Game of the Month: August 2016
Double Dragon - Arcade / Multi-Format
We do love magic, I mean, you know it’s not real but the idea that something that absolutely cannot be is in fact happening right in front of your face is just great. An illusion is the one thing that as an adult can make you feel like a child seeing something for the very first time. There’s something quite powerful in that, so is the magic real or is it merely a real sensation based on misinformation and misdirection? Who knows?
With that in mind we turn our focus onto what can easily be regarded as one of the most amazing magic tricks of all time. Creating something seen by many, if not most, as the originator of something when it was in fact actually a combination of the perfection of ideas that came before with huge dollops of new ingredients. The end result is the videogame equivalent of making the great wall of China vanish.
When a game can make you believe it’s the benchmark hallmark of a genre and do it in such a way that deep down in your heart you know it’s true then that videogame deserves some serious applause. It’s also worth noting that depending on your age none of this makes any sense to you because, for you, something from Sega or Capcom has that honour makes the pick for the Game Of The Month for August 2016 something quite special indeed. Ladies & Gents, and those who snuck in through the open staff door at the side of the hall let’s spend some time with one of the greatest videogames of all time. The one and only… Double Dragon.
First released into the Arcade halls of Japan in 1987, Double Dragon is the non associated follow-up to the highly rated and regarded Renegade videogame from 1986. The technological and spiritual successor it contains many of the existing elements of it’s predecessor but by adding a few crucially important ingredients it manages to completely step out of it’s shadow to create a game of such immense quality and impact that in retro circles and especially those in the late 30’s and above age wise is THE benchmark for the entire genre.
The game’s story is centred around two brothers by the name of Billy and Jimmy Lee (although they also have other names according to some American Cabinet’s accompanying paperwork, Hammer & Spike) who must travel the dangerous streets of a violent city in order to rescue Billy’s love interest, Marian who is kidnapped at the start of play by members of the Black Warriors Gang.
It’s a truly iconic opening sequence that has not only been the subject of about a million animated Gif’s on the internet but also appears on T-Shirts and numerous references in other pop culture. Very few Arcade cabinets had such impact heavy starts although Sega fans will of course draw attention to games like Space Harrier and After Burner. Where Double Dragon stood apart though is that everything instantly felt very ‘Warriors’ movie and with action flicks with gangs being very much the in-thing during this period it allowed gamers to effectively control their own movie adventure. An illusion obviously, but a very convincing one.
Although an existing genre, this new videogame raised the bar once more by allowing the action to smoothly and at a good pace scroll from left to right. Techno’s previous game Renegade had a much more simplified two screen per level area switch which gave a great illusion of level progression but Double Dragon completely buried it just 12 months later. It’s here that we start to see how something already familiar to gamers of the time suddenly felt like a completely brand new original gameplay mechanic, and it was, but at the same time sort of wasn’t. There’s that illusion of creative game design once more.
As Billy and Jimmy make their way through the games four stunning (for it’s time) levels they come face to face with hoards of enemies from the gang that have taken Marian.
In order to defeat them and keep going they must dispatch said bad people using their advanced mastery of Martial Arts. Using the Arcade cabinets 3 buttons and control stick the player can perform a combination of simple kicks and punches whilst also more elaborate attack moves with correct timing and button combinations. Why kick when you can fly kick and why punch when you can do a lovely Elbow to the face. Going even further why not grab your opponent and knee them in the face. Sounds violent, and it absolutely was however by the application of Martial Arts Double Dragon managed to also tap into the enormous wave of interest in Kung Fu Movies that had begun in the 60’s, reached fever point in the 70’s thanks to Bruce Lee movies in the West and had become the backbone of a huge amount of action films for the 80’s generation. Kids from Japan and North America, Europe and everywhere else on the planet could now be that Kung Fu Hero properly.
