Right from the top, I’m going to put it out there that I’m a bit of a fan of the 80s. I regularly listen to new wave music, one of my favorite pieces of clothing is a jean jacket, and I can tell you more about Galaga and Forgotten Worlds than I can about Final Fantasy and Uncharted. Therefore, when I saw the initial trailer for Arc System Works’ Double Dragon IV, I knew I had to jump on that particular bandwagon as quickly as possible. The arcade beat ’em up is going through a mini revival of late, with games like Mother Russia Bleeds pushing the genre forward in new ways. Can a nostalgic throwback contribute to this innovation while holding onto its simplistic nature? The answer to that is personal, depending on how much any given player’s love of Double Dragon goes beyond the brand recognition and kickass soundtrack. If you’re up for an NES-style adventure, Double Dragon IV delivers in ways well beyond what would have fit onto an 8-bit cartridge.
Set after the events of Double Dragon 2 on NES (which saved 80s kids from the horrors of seeing Marrion gunned down), Billy and Jimmy Lee have established a chain of dojos across the country. Expanding into new areas puts them in the crosshairs of a pair of sisters, who attempt to take down the Lee brothers over the course of 12 stages of brawling action. While the way the game fits into the existing Double Dragon narrative is a bit overcomplicated, the plotting is what you’d expect from this type of game. Macho posturing, new enemies, and a few surprises highlight this otherwise standard plot, but it’s more than enough to keep you going on your first playthrough.
Double Dragon IV has all the moves you’d expect from a new game in the franchise, but it also adds a few twists to keep gameplay interesting. If you get knocked down, you have a rising knee and a Mortal Kombat-style uppercut which can be performed as a recovery move to knock away enemies who are waiting for you to return. You have a quick back fist to allow you a limited way to take on two characters at once, which works towards alleviating the common problem of getting between two guys and getting pummeled. In addition, each Lee brother has a few unique special moves that clear away all manners of foes, including flashy spin kicks and spinning headbutts. You can play the game with just two buttons if you’re an NES traditionalist, but the game becomes much more playable once you dive into the options and assigning each move to a specific button. Turning Double Dragon from a two button game to a six button game with a dedicated jump makes all the difference in the world.
The campaign is shorter than what you might expect from a game in 2017, and there are a few areas where I wish the developers weren’t so faithful to the game’s retro roots. Simply put, platforming has no place in a Double Dragon game that isn’t demanding your quarters, and I lost way too many lives to spinning platforms and floaty jumps. The game also has a bit of the damage knockback problem that Nefarious suffered from, but the levels are designed with generous checkpoints, and I wasn’t as annoyed here by this old school inclusion. Outside of the occasional cheap deaths, the game has a good ramp of difficulty throughout its levels, and the newer boss characters and fodder enemies were great additions to the Lindas and Abobos of the world. The ending was a bit of a cheesy letdown, but you’re reading the wrong review if you’re expecting a master class in narrative from the brothers Lee.
If you just blaze through the campaign once and call it a day, then I can see why you might find Double Dragon IV to be a little lacking. However, where a Nintendo release might have seen fit to end after twelve levels, this game has plenty of things to keep fans coming back. Beating the game once will unlock a Tower mode, testing your combat skill with a wave-based survival mode. Every few levels you conquer in this mode will then unlock a tier of enemies to be playable characters across all modes in the game. These aren’t just reskinned clones either, each character has the moves and projectiles you’d expect, playing completely differently from the average Lee brother. This gives you options and a makeshift way to tweak difficulty, as playing through the entire game as Abobo is a stress-free experience that you wouldn’t get playing through as your standard mook. The only complaint I have about these bonus characters is that the campaign’s cutscenes are skipped instead of being rewritten, but I can forgive that considering the sheer variety on display.
Graphically, Double Dragon IV preserves the NES graphics of past games to a fault, even using older sprites in some cases. On one hand, I completely understand and support the Mega Man 9 method of creating a new retro game, but some of these character models didn’t look great even in their prime. In addition, Arc System Works is known for their amazing sprite work among other things, and it would have been great to see some work being done. That being said, this game isn’t being positioned as a huge release in the same way that Double Dragon Neon was, so it makes sense why this game would go back to the well rather than try to innovate. The soundtrack has been updated a bit, and the new tunes are a decided step down from Jake Kauffman’s incredible work on Neon. Thankfully, you can also turn on the old chiptunes and go from there, which is fitting considering just how heavy this game leans on the past.
It’s pretty clear that Double Dragon IV isn’t going to set the world on fire. It’s a game designed primarily to stoke nostalgia and expand the limits of what you could expect from an authenticly retro Double Dragon experience. This isn’t going to be a game that you spend weeks mastering, but that’s a complaint that you could lobby against all but the most well-designed entries in the beat ’em up genre. Arc System Works accomplished what they set out to do here, delivering a fun new entry in one of the best retro franchises around that lives up to the games that came before. If you’re down to unleash some spin kicks, Double Dragon IV will be a great weekend fling, and I’d encourage any old arcade junkie to put up their quarters and dive in.
Double Dragon IV is a pure nostalgia trip, but it comes with enough interesting combat tweaks and bonus modes to be worth a few playthroughs for anyone with an appreciation of the NES originals.
- Interesting Combat Additions
- Huge Character Variety
- 80s Nostalgia Is Real
- Sprites Showing Their Age
- Platforming Sections
- Confusing Timeline