The mere mention of Double Dragon elicits a flood of very fond memories for me. I remember first encountering the game at an arcade convention back in 1987, and absolutely loving it. I'd enjoyed early beat 'em ups like Data East's 1984 Kung-Fu Master, and particularly liked Technos' 1986 genre-defining Renegade (whose original Japanese name incidentally translates to the brilliant-sounding Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio). But Double Dragon? That took the brawler concept to the next level.
While it featured the same basic punch-kick-jump controls, and an almost identical viewpoint as Renegade, Double Dragon dialed up the gameplay with simultaneous two-player action, a more sophisticated repertoire of moves, and the ability for players to knock the weapon out of the hands of an enemy, and then pick it up – as well as other ambient objects – and use them. The game became one of the big arcade hits of the year, and was ported to almost all of the contemporary gaming platforms of the day, from the ZX Spectrum and Sega Master System to the Game Boy and Genesis. Hell, even an Atari 2600 version was created (by Activision, no less).
Most players, however, remember Tradewest's NES version. I reviewed it back in the day and ended up giving it a score of 83%. Despite knocking it for its flickering sprites and lack of simultaneous two-player action, I thought it played well, and I liked the additional one-on-one fighting mode that was also incorporated into the game.
At this point, you may well be wondering why I'm highlighting the NES version of the game, and fortunately the answer to this mystery lies in the very next sentence. Rather than aping the original coin-op's 16-bit style, or bringing the series bang up to date with modern audio-visuals, Double Dragon IV, in case you didn't notice the screenshots yet, is a hardcore retro game that looks (and indeed sounds and plays) like someone at developer Arc System Works discovered an unreleased Double Dragon IV NES ROM down the back of their corporate sofa, and emulated it on PS4. The period attention to detail is really quite remarkable, and to all intents and purposes, Double Dragon IV feels like a brand new NES game.
The action takes place after the events of Double Dragon II: The Revenge (which, rather confusingly, follows on from Double Dragon III: The Rosetta Stone). The story, articulated through a series of NES-style intermission screens, reveals that after overcoming the power of the Gensatsuken technique, Billy and Jimmy have set up Sōsetsuken dojos across the US to preserve the peace. While they're on their way to their San Francisco headquarters, a mysterious group called The Renegades runs them off the road, and the intrepid duo learns that this evil organization has captured Billy's girlfriend, Marian. And so begins a journey from the states to Japan as the heroes take on not only The Renegades, but also members of the Black Warriors – enemies that might be familiar to those who've played Double Dragon II: The Revenge.
This mission of mercy involves battling through typical Double Dragon-style pseudo-3D street levels, as well as navigating tricky 2D platforming sections. A quite comprehensive suite of fighting moves is available to the player, from simple kicks and punches, through classic combos like spin kicks, roundhouses, back elbows, and uppercuts, to new techniques such as the spinning headbutt. Enemies that are groggy from being punched or kicked can also be grabbed, pummeled in a variety of ways, and thrown, and both Billy and Jimmy have their own unique signature moves in the form of a jump elbow, and axe kick.
Even though the action is a little more sophisticated than prior NES games in the series, Double Dragon IV plays very much like a period 8-bit release. The heroes feel a little stiff and slow, and positioning your character so that he can attack enemies can sometimes be frustratingly tricky – especially when numerous denizens are swarming around him. Care also has to be taken when approaching the edge of the push-scroll screen, as enemies can hit you before they appear.
Indeed, Double Dragon IV features numerous oldschool design mechanics that don't really feel like they belong in a game created in this day and age. Enemies sometimes wait at the tops of ladders, making it next to impossible to climb them without being clobbered, and some of the platforming sections are particularly unforgiving, requiring pixel-perfect jumps and spot-on timing to navigate hazards such as spinning and disappearing platforms. For those who love the challenge of old games, I'm sure that this authenticity will be highly appealing, but I just found it made the action frustrating. Many of these techniques were used to make games deliberately difficult in order to extend their otherwise-short playtime, and unfortunately they just don't quite sit on the right side of the line between feeling challenging and fun, and simply being cheap.
Fortunately, the difficulty is offset somewhat by the game's five continues that enable you to carry on from the exact position where you died, and once your continues run out, you're able to use the START button to begin a new game from any prior mission that you've already tackled. Using these options, it's possible to play through the game in about an hour or so, which unlocks a new challenge – Tower Mode.
This is a single-life test of endurance where you battle through a series of enemy-packed levels, trying to progress as far as possible. Success sees you unlocking new characters to play in Story Mode, as well as the game's two-player duel mode – which is basically the same as the player versus player option that was incorporated into the original NES Double Dragon.
As a package, Double Dragon IV puts me in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, I'm really impressed with the sheer retro-authenticity of this game. If you told me that it was an original NES game from the early 90s, I'd believe you. It's absolutely spot-on, from its design and gameplay through its occasionally glitchy characters to the way the screen tears when it scrolls. But on the other, it's a warts-and-all retro game. Some of the frustrations I have of certain old games are prevalent here: Particularly cheap deaths and a lack of depth and variety.
Despite packing a few new special moves, Double Dragon IV's combat isn't particularly involving, and even though figuring out how to best deal with the different enemy types is initially fun, the game just recycles them repeatedly, resulting in the action soon becoming repetitive. The platforming sections help break up the brawling a little, but even so, I didn't find them particularly compelling.
I respect the developer's decision to create an utterly faithful NES-style experience, and I think that for many retro-gaming fans, it'll be highly appealing. If you're hankering for a game that feels like it's come directly from the golden age of the NES, Double Dragon IV delivers pretty much exactly what you want. I certainly had fun with it for a while, but unfortunately for me, its novelty just didn't last.
The Nitty Gritty
- Interface: Simple, but effective.
- Lasting appeal: Once you've completed the Story Mode, there's the challenge of the Tower Mode. However, the gameplay does unfortunately get very repetitive.
- Sound: Excellent. There's a choice between a more contemporary soundtrack, and oldschool NES-style tunes.
- Visuals: Authentic to the 8-bit era. Even some of the sprites are taken directly from prior NES Double Dragon games.
Double Dragon IV feels like the developer Arc System Works discovered an unreleased old NES game and emulated it on PS4. Its graphics, sound, and gameplay are utterly authentic to the period. Unfortunately, so are its cheap shots and frustrating design elements. It's certainly a lot of fun to play for a while, but once its nostalgic novelty wears off, only hardcore retro fans will likely want to come back for more.
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