Ah the classic belt scrolling beat’em up Double Dragon. Like most games from the mid 80s, it made its debut in the arcade and in the arcade it offered two players simultaneous cooperative play. The game kept going without any breaks between levels. You and another patron play as Billy or Jimmy Lee depending who was the first player. Then after a long twenty minutes, you’d beat the game and have to fight against one another to determine who truly rescues Marian.
With the wild success in the arcade, was only a matter of time before the game came home to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Well most arcade games had no choice but to come to the NES. The home versions were all different in their own way and vaguely followed the original.
Double Dragon for the NES is still a belt scrolling beat’em up, but its no longer two players at once. Instead its one at a time with both players playing as Billy Lee. The graphics are standardized 8-bit fare. Its truly a step down, but they feel timeless even after 25+ years. Its a simple clean look that created a certain 8-bit style that was used in other games like River City Ransom and Dodgeball. Another hit taken with the home port is the fact that there can only be one enemy type at a time and no more than two enemies at a time. A lot of beat’em ups fell into this handicap.
The story is simple and its the same as in the arcade, you were doing something and your girlfriend Marian gets punched in the stomach and kidnapped by some goons. To get more specific, they’re kidnapped by William, Rowper, Chin and your own brother Jimmy.
Then its on a quest to beat up everyone you come in contact with, even men and women that weren’t there when your girl was kidnapped. Its okay though, since they’re out to get you, therefore its cool if you whip them or punch them into oblivion. It’ll all be okay, you’re doing this for Marian.
The game is simple yet deep and complex. You can move in four directions, unless you’re on a two dimensional walkway. Its B to kick, A to punch and both will make you jump. Tapping one direction twice will headbutt an opponent. This isn’t just a game to save the girl, this is a game about points and score. Punches are shorter range and risky to hit enemies, but they accumulate more points.
Along the way, there’s a new twist to combat, different moves and maneuvers will be unlocked as you get more points. You go from simple punches and kicks to an uppercut that finishes off enemies. Then your kick turns into a jump kick once you have three hearts under your belt. This also means the enemies like William and Rowper can use jump kicks too. Four hearts lets you kick an enemy in the stomach at a specific range, then you can grab their hair, knee them in the face and even throw them over your shoulder. This is one of the funnest elements of the game throwing people into pits and off structures.
At five hearts you can mount a downed enemy and punch their face until they’re defeated. Stronger enemies like Chin will throw you off if they have enough health. Others like Abobo can’t be mounted, but that’s why there’s what I feel is the most powerful strike in the game and that’s a back elbow at six hearts. This elbow knocks enemies down and does a lot of damage, but at seven hearts, there’s a flashy roundhouse kick that can easily be dodged by healthy enemies.
Its this unlocking system that makes the game fun to keep going. Getting something new, having to figure out how to do it unless you have the instruction manual happy. I’d rather have a game that unlocks things than one that starts you out with an overwhelming amount of toys or tools so you’re bored of them by the end of the game.
There’s a wide variety of enemies, but they all act the same. The only real difference is their look and weapons. Linda carries a whip. William can have knives, bats or dynamite. Rowper throws heavy objects like barrels and boxes. Chin can carry and pick up knives. The boss of them all Willy has a gun that can annihilate a player if they’re not careful. It all leads up to a fight with your own brother just like the arcade, only he’s not controlled by another player. He is your mirror and has all the same moves you do, but Willy feels much more difficult because of his gun.
If you’re looking for big points you’ll avoid the weapons. While they’re infrequent they make the game easy and the points are divvied accordingly. For anyone that likes glitches or secrets, Double Dragon is full of them. Legendary glitches such as batting an invisible enemy that can’t fall over or die. Riding up the side of a building toward the end of the first stage over and over again. Throwing Chin over a small gap off screen where he can’t jump the gap to fight you. Crawling down a ladder the first time you see Chin to end the stage. The list goes on and on. They don’t break the game, they make it more interesting.
While you only have three lives and no continues, you have plenty of health to make it through the game’s four levels. For every doorway that you go through, you’ll get full health. There are even plenty of shortcuts or cheats through the game that make it fun, interesting and risky. Pushing Abobo off a conveyer belt to his doom, leaving enemies behind or throwing them off cliffs.
Then there are the painful parts of Double Dragon, such as in the caves there are falling stalactites that have a random placement and timing. These are easy enough to dodge, but getting hit by one will only cause more to fall above you with no way to dodge them. To kickoff the fourth level there are wall blocks that will punch into you and there’s no pattern; its all random. While I love randomness in games, this is a painful sort of gamble that can quickly end your game.
At the end of the third level, the game can feel like it gets into platforming territory, but I don’t mind it. The slow pace of the game lets you jump pretty easy even if the jump feels stiff. There’s a real sense of traveling in this game. Starting out in the mean city streets, going to a construction site, then heading through a forest and into caves all to end up in some stone palace.
If you’re looking to fight head to head against another player, you’ll have to take it out in mode B. The graphics are far better in mode B since its just you and another player duking it out as the same character. You have Chin, Abobo, William, Linda, Rowper and the man himself, Billy Lee. If you don’t have another player, you can still take on the computer. Each combatant has their own style, three of them have weapons. Chin has nun-chucks, Rowper has a nightstick and William has a knife. There’s just one problem though, one weapon between the two fighters. Its definitely a nice addition for the NES version.
Like a lot of games that are considered classics, it has a fantastic soundtrack. The music is incredible with a fast and frenetic pace that sounds as if its played with a chip tune electric guitar. The theme to the first stage stands out as iconic for its initial beat. The songs between stages stand out just as well as any other song in the game. Even the title track gets a lot of love to this day.
Double Dragon still stands up as a true classic today. Its just a shame that a years later the game would fall from its grace with games like Double Dragon III and Double Dragon V. Its still worth playing today if you want an hour full of beating people up with great music.