This is a Double Dragon Gaiden review, played and tested on Xbox Series X. Double Dragon Gaiden is available for $24.99 / € 24,99. Double Dragon Gaider is also on Nintendo Switch, Playstation and Steam.
As a kid, I was mildly into games. I played Pitfall! and Space Invaders occasionally on my sister’s Atari 2600, but that’s about it. I never begged for an NES, Master System, or a home computer. Things changed, though, while I was on vacation and ran into an arcade on a boulevard somewhere in the Portuguese Algarve.
In this arcade a British kid, around my age, was playing this Double Dragon arcade cabinet. I was familiar with arcades, but I had never seen a game like this before. I stood there idly for a good few minutes until the kid hit the ‘Game over’ screen. Despite being around 10 years old, I knew a bit of English thanks to Sky Channel (and ‘Fun Factory’ in particular), allowing us to communicate. He invited me to join as 2P, and from there, a new arcade gamer was made. Every day, we would individually beg our parents for a bunch of Escudos and than meet up at that arcade. I learned English curse words; he learned Dutch curse words, and we both had a great time.
Since then, I was obsessed with recreating the Double Dragon experience at home, which led to me having an arcade machine and Double Dragon PCB in my bedroom for years.
Double Dragon revitalised
You can imagine my delight when the news hit that this franchise, obviously dear to my heart, would be making a come back with Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragon. The idea of Double Dragon receiving the same love, respect, and dedication that games like Turtles in Time, Streets of Rage, and River City Ransom (in the form of River City Girls) received the last couple of years made me feel a little tingly inside. The previous offering Double Dragon NEON, didn’t do it for me. It felt too distinct from the source material, in many ways.
The original game set a standard for the beat ’em up genre for years after its release. However, when compared to its remastered counterparts, the core gameplay didn’t withstand the test of time as well. While “River City Ransom” introduced RPG elements and “Turtles” showcased dynamic and fast gameplay, “Street Fighter” brought much more depth to its fighting mechanics. “Double Dragon” served as the precursor to all these games but was comparatively simpler.
So, in reimagining the game, the developer Secret Base had less to work with. Yet, they also faced the challenge of ensuring it unmistakably retained the essence of a Double Dragon nostalgia. In practice, this meant retaining the core aesthetics and the assembly of characters the franchise had generated throughout the years, while infusing it with a whole new energy.
A good starting point is that it genuinely looks like a Double Dragon game, capturing the spirit of the original arcade games and early console offerings. Following the approach of TMNT Shredder’s Revenge, Secret Base has kept it colorful and pixely, much to my delight. The characters, actually have character and personality with bubbly animation and short but on-point spoken catch phrases. The environments are colorful yet typical Beat’em up fare, remaining distinctly identifiable as a Double Dragon game, with lots of fun little details.
The core focus of Double Dragon Gaiden fighting gameplay is on the Crowd Control mechanic. If you manage to defeat three or more enemies with a Special KO at the same time, you get rewarded a ‘Crowd Control’ bonus. This bonus contains a health powerup, SP points, and a nice load of cash. How many enemies you defeat in one blow, determines how much, life, money and SP you gain, symbolised in the tropey but classic trash hotdog, hamburger or turkey. If your health is at 100%, picking up food will actually become worth some cash as well. So keeping your character healthy will be quite rewarding.
You can get a Special KO by off’ing an enemy with one of the three Special moves a character has in it’s arsenal of abilities. But also throwing or kicking enemies into traps or eliminating them with a weapon will ‘Special KO’ them. You do need SP to execute a special attack, represented in a SP-bar, that can be filled by picking up little blue gems and hitting enemies with your regular attacks and grab moves.
Manage your bars
At this point the game becomes fairly strategic, managing the SP-bar and trying to catch enemies in your special moves and these chain special moves together to clear the screen faster and increase your earnings. You can also use a full SP-bar to switch to your second character, creating another layer of strategy. Part of the lifebar is slowly refills of the character in rest while the other character is in play. The game invites you to play around with life-bar and SP-bar management. It is essential to keep both characters at 100% health as much as possible. Once you are cornered or overwhelmed by enemies, this can fall apart quite quickly, with you needing to switch back to a survival strategy and try to restore control over the screen by trying to execute Crowd Control bonuses ASAP.
