Friday, 2 February 2018

Game Review: Double Dragon (Nintendo Entertainment System)

Developed by Technos and published by Tradewest in 1988

Regular readers of my reviews will know that Double Dragon is one of my favourite arcade games of all time, and that the C64 version that I owned as a child was a bitter disappointment. With so many of the ports for home computers of the day, for the want of a better word, sucking, I wondered whether the conversion for the Nintendo Entertainment System would fair any better - I'd played the Master System and was relatively impressed, so would the official Nintendo seal of quality mean anything in this instance?

I'm by no means an expert on games for the NES, but one thing I have noticed is that, with games based on arcade titles, the developers generally opted to craft an experience that built on the core mechanics of the arcade title, but that delivered a decent gaming experience whilst working within the constraints of the console's hardware. I'd seen footage of the NES conversion online, but never actually played it - curious to see how it stacked up, I decided to take up the challenge.

Just as in the arcade version, you take control of fraternal martial arts masters, Billy and Jimmy Lee, as they attempt to rescue Billy's girlfriend from the nefarious street gang, the Black Warriors. The game features two game types, Mode A and Mode B, each offering a different type of experience. It's worth noting at this point that you should not be fooled by menu options for 2 player games - the NES version lacks simultaneous co-operative play, instead having players take it in turns to play through the game.

Mode A is, essentially, the game's story mode and the closest to the original arcade game in terms of content. This mode features 4 main levels, each of which is divided into a number of sub-sections. The NES port features a couple of stages from the arcade, but most of levels are unique to this  particular version of the game. Where the game really deviates from the arcade version, however, is the inclusion of platforming stages where the emphasis is as much on jumping between platforms and navigating hazards, rather than simply beating up enemies. These sections tend to be among the toughest in the game since you can no longer get the drop on your opponent by circling around them. In the latter part of the game, there is definitely a shift in focus to the platforming elements, requiring the player to avoid falling boulders, stalactites and lava pits whilst throwing the occasional bad guy at you for good measure.

Eat boot!

Once you've finished Mode A, or if you just fancy a change, you can enter Mode B. This game mode is a series of duels where you take on increasingly difficult waves of opponents with the goal of setting as high a score as possible; uncomplicated, but fun nonetheless.

A common gripe I have with many Double Dragon ports is the dilution of the combat and absence of fighting moves. I have to say, however, that this is one of the very few 8-bit versions of the game (perhaps the only one) that includes the entire move roster from the arcade version; in fact, it's a lot better than some of the 16-bit incarnations of the game as well! However, not all of the moves are available from the outset, instead being unlocked steadily throughout the course of the game. Your unlock level is displayed underneath the health bar as a series of hearts, which are unlocked by earning points from defeating opponents; certain moves, such as the punch, are worth more points, but involve getting closer to enemies, thus increasing your chances of getting slapped down by taking the risk. I'm somewhat ambivalent to this RPG-lite progression system in so far as, whilst there is a sense that you're getting progressively more powerful as the game progresses, I want to be able to knee enemies in the head and chuck them around from the outset without having to earn the right to do so.

Fighting a green Abobo in the caves

The combat itself is, for the most part, a surprisingly solid affair. It's entirely possible to rough the enemy up with a good ol' left-rght combo, before finishing with a jaw-shattering uppercut, although my favourite trick is to sucker them into getting close to the edge of cliffs or pits and throwing them over the edge (never gets old). The one issue I noticed whilst playing, however, was the fact that shorter range moves, such as the punch, proved far too risky to use in the majority of situations thanks to the enemies predilection for slapping me silly the moment they get anywhere near me. A far safer tactic was to simply keep hitting the kick button and wait for the foe to walk into my out-stretched boot; effective, but a little bit cheap.

In addition to fisticuffs, certain enemies will be carrying weapons with which they intend to give you a solid beating. Taking down said opponent will cause them to drop the weapon, allowing you to pick it up and use it against them. Just as with the arcade, you'll be able to tool yourself up with baseball bats, knives, whips to tackle your foes, if only for a short while; the weapons mysteriously vanish from your possession after a few screens. I presume this to be a deliberate design choice to limit their effectiveness, but it's somewhat jarring to see the bat your carrying disappear into thin air.

Over the edge!

As far as the visuals are concerned, the NES version looks very solid for an 8-bit version, putting most of the home computer versions to shame. All of the character sprites are chunky and nicely detailed, with slightly oversized heads that lends the game a certain charm. There are many similarities between this and the Sega Master System version, although the NES colour palette isn't as bright or varied. The game does suffer from the usual flickering when too many sprites occupy the same horizontal lines on screen, but it's by no means the worst that I've ever seen.

On the audio front, the NES manages to belt out some decent renditions of the original arcade music, plus some original compositions, in suitable chip-tune fashion. Another advantage the NES version has over it's competitors is the ability to combine playback of music and sound effects simultaneously, something that home computers (like the C64) struggled to do.

When it comes to a conclusion, I feel that I'm left in something of a quandary. On the one hand, Technos certainly put time and effort into fleshing out the game with additional content to warrant the additional cost, but the game's difficulty, tendency towards platforming in the late game and lack of a true 2-player option means that even the NES version is a game based on compromises; perhaps my expectations were too high? Overall, I would say that Double Dragon on the NES is a solid interpretation of the classic beat 'em up, albeit an experience that wasn't quite as close to the arcade as I was hoping for.

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