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Double Dragon: Neon
Graphics: 7.8
Gameplay: 8.3
Sound: 8.1
Control: 7.9
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 8

Dude…Double Dragon. Even if you’re not old enough to have fond fuzzy memories of sauntering along with a buddy, beating on relentless low-IQ baddies and having a blast, you’ve at least heard of the name. Thankfully, in an age where the concept of a side-scrolling brawler would be laughed at as a big-budget production, such old-school concepts can still thrive in the downloadable world. And although Neon is too taxing at times and doesn’t support online co-op, it’s still the iconic franchise you remember, only with some extra flair.

This extra flair really takes center-stage throughout your brainless but oh so entertaining adventure. There’s a surprising vividness to this colorful presentation, and the special effects are unsurprisingly leaps and bounds ahead of anything we had in the past. This sounds superficial and perhaps even trivial to the die-hard fans out there, but this visual upgrade really makes the whole silly experience shine. There’s some solid character and level design and overall, while it can’t be classified as impressive, one can certainly appreciate this graphically improved bash-fest. There’s a fair amount of environmental variety, too.

The developers embraced the funky corniness of the franchise by implementing electronic ditties that remind us of the good ol’ days. That soundtrack is obviously a little more diverse and accomplished now, but it’s still an homage to Double Dragon’s roots. Plus, Billy and Jimmy Lee aren’t afraid to show off; the clichéd victory shouts are cringe-worthy but undeniably humorous and fitting. So when they nail someone with a bat and yell, “Touchdown!” or perform a leaping high-five after making an opponent look horribly foolish, you’re bound to grin. Add in the very cool flash of the graphics and you’ve got an appealing package for gaming veterans.

As always, the story is the most important part of Double Dragon. …no? It isn’t? Oh, right. It isn’t. There are usually about a dozen lines of dialogue and a small handful of ten-second cut-scenes in a double-D production from yesteryear; the focus is always squarely on the side-scrolling fighting action. But just to satisfy you— The sexy Marian is walking in a dark alley (Marian ain’t too bright) and suddenly, out jump the goons, who sock her once in the gut and haul her away. Of course, Billy and Jimmy are nearby; the duo appropriately emerges from a garage door and the fun begins.

It all sounds like vintage DD, right? Well, I have to say that this fresh throwback is actually more loopy and zany. It was hard to tell if the first titles ever took themselves seriously because back in those days, all games were like that. But there’s no doubt that not a sliver of Neon is supposed to be anything but fantastically over-the-top tongue-in-cheek action, featuring plenty of 80s references that will make anyone my age smile with pangs of whimsy and melancholy. We’re chasing down Skullmageddon, which is an example of how wacky we’re getting…

On top of that unabashed craziness that we didn’t really have in the old days, there’s a fair amount of depth in the fighting mechanic. Now, back then, you really only had a few moves and defense really wasn’t part of it. I still remember going through Double Dragon II on the Gameboy (yes, the original unit) without dying once, just because I had mastered the flying uppercut. No such tricks work all the time in this game, and you really have to go beyond the basic punching and kicking. Still, the underlying structure remains; hit ‘em a few times and they’re stunned, remember?

You just need to be more precise than you remember, and you also have to take advantage of your duck option. You can hammer at buttons just like you used to when you were a kid, but you’ll soon find it makes far more sense to be rational and calm. Now, to me, that’s a little against the spirit of the game and I almost think we could’ve done without this added depth. Not that I’m complaining, per se; if you kept the same simplicity from those archaic titles, I have no doubt this would’ve felt extremely bare-bones and even boring. Even so, the balance seems a little off here…

First of all, successfully ducking causing your character to shine with extra power, which means just about all foes will drop in a hurry. But this can be tough and there were times when I could’ve sworn I was out of range of an attack, but I wasn’t. Furthermore, the game really encourages you to use the duck, because that’s the only way to obtain that extra power; rolling out of the way won’t do it. If you’re feeling overmatched, there are goodies to unlock that will assist your character. These give you new abilities that can be either passive or active, and add another layer of depth.

Then there’s the level-up process, which I really don’t think this game needed. You can buy extra stuff (called Songs) for your fighter but in order to really progress, you have to grind quite a bit, and that includes a lot of rough encounters. And because there’s a limit to how many Songs you can initially carry, you sort of have to replay levels over and over to get a lot stronger. Sure, you get better as you play – a staple of old-school gaming – but constantly ducking at the right time to annihilate everything got a little tired…at the same time, it reminded me of that aforementioned flying uppercut I abused way back when.

So in other words, the underlying and undeniably charming style hasn’t gone anywhere, and this brawler is still a blast to play. Playing with someone else sitting next to you brings back even more memories and despite the addition of the Songs and the amped-up combat mechanic, it still feels very similar. And that’s the best part. It gets a little frustrating toward the end, often requiring you to go back and earn more Songs and get stronger, but that’s okay. The fun factor remains sky-high throughout and just like with the old titles, you never want to stop playing. Well, sometimes, when the enemies are starting to feel all sorts of cheap.

In general, though, Double Dragon: Neon is a great throwback; a retro game that isn’t entirely retro, an old-school experience that reminds us of times long gone. It’s self-deprecating and totally loony, it’s vibrant and rewarding, and although a bit on the short side, you’ll want to play it again…and again (ideally with a buddy). There’s some grinding involved that I didn’t expect and the combat balance is questionable but then again, it has always been questionable in this series. That’s sort of like a trademark, almost. It’s too bad that you can’t play with a friend online but you know, that’s not really in the spirit of DD, either. Get what I’m saying?

The Good: Colorful, attractive presentation. Cheesy music, effects, and voices add the necessary retro memories. Extra depth adds immersion. Fighting mechanic rewards the dedicated. Playing with a buddy never gets old.

The Bad: Tough parts require some grinding. Combat can feel unbalanced (and unfair). A little short.

The Ugly: “Duck...missed me…now you’re dead. …okay, done that too many times.”

9/20/2012   Ben Dutka