One of my great achievements as a gamer is beating the original Double Dragon NES game without cheats or Game Genie, just three lives and my own mettle. What can I say? I was just in the zone. I was fighting for right with the might of the dragon (I think only seven people in the world will get that reference). I got past those stupid blocks in the final level. That douche with the machine gun couldn’t touch me. And the final boss was disappointingly easy. Funny story, I went back to the game the next day with a Game Genie code to give me nine lives instead of the usual three, and I couldn’t beat it.
Anyway, strange personal tangents aside, Double Dragon was a pioneer in the beat ’em up genre. It spawned a great sequel in Double Dragon II: The Revenge, and a not-so-great sequel with cool music with Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones on the NES. After that, it got a crappy beat ’em up sequel and an even crappier fighting game on the SNES, plus Battletoads/Double Dragon, a decent crossover game for the SNES and Sega Genesis. It also spawned one of the most hilariously awesome/horrible cartoon shows and one of the most hilariously awesome/horrible movies that I have ever witnessed. After that… nothing. For a long time, we didn’t see hide nor hair of the Lee brothers. To my knowledge, there was only a Gameboy Advance remake of the original Double Dragon, which I only played once. After that, I was almost certain that the Double Dragon series was dead as Prince Imhotep.
And as it turns out, I was right! As from its long-buried sarcophagus arose the reanimated mummies of Billy and Jimmy Lee. And with them came a new game entitled Double Dragon Neon.
When I heard about a new Double Dragon game coming to the PSN, I got reasonably excited. Though it hadn’t been my favorite game series of all time, I remember always having at least one Double Dragon game in my household at any one time. So, it was exciting to finally get a new game to play. And when I did, there was only one thing that I could say.
On the title screen, you are greeted with a rather heavy and rocking remix of the original Double Dragon title screen. That’s pretty cool. Then you start the game and Marian is punched in the stomach and slung over the shoulder of a faceless baddy. At this point, I was getting a little worried. I was beginning to think that this was just another remake. But then, Billy and/or Jimmy emerges from the building and says, “Marian? Aw, man! Not again!”. So… It’s not a remake? And then we’re greeted with a rock remix of the Stage One theme from the original Double Dragon. So, that’s promising. So far, we’ve heard nothing but remixes.
The first thing you’re going to notice is probably the new look of the series. There are 3-D characters rather than sprites and, if the title didn’t give it away, everything is covered in neon lights. Now, for the most part, this is okay. Most of the characters look okay, if not a little bit weird. But then, Billy and Jimmy (you know, the people that you’re going to be looking at for the entirety of the game) look stupid! And I mean that both literally and figuratively.
They’re wearing basically the same outfits that they did in previous installments, but on the new, slightly disproportionate character models, it looks even sillier. Pair that with a slightly dimwitted looking face and a silly pompadour/mullet hair style (and look. Jimmy even complements it with some mutton chop sideburns. That’s a solid fashion statement right there), and you quickly wish that you were playing as somebody else.
The next thing that you’ll notice is that everybody moves really fucking slowly! Hey, Billy. You might walk a little faster if you didn’t walk sideways and do your ninja pose the entire time. This may seem like only a mild complaint, but honestly, this plodding pace can really get to you after awhile. There is a way to run, but it takes almost two seconds to execute and you can’t control yourself while you’re running, so it makes it practically useless. It’s not like say, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, another beat ’em up that I have recently played, where the character moves really slowly. But in Scott Pilgrim, you can start running on a whim and can move up and down while you do it. That, and you can improve your movement speed by leveling up and eating sushi, so it no longer becomes a problem. In Double Dragon Neon, it’s a problem through the entire course of the game, especially when some of the bosses can teleport on a whim and make you chase them around the battlefield.
The fighting system is kind of fucked up and, let’s face it, archaic. Just like most beat-’em-ups, your main goal is to progress to the right on the x axis to reach the boss and end of the level, but you can also move up and down on the y axis to line yourself up with an enemy to punch him or avoid an attack. And this, though it mostly works, has its problems. If you are not on the exact same plane of the battlefield as the enemy for which you are aiming, you’re hitting nothing but air, but guess what. The enemies can still hit you! Maybe I’m just imagining it, but it certainly feels like you have a larger hit box than the enemies.
Neon also falls victim to a couple other outdated beat-’em-up staples. Like the game reading your controller inputs to create psychic enemies that can dodge and counter pretty much whatever you do. And enemies attacking you from off-screen when you had no idea they were there. And enemies becoming invincible in the middle of your combo so that they can get a free hit on you, especially if they are using a weapon. And throwing in clunky platforming, a beat-’em-up mechanic that you be buried alive in a landfill somewhere, for no reason other than “The other games did it”. And all of these beat-’em-up clichés don’t belong in our console games today. They really hurt the gameplay and the overall enjoyment of the game as a whole.
