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Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons Review

A bombastic bit of biffo

Remember Double Dragon? Man, what a time. The simple art of navigating through a space, and kicking the ever-loving crap out of any goober that got in your way. Back when gamepads only needed two buttons, and you could somehow summon all manner of incredible martials arts moves by sheer will (and button mashing) alone.

The beat ’em up formula is a sacred one. Expectations are essentially set in stone, so revisiting not only the genre, but a series that has a very ingrained presence as a leading body in the space comes with some challenges. Beautifully, the crew at Secret Base has been careful in considering this, working to make sure Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons is both a retro revival and an evolution of expectations; improve the stuff that needs improving, polish the beloved things to a brilliant shine. Thankfully, both these demands are delivered upon in spades by way of gorgeous pixel art and careful gameplay design. 

My war on the pokies continues

Set in an alternate 1990s New York City, it’s a world of big crime and even bigger mobile phones. Criminal gangs run wild, and the Lee brothers are classically trained in the ancient art of kicking ass, thus they take to the streets to reclaim their beleaguered city. They are joined by family, lovers and colleagues – all similarly versed in beatdowns – as well as an unlockable cast that will become available as you progress the game and earn tokens. Beat up baddies, smash boxes and the environment for health and cash – it’s not a hard concept to grasp. The quirk comes from how you gambit your gameplay experience, choosing mission modifiers to adjust your impending challenge – and impacting whether you can buy another continue should you perish.

This is a neato feature – your efforts during gameplay actually net you cash, and the self-proposed difficulty you set for yourself actually determines how much an extra life will cost once you hit a game over screen. Combo this with performing awesome ‘Special KO’ moves, and you will be raking in moolah. It’s a surprisingly neat way to represent dropping quarters into an arcade machine, or even just as a nod to the shackles of a ‘lives’ mechanic from classic games past. If you can persist without meeting your grisly end, you can also spend this dosh on upgrades at stage end, leaning into a roguelike-ish twist on the game. These upgrades can range from boosting your combo damage, to implementing an AoE stun on certain attacks – or even allow you to skip an upgrade altogether for more cash. Hoarding money may allow for a bigger upgrade later down the line – or perhaps you wish to save it to dump on continues when you get walled by a tricky boss.

The only issue that I have with this design philosophy is how it gates off some modern approachability settings, as these all play into the dial-a-difficulty options. Finagling an ‘easy’ mode into the game for the sake of learning can be hard, because by doing so you can hamper your token rate. It means that your initial learning period may feel a bit tough, if only because your cash exchange rate will have skyrocketed due to the nature of the exchange cost inflating if you relax too many difficulty options. It’s manageable, but does mean that you have to walk before you truly run.

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Uh oh, a lady with a sword – they are weaponising my fetishes against me

My initial martial art of choice was high calibre – I studied the way of the gun. Billy Lee’s girlfriend Marian is no longer a damsel in distress, instead packing heat in both a pistol and rocket launcher option to mow down enemies. At first I approached this playstyle as somewhat of a joke – but quickly came to appreciate that there was a bit of nuance to balancing your pistol shots and Special KOs. Sure, firing a rocket is a sure-fire hit, but placing a mine and luring a mob of dorks over it would net a huge explosion and a shower of all-important coinage. Balancing this with Marian’s movement ability – a dodge roll that ends in a juggling riot baton sweep – means you are always repositioning to make the most of your impressive effective zone.

And while gun-fu was a ripper of a time, traditional biffo is still brilliant. The Lee brothers have their own fisticuffs, and much like Marian they weave between regular damaging attacks or knockback moves to clear space. With the solo play tag mechanic, you can actually play as two characters that can swap in and out during the brawling missions – so why not lean into this and mix up your playstyles? For instance, the newcomer Uncle Matin actually plods into the field with a colossal riot shield, offering a slightly defensive option to swap to in a pinch.

Player movement ticks all the boxes you’d want from a pseudo-side scrolling slugfest, with a surprising amount of verticality in some sections. You can leverage this high-ground advantage at times by making use of a double jump – and on occasion this will be necessary to even progress the level. This is the one retro-facet that feels all too dated and familiar – that weird sensation of a 2D game pretending it exists in a 3D space, so nailing your jumps will feel odd to begin with. You best practice your air superiority, because when the flying baddies come into play you’d best be ready.

