Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Double Dragon - Fraternal Twins
If the first-born arcade original helped shape my gaming tastes, what value did its NES sibling hold?

What made the arcade scene so unique compared to what was going on in the console and home-computer spaces was the lack of any real technological barriers or universal standards. Consoles and pre-Windows PCs were hostage to stringent market demands that necessitated half-decade-plus generations and a fiscal inertia that made it too difficult for start-ups to throw their hat in and gain any real traction, particularly if they wished to push the technological envelope. Arcades had a more Wild West atmosphere about them--a feeling that the next big thing could arrive any day this week.

It's true that companies like the venerable Namco and Sega created games that ran on reusable, iterative system boards like the NA-1 and G80, respectively, but there was nothing stopping any company from coming out of nowhere and changing all of the rules with a single game as powered by advanced technology. Take Capcom, for instance: The company's early arcade exploits were of course notable, but these games were generally on par with other well-regarded classics; its later work with the new CP system, however, resulted in titles like Final Fight and Street Fighter II, the latter of which took arcades by storm and created a tectonic shift that was so powerful that its reverberations were felt even in the console and PC spaces. Everyone remembers how it was the first time they entered their favorite arcade and saw a crowd of people hovering around that new machine whose sudden appearance changed everything.

From my younger perspective, things didn't always seem to work that way. I've mentioned previously that I break my arcade-going days down into three eras, the first of which was a less-resonant initial phase that gave way to a more-memorable middle phase that grabbed me and really captured my imagination; the transition from one to the other had about a three-year stall because nothing really seemed to be changing. Arcades around me were long ruled by the likes of Pole Position, Donkey Kong, Popeye, Elevator Action and still-lingering classics like Pac-Man and Galaga, which I liked a lot but never adored. I thought, "If I could play these same games on our 2600 with only a limited loss of fidelity, why do I need to keep following my brother to these arcades?"

And then it happened--when I was just about to write off the arcade sector of gaming as disposable, 1986 arrived with out of nowhere a new crop of titles that blew me away and helped make me a steady arcade-goer for the next ten years. The jump in their technology and creativity was instantly palpable, the closest parallel being how I felt about the future 8- to 16-bit console transition. Among these amazing new titles were Rolling Thunder (my history with which you can read about by clicking the link above) and Double Dragon.

I don't know where it was that I first encountered Double Dragon, but I remember being in awe of it. My time with it was short, since I wasn't able to quickly enough accumulate the skills necessary to make any real headway, but the game left me with many powerful (though scattered) images that I ruminated over for days until my next, more-fruitful encounter with it. Thinking about what I'd seen, it seemed insane to me that two players could team up and move about this three-dimensional space where mobs of enemies could swarm you from all directions and constantly engage you with weapons or by crashing through walls with ill-intent. Even the little things, like the ability to pick up and toss barrels/crates and climb fences, seemed so fresh and new. It speaks of the power of that imagery when it's still residual today, always in my mind's forefront when I think about Double Dragon.

The more I played Double Dragon, the more I appreciated the little touches that set it apart from anything else I'd ever played. I liked how some enemies could pick up weapons that weren't originally brandished by them and how the heroes could carry along a chosen weapon as long as they could keep it on screen, through even the mission segues; lesser games would've totally restricted that kind of behavior. Also, I thought it was great how you could replicate the cheap, usually-enemy-exclusive tactic of grabbing an foe from behind and holding him prone while the second player pounded away.

I didn't play Double Dragon a ton, since I always seemed to be alone whenever I happened upon a machine and preferred playing with a friend, but I still vividly recall certain sections of the game: The backlot fighting scene with the stacked barrels and the cat sleeping on the leftmost trashcan. The quick transitional tangle atop some neatly arranged girders. The factory conveyor belt onto which you could potentially goad enemies--particularly that nasty, green-colored Lee-brother clone--and send them to helpless, plunging deaths. The woodland with the Williams perched atop the trees, waiting for you to near the screen's end so they could jump down and ambush you. And that final brawl where the main villain, Machine Gun Willy, can be seen strolling in from the back before joining the party.

I didn't even know what to call this type of game or who the enemies were supposed to be. I actually learned their names from unexpectedly accurate (which I'd discover to be as much years later) arcade-room chatter and hearsay. The well-coiffed William, the whip-wielding Linda, the vest-wearing Ropers, the giant, granite-skinned, brutish-looking Abobos--it was a defining cast of characters I'd never forget. I don't know why they kidnapped Marian, Billy Lee's girlfriend, but I'll always remember the visual of that opening scene where Willy and a trio of thugs assault and carry her away.

