Review – Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
The 90s was a wild era, with cartoons depicting Biker Mice from Mars and Street Sharks dressed in ripped jeans and denim shorts. It’s also the decade when I lived my most formative years. Unfortunately, they were also full of hospital visits. That didn’t stop this wee lad of seven years from making the most of his situation, though. I vividly remember sitting in front of my CRT television, playing video games well into the night. My mom would be desperately trying to get me to sleep, but to no avail – I was captivated and maybe also rambunctious. My dad was in the living room enjoying his JRPGs, and since I was young, I didn’t fully understand the nuances of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy, but there was a genre I did get.
Beat’em ups were immensely popular back in the day, with Streets of Rage and Double Dragon being huge franchises. As time went on, however, they both went into hibernation. While the former did release a fourth to incredible acclaim not long ago, the latter struggled, that is, until now. Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons feels like the faithful re-imagining I have patiently waited for. The question is, does it connect with a knock-out blow?
Literary prowess has never been phenomenal in these kinds of romps. The premise is usually basic as hell, and that’s no different here. New York has been ravaged, and the culprits are four unique gangs. In true 90s fashion, I’m tasked with kicking ass and taking names. If you expect more depth, well, let’s just say it’s a no-diving zone. Things are shallow, and to be honest, I’m eternally thankful for that. Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons manages to capture the soul of the older entries. I felt a river of nostalgia flooding in whenever my enemies would spout small quips before engaging in fisticuffs. It’s cheesy and definitely only exists to fluff the experience, but it also inserts that slice of quirkiness that helps complete the package.
The main selling point of this genre is, and will always be, the gameplay. It lives and dies by that sword, so it had better be an addictive go. Luckily, I can confirm that Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is the epitome of dumb fun. Now, it’s important to note that when I say it stays true to the spirit of those 90s classics, I meant it. Back then, unless you were an engrossing JRPG, the length was typically brief. From start to finish, it was common not to have to commit a whole day to reach the credits, and that holds today. In total, I reckon my session ran three to four hours. Now, I know mentioning such a short duration may act as a repellent, but maybe explaining this madness will help.
See, a person is supposed to desire to replay this adventure. It isn’t because Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is a roguelite, but that there are a healthy number of unlockables. Frankly, it’s the proverbial hook, if you will, and one that, again, is rather reminiscent of a bygone generation. By hammering the gangs infesting the streets of New York, I gather bags of dinero. Then, after defeating sub-bosses, I’m given an opportunity to pick from a selection of three perks, each having a price attached that reflects the quality of the bonus. From increasing your health to bolstering the cash dropped by the opposition, I was giddy by this smidgen of experimentation. It also allows me to differentiate my runs minutely.
Obviously, obtaining upgrades means monetary investment, and sure, after defeating the initial crew of goons, it appears to be expensive. Upon seeing that, my thought was I had to be frugal, but that’s not the case. I have to applaud just how balanced it is. I was never struggling and always turned out with a surplus. Affordability isn’t a problem, giving me the freedom to concentrate on strengthening my character with the most optimal abilities. RNG certainly has a role in what my options are, but the majority is useful, meaning I would usually be buying. In those stupidly rare instances when the pointless skills materialize, I can opt to receive a lump sum of $750.
While funds seem to be a pivotal factor, I’m actually not purchasing unlockables with it – at least, not directly. Instead, I’m using special tokens not found within the game proper. While plowing through the multiple mobs of fodder, I won’t stumble upon them. The actual method to get it is morbid in that, through death, they’re calculated against a trade-off of $1000 to one. I had to die, which was a chore because there was little difficulty spike. I wasn’t ever sweating to advance, and usually, when I would get a game over, it was due to overconfidence. Otherwise, there isn’t a semblance of cheapness. If there’s still worry that Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is a walk in the park, though, rest assured as modifiers that tweak attributes are available, and they can have the bonus of passively affecting the exchange rate.
If I look before jumping into story mode, I’ll see a tiny list of options. These are accompanied by toggles, allowing me to manipulate the enemies I encounter. I can alter their stats for a particular session, placing more of an obstacle before me. By adjusting aspects like strength, it introduces a rush of adrenaline as I have to keep on my toes. I’m continually engaged, staying focused on the action on screen. It’s a test of reflexes which is invigorating. This mechanic is a classic example of a risk versus reward system, too. To be stout, it comes at the behest of the price of tokens skyrocketing. The opposite then occurs if I were to turn the AI into savants of combat. Most vitally, despite my lack of snappy reactions, I never fumbled my position or got tied up, handling it with ease.
