Talk about a punch up!
I’m about to date myself quite a bit. I’ve been a fan of the Double Dragon franchise since I played the very first installment on the NES. That game released all the way back in 1987, so yeah…I’m an old man!
The original Double Dragon was one of those NES games that pretty much everyone had in their collection. This was a time when game boxes and word of mouth were the main ways we learned about games, and somehow those two factors resulted in Double Dragon being a title a ton of kids added to their game libraries. Long story short, if you owned an NES back in the day, the odds were very good that you owned, or at least played Double Dragon.
I stuck with the series from those early days through the decades that followed. I was there for the numbered sequels, spin-offs like Battletoads & Double Dragon, even the odd experiments like the one-on-one fighting game, confusingly titled Double Dragon. Sadly, after the original trilogy of games and early spin-offs, the Double Dragon franchise not only fell off in terms of popularity, but quality as well.
There was one bright spot in the series’ later years; Double Dragon Neon. The gang at WayForward took a crack at the Double Dragon franchise and came out with a mostly classic-style beat’em-up that was filled with goofy jokes, over-the-top moves, and an absolutely killer soundtrack. WayForward managed to find something that worked for the Double Dragon franchise, getting things back on track. There’s no doubt that success helped pave the way for their titles like River City Girls later on, which has plenty of ties to Double Dragon as well.
While Double Dragon Neon gave fans hope for a bright future, we instead got another decade+ of lackluster Double Dragon games. Just when all hope seemed lost, we learned of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, a brand-new title from developer Secret Base. Seeing Secret Base as the developer on this new project was an instant green flag, as the company previously worked on Streets of Red: Devil’s Dare Deluxe, a wonderful permadeath beat’em-up with some interesting twists on the genre.
Having poured hours into Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons at this point, I can without a doubt say that Secret Base has taken the utmost care with the Double Dragon franchise. This new entry in the 36-year series takes what you’d expect from a mainline Double Dragon game and adds an unbelievable amount of variety, mechanics, and more. There have been quite a few great games in the Double Dragon lineage, but Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is gunning for the top of the heap, and there’s definitely an argument to be made for it being the best the franchise has ever seen.
At its core, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is still a side-scrolling beat’em-up. Billy and Jimmy are here, there’s plenty of bad guys to pummel, and you’ll have to work your way through a variety of stages to reach the end-game. These are the building blocks of all mainline Double Dragon games, and it’s clear Secret Base wanted to respect that legacy. Of course, just implementing those mechanics doesn’t make for a fun experience. It’s the execution that matters most, and Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons absolutely nails the fundamentals.
In my opinion, there are certain elements that make a beat’em-up satisfying. At the top of my list is the impact players make with enemies when going in for an attack. Hits that land have to feel good…which is an easy thing to say, but hard to achieve. There have been plenty of beat’em-ups that lack oomph, and it really turns a potentially fun experience into a slog. If your main mechanic doesn’t pack a punch (pun totally intended), your game is lacking from the get-go.
Having worked in the beat’em-up genre, Secret Base knows how to zero in on that component. Their expertise is on full display in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, as kicks, punches and everything in-between are extremely satisfying, making the basic back-and-forth with enemies supremely addictive. The cracks and crashes when attacks land, the looks on enemy faces, the momentum of the action..it’s all so damn good. Not once did I tire of laying a beatdown on Double Dragon Gaiden’s henchmen.
Adding to that feeling is the explosion of coins that enemies throw out when you send them packing. People have created articles and video essays on the dopamine rush you get from collectibles like “studs” in the many LEGO games, and Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons offers a very similar experience, as coins literally pop out of fallen enemies like fountains. The more enemies on screen, the bigger potential for a deluge of digital gold. The bursts of coins with every fallen foe adds yet another layer of satisfaction to the beat’em-up action, and makes an already frenetic-feeling adventure that much better.
Wondering what you use those coins for? Well, that’s one of the many ways where Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons charts its own course.
Rather than take the tried-and-true path of previous Double Dragon games, Secret Base looked to evolve the formula. Again, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is very much a beat’em-up, but it’s been married with roguelite elements that wildly change gameplay. Now, instead of blowing through a level and going on to the next, the currency you collect will greatly impact how you play.
