They don’t make games like Double Dragon anymore. While the parallels between coin-guzzling arcades in the 80s and today’s free-to-play mobile fare run more than skin deep, it remains a relic. Simple, straightforward, and brutal, it’s uncompromising from the get-go.
No special “mobile” difficulty can blunt its force — nor that of its sequels Double Dragon 2: The Revenge and Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone. All three are reproduced here in their full glory, warts and all, with touch controls for the gamepad-lacking and the usual host of extra features that you’d expect from a re-packaging of a classic series.
Bruce Lee Got Nothing on Billy
The kidnapping of Billy’s girlfriend, Marian, at the start of Double Dragon is immortalized in gaming canon. It symbolized so much of its time, produced in a world where games got straight to business. Like the action film stars of the day, Billy and his brother Jimmy pursue with a reckless vigor — both more interested in beating nameless thugs senseless than in thinking things through.
The result is an unspectacular side-scrolling beat-‘em-up that earns its much-flaunted reputation for a handful of innovations, the biggest of which are two-player cooperative play and the ability to pick up weapons dropped by enemies. You can walk, jump, punch, and kick, with a few special moves that combine these (like a flying kick or elbow uppercut).
Enemies start out simple enough, if you know what you’re doing, then rapidly ramp up in skill and strength. They’ll weave in and out, dancing up and down the screen — taunting you to take a swing. They throw knives, swing baseball bats, and punish your every mistake. Double Dragon was designed to destroy you, and you’re meant to like it.
The trouble is that it’s actually not a good game. There are strong points, sure, like colorful and varied backgrounds and cool animations, but it’s repetitive and clunky — even forgiving the awkwardness of touch controls that try to replicate physical buttons — and intentionally unfair.
DotEmu has done a solid job on the remastering, though, with optional graphics filters and a toggle between original and remastered music added to gamepad support, local (Bluetooth-enabled) co-op, three difficulty levels, two game modes (Arcade, which like the original requires you fight from the beginning every time, and Story, which lets you start from any level), and what appears to be a faithful reproduction of the game itself — including any bugs and timing issues that plagued the original.
Revenge is Sweet
Double Dragon 2 adds much needed polish. More moves (spin kicks!), more enemies, tighter controls, cleaner visuals, and a boatload more craziness (including poor Marian getting riddled with bullets in the opening scene) make it bigger and badder in all the right ways.
This port curiously swaps the original DD2 arcade control setup of left attack, jump, right attack for the first game’s punch, kick, and jump combo, which changes the experience and undermines the design in subtle ways that are sure to anger fans of the 1988 game and delight anyone who struggled to adapt to that control scheme in the first place.
DD2, like its predecessor, would rather you die than reach (and defeat) the final boss, but there’s less of a sense of animosity against the player, and the added variation makes for more fun. On the flipside, however, Double Dragon 2 is way too similar to Double Dragon — to the point where you might as well skip the first one and just play the second because it’s more update than sequel.
(And then see if you can track down the NES conversion of Double Dragon 2, which isn’t included in this Trilogy remastering but went the extra mile to offer unique levels that properly differentiate it from the first Double Dragon.)
Double Dragon 3 goes the whole hog, with much-improved visuals, totally-new scenery, slick new animations, and a shop that was originally designed to suck up more of your money but now just provides bonus perks (limited to one per location). The result certainly resembles the first two games, but it has a starkly different feel.
You trot around the world through five stages in search of three Rosetta Stones that will show the way to a mysterious new bad dude, once again kicking, punching, whacking, stabbing, and otherwise killing/severely injuring the hundreds of disagreeable ladies and gents you pass along the way.
Combat feels more refined than in the prior two titles, but it also proceeds at a slower, rougher clip — seeming to slow down slightly when several characters are on screen. It’s also more in line with today’s gaming sensibilities, thanks to a grittier presentation and the presence of an actual story arc, but it suffers from excessive difficulty and occasional hit-detection problems.
Blast From the Past
If you missed out on the Double Dragon games the first time round, or if you always wondered how the arcade versions compared to their console counterparts, there’s little reason not to pick up Double Dragon Trilogy — especially if you have a Bluetooth gamepad and a buddy to play co-op with.
Touch controls have never worked well with twitchy games that require more than one button, and the trilogy on offer here is no exception — but credit goes to DotEmu for letting you customize button placement and size, which allows you to tweak things until the on-screen controls jump from crap to bearable. Precision is the issue, I’ve found, with quick and small movements hard to pull off without a physical joystick, and advanced fighting techniques similarly burdened.
They are solid ports of classic games, though, and this was clearly not a quick-and-dirty cash-in. The special Mobile difficulty almost balances the difficulty scale for fun over frustration, the new graphics and sound are passable, the Story mode includes fascinating brief histories of each game, and the killer feature of the arcade games — cooperative play — makes the jump to Android more or less as intended.
The games don’t hold up as well as you might hope, unfortunately, but Billy and Jimmy still bring enough muscle and brawn to the table to make this blast from the past worth your attention.
Double Dragon Trilogy is a solid remastering of the beat-'em-up classics from the arcades of the late 80s — barring the awkwardness of touch-screen controls for those without gamepads. But the games have lost some of their edge, more than 20 years on.7