Growing up in the NES generation, I played my fair share of Double Dragon. Whether alone or with friends, it was a series of games that I gravitated towards whenever I wanted a break from the labyrinthine map of Metroid, the open world of Zelda, or whatever cheap garbage Mike Tyson was pulling in Punch-Out. I’ve never put Double Dragon in the upper echelon of classic gaming, but for what it was it was just fine.
For better or worse, Double Dragon IV is essentially more of the same.
It doesn’t exist to make fun of itself in the way that Neon did, but the narrative is unapologetically corny nonetheless; not even taking into account the fourth entry takes place between the second and third. After emerging victorious in their previous endeavors against the Black Warriors, martial arts siblings Billy (Bimmy!) and Jimmy Lee have set up their Sōsetsuken dojos across the United States in hopes of spreading and maintaining the peace. How sweet. During a road trip out west, however, their vehicle is run off the road by a new group of evil doers called The Renegades and Marian, their version of Princess Peach, is kidnapped yet again. Her death in Double Dragon II never happened, I guess?
The story plays out between levels using basic storyboards with minimal wordsmithing, and it’s clearly not meant to be a selling a point. This is both an homage and continuation of the NES games, above all else.
Forgoing the series’ graphically superior arcade releases (and one awful fighting game) in favor of classic 8-bit sprites, Double Dragon IV uses many of the same characters and moves from Double Dragon II on NES. Billy and Jimmy, Abobo, and Roper are present and accounted for, along with wake-up knee strikes and jumping roundhouses.
Whether by accident or sheer developmental dedication, this brotherly beat-em-up feels like an honest to goodness NES game from the early 90’s. There’s static backdrops, screen tearing, and weird hit-boxes, along with equally cheap and dumb enemy AI. Just like the good ol’ days, most of the baddies can be manipulated and exploited using the same moves ad nauseum. Of course, they’ll also take it upon themselves to troll you atop ladders, near deadly pitfalls, or by congregating over your crippled body to strike like a pack of raptors, so it’s even Steven as far as I’m concerned.
There’s a decent variety of levels to punch and kick your way through, like a desert, a cave, and a casino, but none of them are necessarily standouts. Well, not for any good reasons anyway. One in particular, a factory level, features some aggravating platforming segments along moving beams. Behind the steel structure sits a stretched out image of a nighttime city view that looks like an old AOL-era JPG. Woof.
The story mode itself is quite short and should provide a decent challenge for anyone going solo. I didn’t find it to be particularly fun, however, offering a shallow NES experience that still lacks the depth of classic brethren like River City Ransom, or modern brawlers like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. The same hordes of enemies flood the screen while you dish out the same cheap tactics to escape death time and time again, repeating as necessary. Within an hour I felt like I’d seen everything the game had to offer.
Everything is better with co-op, though, right? Unfortunately, that’s not much of a selling point for me, since it’s only offered locally or in one-hour increments via PS4’s Share Play. The lack of online co-op is a letdown, but for Double Dragon IV’s generous asking price, I wasn’t expecting it to be included.
There is a bit of replay value, though, by way of an endless Tower mode and the return of Versus mode. Tower mode is locked behind campaign progression, so you’re forced to muscle your way through the story before it opens up. Doing so unlocks the game’s enemies as playable characters, so completing levels always felt somewhat rewarding. The versus mode was a bit of a letdown since there’s no way to incorporate AI bots–you either play against your friends or you don’t play it at all.
Despite my wholly unenjoyable experience with Double Dragon IV, I get its appeal. It’s a classic throwback in every sense of the term and should easily please fans of the NES games unless it cracks your rose-tinted glasses instead. Games have grown up a lot since the original Double Dragon released in 1988, and taking the fourth entry’s antiquated visuals for granted I guess I didn’t expect it to feel as primitive as it looks.
I do admire Arc System Works’ attention to detail (assuming it wasn’t unintentional) regarding wonky hit-boxes, cheap enemy AI, reusing the old NES sprites, mastering the look and feel of the series, and enduring the never-ending hell of screen tearing. In the end, the fans that wanted a throwback to Double Dragon’s glory days got what they wanted. If you’re in that camp, I’m definitely happy for you. As someone who was never overly attached to the series, I just didn’t have a good time. At all.
Double Dragon IV isn’t the worst way to spend $7, but there are certainly better options out there.
So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores, so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PS4 copy of Double Dragon IV that was provided by the game’s publisher, Arc System Works. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.