Double Dragon IV, a new sequel to the fondly remembered arcade beat-em-up series from developer Arc System Works, looks and plays as if it was created 30 years ago and promptly sealed in a vault until it was unearthed in 2017. Instead of implementing additional and readily available processing power, Arc System Works restrained itself to the power of the NES.
In the last decade, games like Fez, Shovel Knight, VVVVVV, FTL, and others have formed a new style of “retro” game design, imitating the art and mechanics of the 8- and 16-bit eras. Even the most faithful of these aesthetically 8-bit titles, however take advantage of the increased processing power afforded by modern PCs and consoles. They rarely reenact the full 8-bit experience.
While its dedication to authenticity is admirable, it largely works against this beat ‘em up romp. The game seems to harp on our nostalgia to conceal its technological limitations. Harping on nostalgia, but failing to conjure it, Double Dragon IV exposes itself as a shallow, unnecessary ode to the shortcomings of the 8-bit era.
Imprecise and slow to a fault
Modern retro-influenced games typically harness the pick-up-and-play appeal of retro games while layering the mechanics for deeper gameplay. Double Dragon IV employs a similar simplistic, inviting layout. Its facile nature, however, induces frustration from its sheer lack of depth.
The combat feels clunky and painfully imprecise. The drawn-out, labored animations of your punches and kicks create a skill ceiling: The Lee brothers move incredibly slow compared to today’s game characters — jumping feels like a beleaguered performance, and leaves you exposed to enemy attack when you hit the ground.
This approach wouldn’t be an issue if the game rewarded nimble play. While games like Dark Souls, where players must commit to swinging their sword and risk the consequences of a poorly timed attack, gamifies character animations to great effect, Double Dragon doesn’t exactly fit into that style of play. There’s little value in slowing characters down when the goal of the game is mashing the punch button.
Rather than influence better play, the system teaches the superficial art of cracking its finite depth.
Moreover, your slow movement makes it difficult to keep up with what’s being thrown on screen. Sometimes you find yourself surrounded by swarms of enemies that swallow you whole. It’s unavoidable. Like the original Double Dragon games, enemies hit you from off-screen and wait for you atop ledges, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re too damn slow.
The problem is indicative of an aggravating aspect of retro beat ‘em up games. Rather than influence better play, the system teaches the superficial art of cracking its finite depth. No matter how much you play, you never feel like you’re improving. Instead, you simply find new ways to take advantage of the game’s limitations. Bucking the formula doesn’t feel satisfying, it just feels cheap.
Am I playing in front of a green screen?
Although imitating the 8-bit aesthetic, the best modern retro-influenced games have not limited themselves to the technology of the games that inspired them. Whether it’s the subtle animations of Shovel Knight, or the orientation-shifting mechanics of Fez, it’s clear that, while these games were influenced by the past, they are not living in it. By contrast, the faithful copy/paste design Double Dragon 4 serves as a reminder of how limited 8- and 16-bit games were.
At the time, going from a barren landscape to an industrial compound was cool simply because it offered a semblance of difference. Now, though, if you squint your eyes long enough, you might as well be staring at crystal white backgrounds with jagged sprites fluttering across open air.
Ironically, Double Dragon 4 demonstrates why environments in retro games repeat again and again. Engine limitations make the game’s platforming sections — which add rotating blocks to jump across and timed spikes to avoid — painful to play.
Going through the motions, again and again
Double Dragon first appeared in arcades in 1987. Like most arcade games, it was designed to be tough to inflict more damage on the piggy bank. Subsequent NES iterations adopted the “insert coin” model, perhaps in effort to remain true to their predecessor, but also to supplement special restraints of cartridges.
You’re too damn slow.
In Double Dragon IV, you start with five credits, and if you run through ‘em all, it’s back to the beginning. The game can be beat in under an hour, but artificial replay value comes from the lack of checkpoints or save states. Imprecise controls, shoddy platforming, and an overwhelming prevalence of luck force miscues that inevitably translate to another set of credits in the proverbial machine. Unbalanced pacing, an aspect of a fair amount of retro games, teases you into thinking the game will gradually ramp after its relatively benign first half, only to pull the rug from under you in the brutal, outgoing stretch. It’s a clever trick synonymous with the era that, here, becomes visible for what it is: a crutch.
A Remembrance of a Lost Genre
If Double Dragon IV is remembered for one thing, it should serve as a reminder of why the beat ‘em up game faded into obscurity. The beat ‘em up relied on simplicity, but as video games evolved, they became the odd man out.
Double Dragon IV is a retro sequel in the truest sense of the word, but its honesty exposes the flaws of a genre that, maybe, we should consider leaving behind. Retro sequels should use what has been learned since their heyday. Nostalgia alone should not blind us to the fact that the quarter-munching games of the ‘80’s and ‘90s had their flaws, and that we can do better.
- Captures 8-bit aesthetic
- Painfully slow, cheap combat
- Banal level design
- Unbalanced pacing
- Quarter-munching gameplay is made to force failure