Building on classic roots and updating it with modern gameplay, presentation, and progression, Double Dragon Gaiden is an absolutely fantastic beat 'em up. Near-perfect from start to finish, it is a polished example of just how much you can do with a retro property when you’re willing to innovate and modernize the rock-solid core.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is the newest entry in the Double Dragon franchise. And, quite possibly, it’s best. By combining class arcade sensibilities, modern presentation, and a good bit of clever design to bridge the two, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is a triumph of retro revivals, and has already made it’s way to the top of my beat ’em up list.
It’s hard to overstate just how great of a time I had with Double Dragon Gaiden. But I’m going to do my best. This is one of the most fun games I’ve played all year, and one of the bestclassic beat ’em ups in even longer. In a franchise that’s struggled to find its feet since the 90s, Double Dragon is back, and better than ever. Now let’s explore why.
Gameplay: It’s a Brawl
The core of Double Dragon is, of course, it’s side-scrolling, gang-brawling gameplay. And it has never been more fun than here. Quite simply: Double Dragon Gaiden is riotous fun in every aspect. The core fighting mechanics feel fluid and great, and all the intricacies that are added on top — on both your side and the side of your opponents — only make it more and more exhilarating. Beating up waves of thugs is bombastic (sometimes literally), and the game quickly becomes an exercise in taking on increasingly difficult challenges in increasingly more impressive ways.
Combos and Specials are at the heart of the gameplay, and they are a true treat. Combos are simple: mash the attack button in order to take out foes. Easy foes will go down just that simply. But tougher enemies, or those with counters or other moves in their arsenals, become a threat quickly to the button-masher. That is because of a simple design attribute when it comes to the many enemies of Double Dragon Gaiden: they can combo you just as brutally as you combo them. You can get stunlocked, you can get pummeled, and you can get trapped, in all the same ways that the enemies can.
Let there be no mistake: you are always the top dog on the battlefield (at least, until you meet some of the bosses), but it still requires tactics, quick thinking, and a good variety of moves to stay on top of enemy attacks, especially as groups of them pile up to fill the screen. Then again, when enemies pile up on the screen, that might not be so bad. After all, one of the only ways to heal (and certainly the most reliable) is by pulling off the ridiculously fun “Crowd Control” attacks, wherein you defeat 3 or more enemies with a single special attack. You will do it often, and it will feel great, every time.
Now, onto the poor sops you’re beating up. While there isn’t an unbelievable amount of enemy variety, there are enough different varieties that you have to stay sharp and aware. Thankfully, top-tier visual design (which we will discuss more later) makes this possible, turning what might’ve otherwise been overwhelming slogs of enemies into challenging-but-manageable groups of threats.
And that’s to say nothing of the bosses, which are all incredible. While some of the lower-level stage bosses are beefed up (and ganged up) varieties of regular enemies, the enemy design truly shines when it comes to the level bosses. Suffice to say, they are some of the trickier and more entertaining bosses in the genre, and that’s saying something. And the ability to play the levels in whichever order — with later levels becoming more difficult when you reach them — means that the four level bosses hide a surprising amount of depth. Taking on a teleporting kung-fu master in an empty room with weak minions is much different than taking on his tiger form on a train featuring mecha-dogs, for example. In short, the bosses (and enemies in general) are well-designed, surprisingly deep, and incredibly fun to fight.
But enemies aren’t the only ones with variety in Double Dragon Gaiden! You, too, have a slew of characters to pick from. The main 4 characters you begin the game with — Billy, Jimmy, Marian, and Uncle Matin — all play completely differently from each other, with unique combos, stats, special moves, and action attacks. And that continues through into all the unlockable characters, each of which is so different from the rest of the cast that they truly have their own niche and playstyle.
Overall, the gameplay is just incredibly tight, enjoyable, and well-designed. Every moment of play is engaging, the challenge level is just right, and the game is just, at the end of the day, extremely fun. I keep saying it, and I’ll say it again: Double Dragon Gaiden is just fun.
Progression: The New Arcade
While the stellar gameplay is the meat of the experience of Double Dragon Gaiden, the bread that it is served on is the fantastic, surprisingly multi-layered progression system. While the gameplay makes the game worth playing, the progression makes it worth replaying, while capturing a central feel of Double Dragon’s arcade roots.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons has referred to by some, including it’s own marketing team, as a roguelite. But that’s underselling it, because the core reason to replay the game aren’t it’s relatively sparse roguelite elements (so sparse that I’m not sure the term even applies). Rather, the reason you’d replay Double Dragon Gaiden (and you will, over and over and over) is because of its arcade sensibilities. Many games have tried to replicate the feeling of an arcade cabinet on a home computer or console. I’m not sure any have done it as well as Double Dragon Gaiden. And that is because of 3 bits of genius that the developers of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons made use of.
The first bit of genius is in the level select screen. When you start a new game, you can select from any of the four main levels of the game, each run by a different gang with a different level boss to fight at the end. This might seem like any ol’ level select screen, until you defeat the first level boss (which will always be at the end of a single-stage level). When you return to the level select screen, you’ll get a message showing that each other gang has improved. Now, when you go to the next level, it will have two stages, including an extra boss and a more difficult level boss. Repeat a third time, and you end up with a surprising amount of depth for a game with four main levels.
What this entails is that you, the player, can decide what order to tackle challenges in. If you struggle with a boss (oh, and believe me, there is one you will struggle with, she’s wicked), then you might want to prioritize them first on the next playthrough, taking them on at their weakest form after a single stage. Or, if there is a tricky bit in the third stage of a level, then next time you can play it first or second, skipping that stage entirely. It’s all in your hands, and that amount of choice really makes the level select screen worth it. It’s great. It reminds me a bit of Deathloop. Only it works better here.
