The Double Dragon series is one that I have no particular fondness for. The maiden entry was originally released as an arcade game in 1987 and ushered in what most consider the Golden Age of the beat ‘em up genre. It was an extremely successful game, spawning a live-action film, cartoon series, and unsurprisingly, many sequels and home conversions. Playing through the Sega Master System version with a friend this past week served as my first hands-on experience with the series and it was a little underwhelming. The depth of combat and stage variety was a drastic improvement over the primitive Black Belt but my natural tendencies resulted in an initial playthrough that was less entertaining than later entries in the genre, such as Streets of Rage. Persistent sprite flicker and vague hit detection didn’t help matters.
In the half-hour session it took us to beat the game, we played as Billy and Jimmy Lee, siblings proficient in martial arts, on the hunt for the thugs who kidnapped Marian, Billy’s girlfriend. Through four distinct stages, we put the hurt on dozens of entry-level miscreants, confronting the odd miniboss now and then, but always at the end of each stage. Enemies almost always outnumbered us and we fought independently of each other in an effort to divide and conquer, coming together at the end to wail on the stage ending bosses. I relied on simple punches and kicks to defeat our foes although the combat system was surprisingly robust. Different button combinations resulted in different attacks, including head butts, elbow smashes, and throws. The myriad of options was too much to keep track of in the heat of battle and my narrow use of attacks ultimately caused an uninspired playthrough.
While my reliance on a meager, yet successful, moveset left me with a tepid outlook of the game, I can’t take any blame for the ambiguous hit detection or graphical issues. Regarding hit detection, when I sock an enemy, I want some feedback to know if it landed and how effective it was. Feedback like this is typically visual and audible but in this game I felt it was only inadequate. Further dulling my impressions was the ever-present sprite flicker. It didn’t impact our performance one way or the other but it was off-putting. The sprite flicker was likely exacerbated by the fact we were playing simultaneously, putting one more active sprite into play, but I didn’t play solo to test this theory. Despite this, the opportunity to play through the game with a partner was a selling point then, when it was the only home version to feature co-operative play. It still is – games are universally more enjoyable with friends.
Had I more nostalgia for the Double Dragon series, my impressions of this entry may have been a little less glum. I thought our playthrough was quite dull due to the negatives discussed, but also due to the lack of difficulty. The first three stages offered unlimited continues while the final stage offered that benefit upon the execution of a cheat code. Accordingly, we never felt challenged. In spite of everything, I still enjoyed playing it, primarily because of my friend. We maintained a lively banter and occasionally started small tiffs, whacking each other with weapon pick-ups and competing for each other’s takedowns. Ultimately, I’m optimistic that later playthroughs will leave me with an improved opinion of this game, after I have the opportunity to experiment with a more varied combination of attacks and better soak in the nuances of the combat system.