Review: 'Double Dragon: Neon' Is A Nostalgic Kick in the Head

Squint your eyes a little and Double Dragon: Neon feels a lot like the Double Dragon games from the arcade era--warts and all. The side-scrolling brawler has the same kind of life-eating, punishing difficulty curve of its predecessors, evocatively-designed, challenging enemies, and it's much better when you've got a second player to help you clean up the streets (and places beyond). But some quirks with going co-op aside (this is a strictly local experience until developer WayForward deploys a multiplayer patch), Double Dragon: Neon has flashes of wit and well-designed combat as it homages and sends up past buddy system brawlers.

As ever, the game starts with poor Marian getting gut-punched and hauled away, this time by cackling villain Skullmageddon and it's up to brothers Billy and Jimmy to cross ten levels to get her back. From that brief description, you can see that WayForward wasn't looking to mess with the Double Dragon basics so much as blow them up with lots of 80's flourishes. While the original was released in 1985, Neon--from its synth and riff-heavy soundtrack to Billy and Jimmy's denim jackets--lives squarely between 1984-1985 (if you were alive then, you'd know there was a difference).

The look and sound of the game are mostly spot-on, with polygonal character models given cel-chaded accents. Each of the well-designed characters looks like they have weight, and after beating the game, it's worth your time to page through the concept art gallery to see how each one reached their in-game incarnation, owing a lot to the 1987 original. Musically, most of the tracks set the mood well, and if you haven't yet, you should really grab Jake Kaufman's OST.

Mechanically, the rough outlines of Neon are there: one-two-three punch to roundhouse kick combos with the addition of throws. But WayForward has added a dodge mechanic and some limited juggling to expand the ways you can deal damage to Skullmageddon's, multi-ethnic, sci-fi gang. On top of this, you've got weapons like bats and swords to pick up to batter the enemy, along with the ability to run mapped to the left trigger in case you want to charge an opponent or make the jump in one of Neon's many platforming sections. The dodge, in particular, is great for avoiding getting crowded on one side of the screen by particularly aggressive enemies, although it does highlight one of the flaws of Neon and that's its collision detection.

Like side-scrollers past, this one has levels with vertical movement, meaning it's sometimes hard to tell if you're oriented in such a way that you will actually make contact with the enemy. Plus, it seems like if your character intersects with more than a third of the enemy's model, your hits won't make contact. The roll makes this more of an issue when you attempt to doge a super-close attack, only to find your self on the opposite side of an enemy but too near to execute your own move. The whole dance involves a bit of clever back and forth dodging and walking to get into position to finish off one of the game's heavies.

This doesn't break the combat so much as bend it in an awkward way that you'll find yourself compensating for after an hour or so with the short campaign.

But that's not the only way Neon changes things up, with the addition of Sōsetsuken cassette tapes which give Billy and Jimmy upgradeable abilities and skill profiles. Fireballs, lighting attacks, and powerful punches will supplement Billy and Jimmy's move set (executed using the right bumper on the 360), and you can easily collect all of the tapes in one playthrough while upgrading them at the infrequently-distributed shops.

While Double Dragon: Neon isn't all that long at around two, three hours max, it's still frustrating to have to hoof it back to an earlier location in the world map to find a shop to boost your skills, and even then, you have to play through half of a level to reach one. This can be especially annoying as you start racking up in-game cash and can't really do anything about it.

What ultimately hurts Double Dragon: Neon, which went live last week without a patch for online multiplayer. So in spite of some cleverly designed combat, unless you have a 2p sitting next to you, this is one battle for street justice you'll have to take on solo. I had a chance to play the first two levels during PAX Prime and the addition of a second player dramatically changes the way Double Dragon: Neon feels. The main benefit is that if you're downed, your buddy can rush over and revive you (the animation involves a pencil getting an unwound tape back into its cassette). Hopefully, this will be patched in soon, but right now it feels like a major gap in the overall experience.

Double Dragon: Neon is available on XBLA and PSN for 800 MS Points/$9.99

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