Keeping Up Appearances at one end of the tape and Neighbors on the other.
This semi-explicable sentimentality towards the 80s more or less summarises what I like most about Double Dragon: Neon, the hyper-comical reboot of one of the world’s oldest beat-em-up series (older that Final Fight and Streets of Rage, I’ll have you know). While the game’s protagonists Billy and Jimmy are sometimes a bit bro-tastic for my dry British tastes, the sounds, visuals and references of Neon adeptly walk the tightrope between contemporary games and all the good (and some bad) things about 80s games.
The plot – for what it’s worth – sees Billy and/or Jimmy Lee fighting their way through the denizens of super-lich/Yoshimitsu impersonator Skullmageddon in an attempt to save their damsel in distress Marion (it’s unclear which one of the two brothers she’s banging, though this glaring plot-hole can easily be covered by fantasising that you and whoever you complete the game with get to double-team her at the end, or perhaps that Billy and Jimmy are actually a gay married couple and Marion’s just a very good friend.
But no beat-em-up was ever about telling a gripping story. Double Dragon: Neon is a post-80s throwback whose joy stems from its presentation. The environments are bodacious – ranging from neon-lit streets, to graveyards, to spaceships. The 80s spoof/Japanese pop soundtrack is right on, and even the slightly archaic gameplay captures something of the era it references. That said, even early beat-em-ups let you choose the direction you threw your enemy in – an action that’s glaringly missing here.
Basic enemies are reasonably varied, ranging from fan-throwing Geishas to giant brutes, although only the Graveyard level goes so far as to have enemies befitting of its backdrop (zombies, of course). The bosses are – as our protagonists would say – radi-cool: among them a giant fort-on-wheels that seems to have come straight from a Contra game, to a carnivorous plant with a wolf’s head on the end of one stem, and a shark’s head on the other.
Billy and Jimmy themselves are two of the most generic heroes you’ll find in any fighting game, (one wears red, the other blue), consequently it’s one of those rare times where I actually feel like some kind of costume customisation would enhance the game experience. No amount of whiny soundbites – of which they have plenty – make them particularly likeable or distinctive.
The lack of gameplay variety is to some extent offset by the acquisition of Mixtapes containing new moves and general ability modifiers, and Mythril, which upgrades the power of your moves. This feature is a handy modern touch, and careful mixing and matching of your moves and stances can prove crucial, particularly when you’re on your final life.
For a game best enjoyed playing with a friend in the same room, Neon isn’t all that accommodating for multiplayer. There is one particular gauntlet late on involving rockets and crushing-claw-things that seemed out of place in two-player mode, and with the game’s tardy ducking and running mechanics.
Similarly, the sections where you can only see character silhouettes may be aesthetically pleasing, but are hopelessly confusing when there are several characters on-screen, baddies on the ground who are virtually invisible, and two player-controlled characters who are identical save for the colour of their shirts.
Yet Double Dragon: Neon manages to get away with its many annoyances, because it’s a bit of a charmer. There is a lot of love here for previous games in the series: from the ogrish baddies Bimmy and Jimmy (a reference to a typo in Double Dragon 3), to the original pixellated Billy and Jimmy being your avatars on the stage select screen. It’s clear that developers WayForward have a lot of respect for the franchise’s history, seasoning it with some endearing references while making the game look and sound decidedly contemporary – post-80s, if you will.
Even the sometimes-unfair gameplay feels like ‘how things used to be’. We gamers of today are of the logical mindset that even games at their hardest have a design that will ultimately reward the players who show enough skill. Like many games of the era it references, Double Dragon: Neon doesn’t always play by these rules. For all the joyous, spin-kicking battles you’ll have, your gameflow will be stalled by infuriating game design.
While laughing at the game’s references, bobbing along to the music, and mimicking the game’s catchy soundbites, there were plenty of moments where my gaming partner and myself would exhale frustratedly, and wave dismissively at the screen in a kind of ‘why the fuck am I even bothering with this game’ way.
However, beyond these moments of red mist, the reasons for bothering are clear: it’s a beautifully-presented 80s pastiche, and for anyone with some kind of sentimental connection to that era, it’s hard to resist the synth sounds, simple gameplay, and the neon lights…
Image credits: WayForward, Majesco