Back in 1987, the kids loved the Double Dragon. One of the first “beat-em-ups” to really take off (and later be eclipsed by Final Fight), Double Dragon tasks you as Billy Lee, and his brother Jimmy as an optional second player, to travel into city slums and kick much ass in a quest to rescue your kidnapped girlfriend. It did very well at the arcades, and naturally, it was only a matter of time before it was ported to the home systems.
Double Dragon on the NES fares pretty well, even when considering that it has two strong strikes against it from the start. First, it’s an 8-bit port of Taito’s arcade cabinet, and the NES graphics aren’t even close. Second, and more retrospectively, the genre quickly filled with “me too” brawlers – Bad Dudes, River City Ransom, Renegade, and Bad Street Brawler come immediately to mind. If you owned an NES, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a so-called “Double Dragon clone.” Even though DD was not the first beat-em-up game (Taito released Renegade the year before), it is credited with defining the genre. So looking back, it must not only prove itself as a good game in its own right, it must also show why it is a better game than all the clones that followed – a sort of Double Dragonian quest for honor, if you will.
Some of the best classic games are the simplest – consider Tetris and Pong. Double Dragon is no exception. Though it is more complicated than organizing blocks and batting a square dot back and forth, it still consists of moving left to right and pressing buttons until you fell those who would do you wrong. Like the arcade game, you can punch, kick, or press both buttons to jump. These moves will be used to dispatch multiple carbon copies of about four enemy types, some of which carry weapons that you can knock from their hands and then pick up for yourself. Four loooooong missions later, you’ll fight the required bosses and retrieve your lady friend. Standard fare, but hey, you can’t blame a genre’s revolutionary game for lack of originality, regardless of the fact that all of its ideas have been beaten to a digital pulp by now.
The NES was four years strong when the game was released, so it was well understood by that time that arcade ports needed to offer something more than the ability to play arcade games at home without the worry of lines or quarters. Double Dragon does indeed offer some worthy exclusive changes. First is the controversial experience system. Once you collect enough points from fighting bad guys, you’ll earn a heart which unlocks a new move. When you begin the game, you can only punch and kick. After you’ve collected enough hearts, you can jump kick, spin kick, throw enemies, etc. The controversy comes in that these are all moves available to you from the start of the arcade game, and the NES simply locked you out of them. Yet it actually does wonders to keep a repetitive game fresh. The entire game is about beating people retarded, so when you can beat them retarded in a new way throughout the game, it helps.
The second NES exclusive is the “Mode B” option. Mode A is the regular arcade game, but B is an interesting, though extremely basic, tournament-style fight. You have a number of characters to choose some, including enemies from the arcade mode, and fight another character in a Street Fighter-esque battle. This is impressive, though not as original as you might think, as Street Fighter was already out and doing well in Japan by this time. Still, it’s an interesting and unique addition. Each character has different moves, some come with weapons, and you even have the ability to move into the background and foreground to dodge. It can be fun to play, but it’s certainly not what the series is known for. You’ll likely find yourself spending the majority of the time playing the arcade mode.
Unfortunately, the NES departs from the arcade version in one major and unforgivable way – no 2 player co-op mode. Two players can fight each other in the “B” mode, and there is a 2 player option in the arcade mode, but it’s the leapfrog system seen in many games of the time. Player one plays a level until they die, and THEN it’s player two’s turn to see if they can do better. Both players are never on the screen at the same time. This was a huge complaint that was wisely addressed in the sequel, but be aware that this game is essentially a single player experience.
Graphically, Double Dragon stays as true to the arcade as it can. Levels look like scaled-down versions of their arcade counterparts, and the layouts are the same. The NES includes features like ladders and gaps to knock enemies through to their deaths. The first boss, for example, can be defeated through proper fisticuffs, or simply knocked onto a conveyor belt which delivers him into a pit and bye-bye. As I said before, anything that offers some variety to your ass-kicking is a good thing, and this game doesn’t come up short.
The game’s sound is about what you’re used to for an 8-bit system. A punch sounds different from a kick, but neither sound exactly like they would in reality. Most of the effects are digital scratches, you’ll know what I mean when you hear it. The music is a high point though, with some pretty good action themes. The controls are responsive, and the double-button jump kick is not a problem to execute. A minor annoyance is that enemies do not get “stunned” while they’re being hit. You can stun an enemy with quick attacks, but right as they’re being hit, they can still punch back at the same time. This results in a lot of unnecessary damage, no matter how good or fast you are. However, the game does respond to simple combos, so juggling between your punches and your kicks is extremely effective in keeping your foes stunned and off guard.
It would be a lie to say that Double Dragon is the king of all brawling games. It’s very good, good enough to see why it launched the popularity of the genre, but some of its “clones” do surpass it. The sequel, Double Dragon 2: The Revenge, is also far superior, sporting a better plot, cleaner graphics, and a more adventurous feel overall. Still, the original is definitely worth playing all the way through, not just for nostalgia, but because it’s quite a fun brawler.
Launched the “beat-em-up” genre, simple but fun fighting action, contains some exclusive features.
No two-player co-op option, must earn your full fighting arsenal through points system, which will annoy some.