Double Dragon IV clings to its retro inspirations just a little too tightly. Fans of the old 8-bit titles will likely enjoy their romp here for what it is, but Arc System Works could have taken some more chances and delivered a brawler that had more to offer. Instead we get a fighting game that is simply average, despite my deep nostalgia for the series.
My thoughts on Double Dragon IV were all over the map on my first play. The clunky menu screen got things off to an odd start, and the cheesy post-nuclear story is all 80's action that had me waffling between grin and grimace right out of the gates. However, the visual aesthetic worked just fine for me, as the sprites look as though they were lifted right out of Double Dragon II, which is easily my most played and favorite title in the series. Characters look decent, though enemies often more detailed than Billy and Jimmy. The stages actually come out looking the best, with an almost 16-bit vibe to the color and detail.
While on the topic of the presentation, the music was pretty spot-on as well. The arcade version of Double Dragon has one of my favorite tunes in video game history with its unforgettable theme song. So the presentation is all here for a trip down memory lane, so what about the game itself? Control-wise Double Dragon IV reminds me more of part two or the first couple of arcade titles (I generally try to forget about Double Dragon III, which I still think was pretty terrible on both the NES and in the arcade) than the first Double Dragon on the NES. Combat here faster than in the original NES game, and you know all of the moves out of the gates. Double Dragon IV on the PlayStation 4 really is closer to Double Dragon II on the NES than any other iteration in the series. Even the way the completely superfluous story is told is identical with a couple of still images and a line or two of blocky text splashed against a black background.
Okay, so now we're past the link-a-palooza of prior Double Dragon games above, the question remains: Is Double Dragon IV any good? It saddens me to say that it's merely okay. I am someone who loves a throwback as much as the next guy, but there were times I simply felt that Arc System Works could have done more. There is plenty of nostalgic value to be had in the music, the sound, the graphics and even the basic gameplay. Everything feels authentic, which is a big win. However, taking some more chances with the source material would have benefited the game. I am not talking Double Dragon Neon chances. I enjoyed that game despite its flaws, and could appreciate that they were doing something unique with it at the time while trying to stay true to the core gameplay. There was no need to take Double Dragon IV to those extremes.
However, the only bit of modernization that improves this title over the original games is the controller layout. Not the controls, which are almost identical to the original games to the fault of being a little too stiff and sticky at times, but the ability to map out jumping and a handful of special moves to specific buttons. The biggest annoyance in Double Dragon games back on the NES was the fact that only having two face buttons meant that pressing A and B at the same time was how you jumped. If the timing of your press was at all off, you might punch or kick instead, which could range from annoying to fatal depending on the situation. So, single button for jumping: huge win here.
However, other than an additional move or two, there is nothing else that has advanced in terms of controls. That can make things very tough when you're getting beaten on by a slew of characters at once with no real opportunity to defend yourself. I realize that is the nature of the game, but it also illustrates one other major concern with Double Dragon IV, and that is the badly handled difficulty curve. I went through four and a half levels without dying the first time, and yet failed to beat the game's ninth and final act. This is largely due to swarming of enemies that occurs in later stages. The older games were forced by hardware constraints to limit the number of thugs you were combating at any one time, but now you can wind up with several goods hovering around you. To counter this, you have some 'spring to your feet' moves like a lunging knee or a ridiculously big uppercut. However, that will not always take out the crowd and you'll get pummeled again. But just standing up to move will not work either, so there are a lot of instances where you can get sapped for energy in a frustratingly cheap way.
Then again, the combat is largely built around repetition and taking advantage of vertical planes. A lot of the fighting will devolve into moving just above or just below your opponent and timing your kick or punch to hit them as they move into it. Not the worst thing in the world, very true to the original games, just don't expect a lot of depth here. One area that is improved are the platforming segments - aided largely by that aforementioned singular jump button. Some of these stages with the rolling conveyors would have been absolutely maddening on the NES, so I was grateful for some precision in my jumping mechanics here.
Of course, with the name 'Double Dragon' - one has to wonder about the multiplayer. It's therefore a bummer that while there is multiplayer, it is local only. My buddy Randy played the snot out of these games with me when we were kids, but we live in completely different parts of the state now. I suspect I'd have enjoyed my time with this a bit more getting to relive some nostalgia with him on this, but that's unlikely to happen for at least a few more months.
One area where Double Dragon IV does fair rather nicely is in the replay value. You can access a wave / tower mode after beating the game (which only takes about an hour). You can also unlock characters (basically the myriad bad guys you battle) while you play to use later. This gives you a reason to come back to a game that otherwise only really takes about an hour to beat and nothing else alternative that takes place along the way.
Fans of the classic Double Dragon titles will no doubt enjoy the familiarity of Double Dragon IV. It is a love letter to the past that unfortunately misses a few opportunities to improve upon the formula. As a result we have a perfectly average game. Those without an affinity for the source material will likely find the clunky controls and sharp difficulty spike frustrating and not get much out of the game. Since I fall into the former category, I will go back to the game now and again for a quick dose of nostalgic brawling action, but at the same time I will lament some small missed opportunities that could have made this a more compelling overall game.
Arc System Works
Arc System Works
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Article by Nick