In the post-apocalyptic “future megalopolis of New York”, which looks a lot like the New York City of the 1970s, twin brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee hone their mastery of the martial art “sosetsu”, in the company of girlfriend (of one or maybe both of them) Marian. Their peaceful existence is destroyed when jealous ganglord Machine Gun Willy sends his Black Warriors to snatch up Marian and hold her for ransom – that ransom being ancient scrolls that reveal sosetsu’s secrets. You play as Billy or Jimmy, punching your way through the slums to the Black Warriors’ fortress to fight for Marian’s life. This is developer Brizo Interactive’s reboot of beloved beat’em-up Double Dragon. The plot is the same one children of the ’80s remember so fondly, but Brizo has a few surprises up its sleeve. Unfortunately, instead of modernizing the game, some new parts of this update are downright backwards.
This mobile port is essentially an aggregation of developer Technos Japan’s original arcade version and its first sequel, so you will play many familiar stages and a few new ones: gritty ghetto, back alley, factory, gang-ridden high school, sleazy discotheque, and the Black Warriors’ hideout, all rendered in a pleasingly retro black-and-neon palate. You will encounter the full cast of denim and leather-clad street toughs from Double Dragons past, with the new additions of suit-wearing wiseguys, breakdancing fly girls and chain gang escapees. As always, each stage is headed up by a boss — you’ll recognize the giant Abobo, morbidly obese leather daddy Burnov, Bruce Lee knockoff Chin, and of course, the assault weapon-toting Willy. In the name of progress, the mobile port adds femme bosses Lavis, who hides an arsenal of unnamable weapons in her flowing fur coat, and teen rave queen Deena with her repertoire of deadly dance moves.
You have two options for battle: automatic and manual. Manual mode offers a full d-pad on the left and four right-hand buttons you can use to execute choice combos of the punches and kicks that come standard with a new character, and the special moves that you earn with experience points. The responsive controls allow quick-thinking players to execute more creative combinations of attacks, but so many buttons take up a lot of real estate on a tiny mobile screen. If yfou don’t have the patience or dexterity to deal with that clutter, you can select automatic mode, where your only fight option is to mash the attack button. This locks you into a combo of a one-two punch plus one special move, which varies by character. It’s effective against your enemies for sure, but it also makes your battles repetitive and takes strategy out of the equation. Gameplay provides satisfying visceral impact in both modes, but you are better off learning to love the challenges of manual mode, since you are bound to get bored of automatic mode’s stream of combos you can’t cancel out of.
Although Double Dragon’s campaign is surprisingly brief, the game counterbalances this deficit by offering not just Billy and Jimmy for play, but every character in the game can be unlocked to play through the story — that’s 26 beautifully designed and animated characters. Two local users can play simultaneously with a Bluetooth connection. Only Billy and Jimmy can level up with accumulated experience points, so hair grabs, headbutts, roundhouse kicks and other special attacks can only be earned by the two main characters. Many of the small fry figures, such as classics like whip-wielding Linda and muscle-bound Williams, are as weak and one-dimensional as they seem when Jimmy and Billy beat them down. However, some of these bonus characters make up for their limited abilities with unique attacks like Scott’s horizontal dropkick that propels him across the screen, or jailbird Mark’s unlimited supply of throwable dynamite sticks.
About these latter two characters: since today’s game market is rich with 3D graphics and epic plots, the main draw of a simple side-scroller like Double Dragon is its hip vintage appeal. However, sometimes media with nostalgic cache also come with uncomfortable reminders of what was not so great about the good old days. The original Double Dragon games of the 1980s were fairly innocent, but it feels like Brizo Interactive went the extra mile to inject today’s mobile edition with disturbing imagery worthy of a 1970s exploitation movie. Mark and Scott are escaped ex cons, which is a fine backstory for any henchmen, but they are also black men who drag chains from their wrists and ankles. Scott even wears a matching hoodie and shackles combining the accoutrements of America’s ugly past with the modern urban clothing that recently inspired widespread fear and controversy.
Race isn’t the only venue for Brizo Interactive’s backwards ideas; gender and sexuality are fair game too. Even though Billy/Jimmy quips in a cut scene that the two female bosses demonstrate the Black Warriors’ equal opportunity hiring policy, these boss fights conclude with victory cut scenes of the victimized villainesses badly beaten and humiliated, their torn clothing falling off to reveal battered bodies drenched in sweat. In the case of teenage Deena, your hero even uses her violent defeat as an opportunity to flirt. If that isn’t sexy enough for you, you might prefer the intro to your fight with the grotesque Burnov, a homophobic leather-daddy caricature, who lusts after Billy/Jimmy’s fine physique and expresses excitement that their battle will give him a chance to cop a feel, topping off the developers equal opportunity offensiveness.
The Double Dragon games of the 80s gave players more than enough reasons to remember them, with their relentless rampages through stylishly rendered backdrops and colorful bad guys. It’s a shame that in updating an arcade classic, the developers decided to include a bunch of unpleasant images and attitudes in this latest iteration. While Brizo Interactive does in most respects bring back the Double Dragon goods, the bigoted attitudes and imagery will likely compromise the ability of some players to just sit back and enjoy the experience. For that reason alone the game loses points. But, considering the regressive tenure of many video games, fair-minded contemporary video game players, like quantum particles, learn to exist in two places at once. So, while there’s no denying that the sensibility of the new Double Draon is backwards, in terms pure playability, it’s a solid game and like-minded (and apathetic) fans of humble old school brawlers will no doubt be grateful for the chance to clean up the streets of future megalopolis New York once more.
Hardcore with a dash of creeptastic.
Brizo Interactive’s mobile Double Dragon delivers all the delightful destruction of early versions of the game. However, its creepier updates will make you wish they’d stuck to the original script.