The beat’em up style can be a tough sell to some due to its inherent repetition. In Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, yes, the level variety is minuscule, having only four areas in addition to the super secret final boss. If all subsequent playthroughs after my first time consist of me traversing the same maps over and over, then I’m sure the immediate assumption is redundancy will creep in. Well, if it does, then I never felt it, thanks to a nifty feature. See, whenever starting a new file, I can pick the order of groups to scrap with. If, say, I want to battle with junkyard ninjas, and I emerge victorious, then afterward, the locations of the other gangs receive an expansion, opening up a further section. It not only becomes harder, but also aids in keeping things fresh longer, unless you’ve got a terrible memory like moi.
The level design is drenched with the 90’s aesthetic. It comes with gorgeous pixel art. It has so much going in its favor, but sadly, while AI isn’t cheap and won’t spam techniques, following a pattern, what is unfair are the few environments. For example, if I’m scaling a trash pyramid or a cliff, it guarantees that my character will inadvertently roll off the edge once or twice. I may try to avoid a bullet or rogue punch and not notice until it’s too late. The punishment is steep, suffering 30 points of damage. Due to the frequency of the accidental falls I had, as well as the knockback properties of my foes, it’s devastating. Hell, I died more to that than anything else.
Moreover, it undermines the liberty of picking stages freely. I had to now plan out a better route that would avoid anything to do with heights. I wanted to keep the plummeting to a minimum, so I had no choice but to adapt. Fortunately, a single patch can address and fix this issue. I’m not talking about removing it altogether. Lowering the penalty accrued from falling would calm the anxiety felt in these situations. I’d be more willing to attack the drones I sometimes have to jump to reach, too. Since it’s no longer life and death, any wariness I feel will fade away.
As for the portraits, well, I don’t know how to articulate it exactly, but they have this vintage feel, while the sprites uphold a modernized pixelated look. The details are superb, which also applies to the settings. It’s evident that painstaking effort went into ensuring that we, the player, can discern what is what. The aspect that has me overjoyed, however, is that as I was thrashing the punks and sumo wrestlers, I felt like I was that seven-year-old again. I felt a warmth in my tum tum, and that’s the biggest compliment I can possibly give here. A smile was etched across my face throughout my entire session, helped even further by those vibrant colors. They pop off, and seeing them on an OLED display is magical.
I’d love to spare myself from having to pen a paragraph by stating the music is bloody brilliant before moving on, but alas, professionalism is a thing. With that said, It’s not in a grandiose sense, but more that the chiptune musings are so damn catchy. Even as I’m typing this review, my inner voice is humming. As for the sound effects, well, I have no qualms. Every punch and kick has this satisfying oomph behind it. I could feel the impact, and that’s amped up tenfold once bass comes into the discussion. Suddenly, it’s harder hitting, and I can feel like I’m there dishing out blows. It helps immerse you into the action, and that’s all I could ask for.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is the revival we’ve long yearned for. It’s sleek, with crisp visuals and, excuse my pun, a punchy combat mechanic. Nothing felt sluggish, with zero stutters or freezes to speak of. The optimization is pristine, and the soundtrack is, as the kids say, lit. I love it, specifically because it harnesses the old-school ideology of being fun. It doesn’t try to astound with innovation; it just wants to deliver memories. It achieves this desire expertly. My favorite inclusion is a relic of the past, but it shouldn’t be, and that’s local couch co-op. It’s mind-blowing for this day and age, but man, I’m ecstatic. This coverage is my shortest to date, and the reason is my niece wants to play – there, that’s your endorsement to buy it.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons may not be parading around with realistic 3D polygons, but it sports a fantastic pixel art style that left me breathless. The crispness is hard to ignore, and the attention to detail is obvious.
If you’re a fan of brawlers and love gaming with friends, then this game needs to be on your next party playlist. It’s easy enough that non-gamers can grasp, and it’s fun for the whole family. Sure, you could argue it’s short, but the presence of unlockables spit in the face of those naysayers.
C’mon, need I say more than having the songs stuck in my head, especially the main theme, as I sit here filling out this box?
Good, now excuse me while I jam out.
I maybe it’s because I’m old and grey, or maybe I had a shewed perception of fun. Whatever it is, I embrace the simplicity and had a blast beating the crap out of my enemies. Yes, I definitely want DLC, but not because I find it bare bones, but because I don’t want it to end.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is available now on Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons was provided by the publisher.