Much like its predecessor, the NES version of Technōs Japan’s classic beat ’em up Double Dragon II: The Revenge is a distinct affair from its arcade-based counterpart.
This was an era of gaming where arcade-perfect ports on home platforms weren’t really possible — so in a fair few cases, developers simply opted to make brand new games that were true to the spirit of the arcade original rather than simply attempting to ape the quarter-munching experience.
In many cases, this resulted in more substantial games that provided an experience with much more longevity for home play — and while it has a few design features that might make modern gamers wince, Double Dragon II: The Revenge for NES is one such example. And conveniently, you can enjoy it in several ways right now: as part of the Nintendo Switch Online NES app; as part of the Double Dragon & Kunio-kun: Retro Brawler Bundle for PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch; and as part of the Technos Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming platform.
In Double Dragon II: The Revenge, you take on the role of Billy Lee as he pursues the Black Shadow Warriors, a band of criminals who, among other heinous acts, killed his girlfriend Marian. Unlike the first NES game, where there was no simultaneous two-player mode and Billy’s brother Jimmy was retconned into the true antagonist of the game, Double Dragon II: The Revenge allows two players to battle against the forces of darkness together — and, optionally, in the second of the two two-player modes, throw a few punches at one another, too.
The game eschews the control scheme from its predecessor on NES, replacing the separate punch and kick buttons for something more akin to its spiritual precursor Renegade: the two attack buttons are for attacking in different directions, with the exact move unleashed depending on the context in which the button is pressed. Press the button that corresponds to the direction you’re facing and you’ll throw a punch that can start a combo; press the opposite one and you’ll kick out behind you. Each move has its own reach, power and points value; understanding the amount of ground each attack can cover is particularly important when you start coming up against the game’s tougher foes.
Jumping can be accomplished with a somewhat clumsy press of both attack buttons simultaneously, and the game takes full advantage of this by incorporating some light platforming sections. Thankfully, Double Dragon II: The Revenge eschews the oblique perspective of its predecessor for these sections, making jumps much easier to judge, and far less frustrating. For the most part, anyway; a missed jump can still mean the immediate loss of a life at numerous points throughout the game, and this can really sting in comparison to how much punishment Billy and Jimmy can take at the hands of their opponents before keeling over!
The game as a whole is a much more substantial affair than both the arcade version and the previous NES game — and there are three ways to play. The “Practice” mode ends after three stages, and is a good warm-up. The “Warrior” mode consists of eight stages. And the “Supreme Master” mode has all nine stages, providing the “true” ending to the game if you manage to clear it.
That’s no easy task, mind, since like the first NES adaptation of Double Dragon you have no continues here — just three lives, and a fairly generous health bar that is fully replenished between missions. The difficulty curve is pretty well paced; most people with a passing familiarity with beat ’em ups will likely be able to get a decent way through Warrior mode on their first attempt, but progressing further than that will demand solid skills — plus a fair amount of stage memorisation.
The most glaring issue from a modern game design perspective is the aforementioned possibility of immediately losing a life thanks to a missed jump or otherwise deadly trap. In modern games that feature a health bar for the protagonist, falling into a fatal trap or bottomless pit deals some damage, but will not kill the character outright. It doesn’t make narrative sense, but it makes mechanical sense — and, more importantly, provides a more enjoyable, less frustrating experience for the player.
In Double Dragon II: The Revenge, meanwhile, on your first playthrough you’ll encounter several sections where you have no idea that instant death is a possibility — and it’ll cost you a life to find out. There’s nothing to indicate that during the “battle in the helicopter” stage that the door will open every so often, causing you to die if you’re standing too close to it. During the opening part of the “underwater base” level, it’s not really reasonable to expect the player to know that being too far down the screen will cause them to fall into the water and die. And there are several instances throughout the game that require leaps of faith in order to progress.
After that first playthrough, these parts of the game are less of an issue, because you can learn where they are and be ready for them. The problem is with how harsh the punishment is while you’re learning them; losing a life in Double Dragon II: The Revenge is significant, and will likely hamper the possibility for progress quite a bit, particularly given some other frustrating design aspects such as the inability to block or even dodge on the “3D” plane in certain stages. Plus, of course, the lack of a continue system.
One could perhaps excuse these features if the game had come out a little earlier, but this NES version came out in 1989, a full year after the arcade original, and the same year Capcom’s Final Fight moved the whole beat ’em up genre on significantly. They’re not game-breakers by any means — but they did show that while Technōs Japan can certainly take credit for creating and defining the idea of the beat ’em up, other developers were quietly sneaking in and refining things considerably.
All this isn’t to say Double Dragon II: The Revenge is a bad game, of course; quite the contrary. Personally, I actually prefer the NES version over the arcade original as the levels are much more interesting and there’s a lot more variety to the experience as a whole. You just need to be ready for the fact that it is not at all unusual to reach a whole new level on your last life, then immediately plummet to your death and have to start all over again.
Unless you’re using save states, of course, which is always an option with modern rereleases of classic games like this. I’ll leave it up to you as to how… “honest” you’re feeling!
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