Double Dragon IV Review
A Good Beat ‘Em Up That Could Have Been Great
Excited didn’t even begin to describe me when I found out that some of the original creators were getting to work making a new, NES-style Double Dragon to celebrate the series’ 30th anniversary. When I played it, though, Double Dragon IV was a bit of a let-down, as it played like a ROM hack. Enemies and music are just lifted from throughout the series and plunked into the game. The levels are uninspired, short, and rarely interesting. They brought back the series’ lousy platforming.
It all felt slapped together, like someone grabbing pieces from the series and sticking them anywhere without thought to pacing, plot, or escalation (or balance) of difficulty. Just the same, whenever I have some spare time, I still pick it up. For all its faults, Double Dragon IV is still pure beat ’em up fun.
Billy and Jimmy still aren’t big fans of kidnapping and gangs, even after nuclear shenanigans make the world a nasty place. So, when some thugs run them off the road in the desert, it’s time to beat up everyone they know and love. Those thugs, however, mainly consist of enemies from Double Dragon II, pulling most of its cast and their move list for players to deal with. It’s a good game to be pulling from, but since they have very few new moves, it feels like you’re just playing through a ROM hack. It’s like playing Double Dragon II, but where the levels aren’t great.
The stages go all over the world, though deserts and factories, to unfinished building rooftops to casinos. They’re all extremely short, only going a screen or two before switching to someplace new. They all feel like places we’ve tread in previous games, although the game rarely takes the player anywhere directly from old games. Some of them are filled with some nice details and look great, but for the most part, they’re simple, drab, and done in a screen or two.
There are a few new enemies. A sumo wrestler, a couple of masked men, a balding martial artist, female ninjas, and some form of karate wizard add variety to the cast. Each has a few unpredictable moves that will force the player to adapt new strategies or avoid their attacks. However, these enemies are mainly sprinkled in with the Double Dragon II enemies, so you only get a periodic shot of something new.
Double Dragon IV
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Arc System Works
Release: January 30, 2017
Intel(R) Core(TM) i5-4690K CPU @ 3.50 GHz
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970
For a brand new game, I would have thought the new enemies would have been the main foes with Double Dragon II enemies thrown in, but it’s the opposite. You only get a handful of new foes, mostly introduced past the halfway point of the game. It’s strange to do things that way, and is one of the big reasons this just feels like a ROM hack as opposed to a new game.
There’s also no attempt to make these new enemies stand out when they show up, or even have specific bosses appear. When a more powerful enemy was introduced in the old games, you got a little boss music and a hint that something big was happening. In Double Dragon IV bosses just wander on screen with no musical cue, often surrounded by regular guys. It lacks that impact you would feel when dealing with a boss in previous games, and makes it so levels feel like they just spontaneously end.
That lack of boss music cues ties in to some other musical problems. The game pulls tracks from all over the series, although not as frequently as it does enemies. The trouble is, the music that’s made for this game is all a little lifeless. It lacks the power and drive of the tracks from the previous games. It’s serviceable and kind of cool as a backdrop for a beat ’em up, and likely would have been fine all on its own. When you hear a weak new track one level, followed by the original Double Dragon theme in the next, it’s impossible not to notice how dull the new tracks are. Even when able to choose between chiptune versions and the more modern versions of the tracks, it doesn’t help.
The sound effects are still solid, as those are pretty much all take from the rest of the series, as they should be. That familiar sound when you slam your knuckles into someone’s head, the swish of the flying knee, and that unique sound the spinning kick makes are all in place and as welcome as ever. They make punching faces a constant delight, as they always do.
Combat is one of the things that has been kept largely the same, but changed for the better. You still have the same array of moves, from punches, kicks, spin kicks, jump kicks, and the super powerful flying knee. You have some new pirouette attack as well, although it’s a bit more complex to execute than your other moves.
The big improvement is the execution of these moves. You no longer have to mash two buttons to jump, having a dedicated button for it. This means no more mash the two buttons a bunch of times for spin kicks, carving up your thumb in the process. You just jump and hit kick again, and depending on the timing of your presses, you’ll do a jump kick or spin kick. You can also drop right into the flying knee when you hit the ground by hitting kick again. It’s smooth and easy to use most moves, letting you make better use of your moveset.
