Last year around this time I was raving about WayForward's brilliant BloodRayne: Betrayal, a fresh take on an otherwise middling action franchise. I loved it, but was shocked to discover that many of my fellow critics hated every second of it. The same thing happened with Contra 4; I felt like it was the perfect revival of a classic game series, while others seemed to think it was a complete waste of time.
Now it's 2012 and apparently nothing has changed. WayForward's newest game is a fresh reboot of Double Dragon, and like clockwork, it's being hit with decidedly mixed reviews. Friends and critics I normally trust have a venomous hatred for the game. And yet here I am scratching my head in disbelief. Am I that out of touch with what the average gamer is looking for or am I one of the only people who truly understands where this company is coming from?
At first, Double Dragon: Neon looks like a colorful retelling of the all-too-familiar story from the 1987 arcade game. You see a motley crew of thugs kidnap Marian, prompting Billy and Jimmy Lee to leap into action and save the day. They do this by walking from left to right punching and kicking any street thug that gets in their way. This includes Abobo, a giant steroid-fueled monster that will rip you limb from limb if you give him the chance. All this will be instantly familiar to anybody who has spent even a few seconds with a Double Dragon game.
But don't get too cozy, because Double Dragon: Neon takes a few unexpected turns on the way to saving Marian. It all starts in the second stage, when the brothers unwittingly enter a building-shaped rocket and blast off into space. Suddenly Billy and Jimmy go from battling street thugs to smacking down space robots. Later they fight zombies in a haunted forest, killer helicopters in the assault zone and genetically engineered soldiers in the research lab. It's an adventure full of surprises and a great sense of humor.
These different stages also come with a few creative boss fights, something the Double Dragon franchise has always had trouble with. One level sees you fighting a multi-sectional tank. Another has you battling an Ultraman rip-off with a fancy (and easily destroyed) space motorcycle. The most perplexing is a genetically enhanced plant creature with arms in the shapes of dinosaurs and sharks. As strange as these bosses sound, they make perfect sense in the context of the adventure.
Like the title implies, Double Dragon: Neon is overflowing with 1980s nostalgia. The character designs seem to be based on the over-the-top cover art slapped on Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges. The music is also in on the joke, playing songs inspired by the Street Fighter soundtrack and Stan Bush's "The Touch". Even the power-ups come in the way of audio cassettes. This is a game that embraces the 1980s kitsch at every turn, to the point of becoming a self-parody at certain points.
Thankfully the gameplay doesn't feel like it was ripped out of the 1980s. You get the usual punches, kicks and throws, as well as different moves for when you're jumping and ducking. There are a few combos to memorize, which alone makes this a deeper experience than those 1980s arcade games. Couple these moves with a run button that adds even more variations to your standard punches and kicks, and you have a fight mechanic with surprising depth.
It's the use of mix tape power-ups that turns Neon into something bigger than Double Dragon. Finally there's a way to bring special moves, a leveling system and stat buffs to this style of brawler. There are two types of mix tapes, Sosetsitsu (attacks) and Stances (character buffs). The stances are fairly self-explanatory, giving your character added armor, strength, speed and other helpful attributes.
Over on the Sosetsitsu side, you are able to equip special attacks to wield against your enemies. These powers include everything from a simple fireball and spin kick to a move that partially refills your depleted health bar. Not all of these attacks are useful in all situations, so learning when to use what is key to surviving the game's ten grueling stages. You're able to select one Sosetsitsu and one stance at a time, swapping whenever you want.
Instead of picking up only one copy of each cassette, players will have the opportunity to level-up their powers by collecting multiple tapes. Of course, you'll have to buy upgrades to allow you to hold more audio cassettes, but in theory you will be able to get each power up to level 50. At that point you are an unstoppable force, killing most baddies in a single hit.
The campaign is only a few hours long, but there is plenty of replay value for people who want to earn all of the achievements and upgrade each ability. The game is also fun with a friend, though currently there is no Xbox Live support. WayForward points to a patch enabling online play in the near future, but so far no timeframe has been given.
Much like the game itself, you'll either love or hate the art style. With their spikey hair and torn jean jackets, the Lee brothers look like they just got done touring with Billy Idol. Even when you're speeding down a mountain or battling robots in space, the game still finds a way to add neon lights and other 1980s flourishes to the environments. The visuals may be a little jarring at first, but it will only take a few levels before they become endearing.
WayForward's comedic take on Double Dragon is certainly not for everybody. Even though this game goes a long way to freshen an aging genre, you can still make the charge that it's repetitive and simple minded. It's also full of goofy 1980s humor, which may not connect with all players. There's also a small section of the Double Dragon fan base who will argue that between space travel and zombies, Neon goes too far.
But even in the face of all those objections, Double Dragon: Neon worked for me. I had a lot of fun mastering the fighting mechanics, seeing all of the bosses and laughing at the cheesy jokes. It's significantly longer (and stranger) than your typical Double Dragon outing, which justifies the ten dollar asking price. Maybe one day I'll sour on the 1980s vibe, but for now I thoroughly recommend Double Dragon: Neon.