The year was 1987. I was 10 years old and heading out with my father to Chinatown Fair which was our favorite arcade in lower Manhattan. I remember this day vividly because I was obsessed with Operation Wolf, which was a light gun shooter. While on my way to the machine, I saw a good amount of people gathered around a new game.
This game was Double Dragon. Two badass brothers, Billy Lee dressed in blue and Jimmy in red. The goal was to rescue Billy’s girlfriend who just took a nasty gut punch before being kidnapped. This game was fantastic since it was co-op. If one player died, no worries, another player can jump in with a quick quarter insert. You also need to remember that this game was released before Final Fight (1989), TMNT (1989), and Streets of Rage (1991). So, while Double Dragon wasn’t the first arcade beat’em Up it definitely was the best if not the best of that time.
I took a quick trip down memory lane because on July 27, 2023, Billy and Jimmy Lee along with a few friends are hitting the streets of 199x New York City in Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons. After a nuclear war, the crime level has hit an all-time high thanks to the formation of 4 deadly gangs.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons isn’t trying to reboot the franchise in a completely new style. On the contrary, the devs at Modus Games decided to bring back the original pixel art style and character models but with a refreshed vibrant look. This is reminiscent of what the dev team Tribute did with TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge.
Upon boot-up, you will be greeted with the iconic Double Dragon theme song to get you pumped. There is obviously more to the story which is dished out via beautifully designed still frames.
As mentioned, Billy and Jimmy have brought along two friends, Uncle Matin who is a powerhouse with strong grapple moves, and Billy’s girlfriend Marian (yes the original girlfriend). She is packing some heat and is not afraid to unleash a wave of bullets or perform a pistol whip attack. Thanks to the improved graphical power of modern consoles compared to 1987 tech, we can see all the bodies of the dead gang bangers pile up on the screen.
A new welcomed addition that has been appearing more frequently in modern beat’em ups is the ability to swap with a secondary character. So, if you are playing as Billy, you can have Marin as your secondary, and with the click of the (LB) Marin will jump in and Billy will jump out.
There is a cool-down to this swap which is fine. There are also a good number of unlockable characters and the game doesn’t keep it a secret. In fact, during the character select screen you will see a few ??? in slots for these characters.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons plays, well, like OG Double Dragon which is great. Your muscle memory will kick in instantly for Jimmy & Billy including performing Billy’s infamous neck-breaking hurricane kick. The same applies to the other playable characters.
There is zero learning curve which is fantastic for playing with casuals or younger gamers. My six-year-old son and I had a blast cleaning up the gang-infested streets of NYC. On that note, you can either play solo aka 1-player tag, or 2-player local co-op (online co-op coming post-launch).
It’s worth mentioning that there is no AI co-op feature. However, it’s not like you would need an AI teammate. The game is extremely customizable when it comes to creating your ideal play experience. You can either play with 3 tokens, have infinite tokens, or have permadeath. There is also adjust your health and enemy damage sliders. So there is something to accommodate every type of player.
As you navigate the levels, you will pick up food items, cash, weapons, and other objects to inflict damage. You will also notice that you can enter backdrop doorways, think River City Girls. This will usually lead you to other enemies guarding better items. The cash obtained can be used in the shop which you will see after each mission. You can spend the cash on character upgrades and other unlockables. As you progress, the game does get a bit more challenging with mid-level boss fights and fun final boss encounters.
Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons is definitely a mouth full of a title but what it offers is exactly what a fan of the original series would want. The gameplay is familiar and fun, the addition of tag swap is great, and the level design and ability to unlock additional characters offer plenty of replayability. If you are a fan of Beat ’em ups and the Double Dragon franchise then this is a must-have, especially once the online co-op feature is released post-launch.
This review was written based on a digital review copy of Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons for Xbox Series X provided by Modus Games and Secret Base.