Among the many gaming genres, one that flourished in the arcades during the ’80s and early ’90s was the Beat ‘Em Up, sometimes known as the Brawler. The style of these games was simple. Up to four players (depending on the game) move their way through levels, fighting tons of enemies along the way before eventually confronting the boss of the level. The plots for these games tended to be simple, but the real focus was on the fun and the thrill of taking on the waves of enemies that players would battle through. Though there are several notable titles in the genre like Final Fight or Golden Axe, the game that really defined the genre was Double Dragon. Released in 1987 by Taito, the game had players as Billy or Jimmy Lee, working their way through the hordes of the Black Warriors Gang to rescue Billy’s kidnapped girlfriend Marian. Since its debut, it is regarded as one of the classics among 1980s video games. In more recent years, however, an indie developer known as WayForward made their own take on the classic hit. Their creation is Double Dragon Neon, which takes the classic gameplay and amps it up with a self-parody style drenched in ’80s nostalgia.
Billy Lee and Jimmy find themselves once again on the path of adventure when Billy’s girlfriend Marian is knocked out and abducted by members of the Shadow Warriors Gang. Things start off as they normally do, taking their fight to the streets as they battle the likes of low-level henchman Williams, whip-wielding dominatrix Linda, and hulking strongman Abobo. However, things take a turn for the weird when they find that the Shadow Warriors Gang’s homebase is actually a combination rocket ship/space dojo. The head of the gang turns out to be Skullmageddon, a super-lich who sounds and acts like Skeletor cranked up to 11. Realizing the extent of this threat, Billy and Jimmy choose to persevere and save Marian by any means necessary. Thus, the dynamic brothers find themselves on a journey that takes them from the depths of space to secret labs to even graveyards. Along the way, they’ll battle all sorts of threats like jetpack pilots and relentless zombies. No matter the problem, though, Billy and Jimmy are ready to take on whatever Skullmageddon can throw at them.
This game makes for a fun update of an old classic in the Beat ‘Em Up genre. The core gameplay is similar to the original. Players move through levels, using a variety of kicks and punches to fight enemies. They can also pick up a variety of weapons to use in the fighting, along with power-ups to help heal any wounds they experience. However, the game also includes a number of more modern elements as part of its update. For instance, one item that can be collected during the game are mixtapes. They can be equipped in the pause menu and can allow Billy or Jimmy access to special moves (which require special energy to use) and to alter their stats. Also, there are a variety of special abilities that can only be used when two players are playing. For example, if one player has been killed, then there will be a limited window of time for the other player to save them and prevent them from using a life, with the saving action represented by a mixtape being rewound. The game also features a high-five mechanic, in which both players can high-five each other. This can allow one to give some of their health to heal the other, along with sometimes offering a special bonus. Of course, it is not only the gameplay that makes this so fun. It is also the ’80s style which thoroughly coats the game.
All throughout the game, 1980s nostalgia and pop culture permeates. For instance, there is the game’s soundtrack. Scored by Jake Kaufman, the soundtrack pulls from ’80s pop and rock for its core rhythms. Whether it is with remixes of music from the original game, brand new music for this title, or original songs, Kaufman approaches the tunes with a synth-heavy style and electric guitar glee. Of course, the game also uses the ’80s aesthetic to poke some fun at itself and ’80s nostalgia. Billy and Jimmy are both portrayed as a pair of airheaded bros, liable to yell out “Dude!” and “Tubular!” as they beat up the members of the Shadow Warriors Gang. Skullmageddon embraces the cheesiness of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon villain, cackling with laughter and making bone-based puns while showing off his combat prowess. Even little touches, like Billy and Jimmy surviving the vacuum of space by holding their breath or Skullmageddon pointing out the ridiculousness of a tank having a brightly-colored weak point, go in part with the game’s approach of poking fun at ’80s pop culture. However, none of its mocking is in any way mean-spirited. Instead, it feels more like a celebration of the ’80s, embracing the more ridiculous nature of the decade while also capturing the fun feeling that plenty of works from the ’80s possessed. The result is a blast to play that feels like a loving tribute to the era of pop culture that gave players the original.
When it had originally appeared in arcades, Double Dragon was a hit that set the standard for what a Beat ‘Em Up was and how fun the genre could be. Now, Double Dragon Neon is a worthy update that captures the good gameplay of the original while also serving as a fun mixture of ’80s pop culture.