It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when digital storefronts weren’t flooded with retro revivals. At the time of its original release, Double Dragon Neon was among the few titles attempting to bring the traditional beat ’em up experience to the seventh generation of consoles. Scott Pilgrim and Castle Crashers were met with universal praise, yet Neon received incredibly mixed reviews. IGN went as far as to give it a 3/10, stating that “Double Dragon: Neon doesn’t bother to keep up with contemporaries such as Castle Crashers, Shank, and Scott Pilgrim – and you should let it fall behind.” In contrast, NintendoLife recently scored the Switch rerelease an 8/10, praising the tongue-in-cheek humor as well as the game’s soundtrack. With so many brand phenomenal brawlers on Switch (and other platforms), Billy and Jimmy have far more competition than they did in 2012. Although, it’s apparent that they still pack a punch.
Neon’s nods to its 8-bit heritage begin as soon as you drop into the first level. You’re greeted by a short cinematic in which the stock damsel in distress, Marian, is gut-punched by a member of the Shadow Warriors gang and whisked off. Just like in the very first Double Dragon title on NES. This time, there’s a new villain in town- Skullmageddon. And yes, he’s as delightfully cheesy as his name might imply. (More on him later!)
For the veteran players whom the drastic shift in art direction may initially turn off, you may find comfort in knowing that the gameplay has stayed the same for the most part. Neon still offers the same button-mashing gameplay of its ancestors. However, it adds a few new mechanics to the formula, much like the more recent Streets of Rage 4 did for its respective series. First, you’re able to evade attacks instead of just awkwardly moving away and waiting for another opening. Being able to roll out of the way of a goon’s hook efficiently also comes with a reward- timing it just right will grant your Lee brother a brief moment of increased strength. It’s a bit easier to master than parrying (which, surprisingly, this game doesn’t seem to have) but is still a satisfying wrinkle nonetheless. That said, the movement does feel a little stiff and clunky at first compared to Castle Crashers or River City Girls. Yet, after the first couple of levels, I felt reasonably accustomed to it.
In addition to the risk/reward-based evasion mechanic, you’ll now be able to collect cassette tapes that augment your abilities. Fallen foes will drop them on occasion, and you can always snag more at the various shops that pop up. They come in two varieties- a set that increases your base stats, and the other grants the duo a host of special moves (including all the oldies). As you’re able to swap them out at will via the pause menu, this adds a pinch of strategy to the gameplay. Are you struggling with a particular wave of enemies? You can always equip the “Training Wheels” tape, which boosts your health, among other things. Maybe you’re feeling a bit ballsy and want to increase your strength at the expense of a weakened defense- there’s a tape for that as well.
While the game’s 2.5D presentation was most likely an attempt to reel in newer audiences, Neon didn’t forget about the older audiences. This attempt shines through in the sound department as well as numerous references to 80’s pop culture. First, Jake Kaufman served as the composer for the game’s OST. His portfolio includes Retro City Rampage, Shantae: Half Genie Hero, and most notably Shovel Knight. While Double Dragon Neon‘s OST may not consist of snazzy chiptunes, it does feature a ton of electric guitars, synthesizers, and the energy of 80’s pop. It is an absolute joy to listen to, and some tracks are genuinely able to whisk you away to a time when leg warmers and arcades were kings. Just take a listen for yourself.
The amount of fan service on tap is also commendable. Skullmageddon, the game’s antagonist, feels ripped right out of a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s painfully evident that Skeletor inspired his design and voice, and his banter is sure to crack you up at times if you’re a fan of self-aware humor. (“When I’m about to swing my sword, just punch me, and I’ll stop! I’ll save you a trip to the Internet!”) The game even pokes fun at the infamous “Bimmy and Jimmy” line found in Double Dragon 3. Which was honestly brilliant, considering a particular angry nerd was beginning to soar in popularity for making a scene out of it. You even get to take on a bootleg Audrey II, and as a massive fan of Little Shop of Horrors, this was right up my alley.
That said, Double Dragon Neon is not without its flaws. While serviceable, the combat does feel a bit stiff and clunky at times, even compared to the few other offerings in the genre in 2012. Also, some stages tend to drag on quite a bit. Due to the odd difficulty spike here and there, you’ll probably find yourself needing to revisit past stages to grind for cash or mixtapes. The final boss, in particular, was a sore spot for me. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say it was an incredibly cool concept marred because the boss is an absolute damage sponge. It’s almost as if the developers themselves understood this, as life-replenishing pickups drop periodically throughout this drawn-out duel. (Trust me, though- the ending and the credits theme, in particular, are WELL worth riding out the storm for.)
While the art style and handful of frustrating moments may not gel with everyone, Double Dragon Neon was a very respectable attempt. The developers tried breathing new life into an old property when reboots weren’t flooding the market. The evasion and mixtape mechanics are truly satisfying once you get the hang of them. The soundtrack is terrific, and there’s enough fourth wall breaks and references to make anyone of a confident age smile. If you’re looking for a brawler that doesn’t take itself too seriously, Neon is still worth a look in 2021.
>Generally satisfying combat
>Witty dialogue and plenty of clever homages
>The 2.5D polygon-based art style has admittedly aged a bit since 2012
>Some difficulty spikes to trudge through if playing solo