Double Dragon IV Review: Buy Neon Instead

Double Dragon IV (PC/PS4), from Arc System Works, is a really weird game. It’s a direct follow-up to Double Dragon II…on the NES. It seems to be crafted for big fans of the NES Double Dragon games, to the exclusion of everyone else.

That can’t be a huge audience. Sure, Double Dragon II was recently re-released on the NES Classic Edition. And I love Double Dragon II.

But come on.

Oh, this is also a cheaply made thing with a bunch of reused old art, strange design choices, and lackluster sound effects. It feels like a fan game, rather than a proper for-pay product.

At least it’s only $7.

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The Title Screen. The in-game text defaults to Japanese. You have to pres left/right to adjust it. Like many other control things in this game, that’s not immediately clear.

Graphics

Most of the graphics in this game are from Double Dragon II on the NES. I don’t mean they’re “inspired by” those graphics, I mean they’re literally the old artwork. Many of the character sprites are from that old game, and some are even from the first game.

There are a couple of new characters. That’s neat. And that weird guy who wears a mask who dissolves when you defeat him is also in the game a bunch. That’s cool too. But it’s the same exact art I saw as a kid.

This would be fine if the game were a remake of Double Dragon II, but it’s not.

The backgrounds are all new…but they’re drawn and presented in widescreen. This makes the small NES sprites look even smaller. The scale of the graphics is all messed up. The backgrounds look gigantic and the characters look tiny. This does mean that the playfield for combat is larger, which is nice, but the visual makeup of most scenes in the game is very odd as a result.

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A huge land filled with tiny men and women. But hey, at least it has Double Dragon NES Abobo. So that’s something?

On PC, the game defaults to a window. You have to hit Alt-Enter to change to fullscreen, and you can cycle through different resolutions…with the F2 key. You have to quit the game by closing the window or pressing Alt-F4. None of these options are accessible through the in-game menus. What.

I’ve seen reports of screen tearing on the PS4 version. That’s insane. The game is not demanding of the hardware in any sense of the word, so screen tearing on a decently powerful console is madness. With a few tweaks, this would be right at home on the NES.

Sound

The music in this is great! It’s one of the only things I can’t lob some complaint at. It has some nice new remixed tunes, apparently worked on by the composer from the original games. You can also listen to the music rendered in classic NES style. Many of the songs come from the old games.

Are you seeing a pattern here?

Sound effects don’t fare as well. This is perhaps the most barren-sounding game I’ve played in a long time. It’s more bland and lifeless in the sound mix than many old NES games. It has crunchy sounds for attacks that fly into the stereo channels at random towards the end of combos. It has some basic sounds for the weapons.

And that’s it.

Double Dragon IV has so few sound effects. There’s no ambient sound of any kind. The fidelity of what is here is quite poor. I know that they were going for a retro aesthetic…but then why go with a widescreen aspect ratio and modern-sounding music?

The music was clearly the focus for the sound design here. But like every other part of the game, it’s a standout bit of polish in a sea of murky and weird decisions.

Gameplay

Surely, the gameplay is where Double Dragon IV redeems itself right? I mean, it’s made by Arc System Works. They have years of experience making excellent fighting games…and they even worked on old Double Dragon console ports back in the day. Plus, a couple of members of the original Double Dragon team designed the gameplay here. The gameplay has to be amazing, right?

Well. It’s okay! Not amazing, but okay!

In spite of 80 percent of the graphics coming from Double Dragon II, IV does not feature that game’s fun directional attack mechanics. This is a bummer, because that’s my favorite thing about DD II. The combat system here is more traditional for the brawler genre. It has punch, kick, and jump buttons and different timings/button combos lead to different attacks. The move list is ever so slightly more expanded than the old Double Dragon games, with a few new fun attacks.

The system is timing-based, so button mashing isn’t as effective as careful play. A friend of mine enjoys Super Double Dragon for its nuanced timing…and this isn’t quite as nuanced as that.

In fact, in spite of the new moves, it never even gels as well as the pre-Super NES games, due to strange design choices in the combat encounters. The NES Double Dragons were designed around a hardware limitation of only having a couple enemies on screen at a time. At several points, Double Dragon IV will dump a ton of enemies on screen. These moments feel like they’re designed for two players to tackle…and even then they’d still be hard. As a single-player, the difficulty spikes sharply in these moments because the combat system can’t quite keep up.

Double Dragon IV’s combat lacks the charm of I’s leveling system, II’s directional attacks, and III’s weapon system. It’s not as cheap-feeling as those older games…except for when it suddenly mobs you with a ton of enemies or a few powerful bosses at once. If you want a more pleasant gameplay experience, try to convince someone to play with you, and be mindful of the attack timing.

Oh, and don’t count on the game to teach you those timings. The single page of tutorial text, like all of the limited story text in the game, seems hastily translated out of Japanese.

Finally, I hope you like jumping puzzles! This game has several platforming moments, and they are mildly unpleasant. They’re doable. But they feel like they’re just here to extend the game to be longer. The game pulls that trick a lot. “You’re about to go fight this boss oh just kidding jump over these spinning things.”

In spite of the occasional cheapness, you should be able to push your way through the game if you spend a couple of hours on it. A bonus tip: You can start the game from a stage you’ve already completed by tapping the start button to cycle through them on the title screen. Yet another helpful thing that the game never tells you. I finished the main story in around an hour, but it would have taken me much longer without this continue feature. The last couple of its 12 levels are tough.

Story

For a game billed as the sequel to Double Dragon II on the NES, many of the story points slightly contradict things that happened in that game. It feels more like a side story than a true follow-up. The story is presented through basic cutscenes between the levels. The text is poorly-translated English that‘s got several typos…but it does include some fun references to the history of the series.

Also the ending is 100 percent silly and weirdly sentimental. It feels appropriately anticlimactic, just like the endings of games in the 80's.

Final Thoughts

The game includes a two player co-op mode, a two player duel mode, and a Tower mode that unlocks after you beat the story, which is a survival mode thing. The tower lets you unlock all the enemies as playable characters for the other modes, and they do tons of damage, so that’s cool. The game has much more content than the average NES brawler, and more than enough to justify its price, if you’re a strict dollars-to-hours type of person.

However.

Unless you’re a big fan of the NES Double Dragon trilogy, you probably won’t like this…and as someone who played those games a ton as a kid and revisited them to prepare for this new entry, the choices made here are a little bizarre. This seems caught halfway between no-budget fan project and full retro-styled sequel. Arc System Works is much better than this. This game was clearly made for very little money on a miniscule schedule, and it’s a shame…because with some extra time the combat here could have been the basis for a fun revival of the franchise.

Thankfully, it’s only $7. It’s priced just right. Any more and it would probably be too much, but at $7, it’s fine. The fan-game-style reuse of old assets and lack of polish are much easier to overlook when the game is only 7 bucks. And hey, maybe they’ll patch it.

Aw, who am I kidding?

If you’re looking for a great modern Double Dragon, go play Double Dragon Neon instead. Wayforward’s 2012 game isn’t the most complex, combat system wise, but it’s perhaps the most joyful, fun, and silly game the franchise has ever produced. And it doesn’t cost much more than this new game does. If you absolutely need to see this new entry, you at least won’t feel cheated by the price, even if you end up disliking it.

It would have been an okay NES game, but not a classic. In 2017 it’s just an odd cheap thing.

Written by

I do radio voice work by day, and write by day and night. I studied film and production. I love audio, design, and music. Also video games.

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