Saturday, September 15, 2012

Double Dragon: Neon review

Back in the late 80's, Double Dragon defined the side-scrolling beat 'em up. Implementing couch co-op, heinous acts of bodily violence and the most intense opening to a game ever, it's no wonder why Double Dragon is still respected in contemporary gaming culture. While it's been well over 20 years since we've seen anything from the famed franchise, WayForward has magicked their way into bringing us a love letter to the series; something they call Double Dragon: Neon.

Neon is one of those games that pays so much homage to the original title that you'll have had to actually played Double Dragon (and respective games) to really enjoy the overall package. That being said, Neon is NOT a remake. In my interview with Pete Rosky at E3, he ascertained that Neon was a love-letter to the 80's and to Double Dragon as a whole. Think of it as a retelling of the glorious tale of Billy and Jimmy Lee, who must rescue their love interest, Marian, from the clutches of an evil... super Lich?

Skullmageddon gets all the ladies.

You heard that last part right. Neon still contains that same ole' rock 'em, sock 'em beat em' up gameplay that defined Double Dragon, but this game takes an exaggerated leap further. Billy and Jimmy will be blasting off in rocket dojos, fending off zombies and upgrading their different super attacks to get Marian back from Skullmageddon. Hey, even a super Lich needs a date every once and a while.

It's just as crazy as it sounds, but Neon was never meant to be crafted in a one-to-one ratio with the original. If you're feeling nostalgic, by all means fire up the original, but WayForward didn't forget Neon is still a Double Dragon game. Saying that, each stage borrows elements from all of the original Double Dragon titles. For instance, the opening scene where Marian takes a shot to the stomach is still present. The area where you can knock Abobo off the conveyer belt hasn't gone. That stupid helicopter and an area where you can knock people out of a certain door are also still there. All of the iconic moments from the games are present somewhere within Neon and that's something any Double Dragon fan can respect.

Knocking fools around is as fun as ever and you're free to have a buddy jump in whenever you'd like. To help make the senseless beatdowns occur in more fluid, rapid succession, WayForward has also refined the control scheme from the archaic design of the NES days. No longer must you press two buttons to jump and hope it works. There's also a dedicated run button and another that allows for a quick evasive maneuver. If you managed to dodge an enemy attack during the evasion, your character will 'Gleam' which just means they'll have double damage for a short period of time. If you so happen to be playing with a friend, there's also an emphasis on high-fiving your partner. Why? You can split your life, share your energy meter, get a double damage boost or psych out them out (which takes a little of their life). That's rad.

Yo, yo, yo. Gimme some of that skin, baby!

Let it be known that gamers who tire of the simplistic beat 'em up design aren't going to find Neon to be their saving grace. You hit dudes and try to survive the other dudes hitting you back; that's it. It's unfair to break a game down to its raw essentials like this, but if you're looking for a much deeper experience, Neon won't help you. The deepest it goes is with the new (and humorous) cassette tape system. By smashing in the skulls of your enemies, there's a chance they'll drop a random tape that grants special abilities. Think of it like the A and B sides of a cassette tape. One side gives you passive abilities while the other gives you an energy consuming active ability. Just like in real life.

The more tapes you collect, the stronger your abilities become, but it's not as great as it sounds. Some tapes seem like they're present just for variety and clearly aren't as good. One such tape is called 'Successive Strikes' which gives your character double the power if they're able to reach 50 consecutive strikes without being hit. Great as that sounds, it's extremely difficult to avoid taking damage as a whole making the primary function of that ability pretty useless. It doesn't help that continuously gaining tapes doesn't make abilities feel that much stronger. With a cap of 50 tapes per ability, you'd be grinding this game for hours to see marginal differences in your combat prowess. Also, if you're looking for specific tapes and you have a plethora of cash, you can also visit the Tapesmith.

In space, enemies wear helmets to symbolize being in space. Yes, it is awesome.

Following old-school game design philosophy, if you die in Neon then you'll have to restart the entire level over again. Some stages do feel like a grind and when you die right at the final point in a stage it kinda sucks that you have to go through it all over again. You could argue that the newer Mega Man releases such as 9 and 10 also make you do this, but Neon really makes you feel it since the stages are much longer. Speaking of Mega Man, if you call yourself a fan there's a few incredible references within Neon that you'll definitely appreciate.

The music in Neon is also something worth noting. While all the tracks are remixed versions of the classics, Jake Kaufman has done a tremendous job at retaining the original sound. As you traverse each stage, the music will likely rekindle memories of the original levels. Even the main theme is done exceptionally well and, as a token of appreciation, you can download the official soundtrack right off of the website at absolutely no charge. Now that's what I call a bonus!

Neon relies on quite a bit of nostalgia and old-school gaming tolerance to fully immerse you, and if that's asking too much then go ahead and skip it. For the rest of us, the asking price of $9.99 or 800 Microsoft Dragon Dollars is a steal. If you consider yourself a retro-gamer and are any kind of Double Dragon fan, Neon is an experience worth having. Though its length is only two to three hours, the ending alone is worth the price of admission.

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