Friday, April 10, 2015

Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones - A Sucker Punch to the Chin
Technos' NES swan song wasn't the type of parting shot we were expecting.

Now that's not the way it was supposed to go down. It was supposed to be that the atmosphere surrounding the release of a series' third installment was frenzied and celebratory, the excitement breeding expectations of a sequel that would ultimately establish itself as the absolute pinnacle of a company's creative aspirations--the masterfully realized culmination toward which all of its previous works were building! If games like Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Mega Man 3 and Super Mario Bros. 3 planted one thought in my head, it was that the capper to a beloved NES trilogy was guaranteed to be bigger and better in every way. It was the safest of assumptions that its graphics would be prettier, its music would be more evocative, its controls would boast greater refinement, and its depth of content would dwarf its predecessors'.

And then there was the case of Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones.

The first sign of trouble was that gaming magazines weren't pushing Sacred Stones as zealously as they did Double Dragon II: The Revenge, which received significant coverage when it was first announced and spawned one enthusiastic preview after another. In comparison, the upcoming Sacred Stones registered as nothing more than a blip on their radar. Nintendo Power's first preview of the game, for instance, could only inspire a standard blurb that tepidly explained the game's plot (the Lee brothers' love interest, Marion, had gone missing, and they needed to acquire special stones to uncover her location) and mentioned the addition of a new fighting move--a flipping throw, which I thought sounded interesting. The screenshots didn't look too hot, sure, but I was looking forward to learning more about what the latest Double Dragon had in store for me. 

Nintendo Power had nothing for me--no second preview, no standard map listing, and certainly none in the way of hype-generating promotional material like posters, artwork or comics. The header to its review in Volume 23 even admitted to game's lack of feature coverage, which I found baffling. I was certain that the magazine's staff would be more enthused about what appeared to be an NES-exclusive sequel (I mistakenly concluded as much due to their failing to mention the game's arcade origin), which should have been a big enough deal on its own, I imagined, and worthy of bragging rights. I mean, what you had here was the sequel to friggin' Double Dragon II: The Revenge, a game that won the hearts and minds of kids everywhere en route to earning itself a spot on the list of all-time NES classics. Wasn't that reason enough to put it on a pedestal? 

My friends and I considered Double Dragon II to be gaming royalty, foremost among the multiplayer games we'd played through more times than I could count. So where was the hype for its successor? It wasn't to be found in the schoolyard, the playground, or even the local arcades, where the game never appeared. It didn't make sense to me. I mean, I was going to buy Sacred Stones, regardless, but I just couldn't understand the press' muted approach to covering what surely had to be a big-time sequel. Right?

As we always did for anticipated NES releases, my friend Dominick and I spent many an after-school hour hitting every electronics store in the neighborhood, hoping that today would be the day that Sacred Stones was finally in stock. When the magic day arrived, we eagerly grabbed ourselves a copy of the game and initiated our usual ritual, which proceeded as follows: Run home to my house, head upstairs to my room, and devote an entire day to exploring what we hoped would be the latest 8-bit masterpiece. The lack of hype in advance of its release worked to dampen our spirits a bit, certainly, but we still couldn't wait to play it. For one, we were itching to discover the depth of its "partner system," which would apparently allow us to recruit new allies to fight alongside the Lee brothers. More personally, I was looking forward to rediscovering the flipping throw--a beat-'em-up favorite that I hadn't enjoyed putting to use since the arcade version of Ninja Gaiden. At the least, we were excited enough to where we didn't even notice the "Bimmy and Jimmy" typo in the mission intro. 

Well, that or we were just being our usual oblivious selves. Either way, what we actually missed was an early warning sign.

That is, when something wasn't quite right about a video game, it was easy to tell right away. We could immediately sense Sacred Stones' drop in quality from gauging the activity on that very first screen--everything from the Lee brothers' awkward sprite design to the lethargic-feeling action. The graphics lacked pop, the missions' set pieces and their textures looking flatter, muddier and less vibrant. And the enemies were crudely drawn and lacked personality. The first enemy to enter the room, for example, appeared deformed--like he had a fold in his head rather than hair, which raised the question of why they used the same color for both his mane and his flesh. We identified the second ruffian as an "Egyptian dude" due to what we interpreted as his "ceremonial headdress," which only later I realized was long hair. Even long-time series veteran Linda was looking drab and featureless. And they didn't even give her a whip!

We found plenty of opportunity to mock the dying Brett's weird arm positioning, sure, but the bulk of our first experience with Sacred Stones was spent making note of clear omissions. "Where are the Abobo equivalents and all of those other distinct fighter types from the previous games?" we wondered. "Where are the helicopter and tank battles? The fun platforming scenarios? The exotic locales?"

Where was anything, really?

