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Double Dragon: Neon Review
Following in their trend of revisiting old franchises, such as Contra and A Boy And His Blob, WayForward Technologies has released Double Dragon: Neon on PSN and XBLA. If you’re familiar with Double Dragon, that’s great, because this game is essentially a reboot of the series. For those uninitiated, it’s a side-scrolling beat-em-up where up to two players take control of the Lee brothers, Billy and Jimmy, and use martial arts to save Billy’s girlfriend. In short, it’s an homage to old kung-fu B-movies and Bruce Lee.
What I Liked
The 80′s Motif
You figure if you’re going to make a reboot, you might bring the characters to a modern time in order to make it relevant to the current generation of game players, right? Not if you’re WayForward. Rather, they use 2012 technology to create a game that embraces the nostalgia of the 80′s. Neon lights saturate the game world, and cheesy music bombards your aural senses (let’s be honest, some of these “bad” 80′s-esque songs are pretty good). I hope you like bad fashion, high-fives, and hockey hair too, because there’s no shortage of it here. Even the character dialogue feels dated–but in a good way. It’s all schlock and terrible puns, but it’s hard not to laugh sometimes.
Rather than facing off against their old arch-nemesis, the Shadow Master, Billy and Jimmy find themselves going toe-to-toe with the magic space lich, Skullmageddon. When you first meet him and he steps off his throne, he makes for an imposing figure. He’s about eight feet tall, and is decked out in aggressive skull-themed armour. Then he speaks, and you realize he’s basically a riff off of The Venture Bros.‘ The Monarch, high-pitched nasally voice and all. As you progress through the game, he chides you for destroying his expensive a/v equipment, yells at you from helicopters, and screams at his minions in ways that can only be described as hilarious. It’s too bad that he gets really weird by the end. Not even his funny Portal-esque credit song could make up for how much of a creep he wound up being.
The Old School Gameplay
The gameplay is essentially old-school Double Dragon with more buttons. If you love the franchise, then you’re going to feel all kinds of nostalgia. There’s a new role-playing element to the gameplay that slows down the action, but thankfully doesn’t stall it. You can collect different cassette tapes that apply certain attributes to the Lee brothers, or imbue them with different abilities. Do you like a balanced fighter or have a tendency to favour magic over strength or vice versa? There’s a mixtape for you. Are you terrible at brawlers, but want to play anyways? Don’t worry about, there’s a mixtape for you too. Furthermore, the ability cassettes offer a nice variety of moves to play around with, with a mix of magical and physical attacks. You find these cassettes by defeating enemies, busting up the environment, or buying them in stores. Each collected cassette improves that particular ability or stat, though they top out at level 10 unless you upgrade them at a special store for a maximum level of 50. This is important if you want to survive the game’s later difficulties, because with each one the enemies hit faster and harder.
My only real issue with the older style of gameplay is that 3D models have been imposed on a 2D background. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s actually rather unintuitive at first. In older Double Dragon games, it’s easy to line up a your character with another two-dimensional sprite in order to attack him. It’s more awkward with 3D models. After playing around a bit, you get used to the concept, but it makes me wonder why WayForward didn’t just make 3D backgrounds. The game probably would have looked nicer. The 2D backgrounds are fine, but they’re never particularly mind-blowing and in fact, occasionally look quite strange when the game tries to play around with the perspective.
What I Didn’t Like
The Female Characters
I’m not stoked on how women are portrayed in this game, for two reasons. Number one, is that the violence isn’t nearly over-the-top enough. Unlike, say, Bayonetta or Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the combat feels pretty grounded. Not that I’m saying Double Dragon Neon is a realistic game, but it’s enough to make me uncomfortable. In the very first scene, Billy’s girlfriend Marian is subdued and kidnapped. The thug punches her violently and the freeze frames, clearly showing her pain and distress. Then there’s the redesigned Linda Lash enemy-type. They don’t seem to have much formal combat training, and tend to attack the player with whips, so beating them up doesn’t feel very fair–especially when they scream in horrific agony as your fists pummel them into submission. Later female enemies have magic abilities or are trained ninja assassins, so there isn’t that same disparity where you have twin martial artists curb stomping street thugs. So if anything didn’t transfer over well in the reboot, it was this. At least in the original Double Dragon, it’s just pixellated blobs fighting each other. Ah well, after doing this dozens of times you’ll get used to the violence and won’t be bothered by it. Having finished the game, I can now beat them to death with impunity. I’m sure this speaks out about some basic flaw in the psyche of our modern society, but I don’t think I’m qualified to make any judgements. I’m certainly not happy about it, though.