Boots on the ground, the entire experience is about managing your own attack frames of animation against your enemies. Overcommit to an attack string, and you’ll likely see yourself punished in a big way, with goons swarming you and locking you in a punishing loop of damage. With a character like Marian, this may be your reload animation, or in the case of a rushing character, whiffing a grapple will see an agonising couple of milliseconds dedicated to steadying yourself. During this time you have no player control – and it is a recipe of gameplay that is incredibly familiar. It is a very deliberate design that rewards button mashing in the right way, as knowing when to fall back and avoid a landslide of enemy blows must be taken into consideration.

What are ya buyin’

Once things get rolling however, you’ll be dishing out hurt in a big way. Scattering hordes of punks is endlessly satisfying, and your special bar seems to always be bursting at the seams. Pulling off a Special KO can be as simple as nailing a group of dudes with an area of effect attack, and the reward will be a big fanfare, and often a health pickup. In classic retro fashion, these hamburgers and hotdogs will plop on the ground (a delicious thought when the floor is a subway train), and will persist for a time for you to collect when ready. Just don’t hesitate too long, because of course they will eventually poof out of existence.

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Taking a big ol’ leaf out of the Megaman bible, you can actually pick which crime boss to take on first, which then allows you to leverage the modifiers of both your selected mission, and future missions. In fact, the order you choose will actually impact the difficulty of future missions, as enemy numbers ramp up and levels lengthen to meet your own power spikes. It’s fluid and provides a super cool, replayable twist to a classic formula – and I want more developers to pinch this concept. Your first choice may be a breeze in one playthrough, but later when it’s your third choice it will be a souped-up experience with more baddies and a longer run time. Just be mindful that sometimes this occasional spate of ‘higher difficulty’ in a level seems to just roughly translate to ‘there are too many dudes on screen’.

Reach the end of a mission, and a boss fight will await you to really test your skills, and like all good classic games, they are equal parts bullshit and brilliant. It is the job of a boss to have some overpowered attack to put you in your place, so maybe save a few bucks for the odd respawn so you can chip away at them.

The game truly shines when you lean into the unmitigated chaos that comes from a two-player experience, with a horde of mooks flooding the screen and being juggled every which way. It’s a superbly fun experience, and obviously lends well to hanging out with a mate on the couch – but the lack of an online co-op option seems sorely lacking. A cursory Google suggests that such a thing may come out further down the line, but for a game that lends its entire identity to a history of co-op crook-crunching, it strikes me as an odd omission for release day.

Woo-hoo! Look at that blubber fly!

Final Thoughts

I was not sure what to expect with a modern Double Dragon game. My past with the series was always fleeting, but fun nonetheless. Secret Base has managed to tap into a proper reservoir of nostalgia here, but avoids drenching the audience with its sticky sweetness. Instead it is leveraged to elevate a very creative reinterpretation of the Double Dragon formula, making sure that players are able to eat up the beat ‘em-up they know and love, while still enjoying the trimmings of modern game design and the benefits that come with it.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons Review
Two Dragons For The Price Of One
Not a mere reboot or refresh, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons delivers a fiendishly familiar beat ‘em up that will have you hooked on its charming retro styles and clever modern trappings.
The Good
Forgiving combat system encourages player creativity
Charmingly retro, not slavishly so
Innovative use of mutators means you tailor a fun experience
Characters and world are all fun and interesting
Roguelike elements are neat, not oppressive
Music slaps
The Bad
At times difficulty spikes lean on swarming you with enemies
Some approachability options end up being difficulty sliders
Jumping and fine navigation is everything you’d expect from a 2D game pretending it’s not a 2D game
No online co-op at launch?
7.5
SOLID
  • Secret Base Pte Ltd
  • Modus Games
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox Series X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC
  • July 27, 2023

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons Review
Two Dragons For The Price Of One
Not a mere reboot or refresh, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons delivers a fiendishly familiar beat ‘em up that will have you hooked on its charming retro styles and clever modern trappings.
The Good
Forgiving combat system encourages player creativity
Charmingly retro, not slavishly so
Innovative use of mutators means you tailor a fun experience
Characters and world are all fun and interesting
Roguelike elements are neat, not oppressive
Music slaps
The Bad
At times difficulty spikes lean on swarming you with enemies
Some approachability options end up being difficulty sliders
Jumping and fine navigation is everything you’d expect from a 2D game pretending it’s not a 2D game
No online co-op at launch?
7.5
SOLID
Written By Ash Wayling

Known throughout the interwebs simply as M0D3Rn, Ash is bad at video games. An old guard gamer who suffers from being generally opinionated, it comes as no surprise that he is both brutally loyal and yet, fiercely whimsical about all things electronic. On occasion will make a youtube video that actually gets views. Follow him on YouTube @Bad at Video Games

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