To be fair, the fighting system was more evolved than we originally gave it credit. The brothers new combo attacks had more oomph to them, their parting blows satisfyingly launching enemies across the screen. There were more in the way of grab-and-strike moves. The well-implemented flipping jump was fun to use, and we definitely enjoyed abusing it when the situation would allow (certain enemies, including all of the bosses, seemed to be immune to it). And the returning-favorite spinning jumpkick was still our most reliably cheap move even though its input felt more finicky. 

We thought it was cool how the enemies could pull off a double-team maneuver in which one adversary would leap into the arms of an ally who would then assist by launching him or her forward with a more-damaging flying kick; witnessing this one move, alone, cemented in our minds that at least one aspect of the Double Dragon formula had advanced. Our only complaints, then, were that (a) the action was too slow-paced and (b) some of the high-impact moves, including returning favorites like the spinning jumpkick, lacked the viscerally pleasing impact that was so abundant throughout Double Dragon II's campaign.

Special weapons, like the brothers' nunchakus, were a nice addition, we felt, but there wasn't much opportunity to put them to use. They'd set an arbitrary limit to how many times you could flail or throw a weapon (five swings of the nunchakus, for instance), so it made the most sense to save them for the boss battles, where they were almost necessary. Sacred Stones' bosses, that is, were much tougher than any of those we'd faced in the previous games; they hit harder, had absurd priority, and would routinely dodge attacks to the point where victories against them were earned essentially through painstaking attrition.

That, we observed, was the biggest difference with Sacred Stones: The considerable boost in difficulty. Most distressing was that there were no lives and no continues; if any of our heroes were slain during the course of a mission, they were gone forever, and we'd have to somehow claw our way to the finale with a shorthanded crew. Also, the repetitive fighting scenes dragged on endlessly, the same four or five boring enemy types reappearing ad nauseam and never failing to slowly whittle down our health; we viewed this as a display of the game's twisted psychology, its way of keeping fresh in our minds the notion that surrendering too much health during these scenes would absolutely kill our chances of surviving the mission's boss battle. It was our fear early on that Sacred Stones was going to turn out to be an "NES-hard game," and we needn't advance further than Mission 3 to discover that we were justified in thinking as much.

It took us several pained, agonizing play-throughs before we could even make it to the end portion of the final mission, and by then it had become dishearteningly obvious that Sacred Stones wasn't the blow-away sequel we were hoping for. It was with great sadness that we had to declare Sacred Stones (whose lack of preview coverage now made more sense to us) a middling NES action game, best slotted only a few rungs higher than run-of-the-mill beat-'em-ups like Bad Dudes and Target: Renegade.

So in our continued disappointment, as was our m.o., we sought to derive entertainment from Sacred Stones in whatever ways we could. Specifically, the highlight of any of our play-throughs was the log-cabin battle with Chin in Mission 2. We knew that Chin wouldn't emerge from the cabin's door until all of the lesser minions had been dispatched, so we did what every kid knew was an appropriate tactic under those conditions: After clearing the room, we'd position ourselves immediately to the door's right side and time our attacks so that they would connect with Chin the moment he entered through it, our intent being to get the drop on him before the CPU could even mount a response. If it worked, our ambushing spinkicks would send him flying helplessly into the air, where he'd hilariously freeze in place as the action paused for a scripted event--the delivery of his serious, vengeful speech.

Of course, since the input for spinning jumpkicks was so finicky, our ambush attempts often fell impotent--the brothers failing to execute anything resembling an actual attack--and we'd instead leave ourselves helplessly prone to the stiff palm-thrust that Chin would undoubtedly land just as soon as the action commenced. Any time this would happen, we'd preemptively proclaim "He nailed us!", sometimes in stereo, even if there remained the possibility that he'd instead choose to run or remain idle in following. And, somehow, the silly banter that resulted from these exchanges would come to represent our happiest memories of Double Dragon III. Chin "nailed us" dozens of times over the course of our many play-throughs, and I'm not ashamed to admit that his doing so was a big reason why the game found longevity with us; it's likely that we'd have dropped it entirely were it not for the promise of triggering that single moment of hilarity.

Our "witty" repartee served well to camouflage some of the game's shortcomings, like the "partner system" that didn't quite live up to its billing--Nintendo Power's review making it seem as though there were multiple bosses who could "defect" when in reality there were only two. But we made the best out of what we got: Allies Chin and Ranzou, that is, became instant replacements for the Lee brothers, who were clearly underpowered in comparison; where the brothers had to string together several strikes to take out even the most basic of grunts, Chin could eliminate more-resilient foes, like the annoying ninjas in Mission 3, with a single combo. Ranzou lacked the same level of striking power, but he had superior aerial moves and could prove to be an elusive target if you knew how to space his attacks.

