I spent a lot of time dumpster diving as a kid with my siblings. Amid the broken glass and tetanus we were like machines, searching through the garbage in the hopes of finding something tossed by mistake or otherwise unappreciated by whoever might have owned it prior. Among our best hauls was an NES and a box full of games, which is where I was first introduced to the beat’em’up classic Double Dragon. I was never even remotely good at it, but nevertheless I played that cartridge to death right up until our dog puked up something awful onto it and it found its way back from whence it came.
Flash forward many years later and here we have Double Dragon: Neon, a loving recreation of the now several decade old original, decked out with a slick presentation and some much-needed refinement to the now rather archaic mechanics that hold up much better in my memories than reality. Though with this remake comes its own issues, some exacerbated problems that have always existed in the series, and others born from attempts to add depth but failing to commit while hanging onto some of the less enjoyable aspects of the series. They don’t completely break the experience, but for every moment the game shines there are a dozen more to remind me that it unfortunately hasn’t grown up along with me.
This is no more immediately apparent than in the terrible portrayal of every female character in the game. Double Dragon has always been built on a sort of twelve year-old dudebro mentality, but it’s never felt this intentionally demeaning toward the women that get sucked into the mix. Nearly every female character is dressed in such a way as to showcase their ample jiggling assets, be it g-strings, corsets, cleavage pushing kimonos, or nearly invisible pasties, as they skulk around bending over into compromising positions until you’ve beaten them up that they blip out (often with an almost orgasmic plea to “punish them”). I can’t say that I didn’t expect this in a Double Dragon game, but Neon takes it to a level far beyond the irritating punch to the gut Marion receives at the beginning of the game, to something that feels gross and certainly unnecessary. It was uncomfortable and pretty much immediately spoiled the experience that could have finally broken out of its misogynistic heritage.
And it’s a shame because there are parts of Neon that I really enjoyed. The fighting mechanics are satisfyingly meaty, providing a level of speed and variance to your attacks that allows you a welcome amount of options to how you intercept attacks and take down enemies. Being able to tie rolls and jumps into kicks and punches to create combos gave me a more technical aspect to consider when approaching encounters, requiring I lay off the button mashing and pay attention to enemy tells and environmental hazards.
When you get a good flow going in Neon it feels amazing, possibly some of the most enjoyable fighting of any beat’em’up I’ve ever played, but the problem is getting to that point and managing to stay there. While enemies are generally obvious about their attacks so as to allow you to anticipate and dodge them, there are unpredictable invincibility attacks that will often make the enemy immune to your attacks for just long enough for them to land an attack and knock you down. This isn’t a random occurrence, but something I experience in almost every encounter, and it severely breaks up the flow of action and feels like a cheap way out for the AI. Being locked into attack animations also prohibits you rolling out of the attack (the only way to dodge), which essentially means you’re going to be taking a lot of punishment because the enemy inexplicably stopped being stunned.
The mixtape (read: upgrade) system as well ends up being something of a missed opportunity. The idea is each mixtape corresponds to either a stat loadout or a special attack, which you can slot in and in theory augment your combat abilities to your playstyle. The reality is that these only ever have a very slight effect on your overall abilities, constantly reminding you that they are there and you should be using them but never actually providing a benefit of disadvantage that I could discern. The most important reason I could find to pay attention to them was to make sure I stayed away from the majority of the special attack powers, as all but a few are almost entirely worthless save their flashy visuals. Perhaps the differences between loadouts become more apparent on your second or third playthrough when you’ve upgraded them even more, but if that’s the case it still presents a fundamental balance issue that rarely caused me to pay attention to them as I played through the game.
And boy, what a frustrating game this can be. There’s a part of me that likes that developer Wayforward kept the arcade life limits and continue screen, but being forced to replay levels from the start after running out of lives right at the end is nothing but tedium that adds nothing to the experience but definitely took away from my overall enjoyment of it. With so many obvious locations for checkpoints to be placed (entering a new area, getting to a boss fight) their absence is all the more puzzling and frustrating. I can only assume the intention was to keep with the “pure” arcade feel of the game, but my time is more valuable to me now than it was when I played the original and Neon’s intent on wasting it more often than not caused me to turn the game off and switch to something else instead of replaying the same level I’d just almost completed.
I almost wish that Double Dragon: Neon was a complete trainwreck because it would make it less disappointing that they only just missed the mark with some really idiotic design decisions. The 80’s vibe dripping out of every corner of the game is pure awesome, the music is synth rock and action movie bliss, and the main villain is a giant skeleton called Skullmageddon (if that doesn’t put a stupid grin on your face I feel sorry for you). At times I was absolutely loving tearing through enemies, rocking out to Skullmageddon’s arena rock ballad, and taking in the absolute absurdity that is most of the game’s stages. But these stand out as highlights to a lot of annoying and unfortunate moments that more often than not miss the mark completely and just made me hope the next area would be better.
It’s like a mixtape your friend makes you, that has a few songs you like interspersed between a ton of trash that you can’t understand why it’s on there at all. You listen to it anyway because they’re your friend and friends put up with other friends poor choices, but that doesn’t make it any easier to recommend someone else bother to spend their time looking for the parts that don’t suck.