However, the enemies are as prone to just stomping you as they always were. It can be hard to tell when your hits will stun an enemy and when they’ll just power through and stun you back. There’s little rhyme or reason to it, so you often start to beat on a foe just hoping for the best. Should they get you down, though, enemies have a tendency to stay on top of you, clobbering you all over again the second you stand up. You can often try to move someplace different upon standing to get out of the way, but the enemies do have an alarming tendency to just beat you down without a chance of escape.
You can use one of your more powerful moves as you get up to get around this a bit. Hitting punch or kick when you rise throws the flying knee or uppercut in whatever direction you’re facing. The trouble is, enemies tend to shuffle around you, standing in front and behind, when you get up, so even if you do clobber that one guy, another is waiting behind you to juggle you back to the ground.
You have a ton of lives, though, and that seems to be how the developers have balanced this tendency. You have three lives and five continues (seven if you’re playing co-op, which you should be), and you can continue right where you left off. It’s a solid amount that will take off some of the stress of getting beat down.
Platforming will chew right through those lives, though. The jumping in Double Dragon has always been extremely clumsy, and this one makes no attempt to change that. There are a few mid-game stages that feature moving or twisting platforms you need to leap across, and if you screw up, you lose a life. Some of these involving knowing there’s a conveyor belt just off-screen where you’re jumping, getting across a platform that throws you off with odd timing, or getting across bridges that flicker and fade away. They tend to catch the player by surprise with timing and mechanics, and even when you know them well, they’re still hard to get across with your jump’s excessively-long hang time and arc. Platforming has always been an irritating point in these games, so I have no idea why they bothered putting it in here.
Should you die off, though, you can use an in-game level select to get right back into the game. You’re allowed to select up to the highest level you completed, starting it with all your lives intact, so you will finish this game eventually, enemy dogpiling and crummy platforming or not.
All that being said, it still feels great to just head into a fight and start laying beat downs. The sound effects, along with the ease of the moves, makes it fun to leap around combat, throwing flying knees and spinning kicks into enemy faces. Smashing three or four big guys across the screen feels great, and when you come up from a downed position to just uppercut someone into the stratosphere, you can’t deny how good it feels. Yes, it’s mainly the same guys from Double Dragon II, but being able to beat on them so much easier makes for a lot of fun.
Also, you can play through the game as one of these enemies. Once you beat the game once, you unlock The Tower, which is a gauntlet of enemies, fought floor by floor, on one life. For every bit of The Tower you beat, you unlock an enemy from the game to play through the main story with. It doesn’t change the (extremely short) story, but it does mean that you can try to beat the game with an all-new moveset.
This changes up the game on each playthrough, giving you a whole new way of experiencing the game. It adds a lot of depth, and it’s also just great fun to be able to play as the bosses and big characters as you progress. It’s also nice to be able to turn some of the enemies’ more irritating moves against each other.
You can also play a versus mode using those enemies against another player in a one-on-one match, if you like. It’s a decent mode if you’re feeling competitive, and a nice addition if you’re looking for something extra, although it’s nowhere near as fun as beating up a bunch of people at once, as the game’s combat style is much better suited to fighting groups than a single opponent. You’ll notice that as you spend all your time chasing your opponent around the versus mode ring.
“Double Dragon IV is still pure beat ’em up fun.”
Double Dragon IV gives players super short, lackluster levels to fight enemies they’ve already beaten up in older games using moves they’ve already used for years while listening to weak music. You’d think that would matter more, but Double Dragon IV keeps drawing me back in to play more. The ability to use moves with ease and just drop beatdowns left and right, along with those classic sound effects, is pure beat ’em up fun. Doing so with an entirely new enemy moveset whenever I like just adds to that, keeping the game entertaining and interesting.
Yes, many aspects are weak or just lifted from Double Dragon II, but coupled with a few crafty decisions about combat and the array of different ways you can experience the game, you end up with a really entertaining co-op beat ’em up. It just a drag that, with a bit more time and creativity, this could have been an incredible one.