The second bit of genius in Double Dragon Gaiden comes in the form of money. As you beat up thugs and break furnishings, you’ll acquire quite a lot of it, after all. And money is very interesting in Double Dragon Gaiden, because it is tied directly to your progress within — and, ultimately, the overall success of — each run. That is because, in addition to paying for revives and upgrades, money is also cashed in for the game’s most valuable currency whenever you complete your run (for better or worse). This means that you want a fat wallet when you complete a run… But that you also might have to spend some of that money in order to revive or upgrade your characters so that you can can complete a run (and therefor get more tokens). It’s a fine balancing game, and it forces players to think about what is and isn’t worth it.
And then, we come to the last, best, and most genius bit of progression in Double Dragon Gaiden: Tokens. These rarities are earned in only 2 ways: by purchasing them during runs, or by finishing a run (by dying or beating the game) and cashing out, with more money directly translating to more tokens. Now, here’s the catch: money isn’t just used to purchase new characters and cosmetics, it is also used (when playing on the best difficulty of the game) to restart a stage after a complete failure. In the “Cost 3 Tokens” mode, whenever you completely die and can no longer revive, you’ll be taken to a “Continue” screen, where you’ll be asked if you want to pay 3 tokens — the valuable, character-unlocking currency — to continue your run. You’ll be reset at the beginning of the stage with full health and all the money you had when you started it.
And it is here where Double Dragon Gaiden lives up to its arcade legacy. Because even when I know I should cash out, and accept the Tokens I’ve earned so far… I just want to play one more time, because maybe that’ll be the time I beat the boss. Inevitably, my Token stash whittles away to nothing. And I’m left smiling because — dammit — the ol’ arcade trick still works on me. Like quarters at an old school arcade, they’ve vanished, and left me hungry for another shot to recoup my losses. Time to start again.
It’s all just genius. It plays so well, and is so addicting, that it is impossible not to keep playing. All the systems of progression make it clear how they interact, and what you get for engaging with them, and so all the systems of progression meaningfully add to player choice. In a game that could’ve just been beat ’em up dungeon after beat ’em up dungeon until you beat it, Double Dragon Gaiden gives so much more. And I’ll be playing it for a long time because of that.
The art in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, is nothing short of great. Yes, it’s pixel art, but it’s damn good pixel art. And not just because it captures a fresh and vibrant aesthetic (it does) in a way that invokes — but doesn’t copy — the best games of the era in a fresh, crisp style, but also because it fits the gameplay perfectly.
Double Dragon Gaiden is the latest game in a silly franchise that started in an era of over-the-top bombast and excitement, and it fully embraces that. Character designs are detailed, but cutesy. Giant turkey dinners flash on screen when you knock out five or more enemies. Your character screams the name of the move they are doing at they twirl around in a nonsensical fashion. It’s so vibrant, so potent, and just looks so good.
And it does all this while not only not getting in the way of the gameplay, but informing it. Splashes on the side of the screen tell you your combo count, clear black lines differentiate interactable objects from enemies and backgrounds, and the animations… Oh, boy, the animations. Every single animation in the game is stylish, but also very effectively communicates exactly what is happening on screen. During my entire time with the game, I never lost sight of my character, was never caught by surprise by an un-telegraphed attack, and always knew exactly what was going on at any given time, even when hordes of enemies began rolling in. Combine this with stellar large-scale art for the odd cutscenes, and you have a true visual treat of a game.
The sound design, however, isn’t quite as compelling. Instead, it is merely… serviceable. Punches sound like punches. Yells sound like yells. It all feels very 90s. Which would be fine, except for how much of the game has moved on to the new, modern, sleek feel that it feels a bit out of place. The music, similarly, evokes a very particular kind of 90s arcade cabinet. I see what they were going for, and it never distracts, but it would be hard to say that the sound in Double Dragon Gaiden really lives up to the splendor of the rest of the game. Oh well, not everything can be a winner.
Similarly, the story in Double Dragon Gaiden is just serviceable, though that is much more excusable than the sound. The story exists as a framing device to put the characters in the way of the gangs they have to destroy. It is that simple. What few cutscenes they are are rendered spectacularly, but if you are coming to this game because you’re expecting a deep and riveting story, you’re in the wrong place. Aesthetics are on point. Narrative? What narrative: there are baddies to beat.
Conclusion: A True Triumph
I could keep rambling about all the different little things I love about this game for thousands more words. I could talk about the fantastic difficulty system, which ties perfectly into the cash/token economy. I could talk about how fun it is to play all the different characters on offer. I could even talk about th absolutely stellar art that is hiding behind some of the token purchases. But all that is too much. The game is simple and clear, so I will be as well: Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is an all-but-perfect take on the beat ’em up formula, at a time when nothing else is even coming close.
If you like Beat ‘Em Ups, you should get this game. If you haven’t really played them before (like I hadn’t, at least not for years), then you should get this game. Hell, even if you hate Beat ‘Em Ups, you still might want to consider it. It’s a tight, fun experience with fantastic replayability, smooth gameplay, top-tier aesthetics, and progression systems that most other games wish they had. While there are inevitably going to be some naysayers who will dislike where Double Dragon is going (after years of not living up as a “serious” title), anyone else interested is likely to love it. Perfect from start to finish, Double Dragon Gaiden is the polished example of just how much you can do with a retro property when you’re willing to innovate and modernize the rock-solid core.
You can (and probably should) check out Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons on Steam here.
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Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he’ll try. When he isn’t working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.