Let's start by addressing the title. Double Dragon 4, funnily enough, takes place shortly after the events of Double Dragon 2, which is somewhat confusing. Then you have the fact that this is, in fact, the twelfth iteration of the series, including ports and crossovers, and many will argue that Super Double Dragon is technically the fourth game. But we can get past the questionable title, as it really doesn't matter all that much - a new Double Dragon should be a thing to celebrate.
In Double Dragon's 30th anniversary year, Arc System Works has released a new entry that doesn't feel new. It's unapologetically old-school, from the 8-bit NES-style visuals to the simple punch kick combos of the gameplay. For many, this retro throwback could be enough, but we would argue that it's perhaps gone a little too far on this front.
The presentation is, as we've said, inspired by the NES games, with many of the sprites appearing exactly the same. There are a few new enemy types introduced, and they mix in with the established bunch well enough. The handful of music tracks have been updated, but you can also opt for the original music if you want an even more authentic recreation. So thorough has the developer been in capturing the look and feel of the earlier games that it's just a little bizarre when a trophy pings for completing a story mission.
Initially, it even appears that you need to complete the Story mode in one sitting, with a set amount of lives to get you to the end. Losing all your lives results in a Game Over, and you're kicked back to the main menu. There are no provisions for earning more lives or health, as it was in the old Double Dragon games, resulting in a very tough hour or two. It wasn't until many failed attempts later that we stumbled upon a level select; by pressing Options once you select Story mode, it allows you to start the story from the last level you completed. This also reinforces the retro feel, but it was at this point that we began to question whether looking back was the right approach.
For example, the combat, which does have one or two new special moves, is basic and button-mashy. However, this isn't exactly the problem. It's all too easy to cheese enemies to death once they're knocked down, which you'll be tempted to abuse once you realise how unfairly the enemies attack you. Playing alone a few missions into the story, baddies tend to beeline for you, and once you fall to one of their relentless attacks, they'll stand and wait around you in order to continue the assault the second you stand up. You do have a couple of moves at your disposal to deal with this, but they don't account for those behind you, or enemies throwing projectiles at you from across the screen. It may well be accurate to early Double Dragon, but it can be incredibly frustrating, especially with a finite amount of lives being whittled away by dozens of thugs who fight just as dirty as you. Playing co-op is better, but the number of antagonists increases, meaning the problem mostly persists.
In addition to the Story mode, you have 2P Duel, which is obviously a versus mode. Here, you can duke it out with any of the myriad characters you've unlocked via the story, and it can be fun controlling the bad guys for a change. Beyond that it doesn't hold much appeal, although it's nice to have. The Tower mode is unlocked once you finish the story, and is slightly more interesting. It pits you against increasingly challenging waves of enemies as you climb as high as you can with just one life. Again, unlocked characters can all be used in place of Billy or Jimmy.
The same is eventually true of the Story mode, but whether you will want to replay it as the alternative characters is another matter. Discounting our problems with the combat, the story missions are short, uninteresting, and feature frankly terrible platforming sections. If you're a die-hard Double Dragon fan, you'll find plenty to love here, but people with more modern tastes won't hang around for long.
Double Dragon 4 plays the nostalgia card harder than most, but its narrow-sighted reliance on this has left it feeling like a relic that perhaps shouldn't have been disturbed. The combat can be simplistic fun but is ruined by cheap AI, and the trio of modes don't offer much to stick around for. The presentation is a cool look back at the 80s school of design, but once the novelty wears off, you're left with a frustrating beat-em-up that inadvertently highlights the leaps in gameplay, animation, and visuals that games have made over the last three decades.