Preview: Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons
I might not speak for everyone when I say this, but some would agree that the recent visibility of the beat-’em-up genre bodes well for fans of local multiplayer games. It’s a genre that I’ve found myself covering a lot in those same days, and I can’t say that I’m not enjoying its time in the spotlight. Sure, some people might feel like it’s a genre that should have remained in the past. I’m not one of those people. We might live in an era of online multiplayer being the dominant option. Still, any excuse to get some friends together with your favorite food and drink and the chance to shout across the room to them is an experience that I personally don’t want to disappear.
Then again, we live in an era where franchises that have deep roots in gaming history are trying to either return via revival or try new things that call back to their heydey. If it’s not the Battletoads getting a chance to be their gross selves in the modern day, it’s Samus going back to her 2D roots. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sonic Origins Plus decided to add more characters in games they weren’t originally featured in, or the upcoming Superstars throwing an anchor into the past with a modern twist. It’s an interesting time to be alive if you’re the kind of person who craves an old-school gaming experience, that’s for sure.
Much like some of the more…unpleasant entries with the Blue Blur, Billy and Jimmy Lee have also had their fair share of troubles over the years. With Double Dragon IV not being well-received, it made sense that if they were going to take another stab at it, they were going to have to at least overcome the mistakes that they made then. Hell, I’m sure that some fans would hope that things would approach the quality of Neon (jank and all) at this point.
Right now, the beat-’em-up space might be a little crowded for some. But in this particular case, the time seems to be ripe for old-hand gaming stalwarts like this one to get a chance at redemption. Developed by MODUS and Secret Base and published by Arc System Works, Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons will drop later this month on July 27th on PS4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, Switch, and PC via Steam. The Xbox Series X | S version was played for this preview.
Dragon Along My Big Sense of Justice
Sometime in the year 199X, after a nuclear war laid waste to much of the planet’s population, New York City finds itself in the midst of another kind of conflict. Specifically, the kind where four gangs viciously vie for total supremacy across the five boroughs. Meanwhile, the newly elected mayor finds himself pulling Marian out of a gang scrape and he decides to bring her to the Lee Brothers and Uncle Matin to make his case to help him take back the city.
Desperate times do call for desperate measures, and thankfully it doesn’t take the mayor much time to convince the group to jump into action based on their own martial arts skills and the fact that the city itself is in such a sorry state. In what’s essentially a small strike team going up against an entire metropolis’ worth of gang members from all sides, our heroes set out into the city to wrest control back from these powerful gangs and their leaders.
Many of the vibes in this game do give off that air of the classic ’90s vibe that call back to the era when beat-’em-ups were more commonplace than they are now. We’ve seen this from games like TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, which clung tightly to the formula of “tell the story quickly in between stages and let the gameplay take center stage for most part.” Rise of the Dragons isn’t too different in this regard, and as a result doesn’t give me much of a chance to explain too much of the story with the limited time that I spent with it.
Though even with that sort of limitation, this genre in general isn’t exactly known for extremely long cutscenes or intricate writing. It’s the kind of plot that will lend itself well to the party game nature of the genre, but that’s to be expected. When most people play a beat-’em-up, they’re largely concerned with the gameplay from start to finish. Any sort of story content is in service to that, though I’m not one to deride developers if they want to spread their wings where it makes sense. It’s relatively light-touch, but simple and straightforward is an approach I don’t mind seeing. Especially when it comes to games like this.
Powerful Fists, Powerful Partners
For decades now, the signature gameplay loop for Double Dragon has been the classic side-scrolling 2D style with the usual cadre of punches, kicks, and throws. Well, now they’re back, in roguelike form! Depending on who you ask, they might consider it jumping on what’s hot right at the moment. There’s definitely no shortage of roguelikes and roguelites in 2023, and this will just be another one to add to the pile. But looking at it from the perspective of this franchise, it’s not an unnatural direction to go in given that other 2D games like 30XX uses it in a way that complements the Mega Man X influence it draws from.
Before you start your run, though, you’ll have the chance to modify things at your leisure. Starting out, you’ll only have access to the two Lee Brothers, Marian, and Uncle Matin. Though as you pick up more tokens throughout your runs via the earned cash you get in normal gameplay, you’ll be able to purchase more characters to use in future runs. How much cash you get depends on how high you set the difficulty via the modifiers before your run. Setting them towards the easier side will naturally yield a more casual gaming experience, while more hard-nosed fans will be rewarded for their skills if it’s skewed in a more difficult direction.