The other problem I have is a bigger one and has to do with the general portrayal of women in video games. In Double Dragon: Neon, they’re all sex objects. Every female character has large breasts and wears revealing clothes, whether it’s a sexy ninja suit, skin-tight clothing, or straight-up BDSM lingerie. The only properly clothed female enemies are mystical geisha girls, which bring up a whole different set of negative connotations. (I might’ve been able to forgive Roxy, the jet-pack enemy, for wearing skin-tight pants as loose fitting clothes are probably a bad idea when zipping around with a combustible jet engine your back, but concept art shows her wearing different types of bikinis, so I doubt it was ever intended as a practical choice). Even the “good” girl, Marian, is wearing a revealing red dress. Comparatively, the only scantily clad male character is the freakishly muscular Abobo, who is far from being represented as sexy. I understand that WayForward wanted to create a faithful reproduction of the 80′s, but neon lights and hockey hair are enough; we don’t need to see women portrayed like this. Linda Lash enemies were depicted in the original Double Dragon games as wearing catsuits, or at least tank tops and pants. The redesigned Neon Linda Lash wears lingerie. That’s leather corsets, garters and stockings, and dog-collars. Why? What a needless change! Herein lies the biggest problem with how female sexuality is portrayed in Double Dragon: Neon, there’s no context. Interesting or intelligent portrayals of stereotypes can spark great dialogue amongst people, and hopefully provoke positive change towards eliminating such imagery in the real world. A game like Bayonetta, far from providing a positive female archetype, at least embraces sexuality in such an outlandish way that it encourages speculation. Heck, even Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2‘s Hinako isn’t solely defined by how she dresses (she’s basically topless)–but the game even lets you call her out on it! None of the women in Double Dragon Neon have personalities. You play as a pair of macho brothers who beat up bad men and bad women. Only all of the women are hyper-sexualized. What message does this send? That it’s okay, right even, to beat up scantily-clad, large breasted women? I hope not.
Skullmageddon’s Master Plan (*Skip Down To The Comparison To Avoid Spoilers*)
That wacky Skullmageddon was great right up until the end of the game when he revealed his master plan. See, he kidnapped Marian because he wanted a girlfriend. Forget going out to clubs or making online dating profiles, Skullmageddon just kidnaps women when he wants a date. Oh, and he uses his magic powers to force them to love him. Sounds horrible? It is. The implications are just kind of washed over by the game for the sake of action, but Skullmageddon is basically a magic powered rapist. He brainwashes Marian, turning her into a sorceress of sorts, and dresses her up in a skimpy fantasy bikini. This revelation turns Skullmageddon from a fairly comical villain, into a sinister creep.
Not As Good As: Castle Crashers or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game
This reboot proves that Double Dragon can still be a fun formula. However, there are a slew of modern beat-em-ups that have improved upon the gameplay and Double Dragon: Neon struggles to keep up. If you haven’t played Castle Crashers or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game, I encourage you to pick them up before you turn to Double Dragon: Neon. If you’ve already played every brawler under the sun and absolutely have to have something new to play, then Double Dragon: Neon certainly won’t lead you astray. It’s still an entertaining title, but it’s like akin to watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull try to compete against its own legacy.
I’m kind of torn here. On one hand, this game is fun to play–technically. On the other hand, I’m not pleased to see that their 80′s homage extended far enough to include such negative portrayals of women. I want to think that it’s all done with an impressive sense of satire, but it’s hard to make that connection when the player is too busy beating up the women in question. The problem comes down to Poe’s Law. I can’t tell whether or not this is done tongue-in-cheek, or in complete earnestness, which is problematic. Without any context, you can never know. Ultimately, whether or not you buy Double Dragon: Neon is up to you, the reader. Double Dragon: Neon isn’t a terrible game, just a disappointing one.
Double Dragon Neon was reviewed with a copy provided by the publisher.