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Double Dragon Neon Xbox 360 Review

Let me preface this review by saying that I don’t think the brawler or “scrolling beat ’em up” genre is obsolete. If you firmly believe that there’s something inherently dated about a game like Streets of Rage, Final Fight or Double Dragon, neither this game nor this review will attempt to change your mind. I think it’s important to establish that the following is the opinion of someone who appreciates the genre.

Instead of opting for a direct remake, Double Dragon Neon uses the original Double Dragon as a jumping-off point to create a humorous homage to the premise of the original. It drapes the experience in overt, parodic 80s garb, with frizzy hair styles, neon colours, retro-futuristic typography and cheesy rock tunes. The core, underlying gameplay, meanwhile, is relatively untouched, with a moveset that will feel familiar if you’ve played Double Dragon or any of its peers previously.

It is, however, expanded on in a couple of ways. You kick, punch, jump and grab on the four face buttons. Kicks and punches can be stringed together to form basic combos. The left trigger executes a dodge move, and by simultaneously pressing a direction you can roll to either side, or press punch or kick to execute a sweeping leg or a flying knee attack. If you time the dodge move with an opponent’s attack, you activate a state called “Gleam”, which doubles your attack damage for a couple of seconds, as well as recharges your magic metre.

Your magic metre, which is also charged by simply attacking foes, allows you to pull off special moves that are customized by picking up and equipping “tapes” throughout the game. Some of these tapes boost your character’s stats, altering the amount of damage you can take and dish out, increasing the time of your Gleam state, and so on. You may upgrade said tapes at a “tapesmith”, which increases their effect and sometimes gives them additional attributes. You can also pick up different weapons like knives, whips, boomerangs and baseball bats, but they only allow for one, basic attack, and you usually only carry them with you briefly.

As is custom with the brawler genre, bringing in a friend and playing co-op immediately livens up proceedings further. Neon gives you a few co-op-specific moves, to boot. When you or your buddy is defeated you have a small window of opportunity to revive the other. An icon appears above the downed player and you need to stand over him and tap B repeatedly to bring him back to life. In order to avoid dying in the first place, you can also help each other out by initiating a high-five move, which allows you to give one another temporary Gleam or split your life evenly.

When you look at what developer WayForward has set out to do with the mechanics of the game, there is an awkward divide that seemingly splits Double Dragon Neon‘s design philosophy down the middle. One part of the game is an unnecessarily stubborn throwback that ignores the advances made not only within the brawler genre but also within the Double Dragon franchise itself since its first incarnation. The SNES entry Super Double Dragon stands as a testament that the series has had more choice and dynamism in its combat system than this game would suggest. Stepping back from that may have made sense if Neon was going for a purely classic feel, but its plethora of gameplay additions point to the contrary.

The other part of the game embraces distinctly modern design sensibilities. These additional elements that have been loaded onto Neon‘s simplistic foundation don’t gel particularly well with it, or even one another. You pause the game to switch between equipped tapes, and since you only ever have one special move equipped at a time, the numerous available attacks are never given the chance to complement one another. Neither does it feel like you’re tailoring your abilities to your preferred play style as much as you’re gravitating toward the ones that work best, forgetting the systems are even there.

Even the new attacks feel isolated and remote, and none of them make much sense in relation to the main combo system. You sometimes catch yourself having almost forgotten about the jumping knee or sweep attack and dole a few of them out, but it never comes naturally; it just doesn’t feel cohesive. Perhaps the idea was to make something with a steady, methodical pace, with measured, deliberate use of your moveset. But if that were the case, you’d expect the enemy design – their abilities and patterns – to prompt the use of said systems and attacks. They don’t.

The soundtrack is easily the best thing about the game. Although some tunes are stuck in awkward places where you consciously have to linger to hear them in their entirety, it’s all pretty fantastic stuff. I audibly squealed excitedly when I noticed a stage I arrived at had vocals. That’s the kind of commitment that almost makes you want to give a game a pass on its weak gameplay mechanics.

It’s just disappointing. Heartbreaking even. The inspired humour and clever stylistic sensibilities make for a really charming first impression, and for a while, the funny parts are effective and frequent enough to prevent you from reflecting too much on its gameplay merits. You may even find that’s reason enough for you to check the game out. Beyond the initial stages of the game, however, its overall ambition seems to wane dramatically, and you’re soon stuck relying on the game underneath to entertain you. That’s when you’ll slowly come to realise there are better brawlers you could be playing.

Even though it was developed with the benefit of over twenty years of hindsight, it’s a game that ignores fundamental lessons of the brawler genre. Excellent presentation doesn’t change the fact that Double Dragon Neon just isn’t very satisfying to play.

5 out of 10