The halls of beat ‘em up royalty are familiar territory for the Double Dragon franchise. As one of the primary reasons the genre even exists as we know it today, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see a new game emerge from the IP every now and then. Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is the newest entry in the series and successor to the somewhat lackluster Double Dragon IV.
It’s also fair to say that it’s been in a relative decline compared to its beat ‘em up brethren. The last couple of entries having mixed results. Other classic franchises like Streets of Rage and TMNT have jump-kicked their way back into the limelight. You couldn’t be blamed for counting Billy and Jimmy out at this point.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons seeks to undo this trend and course correct with its own revival/sequel/reboot. Instead of the back-to-basics approach most 30-year-old franchises are taking nowadays, Gaiden seems keen to shake things up with a rogue-like approach and a completely overhauled combat system. As a fan of the genre and the Double Dragon IP itself, I am pleased to report that Gaiden’s ideas hit much more often than they miss.
Between rogue and retro in Double Dragon Gaiden
Now that violent gangs have taken over a nuclear war-torn New York, it falls to Billy and Jimmy Lee to restore some sort of order. Throwing knives and bashing in faces along the way, of course. Other than that, there’s not too much of a story here. A questionable mayor and a few smack-talking bosses round it out a bit, but there’s not much in the way of narrative to speak of here. I suspect most long-time fans of the genre will be fine with that. Double Dragon isn’t known for sprawling narratives, and this game doesn’t change that.
The biggest overarching element flavoring the game is its rogue-like structure. This format incentivizes you to profit from your failures and start again in a better position than last time. It’s certainly not a difficult format to replicate at this point. There are countless examples for developer Secret Base to draw from. Still, credit must be given to how they made it feel meaningful for those that like it, and mostly ignorable for those that don’t.
At the end of the day, it still plays like a beat ‘em up. We see multiple stages to explore, bosses to master, and playable characters to experiment with. It’s only between levels and playthroughs that the upgrades and modifications come into play, and they’re not even remotely intrusive. In fact, I would argue they only add to the experience.
Even if you didn’t come into the game intending to mess with this part of it, you’ll soon find yourself eager to spend cash on your next buff. After successive attempts, you’ll also notice different level layouts and enemy placements. But it’s not so wildly different that your prior experience feels invalidated. It’s just mixed up enough to feel fresh and keep you on your toes.
Kicking things into high-gear
Gaiden’s new look and sound are perhaps even more defining of the experience. The graphics are reminiscent of Double Dragon’s 8-bit past, but refuse to be shackled by its limitations with detailed backgrounds and fluid animation. Die-hard fans may prove divided on it when all is said and done. But there is no denying it’s a great-looking game.
The music feels more 16-bit in nature, with clearly retro-inspired synth buzzing through your speakers at all times. It still brings more depth than you would generally get from an SNES or Sega Genesis sound chip. Double Dragon Gaiden looks and sounds like how you remember the classic games more than how they actually were. It’s a trick, but a good one.
New digs in Double Dragon Gaiden!
You’ll notice the completely overhauled combat of Double Dragon Gaiden which, for me, is a welcome change. Grabs now have a dedicated button , and you must time them correctly to work. Taking out groups of enemies at once rewards you with health items like hot dogs and Thanksgiving turkeys. Your constantly-charging special meter helps you achieve this on a regular basis if you know how to use it.
Grouping enemies together as you pepper them with light attacks, then going in for the group kill with a special attack is the name of the game here, and it’s extremely satisfying to pull off. Even after doing it 50 times a level, I still enjoyed it in a Dynasty Warriors sort of way. Mastering that technique will keep you alive longer and net you bigger rewards. A good variety of weapons and enemy types also go a long way to keeping playthroughs engaging. As does the regrettably short campaign, which could have easily used another 2 or 3 levels.
Losing is just part of the experience here. Upon accepting your Game Over and forgoing the option to buy another life, you can cash out your progress and get tokens. You get a number of tokens dependent on how well you did before dying, and spend them on playable characters, concept art, or music.
You’ll be playing the game a LOT to unlock all these characters. This is one way – albeit a cheap one – to extend the experience. If you find yourself losing more than you’d like, you can also tinker with various difficulty settings without dislodging your overall progress with unlockables and achievements.
New ideas for a short ride
On one hand, it seems like Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is a revival of a decaying franchise – a much-needed shot in the arm. On the other, it can sometimes feel like a strange diversion from what fans might want from a Double Dragon game. The reality is, it’s both.
The inclusion of rogue-like elements do more to pad out the experience than actually shake it up. But their addition works in the game’s favor. Whereas the overhauled combat system, colorful graphics, and great music are an undeniable upgrade from the hardline nostalgia-fueled Double Dragon 4. In a similar way, they’re an even bigger step up from Neon.
Had Secret Base delivered a more traditional beat ’em up structure with more levels and bosses while letting its new look and combat do the talking, it would probably stick the landing a bit better. As it is, there’s certainly nothing wrong with trying something different. Especially when you have gameplay as fun as this to lean on.
I can’t definitively say it’ll be everyone’s favorite beat ‘em up, as not all of us enjoy the whole rogue-like thing. I also can’t excuse the short campaign. It makes other 2D beat ‘em ups on the market seem like a superior choice. But it works well for what it is. Whether you’re looking for what is effectively Double Dragon 5 or just a solid rogue-like beat ‘em up, Gaiden serves up at least a few hours of fun no matter how you slice it.
Double Dragon Gaiden is developed by Secret Base and published by Modus Games. It is available now for PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
Thanks to Secret Base and Modus Games for providing a preview / review key!