Retro is all the rage these days. You only need to head over to eBay and look for your favorite classic cartridges of yesteryear to understand that living your childhood dreams once again isn’t for those who are cash-strapped. The demand for a dose of gaming’s most legendary adventures has been strong in recent years and game makers have caught on. Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is just one in a multitude of sidescrolling, beat ‘em up throwbacks that have hit modern platforms. While it is legitimately a new entry in the franchise and not a port of a classic title, it seeks to recapture the magic of this classic, but largely dormant franchise. Sure, there have been modern releases like 2017’s Double Dragon IV, but you’d be kidding yourself if you thought these were even as remotely impactful as the arcade, 8-bit, and 16-bit eras in gaming.
Double Dragon Gaiden’s primary objective is to honor the tradition of classic arcade-style beat ‘em ups. With that said, Gaiden has a distinctly different aesthetic from its predecessors opting for a far more exaggeratively cartoony approach with character heads that are nearly the same size as their bodies. The pixelated design is fun but hardly distinguishable from other modern pixelated side-scrollers. Truthfully, fans may feel that this is visually all too familiar with games like Scott Pilgrim and River City Girls that actually do it much better. As a result, Gaiden’s art-style feels remarkably bland. It’s not horrible, but it certainly isn’t memorable.
"Gaiden’s art-style feels remarkably bland. It’s not horrible, but it certainly isn’t memorable."
With that said, the onus is on the gameplay to truly elevate this title in the eyes of genre fans. Gaiden focuses on a more youthful version of the franchise duo, Billy and Jimmy Lee. These two fighters alongside their law enforcement friend Marian, their mentor Uncle Matin, and a host of unlockable characters are tasked by the Mayor with quelling the threat of four deadly gangs on the streets of a post-apocalyptic 1990s version of New York City. You can tackle any of these four missions in whichever order you choose. You are able to select two characters that you can switch out via a tag-team system during your adventures. This tag-team operation enables you to manage your health. While your life bar depletes, there is a blue shade within the life bar that shows you how much life your character can recover if he (or she) is tagged out of the fight and rests. This is a pretty neat mechanic that encourages you to switch between two characters. Each character has their own distinctive move sets, stats, and special abilities. So, this method of play encourages players to shake things up as they move through each mission.
The combat is the button-mashing extravaganza that you’d expect from a beat ‘em up. However, with an incredible showing from modern beat ‘em ups like Streets of Rage 4, game development has improved on this classic mode of play by offering each fighter in these games more options than a simple single or dual button smash. However, in this regard, Gaiden feels hollow, not fully embracing this expansion as seen by its siblings within the genre. You can grapple enemies with one button while punching and kicking with another. A third button performs special moves with a few variations depending on which direction you’re using during the action. But this seems to be the extent of the combat aside from picking up weapons.
Playing as Uncle Matin or Marian act as an “easy mode” of sorts as Matin delivers heavy damage with each punch and Marian’s primary action is a firearm enabling her to attack most enemies from a distance without getting in harm’s way. When you create your tag-team partnership, you can mix and match between the martial arts, brawler, and shooter play types. But seriously, Marin really makes things dull and rather breezy with her overpowered attack situation. Her big special maneuver is a rocket launcher which has a wide splash damage spread and instantly knocks out casual enemies. This makes it supremely easy for her to obtain “crowd control” bonuses which we’ll get to in a minute. All of this is to say that the fighters themselves aren’t balanced which very well may be an intentional move on the developer’s part for the sake of added difficulty options.
"You can grapple enemies with one button while punching and kicking with another. A third button performs special moves with a few variations depending on which direction you’re using during the action. But this seems to be the extent of the combat aside from picking up weapons."
The highlight of Gaiden is playing co-op with a friend. I played the entirety of the campaign with my son and often, we found opportunities for our attack strategies to complement one another. For instance, I previously discussed the “crowd control” boost. You receive a bonus health item every time you take out 3 or more enemies with one special attack. The more enemies you take out, the better the health item is. When we were in need of health, one of us could switch to Marin and blast a group of enemies with the rocket launcher to obtain the health boosts we needed. As you progress through levels, you earn money that you can either spend on stat or attack boosts at the end of a mission or save to buy a revive if you die. Here there are opportunities for you to pool the money together and buy the boosts your co-op team needs the most.
For every bright spot in Gaiden, however, a misstep exists. Often I found the characters’ movement speed slow and clunky. Of course, genre fans might argue that this is the case with many beat ‘em ups. However, it felt like a true hindrance here. Sometimes, I’d miss a jump and fall off a ledge losing precious health thanks to an awkward movement speed or what felt like a disconnect between my visual judgment of where the edge of a platform is versus where the ledge would actually end underneath my feet. Additionally, some common enemy combos felt entirely unfair. For instance, if you get caught in a hail of bullets by one enemy that carries a pistol, the final shot could knock you back off a cliff if you’re next to one. That entire string of damage would take more than half of your life if you find yourself in that unlucky position.
"The highlight of Gaiden is playing co-op with a friend."
At the end of the day, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons does what it sets out to do – provide a capable couch co-op beat ‘em up for fans of the classic NES and SNES titles within the franchise. Unfortunately for Gaiden, it exists in a world where we have Fight ‘N Rage, River City Girls, and Streets of Rage 4. And while most beat ‘em ups are rather short, Gaiden manages to be the shortest one yet. However, there is a certain replay appeal available here as the boss characters and difficulty circumstances in each of the four gangs’ territories change depending on the order in which you tackle them. While there is certainly fun to be had here, especially if you have a friend to enjoy co-op with, Gaiden is neither the best nor the worst experience you can find in the genre.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Co-op gameplay; Upgradeable stats; Characters with distinct abilities.
Bland visual design; Somewhat hollow gameplay compared to modern genre offerings; Very short campaign; Sluggish movement speed.