Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
July 27, 2023
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons is the latest entry in a legendary but overlooked series. Back in 1987, Double Dragon exploded onto the Arcade scene as one of the first side-scrolling beat ’em ups, featuring Billy and Jimmy Lee as twin protagonists taking on street gangs and boss characters to save their girlfriend. The first Double Dragon was the highest grossing arcade game in Japan in 1987 as well as the highest grossing arcade game in the USA two years on the trot and was ported to every home system or computer you can think of.
Double Dragon even crossed over into other mainstream media with an animated series plus a live action movie in the early 90’s. Since then, new games in the series have been few and far between. The last entry in the Double Dragon Series, Neon, is almost five years old and was not exactly a critic’s darling. But now we have Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons, a brand new entry in a legendary series. Another modern attempt to revive a classic with retro inspired gameplay and graphics. It is a tough gig to pull off, have they managed it?
Is Rise Of The Dragons a decent game? Is it worth your money? This time around the answer is sort of and sometimes. There are strengths here that include some unique stage settings with some pseudo platforming sections, which is a bit different for the genre. As welcome as these additions are, some of them are a little painful to play. Characters are smaller than usual for a Double Dragon title, reminiscent of releases like Street Gangs on the NES, which is odd because the loading screens feature the classic designs. They probably should have considering sticking with those.
There is also a new token system here. In fairness to Rise Of The Dragons, it is upfront with it’s modus operandi – play the game, earn money, buy tokens, and use those tokens to buy things like characters to use in the game. Bonus points for being blatant here, this game is unashamedly designed around forcing the player through the game multiple times.
The token system works better in some ways than others. Using your hard-earned tokens for extra characters, including bosses, makes sense. Checking out the rest of the menu though, things like buying ‘tips’ to learn how to play the game is close to inexcusable. Other than that there is just the standard music and artwork options.
The token system is sort of implemented in an interesting way. Starting a run, you can play with some difficulty settings that will impact the exchange rate of cash for tokens. The more difficult you make it for yourself, the more tokens you could afford (if you make it far enough). So whether you punish yourself for tokens or take it easy and play multiple times for the same reward is your call.
Unlocking extra content after finishing a game is all well and good but I’m not a fan of being forced to play over and over again. I note that unlocking these characters is fairly essential thanks to some nasty difficulty spikes throughout the game as well, so it’s really not that optional. If a game is fun, I’ll replay it naturally and pick up the unlockable content as I go along, but being more or less forced to do it? No thank you.
In Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons, standard level progression has gone out the window in favour of a Mega Man-style affair where you can complete the stages in any order you choose. This is not new approach, but the way this is executed does deserve some credit.
Rise Of The Dragons lets you choose which order you tackle the stages in and it actually impacts the content of the levels. As you complete a stage, the enemies and the bosses become more difficult in the remaining ones. More interestingly though, the length of the stages, the number of chapters within them, and the locations you visit change as well. Unlike the token system, this is a more compelling reason to tackle the game a couple of times in a different order.
It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear which stage bosses you want to get out of the way early, whilst they are underpowered. Once the perfect path is plotted out, you begin to run the risk of grinding the game using the same order of stages.
Gameplay wise, not much has changed since 1987. The fighting itself is simple as per usual. You just bash the hit button and try not to get stuck in the middle of the fray. There is a button to unleash a special which you can use when necessary. A tip that won’t cost you a token is that if a special move takes out more than a few enemies at once, you get a health drop! This is handy, because you don’t find many health drops in the wild, which is a shame.
Some of the highlights of Rise Of The Dragons include the soundtrack. The music is excellent, with modern versions of some classic Double Dragon tracks that will be familiar to fans of the series. It was nice to hear a few deep cuts, get to a boss fight, and hear a modern take on a tune from back in the day.
From time to time, the stage design crosses into excellence, especially with some of the unique sections and branching routes, like deciding whether to fight within a train carriage or on top. A tricky platforming section involving rising spikes keeps things spicy. From time to time, the game does blur the lines between a standard left to right beat ’em up with some platforming action, which when it works, is excellent.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons shows that even with a genre 30+ years old, it’s not so easy to make another masterpiece. The game is unintentionally a testament to the fact that making a really great beat ’em up is a bit of an art form that is difficult to grasp, even though it seems so straight forward on the surface. You can get the pixel art right, you can get the sound right, the combat is still the same as it was in 1987, but the special sauce just isn’t there. The little nuances of a great beat ’em up that stands above the crowd is hard to explain, but you feel it when you play it. And this just ain’t it.
I guess it all depends what you’re looking for. Rise Of The Dragons feels very true to its namesake. Maybe the developers should have used recent successful titles in the genre like Streets of Rage 4 for inspiration, or maybe they have accomplished their mission of making a classic Double Dragon.
- Classic Double Dragon gameplay
- Stage chapters are enjoyably different depending on which order you play them in
- Stellar musical score
- Token system is designed to force replay
- Some pretty frustrating boss battles along the way
- Selling 'tips' for tokens
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise Of The Dragons does a reasonable job of bringing back a classic series, but it’s unfortuantely hit and miss. Some imaginative stage design, a fantastic soundtrack, and stages changing dependent on the order you pick are all satisfying additions. But a focus on making money to earn tokens, some nasty difficulty spikes, and what feels like forced replayability detracts from the experience. This is close enough to a classic Double Dragon title that it’ll likely attract some fans of the originals. However, it’s also an example of a game that could have gone a little further and perhaps should have considered taking some inspiration from other successful recent revivals in the genre.