After that’s all set and ready to go, you’ll have your choice between the four gangs’ territory to jump into and make your way to their respective leader. One thing to note; since this is a roguelike, the level of progression will escalate regardless of whatever order you choose. Upon defeating a stage, the forces in the other stages will intensify in power and difficulty. This will make for an uphill battle as you progress, but you’ll be spending your money on upgrades after boss encounters in each stage. Naturally, these are randomized. But like any good roguelike, you’ll have to make tough choices on what you think will help you progress further in the run.
Once you’re in the stage proper, it’s classic Double Dragon gameplay. Though the devs seem to have taken influence from other beat-’em-ups and fighters and implemented a tag feature. You’ll be able to swap between the two players you’ve chosen pretty easily during normal gameplay, and any damage sustained by the character that tagged out will be regenerated as they rest. Each character has their own attributes and unique movesets, and it’s pretty easy to get a feel for them as you play. Normal punches and kicks are an obvious move, as are throws and special moves.
Though with each character having their own attributes like attack power and movement speed, it’ll be important to take certain moves into consideration during your run. Want a well-balanced beat-’em-up experience? Hit up Billy and Jimmy. What about slow-but-tanky moves and long range attacks? Uncle Matin and Marian are your choices. Naturally, you can mix between these four characters and others as you unlock them. But even at a base level, it’s not a bad place to start.
However, any Double Dragon game worth their weight in salt has to have co-op gameplay. Traditionally, just been more of a two-player affair. Though even with the tag mechanic, I’m sure there are some that wish that there was four-player co-op for this game. Maybe it was decided that amount of players would have added to the chaos in a detrimental way, but still. It’s at least in line with prior titles, and tagging characters in and out at your leisure doesn’t detract or really break the game.
While this preview was really only set for the first 90 minutes, it didn’t take me long to get a feel for how this game operates. It definitely leans on the classic gameplay the franchise is known for, but I’m probably not the only one that was surprised that Rise of the Dragons decided to latch onto the roguelike genre. Though what’s here now seems to understand the assignment of that genre and blended it with the classic formula decently enough.
Back to the Retro Past
One trend you tend to see with modern beat-’em-ups is the adherence (some would say devout reverence) to art styles and presentation that call back to the era of its heyday in the 90s. Scott Pilgrim did it, the aforementioned Shredder’s Revenge followed suit. Other titles in the genre like River City Girls 1/2 and Streets of Rage 4 decided to stick with the 2D plane, but go in more of a hand-drawn direction. With Rise of the Dragons is taking the former approach, it at least has a little bit of precedent.
Visually, the retro-styled aesthetic is a tried and true method that does complements the game well enough. Animations are smooth, sprite and environment design does straddle that 16/32-bit 2D visual aesthetic, and the amount of detail is on par with the now nu-classic style that has a pretty solid foothold in the space these days.
It feels like a sweet spot that seems to work for it at the moment, and modern consoles and PCs are more than capable of running at the scale and level of detail. Maybe it’s the amount of genre games I’ve covered over the years, but I don’t really mind the choice. Double Dragon Neon took a more 2.5D approach, and still played well enough. But that art style hasn’t exactly aged super well despite the solid gameplay that followed it.
Speaking of Neon, one of the more memorable things about that title was the soundtrack composed by Jake Kaufman. The man understood the assignment by embracing the 80s aesthetic the game was going for and put out a few bangers in the process. Honestly, probably one of the best things about that game. With Rise of the Dragons, it’s a little bit more straightforward. While it may not hit the heights of the Neon soundtrack, there’s no mistaking that it stays close to many of the musical references and pieces fans have known throughout the years. Like the graphical presentation, it leans heavily into the 90s (specifically the SNES for those who remember that specific sound profile). No big surprises there, but something worth mentioning anyway.
Triumph Through Teamwork
See, I’m probably going to champion couch multiplayer until I’m dead and buried. It has its time and place and, given the right circumstances, is the best way to play certain types of games. Many modern beat-’em-ups have and probably will have online co-op in some form, and that’s honestly fine by me. That kind of multiplayer experience has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying this flood of beat-’em-ups that we seem to be in over at least our ankles in.
With launch day rapidly approaching, I’ll admit I’m looking forward to experiencing Rise of the Dragons fully. My time with the game was short, but I’m thinking that what I’ve played so far is at a point where I can confidently say that things are coming together in the home stretch. Whether or not that remains the case will come out in time, but I’ll be circling back here with the full review here soon. Let’s hope this is a comeback that can truly rise to expectations.
Preview copy provided by Arc System Works for Xbox Series X | S. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Arc System Works.