That’s not to say that there are not any changes made to the formula. Double Dragon Neon, instead of allowing you to just spam the Spinning Cyclone and the Flying Knee, focuses more on ducking and rolling to dodge enemy attacks. When you successfully dodge an enemy attack with the L2 button with the right timing, you enter what’s called ‘Gleam’, where your attacks are doubly powerful for a few moments. This can be the difference between getting your ass kicked and doing some ass kicking of your own. It takes a little while to adapt to it, but once you do, it does make the game marginally more enjoyable. That would be more than marginal if the damn Gleam mechanic actually worked half the time. There were definitely moments where I would dodge an attack and get Gleam, and then just a moment later, I would dodge the same attack with the same timing, and I would not get Gleam.
I have to get off of this subject. Typing the word ‘Gleam’ so many times has made my fingers begin to necrotize.
Also included in Neon is a Special Move Bar located directly under your Life Bar. Pressing R2 activates your special move. And what’s kind of neat here is that there are multiple special moves that you can equip and level up, so pressing R2 will do something different depending on which special move you have equipped. Of course, I ended up simply using the first one you get as, in my opinion, it’s the best one. These special moves drain your Special Meter, and your Special Meter is refilled by attacking enemies.
There are also things in Neon called ‘Stances’, which are basically items that you equip and level up to raise your stats and do some other things like absorb health. This is kind of cool and allows the player to change the game slightly to fit his or her own playing style.
But, as nice as these Special Moves and Stances are, leveling them up is a huge pain in the ass. You level them up by picking them up over and over again. And, as you can probably divine for yourself, certain enemies drop certain items. That’s tedious enough as it is, but there’s more. You can only level them up so high before you have to visit what’s called a ‘Tapesmith’ and have him raise that item’s level cap, after which, you would need to farm for it again. But wait, that’s not all! You can’t visit the Tapesmith from the Level Select screen, oh no. That would just be far too convenient. Instead, you have to visit a stage in which a Tapesmith is present and progress through the stage until you reach him. This is a bullshit mechanic and there shouldn’t have been a single person that thought this was a good idea. But wait! That’s still not all! In order for the Tapesmith to upgrade your items, you need to give him Mythril, which can only be obtained by defeating a boss. And each time he upgrades an item, he requires a higher number of Mythril pieces to upgrade it again. This means that, not only do you have to farm enemies to get the item in the first place, but you have to farm bosses to get Mythril just to be allowed to farm enemies again! And considering how short the game is, you’re going to be fighting the same few bosses countless times just to fully upgrade one Stance or Special Move! Tedium, thy name is Double Dragon Neon.
Now, you may be wondering why it’s called a Tapesmith. Well, this is because your Special Moves and Stances come in the form of, for some reason, cassette tapes. Now, quick question. How many people out there that actually play video games even remember what a cassette tape is? This is where I begin to get confused about just what this game is trying to be.
At different points, it feels like it wants to be a comedy with its goofy voice acting and bosses and rocket pagodas and sing-along credit song. At others, it seems it wants us to take it seriously as a hardcore action game. Sometimes it feels like it wants to be a parody of the beat-’em-up genre. Other times, I feel like I need to leave the room because of just how much it wants to pay homage to it all night long. Sometimes, it seems to want to be a parody of itself, or maybe even the youth of today, by making Billy and Jimmy do air guitar at the end of each stage and using words like bro-op and bro-five. But, I think its main goal was to be a parody of the entire ’80s. But you see, when it tries so hard to be so many things, it kind of ends up as nothing.
And I think that’s what bugs me the most. I got nothing out of this game. Any enjoyment that I got from it was quickly counter-balanced by all of the stupid shit they threw at me. It had some comedic parts and some interesting mechanics, but it also had a stupid, simplistic story, outdated mechanics from old games, mind numbing tedium in its item improvement, and a complete inability to decide what it wanted to be. All of this makes me say that Double Dragon Neon should be played maybe once, because I can see how some people might enjoy it more than I, but I honestly don’t think it’s worth more than one playthrough.
Gameplay: 4/10: It loses a lot for using old mechanics and that whole, horrible Tapesmith thing.
Music: 8/10: I may not have mentioned it, but a lot of the heavy rock music, despite a few remixes here and there, is actually pretty good.
Graphics: 6/10: Despite a few ugly character models, they still come out a little above average, I think.
Story: 4/10: It’s far too simple and stupid. But it gets a point for being comedic and parodic.