We had to make what we could of Sacred Stones, because there was no way we were going to be able to, you know, actually finish it. The final mission's mummy-trio battle was ridiculous on its own--the most blatant of energy-draining encounters--but the final boss, to whom we referred as "Cleopatra," was absolutely impossible. She was the kind of final boss that could completely wipe us out following even the most fruitful of our campaigns, making any effort to reach her seem like a futilely repetitious exercise destined to end the same way no matter how we approached it. We sensed that our only chance was to make it to the final room with a sufficiently healthy company of heroes and endure as long as possible.

We couldn't do it. Cleo simply had too much health, too much insane priority, and a deflating penchant for dematerializing before we could counter any of her force-throws, fireballs, or protruding-snake attacks. No matter which friend was joining me for some Double Dragon III action that day, an utter dismantling at Cleo's hands was the inevitable result. And after a few months worth of failed attempts, we quit trying and never looked back.

Now, I did manage to beat the game on my own a couple of years later, but that was only because I discovered that you could trap Cleo in a loop by pinning her against a wall and timing attacks so that they connected the insant she got to her knees. I'd like to say that I was overcome by a strong sense of fulfillment in my moment of victory, but I recall no such feeling; oh, no--like all other memories I have of Sacred Stones, the mental rendering of this final encounter is saturated with the taint of physical and emotional anguish. Frankly, the only positive emotion I can confirm was happiness that I was I done with Double Dragon III forever. I haven't gone anywhere near it since.

We were so used to the idea of massively hyped sequels delivering on their promise that Double Dragon IIII stood as an anomaly to us. "How could an entry in a major series fall so flat?" we asked in puzzlement. We were too naive to understand what a cash-in was or that developers weren't always sincere in their efforts; we believed that companies like Technos always put the utmost care into the creation of entries from their most prized franchises, so Sacred Stone's middling status remained a great mystery to my friends and I. Naturally, the industry's true nature would become apparent to us in time, but, still, there would be no removing the sting from our realization that the Double Dragon series, which we once considered untouchable, was one of the casualties of its greed. 

And that's the legacy of Double Dragon III, a game we played a whole bunch of times even though we knew it wasn't very good. We wanted so badly to like it--so badly to salvage what was left of the Double Dragon name--that our only viable option was to extract entertainment value out of it via our weird self-referential humor. It's no shock, then, that my most enduring memory of Double Dragon III is not of favorite characters, fighting scenes, or background graphics but of getting "nailed" by chubby ol' Chin. Truthfully, I might not have included this game on my list were it not for a single instance of silly sentimentality, and that's not the way it should be.

Oh, but I haven't fully closed the book on Double Dragon III. There's still the arcade version, which I didn't even know existed until sometime in the early 2000s. I haven't played much of it, but even the tiniest sampling of its action serves as evidence as to why it, too, went virtually ignored. What I take from the experience is that Technos was 20 years ahead of the game in how it thought to lock away much of the game's content behind an in-game shop system; that is, each mission features a store within which you can use real money to purchase extra energy, increased power, tricks (special moves), and extra men (ally characters), all of which are essential if you hope to survive for longer than a minute. 

Without the extra investment, the Lee brothers will, for instance, be bereft of their patented hurricane kick (the "spinning jumpkick," as I've been referring to it), which is their only effective clear-out move. Sure--they can otherwise execute a similarly functioning dual spinkick, performed when two of the three brothers (now including the never-before-seen "Sonny") are standing back to back, but this move of course won't be available to you in your likely single-player campaign. Also monetized is the ally system, which functions differently from what you remember in the NES version; here you purchase extra stock in the form of additional fighter types, whose selection changes depending upon the current mission. The expanded cast includes a familiar "Chin"-type fighter, a giant martial-arts expert, and a stereotypical "karate champion." If your first-in-command is slain, the hired help immediately takes the helm.

The shop is an interesting idea, really, and I think arcade-goers might have been more receptive to it had the game allowed for you to instead spend in-game currency as acquired from fallen enemies, à la River City Ransom. It might not have worked to make Technos a whole lot of money upfront, but a more consciously conceived shop feature would have added value to the experience and potentially prolonged the game's stay in arcades, where it would have accrued even greater sums over the long-term. 

I might have more to say about the arcade original in a future piece. Until then, please try to contain your excitement.

Now that I've experienced multiple versions of Double Dragon III: The Rosetta Stone (unnecessarily retitled "The Sacred Stones" on the NES because, well, Nintendo of America) in action, it's become apparent to me that the Technos of 1991 lacked either the will or the ability to create a worthy successor to the outstanding Double Dragon II: The Revenge and in desperation sought to profit off of its popular brand via more unscrupulous tactics. In that sense, Double Dragon III wasn't so much a sequel but of a symptom of a worrying trend that claimed the lives of many good companies.

And that's just wrong. Double Dragon III should have been the next-level sequel to one of the action genre's most defining games. It should have been celebrated as the sequel that elevated the Double Dragon franchise to new heights. Instead, it was a swift kick to the face that I never saw coming.

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