Double Dragon started the process of my falling in love with this new "beat-'em-up" genre, toward which I'd continue gravitating for many years; the seeds planted by Double Dragon would sprout in the form of my endless enjoyment of games like Ninja Gaiden, Final Fight (my favorite beat-'em-up ever) Golden Axe, Bad Dudes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Streets of Rage, and even the NES conversions of some arcade classics (Mighty Final Fight among them).

In the following two years, I saw less and less of Double Dragon. Local arcade owners seemed anxious to phase it out in favor of newly released shooters and top-down or flat-2D action games, and my interactions with it were limited to an occasional one-quarter session whenever I could find a machine (which was OK, since it was one of those games, like Rolling Thunder, where I could get my fill from just playing its first one or two stages). As the middle of 1988 approached, I still didn't have an NES and was mostly out of the loop in terms of its release-schedule, so I wasn't even aware that Double Dragon was being ported to the system until my friend Dominick informed me of such. Better yet, he and his family were going to pick it up today! I wondered what it would be like.

Their whole crew was excited about it, as if Double Dragon coming to the NES was a huge event. Not yet having a console of my own, I couldn't fully understand their sense of jubilation, but their excitement was contagious anyway. Dominick, his mother, his two brothers, his sister, and I piled into their brown station wagon and drove to the store. I remember the conditions of the ride because Dominick's older brother, Joey, kept repeating the phrase "All I did was Abobo the chicken!" (a take on that old Adobo commercial) every thirty seconds--all throughout the trip, both coming and going--and pretty much the entirety of the day. You'd think it'd get old after the first hour or so, and, well, you'd be right.

As I watched them play it, I disappointingly observed that Double Dragon had been turned into some combination of an action game and a platformer (the arcade game's creators, in contrast, were smart enough to realize that its controls were too stiff for more than one or two instances of platforming). I finally got a crack at it when control cycled around to me, and I quickly learned to fear its platforming sequences--specifically that rotting bridge in Mission 3 that required my jumping over its watery gap; the jumping mechanic in general was rough because the action required the simultaneous pushing of both the A and B buttons, which felt kind of flaky and unreliable. My tendency was to limply walk off platforms and fall to my death because I couldn't get the input to register in time if at all. Since I had little confidence in my ability to execute jumps, I was also prone to meekly walking off building ledges and falling several stories to my death. Cruelly placed falling stalactites and infuriatingly sequenced protruding cement blocks also terrorized me.

What the hell happened here? Where was the frantic multiplayer action, all those advanced fighting moves, and the defining enemy onslaughts? The NES could only render two enemies at a time? Really? Where was the enemy variety--namely the multicolored, mohawked Abobos, the Lee-brother clones, and the alternately-toned Williams? Why were the weapons disappearing after any segment had been cleared? Even in 1988 I had some sense of the NES' limitations, but this was an entirely different game that only looked the part. We still played it a bunch, yes, but always with the lament of what could have been--the true Double Dragon arcade experience we could have had in our homes.

I also wasn't a fan of how the story was altered in light of the game's omission of true co-op multiplayer. Turning Jimmy Lee into the main villain and leader of the Black Warriors--luring in his brother by masterminding the kidnapping of his girlfriend--was reactionary and shortsighted. It was an interesting way to replicate the arcade game's final scene, where the two players battled it out for Marian's affection, but it made a mockery of the story and led to a contrived reconciliation in its multiplayer-focused NES sequel.

Predictably, I picked up Double Dragon for myself a year later (I'm not entirely sure when and peg it as probably a requested birthday gift). I spent some alone time with it and, having by then accepted the reality of current-console gaming, learned to appreciate the NES conversion and how its developer (the name of which I didn't pay attention to or care about at the time) created a unique, aesthetically appealing variant for what was a technologically inferior console. Like a lot of other odd-duck ports for which I'd come to have a strong sense of nostalgia, Double Dragon didn't feel like a lesser creation even if it seemed to miss the point. No--it felt right at home on the NES when treated as something made exclusively for the system.

I loved its rendition of the standout Double Dragon title-screen theme plus all of its rockin', head-boppin' stage music--most of its tracks among the NES' most iconic--and I was taken by the designers' many graphical touches, like the fleeting mountain shot in Mission 3's woodland, the later-encountered luminous caverns that seemed to be under barrage by radiation, and that moon shot directly in view directly outside the caverns. The game's morose, isolated atmosphere and aesthetic qualities really made it stand out amongst other NES releases of the time.

