Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Double Dragon II: The Revenge (Technōs Japan, 1988)

Once upon a time in a magical era known as 1987 my friend Scott and I were dropped off at our local skating rink. After getting our skates, we noticed a new arcade machine called Double Dragon. The game was mesmerizing to our eager young minds as it presented all of the action packed adventure of a ninja movie (those were big at the time) squeezed into arcade form. The two of us continued popping quarters into this machine until we'd finished the entire game multiple times. The next thing we knew, it was time to go home and we'd never even made it onto the floor to skate.

Double Dragon was an amazing and extremely influential game that forged an entirely new genre which continues even to this day, but this review isn't about Double Dragon. This is a review of its sequel, Double Dragon II: The Revenge.

Much like its predecessor, Double Dragon II: The Revenge sticks to the traditional Beat 'em Up game formula, mostly because at the time it wasn't a formula yet, it was just how the first game was made. In my review of Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja I mentioned how much The Double Dragon series influenced some of the most fondly remembered arcade games of the following decade. Being the second game in the series, the developers wanted to expand the game in new directions, so looking back it's interesting to see which choices were innovations that continued through the years, and which were annoyances quickly abandoned by the genre.

The worst choice made during the development of Double Dragon II struck me right away as I started playing it. The first game had punch, kick, and jump buttons that could be combined for additional moves. These moves all attacked in the direction your character was facing, so attacking the guy behind you meant turning around first. This is pretty standard in the world of videogames, but for the sequel somebody decided to get creative. The three buttons in Double Dragon II are jump, attack left, and attack right. Attack the direction you face to punch, and attack behind you to kick. This means that to alternate punches and kicks on the enemy in front of you, you'll need to spin back and forth. I thought I might get used to it after a while, but even by the end of playing through the entire game this control scheme never really felt comfortable.

The original Double Dragon was a rescue mission, starting with the kidnapping of the main character's girlfriend. The sequel begins with the same girlfriend being shot to death, giving Double Dragon II: The Revenge a much darker story. Being an 80's arcade game however, the story is represented only by the opening animation, and then briefly hinted at after completing the final level. The levels are similar to the first game as well: A city, a factory with a conveyor belt fight, a natural rural environment (a wheat field this time rather than a forest), and finally the enemy gang's palatial mountain hideout filled with familiar traps.

These levels have more defined boss battles at the end of them than Double Dragon II's predecessor did. While the first game would throw some harder enemy waves at you at the end of each map, this one has specific boss characters, which by then had become the norm for the genre. Moving from one level to the next was a continuous flow this time around as the game map simply kept scrolling into the next area rather than cutting to a new location. This gave the player the feel of a single large continuous world, an innovation that was still being applauded as a fresh idea ten years later when Half Life did it. Some games still struggled with this decades later. In fact, the only time the view actually cuts is when entering the door to the hideout.

While the pressure to not only duplicate the runaway success of the first Double Dragon, but also get it into arcades by the following year must have stifled some of the potential originality of this title, it still managed to have some memorable moments of its own. The fight in front of the wheat harvester, the supernatural enemies who disappear from their collapsing armor upon death, and sometimes reappear unexpectedly, and the moment when your own shadow comes to life and attacks you all stand out in my mind as things Double Dragon II simply got right.

If you've only played the NES port of Double Dragon II: The Revenge, you might be surprised by how much isn't in the arcade release. The home version not only has about twice the number of levels, it added cut-scenes between these levels to advance the story. Given that this game wasn't nearly as popular in arcades as the first one, there was less motivation to keep the home release faithful. The NES port also changed the ending to make it happier, if less realistic.

The graphics are a small step up this time around. No giant leaps on a technical level, but it seems like building on the experience of making the first one lead to a nicer looking sprite set. Some specific details stood out as really nice touches such as the helicopter's shadow on the ground, the reflections in the hideout's floor, and the chain link fence you can walk behind. Other graphics looked like they were changed simply for the sake of being different. The cartoony hand pointing your way forward after a wave of thugs has been defeated was replaced with a lady's hand wearing bright nail polish. Maybe this is supposed to represent being guided by the spirit of your dead girlfriend?

The first Double Dragon had some of my favorite game music of all time. Even on the primitive FM synthesized instruments available at the time, those songs managed to evoke crushing hard rock grooves and sweeping orchestral lines at the same time. I can still hum the title music on cue. How does the music of The Revenge measure up? Well, the title screen music is a reimagining of the original, which in itself doesn't seem like a terrible idea, except that in 1988 somebody decided that remaking the original tune into a disco track would be a popular thing to do. That pretty much sets the stage for the new wave synth pop dance tracks you're fed as you fight your way through hordes of street toughs. It isn't until the final level that the music starts to sound appropriate.

After all of that, what exactly did I think of this game? If you're a fan of the original and have a rom handy, Double Dragon II: The Revenge is a fun game that's worth playing through at least once. If you happen to find yourself in a classic arcade and see an actual machine in person? Skip it and play the first one instead. You can't go wrong with a classic.

No comments:

Post a Comment