Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Double Dragon II: The Revenge - More Like "The Redemption"
If its predecessor was but a mere shadow, the Lee brother's latest cast a blinding light.

The NES version of Double Dragon is one of the most curiously attractive games I've ever played. My friends and I didn't particularly care for how it handled platforming or its unnecessarily high difficulty-level, but we found its 8-bit aesthetic qualities and general vibe so appealing that we returned to it again and again over the months and years in following. Double Dragon was entirely frustrating, sometimes tough to control, and we'd always fall just short of victory, but none of it left us feeling deterred; instead, we managed to squeeze a lot more enjoyment out of Double Dragon than you'd think was possible. To us, I guess, the precarious journey, alone, was worth it.

While I eventually settled on the opinion that this "reconfigured conversion" was pretty good when judged on its own merits, I never got over the disappointment that its creators had betrayed its namesake and left out the best part--the multiplayer, which was the entire point of a game called "Double Dragon"! No--this was Single Dragon, which while a solid side-scrolling action game was hardly representative of an arcade classic whose jump over to the console demanded better.

It was that lingering disappointment that led to my being stoked when during the mid-summer months of 1989 my friend Dominick arrived at my house with news that Technos and Acclaim were teaming up to make a sequel called Double Dragon II: The Revenge. He had read all about it in that month's issue of Nintendo Power and informed me of every tantalizing detail, including the particulars of its story, the extent of its graphical upgrade, and the nature of its gameplay (everything except its origin, strangely, which I would have found equally intriguing). All of it was worthy of celebration, but the bulk of my excitement stemmed from the very last tidbit of information delivered--the news that Double Dragon II would actually have true multiplayer!

Without seeing the images, I could only try to put together a picture in my head. Where would this new adventure take us? Would it feel closer to the series' arcade roots? Would it have double-team maneuvers like that restraining full-nelson you could do in the original? Did this new enemy force employ any of those familiar baddies from the previous game? Would it have platforming elements that worked? I could only guess as to the full scope of Double Dragon II's world, but all such thoughts seemed secondary; predominantly, I couldn't wait to team up with my friends and take on this collection of fiends calling themselves the Black Shadow Warriors.

I don't know how it happened, but I didn't actually see a single image of the game until months later, during the winter months when screenshots started appearing in whichever random gaming magazines I was picking up as I followed my father around the local convenience stores (I'm guessing Dominick either lost or destroyed the aforementioned Nintendo Power issue before he could show it to me, which wouldn't be surprising considering that I'd witnessed he and his brothers beating each other over the head with such things). The little blurbs with their blurry screen captures weren't enough; I needed to see something more substantial.

I had to wait until early January of next year to see the game's most impactful preview--a lengthy article as appearing in Nintendo Power's 10th issue, which Dominick was this time mindful enough to bring along to my house (fully intact, with no skull indentations). It looked amazing--like another of those next-level games that started appearing on the NES at this late point in its life-cycle. I couldn't wait to see what that large, portly masked enemy had in store for me, and I could only leave it to my runaway imagination to wonder what it'd be like to fight on and against those screen-filling helicopters and tanks. The wait was made more painful when Double Dragon II started appearing as a prize on kids' game shows like Family Double Dare, which could only mean that it was so close to release. 

Back then, it was typical that release dates for NES games weren't solid, so we spent many after-school hours hitting all of the local stores and bugging the clerks with our requests, and we of course had our parents calling all of the major retail chains on a daily basis. It took until maybe two or three weeks after the game's posted release (I don't remember the exact dates), but we each finally managed to track down a copy at different stores within a few days of each other. Dominick found it before I did, so we first played it at his house. We were engrossed from the start, captured by the game's every aspect from its terrific in-your-face title-screen theme to its rocking stage music to its impressively rendered set pieces that included buildings and complexes of all shapes and forms. 

There were interesting, atmosphere-creating touches (like the tattered building surfaces and that orange-hued cityscape occupying the background) poking out from every crevice. The colorful cast of enemies was equally defining with its array of specially toned acrobatic ninjas, stick-wielding martial artists, contrastive giants, and other distinctive adversaries in lieu of Double Dragon's washed-out ensemble of lumbering, predictable stiffs. Even the Lee brothers looked better than remembered, boasting much more in the way of detail with their readily postured fighting stance and poofy hair. As advertised, Double Dragon II: The Revenge looked and sounded great, but it had only begun living up to its promise.

Everything clicked. We thought it was cool how that oft-highlighted masked fellow would seemingly meet his demise only to reconstitute for one last-gasp effort. We were instantly enamored with that battle as fought within the innards of a helicopter, whose door would occasionally swing open and potentially vacuum out all present parties; some of the most fun we ever had was trying to coax the Williams and Abobos over to the copter's upper-right side and properly immobilize them so they'd be sucked out and easily defeated (of course getting pissed if either of us accidentally knocked out the other, instead). 

