Despite being the franchise that pretty much defined a whole genre, the Double Dragon series has had its share of troubles over the years.
One particularly troubled installment was 1992’s fourth game in the series, known as Super Double Dragon in the West, and Return of Double Dragon in its slightly enhanced Japanese release. This Super NES-exclusive title suffered from an all-too-common problem in the games industry that we still see to this day: the developers being forced to rush the game out before it was completely finished.
Even the enhanced Japanese release was missing some of the material that was originally supposed to be in the game, but for now it remains the definitive version of the game. Lucky that we now have easy access to this version thanks to the Technos Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade retro gaming system, then, isn’t it?
Speaking with Japanese gaming publication Game Kommander in 2004 (translated by Double Dragon Dojo), the game’s planner Muneki Ebinuma explained that Return of Double Dragon was originally intended to feature narrative cutscenes and additional stage gimmicks, but the time pressure on the team meant that they were unable to implement any of them.
This led to the final retail game having a complete lack of narrative identity; there’s no intro sequence, no context for why recurring series heroes Billy and Jimmy are fighting their way through hordes of bad guys, no explanation as to why one level ends with a bunch of characters just wandering off-screen, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the Lee brothers — and no real feeling of transitioning between areas. The screen would just fade out, and then you’d be somewhere else.
This problem was further compounded in the Western Super Double Dragon release, which was missing several stages towards the end of the game and even lacked an options menu. Thankfully, the one benefit of even Return of Double Dragon completely lacking any dialogue is the fact that means there’s no language barrier for English-speakers to be able to enjoy it — hence why this is the version we find ourselves with on the Evercade.
And despite its developmental woes, Super Double Dragon (as we shall refer to it hereafter for simplicity’s sake) is a solid 16-bit beat ’em up that is worth playing. One might argue that the Double Dragon series didn’t quite manage to keep up with the innovations in the genre that Sega and Capcom brought to the table with titles such as Final Fight, Golden Axe and Streets of Rage — and one would be right — but if nothing else, as the last Double Dragon game developed by the original team at Technos Japan, it remains a title of historical note.
In Super Double Dragon, you take on the role of Billy Lee as he takes on a criminal organisation known as the Shadow Warriors. (The original Super NES version allows a second player to join in as Jimmy Lee, but at the time of writing this isn’t possible on the Evercade version.) The villains are apparently a different group of Shadow Warriors to those found in the previous games, and the original intention of the game’s plot was for the group’s leader to be revealed as a childhood friend of Billy and Jimmy, leading to an interesting supernatural-fuelled moral dilemma during the final confrontation. Billy’s girlfriend Marian was also supposed to appear in the game as a policewoman — mirroring her appearance in the Double Dragon comics and animated TV show at the time — but this never happened, either.
While the lack of plot in the final version is a shame, what’s left behind is a solid example of a 16-bit brawler. You’re able to punch, kick, jump and even block; the latter option is something of a rarity in beat ’em ups, and provides some interesting tactical options. Not only can you defend yourself from incoming attacks to reduce damage taken, but properly timing a block allows you to actually grab an enemy by the arm and deliver additional attacks to them. This kind of “hold” mechanic is most commonly associated with Tecmo’s Dead or Alive series of fighting games, but Super Double Dragon was laying the groundwork for such mechanics half a decade earlier.
The game also features an interesting charge mechanic, where “Dragon Power” can be built up by holding a shoulder button. By delivering an attack at various levels of charge, different special moves can be performed such as hurricane kicks and spinning back fists. On top of that, if you’re able to charge the bar to its maximum, all attacks will be considerably more powerful for a short period.
There’s actually a surprising amount of mechanical depth in the game as a whole. There’s a strong emphasis on taking advantage of hitstun to inflict maximum damage on enemies, and it’s worth noting that leaving a combo deliberately unfinished after two hits instead of three will often leave an enemy in a dazed state, leaving them open to be grabbed and thrown or hit repeatedly. Different punches and kicks can also be performed according to the directions you push while pressing the relevant buttons — and in two-player mode, Billy and Jimmy actually have some slightly different moves from one another.
Enemies also have the ability to block, and this is especially apparent on the hardest difficulty setting, where proper positioning and understanding of your various moves’ reach is particularly important. On Normal and Easy, you can overlap the enemy sprite and just hammer away in most cases, while on Hard it becomes necessary to position the hitbox of your attacks over the enemy’s hurtbox much more accurately, otherwise you’ll find all of your attacks being blocked.
Where Super Double Dragon struggles a bit compared to some of its peers is in its lack of a few quality-of-life elements that had become standard practice elsewhere in the genre by 1992. Probably the most obvious of these is the absence of enemy health bars; these provide valuable feedback to the player on how much damage their attacks are doing, as well as how much more punishment various foes on screen will take before finally being defeated. In Super Double Dragon, the lack of this information is especially troublesome when faced with some of the tougher recurring enemies or boss characters — it by no means makes the game unplayable, but it would have made the experience a little more friendly to the player if that information was available.
Presentation-wise, the game holds up quite well from a modern perspective. The pixel art on the backgrounds is particularly lovely, featuring some highly detailed environments that contrast nicely with the bold, well-defined sprites in the foreground. The music has that distinctive “SNES sound” to it all, with some wonderfully funky basslines — and the return of the classic Double Dragon theme later in the game is a real delight. Where the game falters a little in this regard compared to some of its peers is in performance; the whole thing feels quite “heavy” and sluggish, and even simple things like the scrolling aren’t nearly as smooth as other beat ’em ups around at the same time — most notably Sega’s legendary Streets of Rage 2.
It will doubtless become clear over the course of one’s time with Super Double Dragon that while Technos Japan should quite rightly be celebrated for playing a significant role in bringing about the beat ’em up genre in the first place, they just weren’t quite able to keep up with the genre’s evolution in the subsequent years. And indeed, things didn’t improve for the series from there, thanks to Technos’ inconsistent treatment of the franchise. Speaking with Polygon in 2012, series creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto lamented the company’s complete inability to create a consistent brand identity for Double Dragon — something which Capcom and Sega had managed to achieve extremely well with their own franchises — and attributed its long period of subpar follow-ups and spin-offs to this lack of control over the franchise.
Of course, that all changed when Double Dragon Neon rolled around, but that’s a story for another day. For now, Super Double Dragon remains an interesting historical curiosity that is worth spending at least a bit of time with; it may not be the best 16-bit beat ’em up out there, but it has some interesting and unique mechanical wrinkles and is noteworthy as the last of the Double Dragon games developed by its original creators.
And with its Evercade release, we have further evidence that this plucky little retro platform is as much about celebrating the oft-overlooked, less-appreciated side of gaming history as it is about providing yet another way to play the big names. And that is something we should very much be celebrating.
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