No Pain, No Gain

(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)

Billy and Jimmy’s peaceful lives as dojo masters in a post-apocalyptic New York are rudely interrupted when the city’s top crime boss steals away with Billy’s buxom and scantily clad girlfriend, hoping to ransom her in exchange for the duo’s martial arts secrets. If there’s one thing the antagonist of a Beat ’em Up game should know, it’s that you don’t get on the wrong side of people with special kung fu skills, and the heroes thus set out to beat the tar out of every thug they can find until Billy’s sweetheart is recovered.

It’s too bad the plot didn’t receive much of an overhaul to go along with reformed gameplay and graphics in the iOS edition of Double Dragon (Out Now, $3.99), but at least it’s delivered with stylish character art and a translation that manages to be entertainingly cheesy. What has benefited most from the intervening decades since its first arcade release is its game design, which has accumulated a ton of combos and flashy special moves compared to the original. While this is liable to be a sticking point with purists, I found the iOS remake’s combat upgrade decisively positive. 

As usual for a barefisted brawler, Double Dragon‘s combat system basically revolves around a two-button punch/kick paradigm that’s deceptively simple at first glance. Quick  combinations with the virtual D-pad and a third special attack button blow the protagonists’ repertoire wide open, and further options hinge on the state an enemy is in: certain moves can be executed only after foes have been knocked down or stunned with a good side kick. Jimmy and Billy have an entire laundry list of attacks the seasoned player will want to look through and master after getting a handle for the controls (more on user interface on Page 2 — that deserves a separate discussion in and of itself). The usual temporary weapon pick-ups are on offer, though their use is still sadly limited compared to the very best genre classics, and the absence of health restoration items leaves Double Dragon with a more challenging edge than the average brawler. Enemies are satisfyingly varied across levels, with a few brand-new henchmen and bosses making their debut in this remake.

Double Dragon iOS’ game design does trip over a few of my pet peeves when it comes to Beat ’em Ups. First, with the exception of a few special moves, collision detection is excruciatingly exacting: the player character must be on the same plane as a targeted enemy with near pixel-perfect accuracy to land a blow. This, combined with the fact that the more esoteric combos can only be chained once the player character has connected with an enemy, means the average player might not get enough suitable learning opportunities to truly master the combat system. Secondly, Billy and Jimmy suffer from severe clone syndrome in their fighting style and move lists. With the exception of a few special moves those who have mastered the game might point out, the main characters are in essence palette swaps of one another.

Luckily the clone dilemma is mitigated by what is undoubtedly Double Dragon iOS’ saving grace: successive playthroughs unlock literally dozens of new playable characters, consisting of all the henchmen and bosses both old and new. The henchmen are mostly novelties not worth writing home about thanks to their extremely limited movesets and lack of run functionality in most cases, but the bosses are dynamic enough that they bring in that breath of fresh air the player had been waiting for since first laying eyes on the character select screen. For those interested enough to stick with it, replay value in Double Dragon iOS is simply magnanimous.

Billy and Jimmy’s uncanny similarity is, of course, an inherited quirk left over from the original arcade version. Double Dragon iOS’ homage to old times don’t stop there, for better or worse. A Bluetooth-enabled two player mode and time attack mode are certainly welcome, but strict preservation of an arcade experience means that the game lacks mid-play auto saving even though other forms of progress are entered into a player record and recorded as Game Center achievements. Ouch! While stages are noticeably under par for the course as far as length is concerned, the prospective player will still need an hour or two on hand if he or she wants to make a complete run through in one sitting. Multitask-enabled iDevices dampen the blow here, but anyone running a lower-gen device will surely feel some pain over lack of a mid-game save option! Hopefully auto saving is something that could be added with an update, as it’s sure to be a make-or-break issue for many prospective players given the platform.

Double Dragon iOS tries its hand at a few innovations that, more skillfully implemented, could have hit the ball out of the park — but as executed here they fall flat and fail to add much to the player’s enjoyment. First is an experience system that rewards player performance and gradually unlocks new special attacks for Billy and Jimmy. It’s an awesome concept that suggests the way forward for a good Beat ’em Up/Action RPG mashup, but the unlocking requirements are so lofty as to make several playthroughs with the same character necessary to begin feeling the benefits; the player will be much more eager to try out the new unlocked characters before the experience system really kicks in, and the unlocked characters don’t benefit from it at all. Also a bit too lofty for its own good is a Limit Break system – another homage to traditional RPG mechanics – that makes player characters more powerful as a reward for dishing out tons of attacks while remaining untouched by enemies.

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