We thought the spurts of background work, like the sun setting in the distance in Mission 3, excellently augmented the game's already stellar sense of atmosphere. We weren't much for cut-scenes, but those cool, quick-moving intro sequences with their rhythmic preparatory theme always supplied us an adrenaline-raising spark ("Let's rock."). Even if we'd only played as far as the third mission, we could already tell that Double Dragon II was the whole package.

We were having such a good time that we couldn't restrain ourselves and had no interest in extending the initial experience by agreeing to an arbitrarily imposed limit on our progress. Instead, we must've played through it a half-dozen times that day alone.

We loved putting to use all those spectacular new moves like the midair spinning kick, which would clear away foes on either side as punctuated by a blasting sound effect that was satisfying on its own. The spinning kick quickly became a move we'd shamelessly abuse, since it was lower-risk than the standard kicks and fisticuffs and dealt so much more damage. The devastating knee strike, when we could actually get it to work, was somehow even more viscerally pleasing with its screen-long knock-back and exploding sound effect.  

Double Dragon II impressed us more and more as we worked our way into the later levels, where we negotiated platforming challenges based around conveyor belts, retracting floors, moving gears, and disappearing-reappearing platforms that felt straight out of Mega Man; these sequences were no joke--they were the sites within which we tended to dump a lot of lives and accumulate most of our game-overs, but Double Dragon II was so much fun that we didn't mind trying again from the start.

Sure--it had some issues. We weren't dismissive of the fact that it shared a lot of the same flaws with its predecessor: We weren't allowed to carry weapons around for extended periods, since they'd disappear just as soon as the action shifted to the next scene. It had that infamous Technos control scheme where your attacks changed depending upon the direction you were facing, often creating confusion and unintended actions. And the controls seemed a bit disagreeable even if we understood how they worked. 

Trying to perform the jumping knee strike as described gave us headaches, as mentioned, since it didn't want to work consistently, so our means for activating it was to essentially resort to jumping about like useless dinks, hitting random directions and hoping for the best; the result was usually failure and our winding up crouched and prone. It just seemed random, as did the similarly functioning uppercut, and pulling off either felt like a minor victory.

And let's be honest: The Double Dragon control scheme wasn't exactly made with platforming in mind. While this more-polished sequel lacked the ill-advised, unfair platforming challenges from the original, a lot of its platforming sequences were still effectual in wiping out your stock in a hurry. The log jumps in Mission 5 were a prime spot to lose one or two precious lives even if you took the safer high path, and the full negotiation of those treacherous disappearing-reappearing platforms later on required a combination of timing, focus, and control so demanding that it was unreasonable to expect us to successfully put it all together that many times in a row (thankfully, only one particular platform was positioned to guarantee a fatal drop).

Conveyor belts and gears were easier to handle, but there was still a high chance of death due to a greater presence of spike pits and that half-second delay caused by that crouching pose the brothers were forced into whenever they landed from jumps. (Looking back, I remember that these were some of our favorite rooms to negotiate, but I'm not sure why. Maybe we liked the constant tension as caused by the threat of potential death?)

Double Dragon II was also pretty short in duration, but we never considered that a negative; its manageable length was instead the perfect excuse to play through it multiple times during any of our extended sessions. It still took us a while to achieve a true victory, since we stuck mostly to the Warrior Mode (medium difficulty) during our early ventures, but our wanting to challenge the Supreme Master Mode, which concluded with an exclusive boss-fight against the Black Shadow Warriors' real leader, was even more incentive for us to return to it again. And again and again and again!

There were so many strongly remembered sights and sounds we looked forward to taking in each time we played: The neon-toned cityscape viewed from atop those helicopter-sieged buildings. The mid-air helicopter battle, of course. The fight against those two Abobos near their forested mountain shack (we liked any fighting scene where we could knock the enemies into gaps). The close-quarters tangle with a gang of thugs within a series of narrow passages whose ceilings were lined with spikes; ambushing the enemies as they dropped in from that long fissure and getting the drop on the giant brute we called "Arnold," the assumed Abobo-family member we liked uppercutting into the spike-lined ceiling. The attempted scaling of that steam-spewing tank. Those isolated platforming sequences. The glassy, reflective surfaces in the final lair, whose crystalline sheen provided an epic feel to the endgame. And, well, pretty much the whole rest of the game.

It was quite a moment for us when we successfully played through the Supreme Master Mode and encountered the real final boss (the enemy I always mislabeled as "The Supreme Master," particularly in my Masters of Evil series), who wasn't overwhelmingly difficult but stood out for his assortment of cool moves like the handstand kick and that spinning clothesline that would send us flying across the room. He was a memorable foe, whatever his name was. 

The boss theme for the battle's second phase was particularly amazing and one of the most action-intensifying, energizing tracks I'd ever heard. It was one of those special tunes that made it worth playing through an entire game just to hear it; not that I wanted to save myself the trouble, but it was chief among those I'd record on my tape recorder whenever I'd put together video-game soundtrack compilations and have my He-Man figures dance to them. 

