Thirty years ago, Technos Japan helped define a genre. With Double Dragon on the NES, it helped introduce a new kind of gameplay. People could team up with a friend to face waves of enemies and attempt to complete missions. The series survived, even though Technos didn’t, and now that Arc System Works holds the rights to the series, it has celebrated this hallmark anniversary with a callback. Double Dragon IV takes us back with a nostalgic adventure. Unfortunately, while it does have its moments, it reminds us why series need to change and grow.
Set after Double Dragon II: The Revenge, Billy and Jimmy are quite successful in Double Dragon IV. The Black Warriors have been defeated. The Gensatsuken technique has been beaten. Sousetsuken dojos are in place around the entire U.S. The brothers are stars. Except, they’re ambushed when driving to the West Coast dojo. A new gang, called the Renegades, and the resurrected Black Warriors, are targeting the duo. It’s up to players to put these offenders in their place again.
Having so many opponents around at once enforces the fact that this is a multiplayer game; you feel like you should only be playing Double Dragon IV with a friend.
If you’re playing on a PC without a gamepad, configuring Double Dragon IV’s controls can be a bit of a nightmare. Instead of the up, left, right and down keys allowing you to navigate menus and either enter, space or A allowing you to confirm, Arc System Works went with the most unorthodox defaults. You really need to have the official website up to figure out how to sort things out. Though, if you intend to have two people play, you will need two gamepads. Attempting to play cooperatively or competitively on the same keyboard is unpleasant at best. It’s unfortunate. Why? Well, Double Dragon IV is actually a game that would benefit from an arcade stick control scheme. You need those extra keys to dedicate to the three special moves.
You want your control input catering to you, because Double Dragon IV has an extensive repertoire of attacks. These characters are capable fighters. In addition to the basic punch, kick, jump kick and grabs, as well as the uppercut and round house kick finishers tied to them, there are an assortment of new techniques. Each character can use a back elbow, headbutt and spin kick, all of which can be pulled off with punch and kick inputs or a single press of a special move button. You can even use Sosetsuken techniques, if you manage to press punch or kick buttons at specific moments. It’s a remarkable move set, especially when you only have two or five buttons set for attacks.
Which helps, because Double Dragon IV unleashes hordes of enemies, much like the classic beat’em ups of the 80’s and 90’s. An overwhelming number of enemies can appear to attempt to ruin Billy and Jimmy’s day. This isn’t so much an issue when someone is able to join you on your adventure, but can be something of a problem when you’re playing the game by yourself. Especially since enemies will mob around you and sucker punch you at every opportunity. Having so many opponents around at once enforces the fact that this is a multiplayer game; you feel like you should only be playing Double Dragon IV with a friend. Though, with no online multiplayer, it can make it difficult to enjoy with others.
Fortunately, Arc System Works has put in a measure that attempts to even the odds in Double Dragon IV. The Raging Counter is one of the best new elements in the game. When Billy or Jimmy are knocked down, something that will absolutely happen, using an attack to get up will give you a temporary burst of invincibility. The back elbow, headbutt, high jump kick, hyper uppercut and spin kick can all trigger Raging Counters, which means a single press of the button can put you at an advantage after being floored.
Though, any quibble with Double Dragon IV’s issues can almost be forgiven when you consider how far this installment has branched out.
Of course, this may not help if you’re on one of the many Double Dragon IV levels where you have to be at the exact same position on the field as an enemy to do damage. Yes, this is one of those games. If you aren’t in the right spot and situated just so, you won’t hit an enemy. While this can go both way, sometimes protecting you from a blow, it’s the sort of issue that can frustrate you when faced with an exceptionally strong opponent.
That isn’t the only positioning issue. Double Dragon IV has a habit of allowing off-screen enemies to still unleash attacks. If you leave Billy or Jimmy too close to the left or right border when opponents are spawning, they can and will introduce themselves with a fist or foot to your character’s face. It’s a problem that was common in the 1980’s and 90’s and resurfaces here. It seems like a gameplay element that should have been resolved by this point in time, especially since you can find yourself moving about the field and unintentionally prone when dealing with other attacks.
You can almost forgive Double Dragon IV’s issues when you consider how far this installment has branched out. It’s quite a rich game. In addition to the story mode, there are two new others people can unlock and enjoy. 2P Duel Mode turns this into a fighting game. Each person picks a character, with more unlocked as you complete missions in the campaign, and attempts to survive against a single opponent. Everyone has their own skills, which makes for a rather low-key competitive affair. Tower Mode is an opportunity for endless battling. The downside being, you need to unlock elements for each of these. 2P Duel Mode gets new characters from Story Mode. Story Mode must be beaten to open up the Tower. Tackling the Tower opens up more characters for each mode.
But the one thing that can’t be forgiven is how Double Dragon IV looks. This is a series that, in recent years, had begun to look really beautiful. The Neo Geo version of Double Dragon featured some absolutely gorgeous sprite work. Double Dragon Neo was so vibrant. And then we have this, Double Dragon IV, a game that can be difficult to look at. The two main characters, Billy and Jimmy, are some of the least intricate and interesting of the bunch. While it is a throwback that calls to mind the NES classic, there are other retro-inspired works that do the same while being more visually appealing.
You can see what Arc System Works was attempting to accomplish in Double Dragon IV; instead of taking a step forward with the fourth game, it went back to basics.
You can see what Arc System Works was attempting to accomplish in Double Dragon IV; instead of taking a step forward with the fourth game, it went back to basics. But, maybe it went a bit too far. Rather than build on entries like Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone or Double Dragon Neon, it feels like the developer went back to the original NES installment and worked forward from there. There are a few good moves, like new counters, neat specials and welcome supplemental modes, but Double Dragon IV is bogged down by things that should have been fixed after 30 years.