I recall the moment I fell in love with beat-em-ups as if it was yesterday. A young boy in 1987, I stood in awe as a friend played an arcade game, the likes of which I’d never seen. That game was Double Dragon. As a child of the 80s, some of my fondest gaming memories exist in dark, seedy arcades where I first laid eyes on beat-em-up greats such as Golden Axe and Final Fight. Of all the wonderful arcade games of a misspent youth, Double Dragon had a near mythical status among my peers. Put simply, it’s the daddy of side scrolling beat-em-ups and one of the most iconic arcade games of the 1980s. If I was to compile a list of the top 50 MAME games it would be the first on the page. If I could have owned just one original arcade machine in my youth I would honestly have chosen this game. Nostalgia can be a powerful thing.
In the early 90s, the beat-em-up craze kick-started by Double Dragon, quickly faded with the arrival of more complex fighting games such as Street Fighter II; it’s honestly not hard to see why. To a 12 year-old boy there was no greater thrill than teaming up with your buddy to become Billy and Jimmy, taking on hoards of gang members with flying kicks and backward elbows culminating in a fight to the death to rescue a girl. 30 years later though, these games do, unfortunately, show their age. What starts as a great trip down memory lane can often become a boring slog through level after level of the same bad guys with little variety in gameplay. A couple of years ago Hamster released Arcade Archives Double Dragon on the PS4. I played it for about 20 minutes before moving on and confess I’ve never played that version since. And yet, nostalgia can be a powerful thing.
I miss playing 80s scrolling beat-em-ups and I love owning Double Dragon on my consoles – even if it is just for a quick nostalgia fix. When I found out it was coming to the Nintendo Switch e-shop it was a day-one purchase. I liked the idea of playing it on the go and was intrigued by the possibility of 2-player co-op using joycons. This game will always sell to gamers of my generation. But should you consider spending your hard-earned cash on it? That depends very much on your interest in retro games and this genre in particular.
Double Dragon released in arcades in 1987 as a successor to a beat-em-up called Renegade. Both games were developed by Technos Japan and distributed in Europe and North America by Taito. Whilst Renegade is widely regarded as the game which launched the beat-em-up genre, Double Dragon built on those foundations with 2-player co-op gameplay, continuously scrolling levels and the ability to pick up and use weapons dropped by the bad guys. It was a huge hit, spawning a number of home console ports and two arcade sequels… the fabulous Double Dragon II and the not-so-fabulous Double Dragon III: the rosetta stone.
The game begins with a young lady called Marian who is beaten and kidnapped by a gang of thugs. Your job is to fight this gang across a series of four locations; a city, factory, forest and the gang’s hideout. If both players manage to reach the end of the game and defeat Willy (the final boss), they then need to fight each other to decide who gets the girl! Whilst the story won’t win any Oscars for originality the ending is truly brilliant.
The first thing that strikes you upon playing this game is just how difficult it is – it was, after all, designed to eat your money. If you approach it simply by walking right and pressing punch you will die rather quickly. This is no brainless button masher and it makes for quite a challenging fighting experience for people new to the genre. Weapons such as baseball bats have a sweet-spot which take practice to get right. Try swinging a baseball bat repeatedly and the bad guys will keep stepping back to avoid you. They can even duck to avoid your flying kicks. I find the actual fighting quite realistic and more satisfying than some of the flashier beat-em-ups which came later. I also like the way you can actually hit each other during 2-player co-op – the game is far more enjoyable when playing with a friend. Gameplay is surprisingly fluid for a game of this age but there is a bit of slow-down when there are several enemies on screen which can be frustrating – this was a feature of the original though. The standard arcade mode takes about 25-30 minutes to complete – about right for a game of this type. The first two missions are a real highlight but I confess that things start to drag by the third mission. Luckily the game’s finale is so great that there is motivation to play on.
Graphics and Design
In its day, Double Dragon was considered to be a technical marvel and it has aged nicely from a graphical perspective. The character designs are classic and memorable and the levels are varied and well designed, requiring players to climb up platforms and jump over obstacles in places (including a pesky bridge jump which kills me over and over again). The music is funky and enhances the experience overall, although it does get a bit dodgy in the third mission.
The appeal of Hamster’s Arcade Archives is that they are arcade-perfect ports on modern consoles. In retaining the simplicity of the original title they’ve kept the menu and features very simple. Upon loading the game you are provided with three options: an original coin-op mode; a high score mode where you can compete to register your high score on an online leaderboard; and a fairly pointless (in this game) caravan mode in which you compete to get the highest score in a five minute time limit. This caravan mode does force you to take risks and play in a more aggressive style but it’s the weakest mode on offer. The high score mode gives you one credit only and this really does highlight the difficulty of the game – it’s an intriguing option to have and one which encourages repeated play-throughs in order to better learn the game. It’s the mode I’ve been playing the most to improve my technique and it’s seriously challenging to register a high score online.
The game has various display settings which help to mimic CRT displays such as scan-lines of adjustable thickness. It looks lovely in hand-held mode on the Switch and controls well with the joycons. In arcade mode there is no high score table displayed on screen so the gameplay is displayed in standard 4:3. There’s a very faint background template to fill the rest of the screen but it would have been nice to have more design options here – for example the original Double Dragon arcade bezel would have been a great touch.
Value for money
Purists will praise the bare-bones approach to arcade conversions taken by Hamster’s Arcade Archives. Others though might question the lack of features on offer for the price. It would have been nice to have more background templates, for example, and possibly some original artwork. Whilst preserving the original game it could still have been possible to offer an enhanced mode which didn’t suffer from slow down. This game cost £6.29 (UK price) which feels a bit steep considering this game can be played for free through an online web browser or via MAME if you know how. However, some people would rather legitimately own their games and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than buying the original arcade machine. For these people, to be able to play an arcade-perfect version of a gaming masterpiece from their youth on the Switch will be a true pleasure.
Double Dragon is a perfect fit for the Nintendo Switch. The portable nature of the console makes this a great little game to pick up and play when you have a spare 10 minutes – particularly with a friend. If you remember playing this in arcades then you won’t need to read a review and will no doubt take great delight from owning this game. For people who love playing old arcade games and fans of beat-em-ups this is a no-brainer – it’s an essential introduction to the genre and is arguably up there with some of the great side-scrolling beat-em-ups. There are more technically accomplished games in this genre though and people who aren’t fans of beat-em-ups may quickly lose interest. For these people, Double Dragon will have limited appeal and the final score reflects this. The game could be improved with some additional features to appeal to retro gamers and improve gameplay.