Your earnings can be invested in different ways. You can buy character upgrades in between (sub) stages, let’s you buy tokens or revives your characters if they are both knocked out. You can also forfeit your game’s playthrough progression and exchange all the cash you have at that point into tokens. This has the consequence that you lose your playthrough save. You need the tokens to unlock all the extra goodies in the game or to return to the last checkpoint, when you are out of money to revive your characters. For some reason, Secret Base opted for this very convoluted way to add some dynamic to the way you unlock content and you make progression in the game. It does give you some hard choices to make, but is so unneededly complex. There must be a better way.
Stage of conflict
The game is divided into four main stages, each representing a different gang that holds dominion over the city. Out of these stages, three are further divided into two or three parts. Once you defeat the initial stage, you gain the freedom to tackle them in any order you prefer. However, the game’s difficulty level adapts dynamically based on the number of stages you have already cleared, rather than being determined solely by the stages themselves. This unique approach adds a refreshing twist to the gameplay.
With the tokens you gain, you can unlock all the (sub)bosses as playable characters, unlock tips, game art and music. This turns into a forfeit/reward loop to unlock all the characters and trinkets. Do you stop before you start losing money as you may need to revive your characters because you can’t finish of a boss effectively? Or do you continue, finish te game, but end up with less tokens? This adds a really small essence of rogue-lite to the gameplay, although any form of character building is cleared, once you decide to take the tokens instead of reviving the characters. The idea is cool, but execution is somewhat complex.
The roster of characters extends beyond the Lee Brothers, Jimmy and Billy. Right from the outset, you have the option to play as Marian and Uncle Matin. While Marian was originally the damsel in distress, she has since evolved into a fully independent, gun-toting agent. Armed with a handgun, she excels in long-range crowd control. Her arsenal includes an overpowered ‘arresting device’ and a rocket launcher akin to the Stinger, making her extremely effective in tandem with one of the two original characters.
Each character offers a distinct and unique style of play. In fact, they differ so significantly that teaming up with another character can present a challenge, as it often demands an entirely different approach that you have to adjust for a good minute.
Set your own difficulty
The game offers a lot of ways to tune the difficulty. Ease up the difficulty will have an effect on how much tokens will cost. Every playthrough the game asks you how difficult you want it and shows you how much money tokens will cost as a result up front. All these options and ways to earn and spend tokens feel a bit convoluted, especially in your first hours in the game, but it starts to make sense once you play through the game a couple of times.
With so much ways to manage these tokens it almost distracts from the core beat’em up gameplay. And at it’s core the fighting mechanics are serviceable but a bit blend. Your characters haven’t got a deep basic skill set, but the game opens up when you take the Specials in account. The Specials go quite deep, with three special moves connected to different button combinations (Y, up/down+Y or Left/right+Y), all having specific characteristics which comes in handy in different circumstances. Once you unlock the tips with your tokens, you learn the depth of these special moves. You can cancel them, connect them with running, etc.
Streets of Rage pacing
The characters don’t move particularly fast. Double Dragon Gaiden’s pacing has quite a lot in common with Streets of Rage 4. Like SoR4, it is more methodical than hectic or nerve racking, It is balanced quite well and the stages are long enough that the four (plus one) stages offer enough variety. It should keep you busy for at least 12-15 hours before it starts to feel monotonous.
Somewhere in the middle
It falls in the middle with most gameplay aspects between the top notch brawlers everyone wants to compare it to, and the more classical retro arcade recreations we see pop up lately. SoR4 has way more levels and offers more variety and River City Girls has more depth in story and production. Shredder’s Revenge is just a different game all together, with it high pace high octane action. Double Dragon does offer a similar kind of experience and the added Super KO mechanics and all its power ups and unlockables. This at least, sets it apart from other, more straight forward retro arcade offerings like Fight ‘N Rage, Final Vendetta or it predecessor Double Dragon NEON.
Double Dragon Gaiden : Rise of the Dragon is just a really solid offering with enough to do. It has layers to peel off and characters to learn and master. It doesn’t set the world of fire, but anyone should be able to get an enjoyable experience out of it. Gamers willing to put in the energy to really master the game, will get a layered and intricate fighting system that could keep you entertained for a quite long time.
The reward mechanics in "Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragon" might seem a bit convoluted, but its highly addictive Super KO and Crowd Control mechanics make it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It is able to authentically tap into the nostalgia, while creating a completely original gameplay experience. With a sizable and distinctly diverse playable cast, attractive presentation, and intricate fighting mechanics, this game is one that genre fans can fully engage with while still being very accessible for casual gamers.