Some enemies would also carry weapons with which to attack you with and whilst this raised the danger levels immensely it also added in a fantastic risk/reward element whereby once the enemy was dispatched you could then proceed to use the dropped weapon to aid you. From whips and clubs to sticks of dynamite Double Dragon raised that bar even higher in terms of what you could do in the game. It’s real money maker and trump card however was that whilst all of this sounds (and is) great on your own, how much better would it be with a friend? Simultaneous Two Player gaming is the reason kids flocked to queue for hours to play this game, I know… I was one!
Stunning graphics, big sprites, cool music, tons of enemies, weapons and level placed objects to pick up and throw were the main reason’s hundreds of thousands of gamers never had change in pockets. It was all in the metal currency bins located behind the coin slot of Techno’s stunner!
Being a smash hit arcade game in the time of the game industry where it most probably had the most formats of home computers and consoles at the same time meant that home conversions were a must. With that in mind just about every single system of the time and for many years after were treated to ports. The Europeans, in love with the 8-Bit computers of the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Sinclair Spectrum all got versions and the 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST fans were also taken care of.
The two biggest versions however were of course for consoles that were absolutely massive in the three biggest territories for videogame releases. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Famicom Japanese name) was in absolute control of regions like the USA and Japan itself and so the home port for that was a massive seller. Whilst a generally decent enough version it unfortunately lacked that one key gameplay element, it had no Two Player simultaneous mode. Other limitations included only being able to have two enemies on screen at once and both had to be of the same type. Weapons vanishing and some seriously bad sprite flickering also hampered play now and again however for many it was still seen as more than good enough.
The real 8-Bit star of the show however was the Sega Master System version which not only had a better graphical look and feel, it also had that essential Two Player co-op option and could also have more enemies on screen. Overall and even with it’s few niggling failings it’s widely regarded as the superior choice for that generations console gamers. The Amiga and Atari ST versions were of course vastly superior in graphical terms as was the eventual Sega Megadrive / Genesis version but that Sega Master System game was absolutely raved about in games magazines of the time and ended up in a huge number of gamers homes (especially those from Europe)
Having completely taken the world by storm Double Dragon would go on to see two direct sequels appear on multiple gaming platforms as well as spin-off videogames connected to the franchise such as teaming up with the Battletoads for the NES and Gameboy.
Unfortunately whilst the second game performed very well and has a very large fan base the overall brand of Double Dragon diminished over time as more and more graphically complex arcade scrolling Beat em ups appeared to take everything forward in visual terms. What Double Dragon did do better than almost every other game of it’s genre and era is both capture multiple interests of gamers of the time such as action movies and Martial Arts thereby creating a permanent pedestal for it to stand on for others to try and reach. Double Dragon is both a perfect videogame and also the perfect snapshot of where the entire industry was at a crucial time for the overall evolving gaming landscape.
Other games would come and take a shot at the title and for a great deal of people games like Final Fight by Capcom and Streets Of Rage 2 from Sega would easily surpass Double Dragon in every real sense except one… They didn’t do it first. Something about originality, even if it’s crafted from fragments of inspiration from other examples stands strong against the winds of time.
If we head back to the opening paragraph of this feature we mention the word ‘Magic’ and in every single possible, tangible sense Double Dragon is magic. Some of what it does is illusion, some of it is absolute misdirection but when you see it, when you feel it, it’s real! It both was and was not the first of it’s kind and it’s managed to still be on the minds and lips of gamers from several generations of video gaming lovers 29 years after it‘s first release.
Double Dragon stands like a lighthouse that proudly and defiantly projects it’s beams of influence whilst the waves of water signifying progress constantly crashes against it. Without doubt it is the very soul and therefore benchmark of the scrolling Beat Em Up genre because the stuff it borrowed is completely outweighed against the plethora of incredible things it introduced. Things that went on to become the standard. One could almost call it the Brett Hart of videogames. The best there was, the best there is and the best there ever will be!
Play Double Dragon, imagine you are in 1987... experience perfection!