Double Dragon IV is not the fourth game to be released in the Double Dragon series. After the original three Double Dragon games, which many consider arcade and NES classics, there was Super Double Dragon (the first Double Dragon IV) and Double Dragon V, which was a fighting game. The series then delved into a bunch of remakes of the original titles, even spawning is own (very bad) movie, but nothing was ever able to regain the notoriety or acclaim that the original games did. After the horrible disaster that was Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons, a horrid 2013 remake of a series classic, Arc System Works bought the rights to the series in 2015 and has developed a new game in the exact same style, graphics and everything, as the original NES games, with many of the original developers returning to make this title the true Double Dragon IV.
Unfortunately, Double Dragon IV feels like it was released in 1988 in the worst way possible.
Like the original Double Dragon games, there is a story, even if it really just serves as a reason to bring brothers Billy and Jimmy to different locations. The aforementioned brothers are heading to the west coast to check up on their dojo, but are later ambushed by a group of thugs who they have faced before. After fighting their way through some baddies, they find that Marian has once again been kidnapped, and they go on a crazy adventure that ends up pitting them against a new enemy in Japan.
The throwback to the originals with Marian getting kidnapped was sweet, even if the story doesn’t have much too it otherwise. It’s as bare bones as stories in games can get, and has a rushed and underwhelming ending. Though ultimately, the story serves as a fine means to an end, and I wasn’t expecting much more than that.
From the moment you turn on the game and see the title screen, Double Dragon IV looks like it came out on the NES. The chiptune music sounds really good, with there even being a retro sound setting for it to make it sound even more like its coming out of an NES. Some of the game’s enemies’ assets also seem to be ripped straight out of the original games too. Sadly, that also means the games doesn’t look much better than a game that came out on the NES. While game’s such as Shovel Knight can take this 8-bit aesthetic and do a lot with it visually, Double Dragon IV plays it safe and plain with its graphics, only removing more annoying aspects of NES games such as sprite flickering, which is disappointed a console that can do as much as the PS4.
Arc System Works managed to mess this up though, as during sections where the screen was scrolling horizontally, I encountered a lot of noticeable screen tearing. Seeing the environment rip right in front of me really took out of the experience and frustrated me, even if it didn’t affect the gameplay — a feature which doesn’t fare much better overall.
The gameplay is where Double Dragon IV‘s biggest problems start to arise. The gameplay tries to emulate how the NES games play, but botches it in many ways. Like the originals, the controls are quite simple. Players, who can chose to control either Billy or Jimmy from the start, can punch and kick to make minor combos. While the punching range is pretty short, it is easy to get a feel for the distance. There is now also a designated jump button, a nice addition, although its fixed-arc and slow-speed doesn’t make it very useful outside of some platforming sections, which were also kind of frustrating due to enemy placement.
Enemies enter a dazed state after they take a bit of damage, in which the player can finish them off, either by continuing to punch and kick them or by using a special attack, which are also available in normal combat, on them. Surprisingly, special attacks are not automatically assigned to buttons, as players must go inside a menu on the title screen assign them. While I am a fan of customizible controls, locking away these abilities from players that might not know the combo required to pull them off behind a menu will surely take away from their experience with the game.
This is one of the examples of the game being stuck in the past. While a two button set up was needed on the NES, as that controller only had two main buttons, that is not needed on modern hardware. The developers constraining themselves like that ultimately takes away from the game as a whole, as even a small fix like that would have made the game more enjoyable from the get-go. The special attacks are actually quite useful and make the game more fun and dynamic, so it stuns me that the developers wouldn’t give players clear access to it at the start in a vain attempt to emulate that nostalgic feeling in players.
A slight input delay also messed me up, as it affected my timing as I was trying to throw a counter-punch at an enemy that was charging towards me. Fortunately, the game has invincibility frames, so there is still a chance for players to recover when hit, but that still doesn’t excuse this problem.
Players only have five continues that consist of three lives each, so managing to stay alive in some of the later sections of the game can be more difficult when one is facing a gigantic group of enemies and can’t get a punch out to save their life. Even with the invincibility frames, by the time one gets up and recovers, they are likely to be knocked down again immediately if they are facing a group of five or six enemies. Unfair enemy placement and design is something that should’ve stayed in the NES era of games, and what makes the later levels of the story mode a bane to get through.
