Blood Brothers: The Brutal History of Double Dragon
Forget Final Fight and Golden Axe and Streets of Rage. When it comes to beat-’em-ups Technos’ Double Dragon is the original heavyweight champion. Released in 1987, the arcade hit was actually conceived as a direct sequel to Renegade, an earlier brawler from Technos that popularised the street vigilante theme. Designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto took Renegade and added co-operative play, larger levels and weapon attacks to create a game that would go on to define the beat-’em-up genre. The Dragons, brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, would return in multiple sequels and spin-offs, and in the 1990s they even fronted a comic, a TV series and a movie. Here we focus on the core games that established the brothers as pugilists of repute. If you enjoy the article, please check out our Facebook page or join our mailing list to get more great retro game content!
Double Dragon (1987)
Hitting the gaming consciousness like a punch to the windpipe, the original game was an instant arcade smash. Everyone recalls the wince-inducing gameplay as Billy and Jimmy cut through swathes of street punks on their mission to rescue Marian from the Black Warriors gang, but there was more to Double Dragon than mere thuggery. The sprites were large and well animated, the soundtrack was invigorating and overall the game was a lot of fun to play – and not without humour (flipping a wide-eyed ruffian into a pit never failed to raise a smile). Yes it was possible to cheese your way through the game by spamming the elbow move, but doing so would drain all the life out of this otherwise finely-balanced brawler.
Double Dragon II: The Revenge (1988)
Technos wasted little time in capitalising on the success of the first game, with this sequel arriving sharply the following year. Unsurprisingly it felt very familiar, and even began in identical fashion with Marian getting attacked by the Black Warriors. This time, however, she was shot and killed (don’t worry, Technos would insert some credits to revive her for future games). Several new moves were added (including the iconic cyclone kick) and the challenge was tougher (enemies were faster and cleverer, effectively nerfing the elbow smash), but The Revenge was more of a palette-swap than a proper sequel. It’s no surprise that it was initially planned as an update for the original game board. The Revamp would have been a more suitable subtitle.
Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone (1991)
Technos was presumably so busy counting the profits from the first two games that it passed development duties over to East Technology. DD3 introduced support for three players, with yellow-suited Sonny joining the clan, and added a bunch of new attacking options, including the handy run move. It was a difficult game, but thankfully there were in-game shops where you could acquire weapons, extra power and even reserve fighters. The problem was that the shops only accepted cold hard cash. What a con! This was the loot box controversy of the era. For the Japanese version Technos wisely scrapped the shop system, but even without it this was a scruffy relation to the earlier games. Also, the plot was absurd. How exactly did we get from brawling with baddies in a mean city street to fighting Egyptian queen Cleopatra while floating in space?
Super Double Dragon (1992)
The first three games were all converted to home systems with wildly varying degrees of success. The series found its spiritual home on the NES where the games were rejigged for the console, introducing expanded levels with platforms aplenty. This game then, developed by Technos and released exclusively for the Super Nintendo, was more a continuation of the NES trilogy than the arcade one. In it Billy and Jimmy had to crack yet more skulls on another mission to rescue Marian. The combat was tweaked, introducing moves that allowed you to simultaneously fight enemies on either side of you, but it was beginning to feel a bit by-the-numbers by now. Even those tired tropes of fighting in a rising elevator and on top of a moving vehicle had crept in. The Japanese version, titled Return of Double Dragon, benefitted from a few refinements and was better for it.
Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls (1994)
Damn that Street Fighter II, making one-on-one fighters all popular and relevant again. Someone at US publisher Tradewest thought it would be a fine idea to develop a SFII clone for the Super Nintendo using the Double Dragon name, and tie it to the Double Dragon cartoon that was on TV at the time. The result was a poor example of a tournament fighter that was soundly beaten by the home versions of SFII, and versions for the Sega Mega Drive and Atari Jaguar were just as inferior. It wasn’t even of interest to Double Dragon fans as, besides Billy, Jimmy and some dudes from the cartoon, the roster was seemingly made up of rejects from the Star Wars cantina bar.
Double Dragon (1995)
How did Technos respond to The Shadow Falls misstep? It doubled down and developed its own one-on-one fighter. At least this one was decent, being developed for the Neo-Geo arcade hardware and featuring plenty of over-the-top, whizz-bang action. And unlike that other effort, it gathered together familiar characters from the earlier games including Abobo, Burnov, Duke and even Marian doing the Chun-Li thing. Technos ceased trading shortly after this game was released but that didn’t mean the end of Double Dragon.
Double Dragon Advance (2003)
After an eight year hiatus, the Dragons returned in an exclusive title developed by Million for the Game Boy Advance. From the outset it appeared to be a straight update of the original coin-op – which was fine, seeing as the first game never received a faithful conversion – but this was much more, playing like a greatest hits package for fans of the series. Billy and Jimmy were blessed with their biggest repertoire of moves yet, comprising all the old favourites (even the ground attacks from Renegade were included), along with some stylish new combos and juggles. Original stages were remixed, new stages were added, old foes returned, often with new tricks, and the whole game felt both reassuringly familiar yet surprisingly fresh.
Double Dragon Neon (2012)
“Oh man, not this again!” moans Billy, as Marian is hauled off by the Warriors again. That’s right, the humour that was glimpsed in the first game and exposed in DD Advance was now thrust front and centre in this affectionate send-up of not just the series, but of beat-’em-ups, retro remakes and the 1980s in general. But it wasn’t all about nods and winks as at Neon’s core was a fantastic fighting game with surprising depth (check out all the stances and special moves). Released for PS3, X360 and PC, Neon was Double Dragon at its outlandish best and perfect for fans looking to reacquaint themselves with the series.
Double Dragon IV (2017)
The latest entry is saddled with the most confusing title. Side-stepping the arcade titles, it’s actually a follow-up to the three NES games, hence the IV, yet story wise it takes place after NES Double Dragon II! And despite being released for modern platforms (PS4, Switch and PC), it intentionally emulates the NES look and feel. It’s a curious exercise that screams retro a little too loudly, but is nonetheless an agreeable brawler that provides some short-lived thrills. Where the series goes next is anybody’s guess, but with the Double Dragon name still alive and kicking after 30 years is appears that Billy and Jimmy will be taking names and saving dames for some time yet.