Double Dragon: Defining the Brawler

Every gaming genre out there has that one title that helped to codify — if not establish — conventions that would continue to be followed for many years to come.

For the beat ’em up genre, that game was Technos’ Double Dragon, a title that is widely regarded to have kicked off something of a “golden age” for the genre with its innovative mechanics, simultaneous two-player action and large, chunky sprites. It also got an NES version developed by Technos themselves which doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. Which is a shame, because it’s an interesting game and most certainly isn’t just a straightforward attempt to ape the arcade machine on limited hardware.

Fortunately, we can now enjoy this intriguing take on a classic in a couple of readily available ways if you don’t have an NES to hand: via the Double Dragon and Kunio-Kun bundle released for modern consoles by Arc System Works, and as part of the Technos Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming platform.

In Double Dragon’s NES incarnation you take on the role of Billy Lee as he attempts to rescue his girlfriend Marian from the clutches of the dastardly Black Warriors gang. This narrative is mostly the same as the arcade original, with one notable twist brought about by the game’s lack of simultaneous two player mode: here, Billy’s brother Jimmy is not the second playable character, but instead the true antagonist of the game. If playing a two-player game, both players take it in turns to control Billy in their own personal playthroughs.

Like the arcade original (and like its spiritual precursor Renegade), much of the game unfolds from a “2.5D” oblique perspective, which allows player to move “in” and “out” of the screen as well as left and right. The game eschews Renegade’s directional attack buttons in favour of one button for punches and another for kicks; different attacks have different reaches and power levels, so an important part of getting a feel for how the game works is understanding how these all work.

Probably the most significant addition to the NES version of Double Dragon over the arcade original is a level-up system. As you attack enemies, you’ll gain points on a meter in the corner of the screen; this is separate from the running total of your score. Attain a thousand of these points and Billy will level up, at which point you’ll gain access to more moves such as extended combos and the ability to grab enemies. None of the new moves are complex to pull off, but the addition of this mechanic provides a sensation of growing power and proficiency as you progress through the game; very satisfying, and helps alleviate the common criticism of repetitiveness that is often levelled at the genre as a whole.

One of the ways in which this specific version of Double Dragon is demonstrably more innovative and influential than people have given it credit for over the years is the fact that a take on this level-up system is quite commonly seen in modern takes on the beat ’em up and its surrounding subgenres. Whether the creators of these modern games were deliberately paying homage to Technos or not is besides the point; the ways in which, say, characters in Koei Tecmo’s Warriors series gain longer, more varied combos as they level up, or how Senran Kagura’s characters earn new moves as they spend time in one of three distinct fighting styles can all be traced back to this version of Double Dragon.

Another interesting decision that Technos took when porting the Double Dragon experience to the NES was that they decided not to do a 1:1 recreation of the arcade original. Instead, over the course of the game’s four levels, there are significant additions and differences to how the arcade game unfolded. Notably, there is a marked increase in the number of platforming challenges, tasking Billy with avoiding traps or hopping over deadly pits of death while continuing to fend off enemies.

The increased focus on navigating the environment in the NES version of Double Dragon is likely an attempt to distract from the fact that Technos were unable to work around some of the platform’s technical limitations, and as such Billy only ever faces two enemies at the same time — and they’re both the same type of enemy. It doesn’t matter, though; the game is challenging enough without having to deal with multiple types of foe at once, and the scripting of each stage is such that it never feels particularly obvious that the game is limited in this manner.

The platforming itself is a bit clunky, not helped by the oblique perspective playing havoc with your perception of distance — and definitely not helped by enemies’ tendencies to punch you in the face immediately after landing, causing you to fall back off the ledge you just made such an effort to land on. Given that there are a number of cases in the game where this can result in instant death, this can be a tad frustrating — particularly as the game lacks a continue system.

That said, the lack of said continue system is somewhat understandable as a means of adding longevity to the game. Given that the game only has four levels, Technos presumably felt that allowing players to credit-feed would rob them of the sense of achievement making it to the end would otherwise provide, though they could have perhaps found a bit of a middle ground by, say, limiting players to one or two continues rather than allowing endless credit-feeding. Of course, this is all a moot point on modern platforms due to save states; whether or not you make use of them is up to you and your own patience/honesty depending on how you look at it!

Double Dragon for NES is definitely a journey worth taking. It’s clunky and unrefined in places, but it’s noteworthy as an official port of an arcade game where the developer deliberately tried to create an experience that was specifically designed for the home. It’s challenging and satisfying to play, and while four levels might not sound like a lot, it’ll take a while before you’re able to beat them — even with save states. Mission 4 in particular isn’t messing around.

We should probably also acknowledge “Mode B” before we finish. Unlike many other NES games which featured a “Mode B”, this is not simply a harder or faster version of the main game. Instead, it is a one-on-one fighter where you can only play mirror matches, and the perfect piece of evidence as to why “beat ’em ups” and “fighting games” are two very distinct genres from one another, much as ’90s video game magazines from the UK might have liked you to believe otherwise.

It’s not very good, in other words. It’s slow and sluggish, there’s no means of blocking, the computer opponent cheats like a wrong ‘un — and most importantly, the main game’s fighting engine really isn’t built for intense one-on-one competition. It is neat to be able to play as some of the characters from the main game, and it’s doubly neat that they’re rendered as much larger sprites that look much more like their arcade counterparts than in the main game — doubtless this is the reason you can only play mirror matches, to save on the poor NES’ RAM — but Mode B really isn’t fun for more than a few minutes of novelty value.

Some conjecture that Mode B is some prototype code and graphics that Technos left in the finished game as a “bonus” for players to fiddle around with. In that sense it’s quite interesting to see what the main game could have potentially looked like had the company mastered the technology a little more, but that’s all it is.

All in all, Double Dragon for NES is a classic with good reason. It’s a fascinating example of a genre really starting to find its feet, and of a developer experimenting with how quarter-munching arcade games could be made more home-friendly. This latter aspect in particular is something Technos would continue to experiment with quite a bit in their subsequent games; they would continue to refine their craft with the NES versions of Double Dragon II: The Revenge and, of course, the Kunio-Kun games.

But all that’s a story for another day. In the meantime, I’ve got a girlfriend to rescue, dudes to punch in the face and pits to fall down. Hammer and Spike!

More about Double Dragon
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5 thoughts on “Double Dragon: Defining the Brawler”

  1. I love the NES versions of Double Dragon and Double Dragon II. The third one not as much, but it’s still the best of the home versions. Though to be fair DD3 Arcade isn’t exactly a prize as it is clunkier and could potentially be the great grandfather of pay to win microtransactions with its shop system.

    Other home versions I enjoyed of Double Dragon were the initial C64 port in spite of its flaws (Only two attackers at a time, you only get music at the title screen. Everyone has no waist due to disk space workarounds the coders dealt with on an entire schedule centered around crunch.) as well as the SMS version. I want the 2600 version just because Dan Kitchen created a technical marvel for Activision with it. the 7800 version looks janky. But probably the fun kind of janky. But now I’ve begun to ramble.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nothing wrong with a good ramble, I’ve built an entire site around it.

      I’ve seen the 2600 and 7800 versions, though not played them. They’re… rough, as you might expect, but fascinating, regardless! You tend not to think of slightly later arcade games as coming to Atari platforms (whether they were consoles or the 8-bit home computers — the ST fared much better in this regard) so it’s always interesting to see unexpected stuff like Double Dragon, even if their execution is a little questionable!

      Is the C64 port the one where there’s actually two versions, both kind of janky in their own unique ways? I seem to remember watching a video on the subject a while back.

      Liked by 1 person

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