The last couple of years have been rather good for Beat-em-up revivals. With Streets of Rage 4 showing there is a pent-up demand for these games, and TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge showing that this demand is far from sated, we now have Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons hitting the market. Is there still life in this genre, or has the magic worn off?
Double Dragon Gaiden is a bit deceptive, but in a good way. It’s an example of a game that doesn’t show all of its cards right away. First, though it bears the Gaiden name, you should probably consider this more of a soft-reboot.
The story is set in post-apocalyptic New York City in the year 199X. It’s a throwback to the days of bad localization and paper-thin storylines, but for this game, it’s also quite charming. Riots and Criminal Gangs have spread throughout the city, making it a pretty rough place to live. The Dragons, Billy and Jimmy Lee, set out to clean up the streets. They’re joined by Marian, who, though starting the game by being brought back to the Dojo by the Mayor of NYC, is actually one of the more enjoyable characters to play as. The trio is joined by Uncle Matin, a very large, very strong grapple based character. If Matin sounds familiar, then you remember the sign above the garage in the original Double Dragon.
Each of the characters have their own unique style. Billy and Jimmy are similar, but one favors kicks while the other leans into punches. Marian is unique in that she brings firearms to the table. She can also use rockets, mines, and various other explosives. She is a bit difficult to get to grips with initially, but very rewarding once you do. Uncle Matin is a powerhouse. He is not very fast, but he does massive damage. He’s certainly the most difficult character to get to grips with if you’re just starting out.
The game’s main mechanic is that you always have a partner. You select two characters at the start, and can switch between them while playing the game. If you are playing with a friend, they too will choose two characters, so you’ll effectively have four characters on tap at any given time. It’s a nice twist on the traditional beat-em-up style that is implemented well here, with tag attacks to experiment with and develop your playstyle around.
Double Dragon Gaiden has an interesting mission structure. At the start of the game you are able to choose from the four initial stages. Each stage is representative of one of the four gangs. The Killers, The Royals, The Triangle, and the Okada Clan. Your first choice will be the shortest mission. Once you complete the first stage, you’ll see that the other three gangs move deeper into their turf. The next stage you choose will be longer and populated with more enemies than if you had chosen that stage first. This will happen each time you complete a stage, with the fourth stage ending in a set piece battle. It’s a nice mechanic, and will give you reason to experiment with different stage orders to see how the stages change.
After each stage, you are given the choice to spend your money on powerups, tokens, Health, or just keep the money. Tokens can be spent in the game’s Token Shop, which is where the rest of the roster can be unlocked.
That was a lot to get through, but Double Dragon Gaiden has a lot to it, despite what it might seem like on the surface. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on how the game feels to play.
First and foremost, Double Dragon Gaiden is fun. The moment to moment fighting is impactful and satisfying, but there are a few things that hold it back. This is a slower paced game than Streets of Rage 4 or TMNT. That’s not a bad thing, Double Dragon has always been a more methodical type of game compared to its peers. But the character’s jumping speed seems disproportionally slow to the rest of their movement. It just feels a bit off. The double jump and attack combination works well, but it too, just feels so slow to get going. Maybe this could be tightened up in the future, but as it stands now, you’ll notice it immediately.
Another thing that sticks out is the game’s lack of a vertical dodge mechanic. This game can throw a lot of enemies at you at once, and it will happen that you will take hits from projectiles or enemies that you know you could have dodged if only you could have just moved up or down quickly. Trying to use the jump to get out of the way is just about pointless. While Double Dragon has never had a mechanic like this, the fact is that it’s 2023 and it’s something that people are coming to expect in a game of this genre.
Apart from that, the only other quibble with the gameplay I have is how the game constantly interrupts the flow of the game to announce special knockouts and let you know an item dropped as a result. I thought it was fun at first, but the more of the game I played, the more it started to wear on me. A toggle for this would’ve really been appreciated.
With all of that said, the game is still highly entertaining. Getting in there and learning how to get the most out of tag attacks is immensely satisfying, and the game is challenging without being unfair. It even goes the extra mile to let you tweak various aspects of the gameplay to make the game easier or harder, depending on your tastes. So whether you like your beat-em-ups to be punishing or relaxed, you can play Double Dragon Gaiden that way. For parents who want to play the game with younger kids, this is a nice touch.
So, then, Double Dragon Gaiden is another successful beat-em-up revival. As someone who grew up playing these kinds of games in the arcade and at home, I am very pleased to see the genre making a solid comeback. This gives me hope that maybe we will get a new main installment in the series sooner, rather than later, but as it is, Gaiden is a more than suitable re-introduction to a franchise that still has a fanbase, and can still attract new players.