Double the Dragon, double the fun.
The brawler genre has seen an uptick in popularity these last few years, the most notable examples (in my opinion) being the absolutely superb River City Girls from WayForward & Arc Systems Works and Streets of Rage 4 from Dotemu and Lizardcube. Both sequels updated the graphics and gameplay, while maintaining the spirit of their respective franchises. It’s a tough needle to thread, but I think both efforts were successful. Back in 2012, which seems like a different geological era now, WayForward partnered with Majesco Entertainment on a similar modernized reboot of the forgotten Double Dragon series: Double Dragon Neon. That game never came to the Wii U, but has now hit the Switch. How do Billy and Jimmy Lee stack up against their newer compatriots? Pretty well, in fact, as long as they’re both in the mix.
There’s a lot to love about Double Dragon Neon, maybe nothing moreso than the overwhelming ‘80s aesthetic, from the brother’s high-fiving buffs to the early detour into space and the game’s big bad, Skullmageddon, who bears more than a passing similarity to a certain cartoony Eternian overlord. There’s even a boss fight that reminds me of the multi-part Technodrome battle from the original NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. Unlike typical coin-op brawlers, Neon tries to keep you more engaged with dodge and duck moves (but no dips or dives) that, when timed correctly, refill your special meter and give you very temporary boosts to your attack power. When both brothers are brawling, they can initiate high-fives to cause various buffs or debuffs (don’t leave a bro hanging, dudes).
Additionally, enemies will often drop mixtapes, of which there are several varieties divided into two main types: stat effects (stronger defense, quicker stuns, e.g.) and special attacks (fireball, super powerful short-range punch, a dragon spirit, e.g.). One of each can be equipped at any time. Collecting multiple copies of a given tape strengthens it, up to ten copies. But wait, defeating bosses will net you Mythril, which can be used to pay a “Tapesmith” to further increase your tape limit. Players are encouraged to revisit previous stages to stock up on mixtapes and Mythril, and I can attest that is a great idea.
The brawling itself is fairly simplistic: Billy & Jimmy have punch and kick combos, including jumping attacks and crouching attacks. Stunning enemies allows an uppercut, and following that up with a ground-pound defeats most standard foes. You’ll also find weapons (which quickly break) and barrels to throw. Soda pop and batteries recharge your health and special meters, respectively. The trick here is that Double Dragon Neon almost requires you to get really good at dodging and ducking. Even low-level baddies can take off surprisingly hefty chunks of your health, so evasion is critical for success. I had a hard time getting the timing down on dodging—the window for a successful dodge is quite brief, so expect to take some hard knocks while you learn the technique.
Dodging complaints aside, Double Dragon Neon is great fun for two players (locally), especially if you and a friend really enjoyed those other two brawlers I raved about. As in River City Girls, if one bro dies, the other has a decent amount of time to revive him (using a patented ‘80s maneuver) before anyone loses a life. You can also stock up on extra lives (fairly cheaply) at shops--although you can only buy so many. I suspect, though, that two-player mode may be the only way to really enjoy Double Dragon Neon, as I found the game more frustrating than fun by my lonesome. It’s easy to get ganged up on by yourself, and boss fights especially become wars of attrition. Powering up your mixtapes definitely helps (I would argue it’s required for solo play), but that just means you spend most of your time grinding for mixtapes, Mythril, and moolah in already-completed stages and dumping a lot of money on extra lives.
The game looks fine, although you’ll see a lot of palette-swapped enemies. Personally, I prefer the pixel art of River City Girls or the amazing hard-drawn art of Streets of Rage 4, but the 3D models of Neon are clean and animate well. I’d also be doing a disservice if I didn’t mention the soundtrack by Jake Kaufman; there are some real toe-tappers in here, and a real departure from his Shantae and Mighty Switch Force tunes.
If you can get a friend on the couch with you, Double Dragon Neon is a big, dumb, fun dose of 80’s nostalgia.