If one were to go through my reviews, I would guess that quite often I discuss my deep and abiding love for certain classic games. Given that all of my reviews are written from a template I downloaded from ‘studyguides.org', I'd go so far as to say I mentioned it every time I covered a game that belonged to a long-running franchise, since doing that is paragraph 3 of review type 7 "Classic Game Updated".
When I look at my long and storied relationship with games, there's every other game in my childhood, and then there's Double Dragon. How much did I play this game? So much that, without fear of hyperbole, I can state that if I had set aside every quarter I put in the machine, I likely would have been able to pay for college entirely in loose change. Although that would mean that I would never have played all that Double Dragon, and I can't imagine what kind of person I'd be today if that were the case*.
So it was with some excitement that I noticed recently that Double Dragon was available on Xbox Live for the meager price five dollars. Loading the game up, I was happy to see that, in addition to the abominable graphics of the new version, as you can see in the Leprechaun battle pictured below, the original graphics were available for those so inclined. I was less than excited to hear the awkwardly remixed version of the theme song that played on menu screens. The Double Dragon theme is my favorite 8-Bit theme of all time, and the only way to hear it is to play all the way to the boss fight. Thanks, developers at Razorworks.
Starting up the game, I noticed something that my younger self had apparently been completely oblivious to. Double Dragon is a terrible game. Just awful. Really, inexcusably bad. So bad that I'm a little angry at my younger self for not noticing this a little earlier. I mean, sure, I was able to recognize its level of quality among 2.5 D beat ‘em ups as being better than Renegade and worse than Final Fight, but it's so littered with problems that I'm shocked that it was released completely unchanged, save for the terrible new graphics. Something like Frogger can be released without change or commentary, because it's just Frogger. As hard as it might be at times, everything works the way it's supposed to**. The same cannot be said of Double Dragon.
The first, and biggest problem is the slowdown mentioned in this post's title. At the time I first started playing Double Dragon, I'd only ever encountered slowdown once before, in certain Legend of Zelda screens, especially when using the projectile sword. It was frustrating, but only appeared in a very small portion of the game, so on the whole, not a very big impact. Double Dragon has slowdown any time more than three characters are on the screen at the same time. When two of those three are being taken up by the titular Double Dragons, you can be assured that the majority of the game will be played at jerky half-speed.
It's a little embarrassing that a game with such a major problem would have been released, but hey, it was 1987, and every videogame had massive technological limitations, this just happened to be one that pushed them a little too far. The thing I don't understand is how, twenty years later, the game can still have crippling slowdown. Isn't the Xbox 360 roughly 3-4 Billion times more powerful than the circuit boards that ran Double Dragon all those years ago? If the flaw was somewhere in the game's coding, why not take the time to re-code it? It wouldn't even have cost any more money had they used the time and resources they'd planned to spend on their ugly-as-sin new graphics.
If that were the sum total of Double Dragon's problems, it would still be a crippling, deal-breaking failure. But there are just so many other problems with this game. Here's a few others: Baseball bats have no sound effect when they hit people. There's a broken bridge that has to be jumped over to avoid instant death, but the pixels on the screen have little to no relation with its size according to the game's logic. What's funniest, though, is that the developers were completely aware of the game's three biggest problems, and rather than attempting to address them, they referred to them as ‘features' and listen them in the ‘hints and tips' section of the menu.
Tip 1: The Elbow Smash is the Most Useful Move in the Game
This is completely true. It's also an example of terrible game design. Allow me to explain. The game's combat system is extremely broken. The players and their enemies have mostly the exact same movesets, speed, and hit range as the player. They also have the computer's ability to know exactly when they've entered range. Basically this means that the computer almost always gets the first hit in, which inevitably leads to a series of hits. In addition to this, the enemies can duck whenever they like, rendering them impervious to damage of any kind. All put together, this makes the combat extremely cheap and very difficult, which explains the dozens of quarters I pumped into the machine each week. Sadly, as a child I didn't have access to the internet. If I had, another player could have told me that I was making the game fifty times a harder than I had to by following its rules.
Instead of fighting enemies, all I had to do was turn my back, let them walk up close, then use the power elbow. It seems that, because of a quirk in the enemy AI, foes will walk to within millimeters of the player before attacking from behind, giving the player all the time in the world to throw an elbow into their face. This strategy works on every single enemy in the entire game. It's so effective that the player need never do anything other than elbow, and, with the exception of a single cheap platforming instance, the game is easily beatable on a single life.
Tip 2 and 3: The Enemy AI is Terrible
The next two tips point out various ways that the player can ‘trick' the enemies into killing themselves. It seems that the developers forgot to program a fear of dynamite into the enemies, so the moment after it's thrown, they forget what it is. All the player has to do is back away from the dynamite, and the enemy who threw it will walk directly over it. By a quirk of fuse length, the dynamite will invariably explode directly under the enemy's feet.
Far more hilarious is the second suggestion, that, by careful moment, the player can trick the enemies into walking into hazards, killing themselves. What this really means is that, while for the most part, the programmers have hard-coded the instruction ‘do not walk here' into most of the game's sheer drops, there are a couple of different locations in the game that the programmers forgot to draw an invisible line over, causing the enemies to just walk right over the edge. Here's the earliest position where it can happen:
If the player stands down and to the left of point A, any enemies on platform B will just walk straight down, killing themselves. Yikes.
I mentioned in my review of VF5 that, at some point a series' strange, off-putting design decisions just becomes that game's style, and can no longer be questioned or critiqued: If you didn't like endless cutscenes and almost no gameplay, then why are you "playing" a Metal Gear Solid game?*** That being said, it's folly to go back in time and attribute an air of quality to a game just because it was influential.
For all of its flaws, Double Dragon certainly was influential. Coming out a year after Renegade, which had introduced the idea of a 2.5 Dimensional beat'em up to a wide audience, Double Dragon was a huge improvement. Bigger, better-rendered characters, varied, scrolling environments, and a variety of weapons set it apart from the crowd. It was also full of little details that set it apart from the crowd, like the way knives could be kicked out of the air, the way weapons thrown by enemies could hurt other enemies, and the fact that players could choose between throwing barrels at enemies, or merely kicking them across the screen.
Double Dragon provided an important stepping stone that would lead to Capcom defining the beat'em up genre with Final Fight, as well as leading to its own long franchise of titles (including the profoundly depressing Double Dragon 2: The Revenge) and even a feature film adaptation. In a special, console-only addition, Double Dragon the NES adaptation introduced most players to a 1-on-1 fighting game for the first time ever. None of that success excuses the game's obvious flaws, however, and I'm frankly stunned by just what a mess the game is. I'm more stunned that I didn't see it at the time.
That's not to say the game isn't worth purchasing, it just depends on whether the individual player values an incredibly flawed piece of gaming history at more or less than five dollars. Since that five dollars represents a fraction of a percent of all the money I'd ever spent on the game, for me, it wasn't a tough decision.
Really, though, it's a terrible game.
*(Actually, I can imagine it. I would be a more well-rounded person with better social skills who wasn't struggling under crippling student loan debt. So... yeah.)
** (For the record, Frogger's new graphics are also abominable.)
*** (However, Kojima's decision to stick MGS3 with a top-down camera is still inexcuseable, which Konami admitted by re-releasing the game with a better camera in Subsistence. This was a landmark moment in videogame history - for years, players have struggled through difficult games, and wondered whether the game was actually hard, or if the camera just sucked. In the case of MGS3, the camera just sucked.)