Published on August 7th, 2023 | by Gareth Newnham
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons Review
Summary: Double Dragon Gaiden is another solid addition to a year of excellent brawlers.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is easily the best entry in the legendary series for years.
Developers Secret Base have managed to not only take the series back to the first principles that made the original Double Dragan such a blast all those years ago but have taken its arcade roots and twisted them into a compelling risk vs. reward system that compliments its satisfying back alley brawling.
If you’ve played any side-scrolling brawler in the past 30 years, you’ll know the setup. You progress through a variety of environments while kicking the stuffing out of an army of thugs on your way to the end-of-level boss.
Where Double Dragon deviates from the standard punch, kick, pipe to the face is with a pair of ingenious systems tied to your special meter.
The first is the ability to tag in a second character whenever your special meter is full; this lets you rest one of your characters so they can regenerate health so you can keep the pressure up, or change tactics on the fly.
The second is the special moves themselves. If you knock out three or more goons at the same time with a special move, you perform crowd control. Doing this drops a healing food item; they missed a trick with the amount, though; pasting five guys at once should have rewarded you with a burger, not a turkey.
Busting open crates and skulls also rewards you with cash which is then used to power up your fighter at the end of each stage, roguelike style, by increasing their attack power or health, reducing the cost of different special attacks, or simply giving you more cash.
Another callback to Double Dragons arcade past is how the lives system works. Both your characters only have one each, and when they die, you have to pay to revive them. Alternatively, you can use tokens, gained either in lieu of upgrades or earned by cashing out at the game over screen, to continue from the beginning of a stage.
Tokens are also used to unlock new characters, concept art, music tracks, and tips (cheats would have been far more fun).
All these interesting twists would be pointless if Double Dragon Gaiden wasn’t also a ton of fun to play, and it is. Combat is impactful, and your blows have a decent amount of weight. While each of the game’s vast roster of characters feels unique and is very different to play as. Of the initial four, Billy and Jimmy give you the more traditional Double Dragon experience. Whereas Jimmy is faster and focuses on flurries of kicks, Billy is slightly slower and trades in heavy punches and throws. Uncle Matin, on the other hand, is the Max, or Haggar of the bunch, a lot slower and uses a combination of grabs and his huge riot shield, while Marian plays totally differently to anyone else in the game, shooting enemies with a handgun and rocket launcher or luring them onto mines.
The level design has a nice twist in that you can approach Gaiden’s four gangs in any order you want. However, the further down the order they go, the longer the level is and the harder the waves of goons and eventual boss you face. This adds an extra level of strategy to your runs as you figure out which late-level versions of the bosses and levels you are better at and which ones you want to get out of the way as soon as possible.
The whole game is also a ton of dumb fun in co-op; it’s just a shame it’s only limited to local brawls for the time being, though an online mode has been teased in a future update.
The presentation is also a treat, with lovely pixel art, smooth animation, and an art style that tips its cap to the NES ports of Double Dragon, Mighty Final Fight, and with a hint of Turtles in time for good measure. Each character is portrayed in a chibi style, while it feels more 16 than 8-bit in its inspirations and color palette. Likewise, the soundtrack features some great chiptune remixes of classic Double Dragon tracks, along with some great new arrangements that fit the brawling on screen perfectly.
The same cant be said of the story, which is confusing, to say the least. Billy and Jimmy are asked by the mayor to clean up the streets by taking out all the gangs. But surely that’s a job for the police, and the mayor would have some sway over what their priorities are. Ultimately it’s just there as an excuse for Billy and Jimmy to go crack some skulls. Though I can’t really complain. The original is literally thugs kidnapped our girlfriend.
The other problem I had with Double Dragon Gaiden is that with its old-school design comes some old-school problems like being juggled to death by groups of enemies if you’re unlucky and some late-game bosses that are cheap bar stewards.
Thankfully, both of these issues can be smoothed out a little by fine-tuning the difficulty, which rather than just having your usual easy, medium, hard, and soul-crushing, lets you tweak each element individually. This also adjusts the amount of cash each new token costs at the end of a run. My advice; turn everything down to easy, and turn on Permadeath. You’ll have a fun time and still get a decent amount of tokens by the end. Unless you’re really unlucky, you’ll definitely see the credits roll too.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is a decent brawler with some great ideas that, although it doesn’t quite hit the highs of River City Girls 2, shows that there’s still life in the legendary series yet