As the medium of video games grows older, we are now reaching the oh-so-seminal quarter-century milestones of many classic series. Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and Metal Gear all recently celebrated their 25th birthdays, and this year another classic series joins the club: Double Dragon. However, while the former series all celebrated their 25th anniversaries with soaring, epic new entries into their series (Super Mario Galaxy 2, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes), developer WayForward Technologies takes a different approach, effectively rebooting the series with an all new style while paying homage to its beat ‘em-up roots.
Rather than go the grim n’ gritty reboot approach that most series updates would take, WayForward goes the opposite route, amping up the '80s style and culture to absurd levels. Main characters Billy and Jimmy Lee are now portrayed as parodical caricatures of their former selves - totally rad dudes who do jumping high fives and play air guitar after the completion of each level. The game begins with their mutual girlfriend Marian getting kidnapped (over the top misogyny intact), but quickly deviates after the first level, taking the brothers Lee into space, feudal China, and an evil lab. The new villain, Skullmageddon, is a not-so-subtle Skeletor reference, and is also responsible for some of the game’s funniest dialogue (make sure to sit through the end credits!).
The gameplay is standard Double Dragon fare. If you’ve played any beat ‘em-up arcade brawler in the last 20 years, you know exactly what you’re getting into. However, Double Dragon Neon adds a fair bit of depth with its "song" system. Throughout the game, you will pick up cassette tapes (keeping in line with the '80s theme) that enemies drop, unlocking new special moves, such as shooting fireballs or a spin kick, or a new stance, which grants you increased stats or passive abilities. You can only select one special move and one stance at a time, however, encouraging different strategies for different combat scenarios. That being said, some "songs" are clearly better than others; why would I ever switch out of the stance that grants me health with each hit?
The gameplay is all well and good, but like the rest of the games in the series, Double Dragon Neon is best played with a friend (it’s called DOUBLE Dragon after all). Plus, playing with a friend adds more to the gameplay. High-fiving your teammate will split your health evenly between the two of you, useful for saving a brother from the brink of death. If one of you runs out of lives during a level, you can respawn by borrowing some of the health from your teammate to come back from the brink. Double Dragon Neon is a tough game, at times unfairly so, so you’ll want all the help you can get. Even without the gameplay boosts, however, the laugh-out loud dialogue between the brothers is more than enough to warrant a co-op (or as the game puts it, "bro-op") playthrough.
Humor is easily Double Dragon Neon’s biggest strength - I would go as far to call it the funniest game of the year. The dialogue and '80s references galore never ceased to put a smile on my face. The game seems a little short for its $10 price point, as a playthrough can clock at about 3 hours (less if you never die), but the game easily warrants multiple playthroughs. It would be easy to knock the game for the lack of online co-op, but WayForward has stated that it will be included through a patch later this year. That being said, playing online doesn’t come anywhere near the experience of playing with your buddy in the room.
Double Dragon Neon recaptures all of the glory of the series' arcade roots while adding enough new features to be a proper sequel. Its tongue-in-cheek nature and '80s aesthetic and soundtrack may be off-putting to long-time fans expecting a more serious approach to the series, but give it a chance and it will surely win you over. Ironically, Double Dragon Neon’s retro sensibilities not only celebrate the series’ past (and the culture that birthed it), but also introduce a new style for the future.