One of my favourite games growing up as a young boy in the early 1990s was Double Dragon II: The Revenge on NES. Now THAT was one fine beat-'em-up, dare I even say the BEST brawler on the system. The first game was okay — a good shot at bringing the punchy arcade original to the small screen but lacking in co-op multiplayer aside from a tacked-on one-on-one fighting minigame. And the less we say about how the extremely unbalanced and unfair Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones crushed our hopes, our dreams, and our thumbs, the better. No, Double Dragon II was the way to go, sending you through nine stages of enemy hordes and colourful locales. And who could forget that legendary "dramatic" cutscene when our heroes, Billy and Jimmy Lee, jumped onto a helicoper mid-takeoff with a profound "G-R-A-S-P"? Those were the days. But the series took a sharp nosedive soon afterward. Super Double Dragon on the SNES was decent, but the series started entering one-on-one fighter territory and lost its way, only to be revived with forgettable remakes and retoolings.
Out of nowhere, in December 2016, Arc System Works announced that they were releasing Double Dragon IV, a sequel, the following month to celebrate Double Dragon's 30th anniversary. They had already acquired ownership of the franchise in 2015, so it came as no surprise that EVENTUALLY they would do something with it, and what better time to do it than on a birthday? Arc System Works, known mostly for their Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fighting series, actually has a bit of history with Double Dragon: they actually developed the Sega Master System port of the arcade game back in 1988, making it one of their first releases. Add to this the fact that several former Technōs employees that worked on the Double Dragon games on the NES are back to crack their knuckles and give the series another breath of life.
In an odd switcheroo, Double Dragon IV is actually the sequel to Double Dragon II, rather than III. Arc System Works has rearranged the series' timeline so that the third game happened after the first, followed by the second, which featured the death/resurrection of the Billy Lee's girlfriend, Marian. (Perhaps they're just trying to shove the third game to one side, as it was a dismal failure in the eyes of many, this reviewer included, for a multitude of reasons.) After the supernatural revival of Marian and the defeat of the Black Warriors in Double Dragon II, Billy and Jimmy Lee opened up a franchise of dojos across the United States to spread the word of the art of Sōsetsuken. While driving in the desert, they are run off the road by mysterious baddies who need to be taught a lesson. Meanwhile, as they are crunching heads with their kneecaps, Marian is captured by followers of the Okada Sisters, who seem to have a beef with the Double Dragons. (Or just the "Double Dragon", as the game calls them at least once.) The kidnapping scene is a direct visual homage to the original Double Dragon, as we see Marian getting socked in the ovaries again and carried off by gang hoodlums.
What is most prominent is that the game is visually modeled after Double Dragon II in a retro NES style, a divisive decision among fans. Some are very accepting and welcoming to the hearkening to the classic days when the franchise was at its peak. Others simply shrug it off, calling the move lazy and uninspired. On a personal level, I'm glad they pulled directly from Double Dragon II, as it's the game where the series looked its best, but I can definitely see the other perspective. More than half the enemies are literally recycled from the past with possibly a mere clothing palette swap to differentiate them, and that is the definition of comatose design. Arc System Works really WAS banking on nostalgia here. Even many enemies of the past are making a return here: Roper (possibly mistranslated in the game as "Rowper"), hairless Abobo, Williams, Burnov... I also didn't expect to see green and gray Abobos, either. Sadly, I wish Abore, the overmuscled strongman in green commando pants who closely resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger, had made an appearance. I miss him. But there are new characters, mostly ninjas and this one pushover with a skull mask.
The soundtrack, though sufficient, hardly qualified as outstanding, pulling a few ditties from the past while wedging in some new tunes. The title screen music and the intro/ending theme for each mission is pulled directly from Double Dragon, which is odd, considering Double Dragon II was the primary inspiration for this sequel. You have the option to switch between a more modern arrangement or a "retro" style, as though it was being played through the NES sound chip. I had to play using the retro choice, as the "modern" style just sounded too generic for my tastes. At least the old-school blips and punches could stir up some memories.
Gotta spend fast! Gotta go broke!
Fans of Double Dragon II will easily recognize many of the moves Billy and Jimmy can utilize. The classic punch, kick, and jump kick are all back, along with series mainstays such as the uppercut, the ol' grab 'n toss, and the legendary Cyclone Kick. The brawler gods have smiled upon us, granting us a separate key (or button, as I was using a controller for this) for jumping. No longer are we forced to press Punch and Kick at the same time to leap! That DOES make life a little easier, especially when initiating a Cyclone Kick. There were a few new moves that caught me by surprise; randomly executing a Spinning Headbutt, for example, isn't something I expected. The controls are decent but relatively stiff, making gameplay feel clunkier than it ought to be. Equally troubling is that when you are kicked to the ground, the heroes stay down longer than they used to. Though it's not a huge deal, it does make a difference when it comes to the game's overall flow.
Double Dragon IV is a tough quest. It really is, and one of the main reasons behind that is because, unlike the games on the NES, there's a little more technological wiggle room. That freedom gave the designers license to face you off with up to six enemies at a time, as opposed to two on the NES. And they CAN gang up on you. And they WILL.
Granted, the game is short. Its twelve missions can be zoomed through in about an hour or so (especially with the game's option to continue from any previously completed mission on the title screen, which comes in handy). To counteract the naysayers who would say Double Dragon IV is far too short for the price, Arc System Works added a couple of extra modes to prolong the experience. Upon completion of Story Mode, players unlock Tower Mode, an endurance round where you ascend floor after floor of a tall tower, fighting enemies on each floor, seeing how high you can get on a single lifebar. The higher you get, the more bonus characters you unlock for Story Mode — and this is cool, if only for one reason: you get to play through the Story Mode again as Abobo.
There's also a two-player duel mode, visually very similar to the one featured on the original Double Dragon for NES, just with more unlockable characters. But here we are in 2017, and there isn't any online multiplayer. (The PlayStation 4 version gets "Share Play", though it requires both players to be PlayStation Plus members and is limited to one hour's time, but the PC version gets even less consideration.) That means, at least for my version, I'm limited to local multiplayer. And if I didn't have two controllers on hand, that would mean I don't usually consider online multiplayer as a make-or-break factor, but a game like this lacking one, in 2017, as a sign this was a rushed job.
Overall, I'm not dissatisfied with the game by any stretch, but I think more could have been done to enhance the end product beyond merely pulling at our nostalgic heartstrings. If the goal was just to create a sequel that syphoned the feel of the old games, then to that extent, they've succeeded well enough. But with blatant oversights to marry the old-school gamers with the new generation, there's a long way to go. That all being said, I enjoyed myself playing this new iteration in the Double Dragon franchise, and if this is a sign of more to come, I'll all for it. Just... come up with something a little fresher and a little more polished next time, yes?