Billy and Jimmy Lee ride again
Double Dragon II NES was a staple in my household. I convinced just about every person I knew to take at least one run at it, and depending on their prowess, they'd either get bored after the first stage or rage at the final boss into the night.
That's partially because the series is so contentious among fans, with two distinct camps -- those who prefer the arcade version, and those who prefer NES. Going into the sudden release of Double Dragon IV this debate raged on, with folks questioning the staunch commitment to the retro aesthetic.
After actually playing it, I fall somewhere in the middle.
Double Dragon IV (PC, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Arc System Works
Released: January 30, 2017
Double Dragon IV's premise is just as silly as it's always been, and I wouldn't expect anything less. After triumphing multiple times over evil, Billy and Jimmy Lee set up dojos all across the US to "preserve peace." While on a road trip to San Francisco (haha), they get run off the highway, and Billy Lee's girlfriend, Marian, is once again captured.
As '90s as this is, Arc really missed an opportunity to flip some conventions on their head here, with a possible playable Marian, or even some some sort of twist -- like Double Dragon II, which opened with Marian's shocking death. In an era before YouTube, forcing players to beat the game on hard to see the "true ending" and the conclusion of that arc was revolutionary, and an attempt to replicate that in any format would have given IV that extra spark. Instead, it feels more like a by-the-numbers entry that doesn't particularly stand out.
The rest is is similarly functional and, at times, uninspired. You'll have access to single punch and kick buttons yet again, along with several other special attacks that can be performed with elaborate button combinations. Billy and Jimmy's classic knee and flying kick can be remapped, as well as the jump button (no more pressing A+B!), and that's about the only change. Being able to pick up comically oversized objects does feel like progress (there should have been more of that), as does the now smooth framerate, free of dips and glitches. If you're craving a new beat-'em-up badly, this engine will suffice.
But as well as it somehow still plays, the music and sound effects are easily the most egregious bit. Outside of the ripped NES material everything feels uninspired, right down to the "end of stage" victory fanfare and jarring scene transitions. Double Dragon IV's level design is similar -- while the old games thrived on giving you setpieces that felt unique, IV doubles down too heavily on the "road warrior" desert theme.
Enemy introductions also don't have any real weight to them. Abobo, one of the most iconic (if not the most) villains in the series, is merely shuffled onto the screen with four other enemy types, all at once, in an anti-climactic battle in the second stage. It's not that it's even hard when the game throws swarms at you, it just feels boring.
That said, a lot of the same beat-'em-up thrills are still there. Tricky pixel-perfect jumps are still fun to make just right, and there are a lot of good boss battles throughout the roughly hour (or less, if you play well) long campaign. The real joy of Double Dragon IV lies in the extra modes though, like the two-player duel gametype and the "Tower" bonus that unlocks after completing the game once.
Tower eschews the typical sidescrolling concept and places players into a series of one-screen arena battles, climbing up a literal tower to reach the final hidden boss on top. It's a system that's deliciously old school, reminiscent of classics like Devil May Cry, Bushido Blade, and Onimusha, and it works here given the extreme payoff.
Because with nearly every level of the Tower that you scale, you unlock a new character for all modes. Whether that's a common thug or a classic big bad, the constant promise of getting new stuff keeps me going. I doubt I'll be coming back to the story mode nearly as often as I do with a few other Double Dragon games, but I'll easily bust out Duel and Tower and experiment with previously unplayable bosses for sure.
Arc System Work's staunch dedication to the retro aesthetic for Double Dragon IV is admirable, but still falls short of the mark even when juxtaposed to several of the series' own entries. Punch and kicking dudes as Billy and Jimmy still works, but many elements of IV just feel a little too off-brand for my liking.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Double Dragon IV reviewed by Chris Carter
Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.
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