When violence is the core vice of most video games, and in the case of Mortal Kombat, viscerally so, it’s worth exploring how it translates to sensory player feedback. Double Dragon Gaiden works well in terms of negotiating increasingly difficult enemy gangs with creative use of your expanding moveset, and, while the series’ signature knee-to-nose routine is still here, it isn’t carried off with the hard edge it once was.
Developed by Secret Base, and hailing out of Singapore, the team has added plenty of nuance to the belt-scrolling formula. Now, you choose two of four initial characters (with a generous nine more available for unlocking) and have the ability to tag between them as long as your super gauge is full. If one character is taking excessive damage, or has better range for certain sections, just switch them out. Likewise, if one of your duo desperately needs a health item, you can keep them safely in the background until one turns up.
The initial four missions can be chosen freely, roaming from backstreet to junkyard, to graffitied subway and littered warehouse; boxy locales that recall those of the early games, albeit in a softer, cartoonier form. These elements work in concert fairly well, and there’s a new system of acquiring cash to purchase new moves or increase your power at the end of each mission’s subsections. This allows you to build certain abilities, piecemeal, for each of your characters, and your focal point for enhancements can vary on subsequent playthroughs. Cash can also be used to buy you back into the game if you die, as a novel stand-in for extra lives.
Gaiden is pitched as a roguelike — which may be off-putting to some — but it has little real impact on proceedings. The order you choose your missions will auto-scale their difficulty, but that’s par for the course in any game with a similar arrangement. You can tweak parameters, increasing enemy count and strength in exchange for additional lives at a lesser cost. But, even when tailoring the difficulty, it doesn’t much change the feel of things, despite requiring more tactical application when there are increased numbers of enemies on-screen.
These days, a broad move list and mix-up opportunities are standard fare, with modern technology allowing for a broad expansion of arcade mechanics. Each of Gaiden’s characters has a decent panel of attacks, and different pros and cons in terms of range and power. Uncle Matin can’t pick up weaponry, is slow but powerful, with a special attack that can shield against bullets; Marian’s firearm staple is ranged all the way; and brothers Billy and Jimmy are faster all-rounders with different battle manoeuvres based around kicking and punching. All can double jump and floor slam, dash and barge enemies, juggle almost infinitely under the right conditions, and use several super attacks that can be altered in conjunction with directional commands and monetary upgrades. When you tag your partner into the game, they can both break you out of a clinch and land an additional combo hit on arrival, and it’s fun to explore the dynamics of your chosen duo.
Combo-building is heavily reliant on hitting the super button mid-flow. Your standard attacks can be mixed up, too, but the super bar refills so quickly that you can trigger it near-constantly. It’s fun to engage while you’re duffing up a few punks, but it’s also in danger of becoming a lazy fallback. We don’t like the dash being fixed to a shoulder button, rather than also have it work with a double-tap of the directional pad; and the grab button, while useful for cutting off enemies mid-flow, doesn’t provide an over-the-shoulder throw for most characters, which seems odd for a game based around crowd-control.
Should you get dizzied and see circling stars, your controls become temporarily reversed, which sounds cute, but doesn’t help when you’re trying to get back in the action. Marian’s ranged gun is a fine idea as a secondary element, but she’s painfully boring to play for a prolonged period, standing and shooting, and then easily rolling backwards through enemies strolling up behind to then stand and shoot some more. There are bugs too, with Marian’s gun bullets freezing in mid-air on the junkyard spotlight section and doing zero damage, and loading times that seem unnecessarily long. We do expect these things will be ironed out with a patch fairly quickly, however.
The graphics are nicely done, cute and colourful, pixel-y and neat, and smooth for the most part, although we did notice some minor frame drops at certain points in handheld mode. The environments look good, even if they lack imagination at times, and to improve replayability there are different doors and paths to search through, mainly for looting purposes.
Gaiden is good fun, especially when playing as Billy. It’s got tons of enemies to lay into and plenty of means to put them down quickly. It’s certainly got a more extensive combat repertoire than the original Double Dragon games, but plays safer with it than something like Double Dragon Advance. The one thing it lacks, however, is punch. The range of your characters, bar the gun-toting Marian, is short, and when you throw your fists, a tad perfunctory. The music is good, remixing original themes into a fun medley, but an increase in the depth of the sound effects would have at least made the connections feel more heavyweight. The treacle pace of the original Double Dragon worked because each exchange of fists was unremittingly brutal, and usually only involved three enemies at a time. Here, it’s full of fist-fodder, but heavily kiddie-fied and lacking energy. Gaiden’s combo meter is so slow to break, that you can be knocked down flat, get back up, and keep punching to add a few more digits to it. This may help outline the game’s general pace, which after repeating motions of attack into super-attack for the thousandth time, can feel repetitive. When you get used to the flow of things, it is enjoyable to apply different methods of attack and have your strategies pan out, but we wonder how far replayability will go in such a long campaign.
Scott Pilgrim was fast and fluid, while Shredder’s Revenge captured the spirit of its inspiration with raucous, wacky action. Double Dragon is remembered for grit and aggression, and the spirit of the ’80s with its American-born twin brother, kung-fu antics, and, if you don’t mind the Nickelodeon equivalent of that, Gaiden will serve you well for a while. It’s a game that achieves its goals fairly well, but it’s missing a certain spark. While combo and juggle connections are fun, its diminutive form struggles to conjure a sense of dynamism. The cash system, too, is going to be divisive, even if the leveling-up and bonuses it buys are well thought-out. Patrolling around cleared screens to crack boxes and sweep up coins feels out of place, but the idea of bargaining earnings as a means of accruing extra lives is at least novel.
The superficial elements of the beat ’em up genre tend to be some of the most attractive. Tone is paramount. What would Final Fight be if not drawn from Reaganomic unemployment, buoyed by those heavy-duty sound effects every time you round out a volley into someone’s gut? Double Dragon Gaiden does many things well, and is clearly put together by a talented team, but, without the fundamentally satisfying visual and aural feedback so intrinsic to the genre, you may not be engaged by it in the same way as its peers.
Double Dragon Gaiden is beholden to some unique ideas, and they’re fairly well-applied. You can experiment with mix-ups and tag team advantages, and multiplayer makes things altogether more enjoyable, although it’s restricted to local co-op. But, being associated with Double Dragon is arguably to its detriment. It’s a game that has secrets to uncover, twists to happen upon, and plenty of cash grinding and unlocking to do. While initially fun to work through, how many times you’ll feel encouraged to replay the campaign is questionable, especially with its overall pacing and neutered thrill of brutally knee-slamming someone in the face. Still, it’s certainly worthy of attention for beat ’em up fans looking for old things in new forms.