Recording music from late-game scenarios always felt taboo to me, as if I was capturing some type of essence that should have been beyond my grasp. Something about it made me feel as though I was attaining power whose possession of which I was unworthy. Indeed, the chills I'd get from listening to my muffled-but-still-phenomenal "Supreme Master" recording were surely a sign that I had traipsed upon holy land, and being there was always surreal.

From then on, it didn't matter whose house we were at: Double Dragon II was a must-play anywhere we met up, be it Mike's, Chris', or even the pads belonging to those who had a loose affiliation with our crew. For years it retained top billing during any of those daylong sessions as populated by newly loved titles like Rygar, Metroid, Trojan, Super Mario Bros. 2, and others in its class. Even its sequel, Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones, couldn't dethrone it (well, that was mostly due to its middling quality). Simply put: It was a Hall-of-Fame NES title we couldn't--wouldn't--stop playing.

Previews had alluded to the fact that Double Dragon II: The Revenge was the port of a coin-op game, but I never actually saw it in arcades until, say, the later months of 1991 (if you were an arcade-goer, your game-selection was limited to whatever caught local arcade-owners' whims, and Double Dragon II apparently didn't register with many of those residing in Brooklyn). I was excited to see it, since I was anxious to give it a go and compare it to its NES counterpart, but something wasn't quite right--Double Dragon II, that is, looked and played exactly like its predecessor. 

You'd think that would be a plus for a still-unadventurous fellow like young Mr. P, but I was pretty disappointed; I was hoping that the arcade version had managed to make a next-level jump comparable to what I'd seen NES version and therein redefine the beat-'em-up scene in some way. Instead, I left the arcade that day with Double Dragon II having made no impression on me beyond my quick judgment that it was a disappointing rehash.

I got to know it better during the mid-2000s. Most of it was as I'd remembered: The missions are almost all retreads of the original's, whose iconic design serves as a frame; that is, the 4-mission-long campaign treks across just about all of the same terrain only slightly altered, with a tweaked palette and some moderate re-texturing (the iron girders from the original are now stacks of cement blocks, for instance). Certain branches take you to exclusive locales, but the game never seeks its own path--all roads eventually segue back to familiar ground, including the final lair with those demonic spear-thrusting statues and those horrible sequenced protruding blocks. Even the Machine Gun Willy battle plays out the same, with him watching from afar and then sauntering his way into the battle after enough minions have been dispatched.

The only true similarity it shares with its NES counterpart is in regard to certain unique enemies, like the bulky masked menace whose behaves as expected, the Arnold look-alike, and the shadow clones who serve as end-bosses; save for one or two exclusive minor enemies--like that sunglasses-wearing ogre who looks like an oversized security guard--the other half of Double Dragon II's enemy roster is composed of returning foes who, like the mission stages, are only slightly altered (Linda has a mohawk, and the red-attired Lee-brother clone has shorter hair).

Naturally, it shares all of its predecessor's flaws plus more: Painful levels of slowdown experienced all throughout, including an excessive amount during multiplayer action. Enemies that have too much priority for even an arcade game, causing minor scuffles to drag on forever without many favorable opportunities to score even a single knockdown (which relays to me that the developers were only interested in padding things out and distracting the players long enough to delay their realization that they're playing a largely redundant sequel). And a considerably large repertoire of supplementing fighting moves that are useless against the enemies who will always dodge them or thwart their execution. Even the ending is pitifully lame--nothing more than a static photo of the Lee brothers creepily staring at Marian (all three looking rather unsightly), whose captured image is one of her waving toward the screen as if to say, "Like, yeah--thanks and all that junk." 

I wanted to discuss the arcade version at a future time and in its own dedicated piece, but I don't know if I want to subject myself to its frustratingly paced, trudgingly slow brand of action ever again. What should have been a nostalgic, enthusiastic act of rediscovery instead served to conjure one thought: Thank goodness for the NES version, whose earnest creators actually constructed something new; certainly the NES version, alone, was the sequel Double Dragon deserved.

As is too common with titles discussed on this blog, Double Dragon II: The Revenge is another of those in the category of games I almost never played again after my childhood friendships dissolved and I was mostly on my own. Sadly, it all seemed to end too quickly and before I could fully process the changes happening around me. I made the mistake of thinking that it would all last forever and didn't put in the effort to make the most of the time we had remaining. 

Though, it's the great memories like those I have of spending time with friends playing Double Dragon II that keep alive the spirit of my childhood and the wish that the newer generation savors its formative years much more than I did. They owe it to themselves to relish the childhood friendships and the associated experiences that will remain unlike any other they'll ever have. 

As for me: I lack the Lee brothers' power of resurrection, so I can't bring back the past with the intent of making amends, but I can learn from my own history and not repeat the mistake of failing to appreciate what I have now. And with any luck, I'll create a whole slew of new memories that resonate just as strongly.

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