The brawler genre is currently experiencing a renaissance. The simplistic beat-’em-up style popularized by arcade classics such as Final Fight, Streets of Rage, and Double Dragon are brands that deserve to be revisited. This decade, gamers have already seen original titles such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game and Castle Crashers adroitly iterate on the genre’s dusty tropes, so it was inevitable that more of the original franchises would receive proper reboots, and the latest to pique the interest of aging gamers is Double Dragon: Neon. Developer WayForward had some above-average successes with Contra 4 and A Boy and His Blob, and their teaming with old-school publisher Majesco attempts to catapult Billy and Jimmy Lee’s wacky adventures into the modern generation.
Unfortunately, the Double Dragon franchise isn’t restructured enough in this translation. The character models are too large, and controlling them is sluggish and unresponsive. This proves to be a frustration if you’re playing solo, but not a colossal issue when playing with a buddy. (Drop-in/drop-out online multiplayer is promised by WayForward, but that feature isn’t available as of publication.) The technicalities of actually playing the game can prove to be almost as wearisome as feeding an arcade cabinet full of quarters only to die at the same boss over and over again.
The soundtrack brings us back to the ’80s; the main characters even rock air guitars at the end of all 10 levels, and the main antagonist looks and sounds almost like He-Man’s Skeletor.
Throughout the game, a half dozen or so enemies will swarm the screen, and you have to duck, roll, or jump out of harm’s way. A “gleam” attack bonus occurs when you duck just as a baddie tries to take a chunk out of your surfer-dude face. It’s hard to perfect since the game’s hit detection is pernickety during melee situations, though the battle system is thankfully modernized with the addition of a wide assortment of power-up mixtapes. Two can be equipped at a time: One category is more passive (the health regeneration tape is the best) and the “Sosetsitsu” category is magical in nature. Some Sosetsitsus include fireballs, a screen-clearing fire-dragon elemental, and a tornado-like spin kick. This mixtape system is by far the best aspect of the game, and experimenting with it based on your current situation adds a nice layer of depth to a genre that can often devolve into mindless button mashing.
Neon’s battle system may need some work, but its sense of style clichés is wonderfully absurd. The soundtrack—full of synth pop, power ballads, and hair metal—brings us back to the ’80s; the main characters even rock air guitars at the end of all 10 levels, and the main antagonist looks and sounds almost like He-Man’s Skeletor. The original 1987 Taito Corporation game showcased a strong obsession with Hong Kong cinema and Neon’s gritty urban setting and pick-up weapons retain that badass milieu.
Other familiar parts of the Double Dragon series pop up as well: the sexy Marian gets kidnapped at the beginning of the game; whip-wielding Linda returns to sensually taunt the Lee brothers; a plethora of cartoony plot turns; and Abodo is still abnormally hefty. The initial nostalgia factor dulls the sharp impact of the game’s datedness at first. Once you settle into the two-hour game, the aforementioned game-design flaws keep bubbling to the surface. Some platforming segments become unnecessarily tedious gauntlets with the lumbering twin brothers, and one tank boss proves to be a very cheap fight (you have to throw an explosive barrel at its close-range weak spot and every blast chips away at your precious health bar).
Beyond the cheap boss fights, there are just too many irritating mechanical problems that handcuff this otherwise amusing downloadable game. The arcade brawlers of the ’80s were hard because of unresponsive mechanics meant to swindle kids. Neon isn’t maddening to play because of clever or tricky game-design choices; it’s just being difficult because of a strict adherence to outmoded genre tropes. Modern titles have successfully remolded the classic beat-’em-up formula without kowtowing to the past. WayForward’s latest effort is still in search of a modern power-up.