The gameplay is at its best when you are facing only about two or three enemies in single player, as that is more manageable than facing six enemies, and not as boring as only facing one enemy at a time. Even then, the AI can be inconsistent. Sometimes the enemies are ruthless and never give the player a chance to recover from a hit; other times, enemies completely ignores the players and just stands in place if the player is facing this other way. This made most fights frustrating, as you could not expect what the enemies were going to do next.
The place where I found the most enjoyment in Double Dragon IV was the challenge tower. This mode pits players against floors of two or three enemies that they must defeat in order to advance higher up the tower on one health bar. Special enemy characters, who have special moves of their own, can be unlocked by players who beat levels in the story mode and make their way up the floors of the tower. These special unlockable characters are more fun to use than Billy and Jimmy, and add some needed variation and originally to this stale experience, but also makes one question why more special abilities weren’t given to the main characters. These characters can also be used in story mode, but the lack some of the abilities of Billy and Jimmy, such as being able to pick up objects, making them not the most opportune characters to use in many situations.
The towers can not be accessed until players beat the story mode, and story mode is very frustrating to get through due to annoying enemy placement and design, so I doubt many players will see what turned out to be the biggest highlight of this game for me. If tower mode had been available from the start, players could ignore story mode and focus on one of the better parts of the game, rather than having to trudge through an annoying story mode just to get some enjoyment out of the game.
One other thing the Double Dragon IV does well is co-op. There is local co-op, as to be expected with these types of games, with each player taking control of one brother. Playing with two characters actually makes larger groups of enemies more manageable. Even though the game is very flawed, it can be fun sharing its flaws with a friend. This game also allows for Share Play, which makes up for the lack of true online co-op. While online co-op would have been appreciated, I am afraid it would have made the input delay even worse and make the game near unplayable.
Another mode that players can participate in together is the 2P Duel, which is unlocked from the start. While players start with only Billy and Jimmy in this mode, they can use unlocked characters from the towers. It can be fun to duke it out with iconic Double Dragon characters, even if the fighting system is a bit clunky.
One last flaw the game runs into is a lack of distinction for the bosses. With no music cue to signify it being an important fight, and the same boss enemies becoming regular ones in later stages, the end-of-level fights between the player and an enemy or a group of enemies lack impact and don’t feel as rewarding as they could have.
Double Dragon IV takes all the wrong things from the original NES games and does nothing to change them. Input delay, bad AI, hard-to-access special moves, and an overwhelming amount of overpowered enemies at many points in single player make the game very frustrating to play. Playing in multiplayer removes some of the problems, but a game should be enjoyable to play no matter how many people are involved.
Double Dragon IV does the worst thing any piece of media capitalizing on nostalgia can do: it makes you question why you liked the originals in the first place. You notice the flaws in this game and think “has this genre always been this flawed?” I even got so worried that I went back and played beat ’em up classics like Double Dragon II and Streets of Rage 2 again, and to make sure they still held up, and the answer is yes, they do. So, other than years of memories and hype surrounding those games, what do titles like the aforementioned ones do better than Double Dragon IV?
The answer is simple: they were looking forward, and improved and advanced their series and genre instead of trying to emulate the success of previous entries in their respective series, which were already successful. They are memorable because of what they did for gaming, not because they copied something else that was great. Double Dragon IV is trying too hard to be an NES game, and in the end it just feels under-cooked and out of place in 2017. It is okay for a game to look back and pay respects to older games, but it needs to make sure it is a respectable piece of software that stands on its own in today’s gaming scene, like titles such as Shovel Knight do.
I do hope Arc System Works continues to develop this IP though, because if the same creative minds that worked on this game came together to try to advance the series as a whole like Double Dragon Neon did, I believe they could make something really special. Sadly, I would only recommend Double Dragon IV to you if you are a Double Dragon fanatic or very die hard beat ’em up fan, and if that’s the case, you probably already own it. It is fairly cheap, but even then, I have played much more enjoyable games for the same price.