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Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons Review — A Bullet From Your Valentine

Double Dragon Gaiden's got one big problem. It's not what you'd think, but exactly what you should've expected.

Whatever else you can say about Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, I appreciate how it continues Marian’s training arc. She’s been getting kidnapped and/or murdered for almost 40 years, as part of the inciting incidents that start off various Double Dragon games, and Marian’s visibly gotten tired of it.

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In last year’s River City Girls 2, Marian explains that she eventually started training until she was strong enough to rescue herself. Now, in Double Dragon Gaiden, she’s showing up for the usual street brawls with a golf bag full of guns and explosives. Machine Gun Willy, meet Anti-Tank Rocket Marian. You’ve had this coming since 1987, my dude.

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons Review — A Bullet From Your Valentine

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Depending on how you look at it, this is either Double Dragon Gaiden’s biggest problem or its best feature. It’s a retro-styled beat-’em-up, but it’s not content to reproduce the style and mechanics of a 16-bit brawler and call it a day. Gaiden’s got some style to it. It’s just that Marian, by virtue of bringing guns to a fistfight, breaks the game over her knee. It’s a real issue, particularly in co-op, but it’s also the next natural stop along what’s turning into Marian’s multi-game revenge tour.

I’m tempted to call Gaiden a reboot, but that implies Double Dragon has a continuity, and that’s just not true. Instead, Gaiden takes things back to basics.

It’s “199X” in a post-nuclear war New York, and four themed street gangs have begun to divide the city among themselves. When one of those gangs nearly kills Marian (because, of course, they did), the new mayor of New York comes to Billy and Jimmy Lee’s dojo to ask for their help. At Marian’s insistence, the Lees team up with her and their Uncle Matin to go out and stomp the gangs flat.

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At the start of Gaiden, you can pick one of the four gangs to target. The first level you clear isn’t much more than three hallways and a boss fight, but afterward, the remaining gangs realize they’re in danger and reinforce their territories. That makes each stage harder as you progress further into Gaiden‘s post-WWIII New York, with longer levels, tougher bosses, and more enemies in each wave.

This ends up working in your favor — sort of. Gaiden keys your health regeneration to how fast you can knock out multiple targets. Each character has an arsenal of skills, including an area-of-effect ability that’s keyed to a rechargeable special meter. If you manage to score at least three knockouts at once with a single AoE skill, Gaiden rewards you with some food that restores your health.

The further you get into Gaiden, the more enemies come after you at once, which gives you more opportunities to crowd-control them. It gives Gaiden a sort of spectacle-fighter feel, where your enemies are also a resource. If you’re getting your head handed to you, you can turn the fight around with one big move that both heals you and knocks out most of the opposition. Big combos also reward you with extra money, which can be spent between levels for one of five random bonuses.

You play two characters at once in Gaiden, and can tag out your active fighter with the touch of a button at any time, although it costs special meter. This works as a combo breaker, so you can get out of an enemy attack string or grab by tagging out, as well as an extra life in the field.

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These are all neat mechanical touches that go a long way toward livening up what could very easily have been a standard retro-styled pixel-art brawler. Post-Streets of Rage 4, a lot of games have been content to be a slightly better version of the same beat-’em-ups that ruled the arcades in the ’80s and ’90s (cf. Fight’N Rage, Final Vendetta). Gaiden is more about your second-to-second tactical decisions than simple twitch reflexes or pattern memorization, and it works in the game’s favor.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Marian brought guns to a fistfight, which makes her exactly as dominant as it sounds. Billy, Jimmy, and Matin all have stubby normal attacks, although your dash moves and a couple of gap-closer special moves can help with that.

By comparison, Marian’s basic combo string is emptying her pistol into somebody from full screen, and she can get some space whenever she wants with her rolling baton swing. If she’s got a crowd lined up, she can level everyone in it with a blast from her rocket launcher.

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It’s like all the pent-up rage from being the designated victim for 35 years has manifested into Marian’s Gaiden design. When you play Gaiden as any other character, it’s a street brawl; when you play Gaiden as Marian, it’s the mansion shootout from Commando. Even a lot of the bosses have gimmicks that Marian simply doesn’t have to deal with, particularly Anubis, whose entire game plan revolves around not letting you close to melee.

Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s going to affect how you play, particularly on a second run. Playing as anyone besides Marian feels like a deliberate handicap. This matters because Gaiden is made to be replayed. It’s deliberately short but has at least a couple of different endings, and the gangs’ process of reinforcement means you can have a very different experience between runs. There can be new minibosses or brand-new fight mechanics, or it can mean the stages end up being at least twice as long.

You earn tokens when you clear the game that you can cash in for bonuses, including unlockable characters from past Double Dragons. This includes trademark enemies like Linda, Williams, and most crucially, everyone’s favorite wall of meat, Abobo. There’s a certain part of the video game audience where all they had to hear was “playable Abobo” and their wallets were out.

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons Review — The Bottom Line

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Pros

  • An arcade-style action game made to be played in short bursts.
  • Easy to learn, with a central gimmick that makes sense immediately.
  • Abobo! (Ask your parents.)

Cons

  • Serious character imbalance, both in the playable cast and the bosses.
  • Uneven difficulty curve.
  • Incredibly long load times on last-gen platforms.

Double Dragon Gaiden has solid bones, but it’s got a few issues that could be worked out. It’s fun, but some bosses go from nothing to nightmares based on the order in which you take them on (Okada, in particular, is awful if you face her last), and Marian runs away with the game at any level of play.

If what you’re looking for is a quick burst of arcade action, or just a decent action game you can jump into and play for 10 to 20 minutes, Gaiden’s got you covered. It doesn’t have quite as much depth as something like Streets of Rage 4, but its crowd-control mechanics are an entertaining addition to the basic beat-’em-up formula.

[Note: Modus Games provided the PS5 copy of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons used for this review.]

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Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons Review — A Bullet From Your Valentine
Double Dragon Gaiden's got one big problem. It's not what you'd think, but exactly what you should've expected.

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Thomas Wilde
Survival horror enthusiast. Veteran of the print era. Comic book nerd.
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