Fight for Right with the Might of the Dragon

The 80s were a time when the groundwork for many of today’s great gaming franchises and genres was laid out. This era of 8-bit goodness is what galvanized many of us gamers into becoming the hardcore players of today and still inspires many developers and publishers on the creative side. And one of those classic genres that is still emulated even now is the side-scrolling beat ‘em up. And one of the best of that era was the original Double Dragon.

But even as the side-scrolling beat ‘em up has continued moving ahead, the Double Dragon franchise never moved past the early 90s and so for many of us, a nostalgic piece of our childhood has remained there, never updated or revamped like many other classic franchises of the era. Until now.

At PAX East 2012, we were able to go hands-on and play the first two stages for Double Dragon: NEON, an overdue re-launching of that classic franchise being spearheaded by Majesco Entertainment and WayForward Technologies. This game isn’t just a spruced up port of those original Double Dragon games on the NES and in the arcade though. The best way to describe what we saw overall was a blending of those original beat ‘em ups with some over the top elements from something like Big Trouble in Little China including a spaceship and Marian being strung up in a Kim Cattrall like pose after her kidnapping.

In all this, the game will look to pay homage to those original games while mixing in some tongue-in-cheek 80s humor and references that will make all children of the 80s smile a little bit. You’ll see it in everything from the art style to the high-five co-op mechanic (more on that in a bit). And there are a lot of things that do get carried over from the original games to appeal to the old-school fan.

From the game starting with Marian getting punched in the gut and getting carried off by random thugs, to Abobo being the first boss you face, and Linda still cracking her whip, which you can in turn pick up and use against other foes, old-school fans will hit a lot of recognizable beats before the story starts to take a new direction with the new main antagonist, Skullmageddon. My only concern is that newcomers to the series may immediately see the art style that tries to blend those yesteryear layouts with today’s sensibilities and not pick up on many of the game’s throw-back references and pass on something they don’t quite understand.

In order to help lure in new fans though, the game will look to have the polish we’d expect from a modern title and feature a lot more complex moves and abilities that will take advantage of current controllers. The controls felt great, even in the somewhat early build we played, and a series of new and more involved combos allowed for juggling enemies like never before. There is also a new abilities bar that, although not active in our demo, is supposed to allow you to customize your own 80s mix-tape cassette with a variety of Double Dragon inspired powers like throwing fireballs.

I think a key that will appeal to fans old and new though will be the co-op, or as the guys from Majesco prefer, “bro-op”. Supporting both local and online 2-player co-op, where players can take on the roles of the brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee, the game has added mechanics to try to stress that NEON, much like the original arcade games, is best played with a friend. And in that, we get another popular 80s reference being worked into the game, the high-five. Although the animation right now may not be the most masculine of maneuvers by the Lee brothers, there is actually a key strategic element to this as depending on what direction you hit the right joystick to initiate the high-five, you can share health or your ability meter to help your friends stay in the game.

When we were done with the demo, I have to admit I was pretty impressed. As a side-scrolling beat ‘em up, the game handled very well and in terms of staying true to the tone of Double Dragon, I think NEON is a fine successor to bring the series back into the limelight. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing what final product looks like come this summer on XBLA and PSN.