I don't know how we discovered it, but my friends and I got a kick out of exploiting Mission 1's classic glitch that allows you to walk up the elevator rails and off the screen, looping back to the bottom or falling comically after pushing an attack button; it was all part of the fun, as non-game-breaking glitches usually were. We also played around a bit with the two-player versus mode, which I guess was part of developer Million adhering to Nintendo's demand that NES ports feature exclusive content, but it was more for curiosity's sake; like Trojan's versus mode, it was a neat little extra worth a quick look but probably not much more.

It was only after a few months of ownership that I began figuring out what the hearts meant and that the game wasn't as limited as I thought in terms of Billy's offensive capabilities; until then, I assumed that there were more moves, yes, but I was simply terrible at figuring out the controls. Even after putting it all together and getting in a lot of practice, I still could never consistently pull off moves like the uppercut and reverse elbow. Since it wasn't even necessary to utilize newly earned moves, anyway, I could always grind my way deep into the game using kicks, hair-pulls, and throws.

Though, my enjoyment of Double Dragon could only stretch so far. It was still super-tough--another example of a developer trying to maintain a somewhat-indicative arcade experience and instead producing an "NES-hard" game--and I don't think I ever legitimately cleared it. I never got fully comfortable with the controls and continued having trouble clearing those ill-conceived platforming sequences that involved jumping onto and off vertically moving platforms and (*shudder*) leaping over that gap in the bridge; it became a mental thing and the source of my future aversion to the game. It's weird how Renegade, its year-old forebearer, never gave me so much trouble in terms of controls even though it was much more primitive in its design.

For as difficult as it was, it never came to close to touching the level of belligerence as dished by the Atari 2600 version, which I discovered by chance sometime in 1999. I didn't know what amazed me more: That someone thought it was a good idea to attempt a competent Double Dragon port on an ancient, severely limited console with a one-button controller, or that they were still making 2600 games in 1989. While Imagineering Inc.'s is actually quite a programming feat--its port featuring decipherable graphics and a convincing rendition of the Double Dragon theme--the game is absolutely unplayable; controlling it is a nightmare, and the enemies are so aggressive, so indomitable, and have so much priority that it's near-impossible to get past the first screen. Really, the less said about it the better (though, I might review it in the future if only to warn future generations of potential horror).

Despite my neglecting them, I continue to have appreciation for both the NES version and the arcade original, which represent another case where I'm glad two versions of a game exist--two iterations of an idea that almost demanded multiple interpretations. To be honest, having spent some time with both versions over the last few days, I've found them to be a little tough to play; the arcade game has a lot of slowdown and can grow frustrating when enemy clusters refuse to let you even move, and the NES version has the remembered control issues and soon becomes too difficult to be enjoyable. I still find it an appealing thought of one day hooking up with childhood friends online and having nostalgia-filled playthroughs of these, our old favorites, but I think such revisits should be limited to very rare occasions and more for the sake of reminiscing.

But make no mistake--both have their merit and their place in my memory, and I'm certainly not done with the Double Dragon brand. There are other variations of the original that have always caught my interest--namely the Master System version and the acclaimed Double Dragon Advance for the GBA--and I'll always remain wild about the NES conversion of Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It's a shame that the series became defunct, bereft of a clear creative force, after many missteps and some poor-quality sequels, but there's still value in Double Dragon's past, and I hope it's rightfully mined in the future. 

Until then, I'll keep fondly remembering its impact on the arcade scene, how it made me feel when I first played it, and its contribution to my birth as a video-game enthusiast. Above all, I'll keep remembering to always--and I mean always--Abobo the chicken.


  1. My fondest memories of Double Dragon come from the scenes it had in "The Wizard," where Fred Savage's character is dumbfounded as his brother's skills ("50,000? You got 50,000 at Double Dragon?") and later where the group of kids goad a couple of middle-aged men into wagering against his brother on the game and they get pissed of when they learn that his brother is "some kinda pro." (seriously, did people like this EVER exist?). I watched the movie enough that turning on the game and hearing the sounds are enough to bring in a wave of nostalgia.

    And I do think you're right in that although it is an extremely flawed port, it's got a charm all to itself. I tried several times earlier this year to clear the game on my NES, but could only reliably get to the beginning of mission 4 and was almost always cut down by the extending-block traps at the beginning.

    1. It gets ridiculous toward the end, with a gauntlet of enemy duos, Willy, then Jimmy Lee. That's the way it was with these games: You got to the end, died, and then had to do it allllllllll over again. Only then you played with the added pressure of having to retain as many lives possible knowing what was awaiting you at the end.

      Speaking of insane difficulty: This reminds me that I forgot to mention my experience with the 2600 port. I'll sneak it in somewhere.