Stages in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons are broken up into sections. Once you clear a section, you’ll have a random assortment of upgrades to choose from. You’re able to spend your hard-earned cash on new moves, more powerful versions of current attacks, health replenishment and more. You never know what options you’re going to have for upgrades, and what you choose could make the next portion of the stage a breeze or a nightmare. You could even decide to hold onto your cash, as it can be spent during gameplay for a complete revival. Everything comes at a cost in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, and the game is better because of it.
That element of randomness bleeds over to the stages and enemies as well. You’ll have a set amount of areas open right from the start of the game, and you can pick which one you want to tackle first. Wherever you go out the gate will give you a challenge, but nothing too daunting. Then, as you progress deeper into the game, the difficulty level gets cranked up. The order in which you tackle stages will make for a greater amount of enemies (tougher, too), and impact the length of the stage as well. Once again, the roguelite/random mechanics give you not only an ever-changing and unique challenge, but plenty of reason to revisit the game even after the credits roll.
Basically, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is going to be a different game every time you play it. Yes, you’ll work your way through the same chunks of stages, but you’ll have a different path to success as well. Tactics you used last time might not work due to a lack of moves or upgrades, or a fresh wave of incredibly fearsome opponents. If you don’t have enough cash on hand, you could find your journey coming to an end much sooner than your last outing, but that will likely only push you to give the game one more go. Next time, you’ll be smarter with your spending and more varied in your approach, making for an even sweeter victory.
Speaking of sweeter things, one of the best elements added in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is how food is handled. Any good beat’em-up will have you grabbing random street grub to up your health, and Double Dragon Gaiden is no different. There are plenty of snacks to scarf down during the gauntlet, but there’s a new way to acquire them this time. Rather than just punching garbage cans or bashing vending machines, Double Dragon Gaiden lets you beat treats right out of the baddies.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons has a special meter that builds up as you bust henchmen. Once it’s full, you can unleash a devastating attack on the troublemakers in your way. Since you can see the health bars above each enemy, you’ll know when you’re about to land the final blow. If you use a special move for the knockout hit on 3 or more enemies, you’ll be given a health drop. The more enemies you take out with a special at one time, the greater the food reward. This means that as long as you’re calculated with your attacks and you line up special moves at the right time, you could have an endless supply of edibles at your disposal.
All these tweaks and wrinkles; the coin collecting, upgrade system, random enemy totals/power, food distribution, they all merge with the classic beat’em-up mechanics to make Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons immensely enjoyable.
The icing on the cake in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons comes from the stage design itself, as well as the soundtrack. In terms of level variety, you get a decent amount of ideas you’ve seen in other games or beat’em-ups in particular, but with some really fresh revamps. Sure, you’ve probably played a game where you fight your way through a junkyard, but how about one where you have to infiltrate a pyramid built out of junked cars and scrap metal? How about a casino level that turns into a secret cave system leading to a mountaintop dojo? It’s honestly wild to see how Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons manages to squeeze new experiences out of stage designs and a genre that’s been around for decades, and the game is all the more fun for it.
You’re driven through these levels by an absolutely thumping soundtrack. I really believe that a strong soundtrack is crucial to a good beat’em-up. Having the right tunes for the journey can take a fun game and turn it into an amazing one. Thankfully, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons’ soundtrack is banger after banger, and it’s a great combination of remixed Double Dragon songs, riffs on classic tunes from the franchise, and completely new tracks. There’s not a bad song in the bunch, and all of them keep the action going strong.
I could honestly gush about Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons for hours on end. There have been plenty of franchise reboots and revivals over the years, but very, very few of them have managed to pull off what Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons does. Instead of sticking to what made previous Double Dragon games work, Secret Base has blended old with new to create something that I’m honestly in awe of. The classic beat’em-up fun with modern roguelite sensibilities makes for a game that’s extremely hard to put down, and also ripe for replaying. Throw in the multiple characters with different fighting styles, tag-team moves, local co-op, a litany of unlockables and secrets, and plenty of gameplay modifiers, and the end result is a staggering success.
Let me be completely clear. I was excited for Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons from the second it was announced, but the game has blown away even my greatest expectations. I didn’t expect to be wowed this much, or in so many different ways. I’m really struggling to think of another revival that manages to evolve a franchise while still respecting its roots like Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons does.
Just like I said at the start of this review, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons could very well be the best entry in the entire series. Not only has this revolutionized Double Dragon, it’s also given the beat’em-up genre a very welcome shot in the arm. Other developers should definitely take note; Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is a masterclass in modernizing a franchise, respecting its origins, and pushing a genre forward.