It isn’t often that you get to use the words “franchise”, “80s”, and “reboot” in the same sentence these days, without feeling a little bit like you’re constructing a joke and that the developer of the title in question is going to provide the punchline. In an era where popstars are turning up on Blu-ray and DVD in financially successful big-budget movie adaptations of board games, the market is clearly open to solid reworkings of beloved properties, so that clearly shouldn’t be the case.
Another set of people that seem to feel this way are WayForward Technologies, a development team that has in the past repaid the faith put in them to oversee updates of classics such as A Boy and His Blob and Contra. This time, they’ve tackled the much-beloved 1987 arcade classic Double Dragon and have – in no uncertain terms – absolutely nailed it.
From the very outset, Double Dragon Neon is crisp, loud, and uncompromisingly right in your face. Super-bright colours, a wonderfully vibrant visual performance, and a soundtrack that seemingly contains the essence of the 80s in every note makes for an aesthetically appealing package. But the game doesn’t try to get by on looks alone. Instead, it takes a massive helping of that old-school tough-as-nails gameplay, and pretty much tells the player to stop crying and deal with it. Only one difficulty level is on offer at the first load, with two others waiting in the wings to beat you down if you can tough it out to the end credits in order to unlock them.
The aim of the game is to save Marian, the girlfriend of (apparently both) Jimmy and Billy Lee. She’s been kidnapped by the evil Skullmageddon. To save her, you’ll need to punch and kick your way through ten levels of street toughs, baseball-bat wielding thugs, wrestlers, ninjas and all manner of other opponents, in order to reach your final showdown with the skeletal one himself. Along the way, you’ll stumble across cassette tapes which provide new combat abilities and skills, such as the ability to throw lightning, or collect energy every time your character is hit. In a very limited bit of RPG-style management, these abilities can be powered up further by visiting the “tapesmith” and combining them with quartz chunks which are generally rewarded for defeating an end-of-level character.
The fact that each of these 20 different types of cassette each come with their own full-length backing track – complete with super-cheesy lyrics – is nothing but a boon.
Control-wise, things are beautifully simple, with no complex multiple-button attacks coming into play to dilute things. Buttons for punching, kicking, jumping, and grabbing opponents rest on the face buttons, with ducking and throwing magical attacks resting on the shoulders. In terms of gameplay, this is as close as anybody has come to perfectly replicating the side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups that were so wildly popular back in the day. Super-responsive controls, a challenge that will have you tearing your hair out in frustration and yet coming back to have another go just a few minutes later, and some beautiful bits of comedy, mean that this is the real deal.
This is a game that is massively enhanced by drop-in/drop-out co-operative play offline, with a future patch promising to bring the same experience to online players as well. Average players will probably complete the first difficulty level in 2-3 hours and disappointingly, the only real replayability here involves beating the game again on a harder difficulty setting. But even with that in mind, Double Dragon Neon is easily one of the most polished PSN titles available to date, and if you don’t at least give it a spin (kick), then the joke is on you.