When you think about what made the Double Dragon series great, it’s hard to come up with anything that would really work by today’s standards. With rare exceptions, beat-‘em-ups don’t really have much of a place in gaming today simply due to the nature of the genre’s mechanics. They are a relic from a much different time in gaming history, and because of that, new games in the genre almost never succeed. WayForward, a developer with experience in the ways of bringing back old franchises, presents us with Double Dragon: Neon, a game that attempts to revive a once-beloved series with mixed results.
Let’s get one thing clear right away: Double Dragon: Neon is not going to revolutionize or innovate. It’s not attempting to do anything that new and it’s not going to win anyone over who was never a big fan of the franchise or the genre to begin with. That being said, it never needed to. Neon exists simply to bring back the Double Dragon name in a cartoony, ’80s satire kind of way. In a lot of respects, it does that well; it’s a convincingly ’80s game, complete with a soundtrack that represents (and extensively mocks) the time period perfectly. But in others, like the visuals, it feels like a huge misstep. This is an ugly looking game that would have benefited greatly from WayForward’s brilliant, stylistic 2D art you typically see from them with games of this nature.
The game plays exactly how you would expect; it’s complete with basic attacks, super moves, a decent variety of breakable weapons and waves of the enemies you would expect to see in a Double Dragon game. You also have a run button, which allows you to perform running attacks, and a crouch, which lets you duck and perform other specific moves; you can chain the two together, silly as it sounds, to create some interesting combos. It never feels entirely satisfying or necessary to use anything beyond basic attacks or super moves, though.
There are also mix tapes that enemies drop that unlock different special attacks and stat increases. These carry over from playthrough to playthrough to help on the higher difficulties. They are upgradable as well, allowing for some decent customization. While customizing what super attack you wish to use is nice, none of these features felt particularly useful nor did they add too much new to a very basic formula. If you plan on playing the hardest difficulty, you might find yourself relying on this system, but it would require more grinding than you might expect from a game of this nature. Double Dragon is still Double Dragon, no matter how much customization you attempt to throw at it.
The worst part about Neon is how it controls. It can be hard to have a handle on performing certain moves as it never quite feels as smooth as it should. Your attacks and movement all feel sluggish and the hit detection is sometimes spotty, making it very easy to miss performing specific attacks or super moves. Even if you feel you are adjusting to it, there will always some environmental hazard that will find a way to screw you over without you even realizing it until it’s too late. It all feels very clunky and is never close to as precise as you need it to be, removing any and all satisfaction from the combat.
It’s clear the game is designed to be played cooperatively, as many of the bosses and enemy encounters are crafted in a way best tackled by two. Some areas are made for enemy-juggling, in one case literally with a two-loose-floorboard setup. It’s also much easier to get through tough spots together, not only because of double the firepower, but also due to the revival mechanic. You have a few seconds to bring back a friend before a life is lost, and making sure to stay on opposite ends of the health bar can smooth the ride through the campaign.
There’s a high-five mechanic in the game, letting players use the right stick to activate certain effects. Holding certain directions lets you split your life bars evenly (a mechanic that ends up being best not used with the revival scheme), activate a short boost mode or even mess with your friend and fake them out. In practice, it’s not used that much, and you stick to pounding with basic attacks until your special meter fills up again.
Even if there is some fun to be had playing co-op (and the lack of online co-op at launch is a disappointment), Double Dragon: Neon is a shallow, sluggish beat-‘em-up. Nostalgia alone isn’t enough to make a game good, or even memorable.
Managing Editor Graham Russell contributed to this review.
Pros: Great soundtrack, co-op works nicely
Cons: Ugly visuals, wonky controls and hit detection, no online co-op (yet)