Double Dragon IV nails the basics, but leaves its fighting spirit on the cutting room floor.
As a product of the early 1980’s, I’m one of the countless millions of golden era gamers who cut their teeth on Technos Japan’s 1987 arcade blockbuster, Double Dragon. The game was a classic, refining the beat-’em-up formula that games like Karate Champ and Renegade made popular in a way that made it a breakaway hit for the Japanese developer. Since then I’ve made it a point to jump at the chance to take control of brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee whenever I can, punching and kicking my way through numerous arcade and console sequels of varying quality.
Like many longtime Double Dragon acolytes, I tend to feel that Double Dragon II: The Revenge is probably the zenith of the series. To be more specific, the NES version of Double Dragon II was my poison of choice. Apparently, some of the folks at Arc System works seem to feel the same way, because Double Dragon IV pays serious homage to this 8-bit classic, right down to to many of the sprites and musical arrangements that round out the package. However, while Double Dragon II is a game that will likely live on for eternity on the hearts of many old school gamers, Double Dragon IV fails to capture the magic of its inspiration, delivering a largely by-the-numbers brawler that never quite manages to pummel its way out of mediocrity.
The story of Double Dragon IV begins with Billy and Jimmy Lee driving through desert to visit their new dojo in San Francisco. However, suddenly a car runs them off the road. And to make matters worse, the hapless Marion is once again captured by a shadowy gang of martial artists. Not ones to simply let this act of savagery slide, Billy and Jimmy once set off on a journey that will take them from Mad Max-inspired desert wastes to the heart of Japan to deliver a trans-Atlantic beat-down to a familiar host of baddies.
The core fundamentals you’d expect from Double Dragon are certainly intact here. Billy and Jimmy can deliver punches and kicks and their powerful roundhouse. And punching or kicking just as you recover from a fall can result in a punishing uppercut or flying knee that can send your foes soaring across the screen. Other new moves, like a weird spinning headbutt, can be performed with more elaborate button combos. But more often than not, simply force-feeding punks knuckle sandwiches seems to get the job done. You’ll also be able to pick up some comically huge objects to bludgeon baddies with, as well as utilize the usual knives, whips, and big freaking rocks to help even the odds.
Mechanically, all of this is fine and well. If you enjoyed the feel of Double Dragon II back when it landed on the NES, you’ll dig what Arc System Works has done here. The problem is that despite being a fundamentally solid experience, Double Dragon IV comes across as a lazy and uninspired addition to the series when compared to the games that came before it.
The chief issue here is the game’s stages themselves. Simply put, they are wildly inconsistent in terms of quality. Each of these arenas will take you from familiar settings we’ve seen in the series before, like hidden martial arts dojos, ritzy casinos, and plenty of urban arenas. The thing is, some go on for quite awhile – which is a good thing – while others end abruptly after completing a mere two screens. It’s a jarring experience, and it’s one that makes nearly half of Double Dragon IV’s stages feel like unfinished throwaways. Double Dragon IV also sees the return of those maddening platforming stages, teeming with more disappearing platforms and conveyor belts than you can shake a whip at. And they’ll still result in plenty of cheap deaths, but at least you don’t have to hold A+B to jump anymore. It’s the little things, right?
The areas you’ll be exploring aren’t the only things that feel unfinished in Double Dragon IV either. In fact, much of the game smacks of being a mere shoddy ROM-hack than a full fledged numbered entry in the Double Dragon franchise. One stage has you traversing atop a speeding truck, with new backgrounds appearing suddenly out of thin air as each successive wave of baddies is killed. Other areas feature moving elevators or helicopters hovering overhead, but there’s no sound to accompany them – a feature the NES games had – and this awkward absence of sound is definitely noticeable and serves to cheapen the experience. Given how many assets were lifted or modified from previous games in the series, it’s really disappointing to see that this little bit of extra effort wasn’t spent to make Double Dragon IV feel like a more complete experience.
Of course, a beat-’em-up is only as good as its bosses. And given Double Dragon’s rich history of memorable antagonists, it’s mind boggling to see how Arc System Works managed to drop the ball with Double Dragon IV. Iconic villains like the masked Burnov and the beefy Abobo are a joy to fight the first time around, but they literally end up capping off multiple stages in a row. Considering how often they’re also thrown in as fodder during the stages themselves, these cameos quickly lose their luster, and you’ll find yourself wishing there were more original villains to round out the cast. Still, the new bosses, like the masked Cody and a hulking sumo who can send you flying across the stage, are fun additions to the roster of hoodlums you’ll face.
Playing through Double Dragon IV shouldn’t take experienced players much more than an hour. And after you’ve wrapped up the game the first time a Tower mode is unlocked, allowing you to test your skills against a number of challenges in order to climb the tower and face off against a secret boss. There’s also the return of the duel mode, which allows two players to slug it out for supremacy using a variety of characters you unlock in the main game and Tower modes. These modes probably won’t keep you coming back for too long, but they still add some nice padding to the overall package.
Double Dragon IV isn’t awful, but it’s far from the best game in the series, and hardly manages to edge over the much maligned Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones. Its nostalgic retro aesthetic is pleasing though, and when the beat-’em-up action is at its best you can see some real flashes of promise. It’s just too bad those moments of fun are buried in an otherwise uninspired and dull brawler that feels more like a fan project than a real addition to one of gaming’s most beloved brawler franchises. That said, if you’ve been hoping for a grand return to form for the Double Dragon series, this sadly isn’t it. Then again, considering the game’s mere $6.99 asking price, you could definitely do worse.
Still, if you’re feeling nostalgic and want to party like it’s 1989, you can check the game out for yourself here.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4 ; Publisher: Arc System Works ; Developer: Arc System Works ; Players: 1-2 ; Released: January 30, 2017 ; MSRP: $6.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Double Dragon IV given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.