Expansive Overview: Double Dragon II: Wanderer of the Dragons

After three years in development, the 1988 arcade sensation Double Dragon II has made its way onto the Xbox Live Arcade, but is the remake of this classic side-scrolling beat ‘em up a knock out or the sign of a series down for the count?

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studio.
Developer: Barunson Interactive Co.
Release Date: Out Now
Format: Xbox 360
Version Tested: Xbox 360

When Double Dragon II was first released, I was too young to be hanging around in arcades. As such, I missed the chance to experience the game in its natural habitat.  I did, however, log numerous hours on the console releases over the years and have a fondness for the series.  However, nostalgia often has a rose tint to it and remakes can be destined to disappoint us because of everything we’ve come to expect from games in the intervening years.  This in mind, I’d love to say that’s why I didn’t enjoy Double Dragon II. Unfortunately, I can’t.

Many retro games were actually quite difficult, sometimes because of technological limitations and sometimes simply as a money making technique, but either way topping the leaderboards meant hours of honing your skills and Double Dragon II is no different.  Now I’m no stranger to difficult video games; the likes of Dark Souls, Sine Mora and Monster Hunter have beaten my rage quit reflex into an unrelenting and masochistic desire to push on. Of course, attempting to sweeten reward through seemingly insurmountable odds isn’t a new thing; think Contra without the Konami code and you’ll catch my drift.  Irrespective of old or new, however, the key to a punishing but enjoyable game is balancing the difficulty so that the player chalks failure up to personal shortcomings; be it silly mistakes or lack of practice.

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Unfortunately, Double Dragon’s incredibly clunky control scheme and overpowering AI prevent it from finding this balance and instead leave an unpleasantly frustrating experience in its place.  All too often I was pinned in a corner of the screen as a horde of enemies attacked in intervals sufficient enough to prevent me from doing anything. Death was the only option.  Similarly, the unresponsive controls often sent my special attacks in completely the wrong direction or prevented me from dodging the combos of some of the larger enemies that completely drained my health bar.  It’s a shame as, on occasion, when I was able to counter incoming attacks with a well-placed backwards attack and completely dismantle a pack of enemies unharmed, I felt like a badass.  The trouble is, while there is some enjoyable button mashing to be had here, these moments are too few and far between and lost in a sea of rubber banding, clunky controls and highly frustrating encounters.

Those hoping to call in back up to take down Willy and the Black Warriors will have to do so locally as there’s absolutely no Xbox LIVE integration (a pretty unforgivable oversight).  This omission is made even stranger by the inclusion of a competitive versus mode and survival arena similar to Gears of War’s Horde Mode.

Graphically, the game isn’t much better; while a couple of the interim cutscenes do have a really nice paintbrush aesthetic similar to the recent Street Fighter titles, this artistic charm isn’t extended to the game itself and the claim that “looks and actions are completely modernized” would have only been true if this had been released on the Dreamcast over a decade ago.  Instead it just looks old and frankly, quite sloppy, with blurry textures and significant frame rate drops even when there are only a few enemies on screen.

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Perhaps it’s apt that the remake was re-branded Wander of the Dragons as it’s definitely a title that’s “drifted astray”.  Too many archaic gameplay mechanics – originally designed to drain quarters from arcade goers – linger in the system to try and catch the interest of a younger generation, weaned on the likes of Halo or Bioshock.  Similarly, too many changes have been made to allow those of us who remember the original series to enjoy that nostalgic buzz from returning to a game associated with your first forays into the gaming world.  There was plenty of potential here to merge old and new and pay homage to a series that’s undoubtedly the foundation of great games like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, but unfortunately it’s wasted and we’re left with a title that doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s fair to say that this one is unlikely to receive further expansive opportunities.

It is best, I hate to say it, avoided.